Take a cough as an example. Your dog has a dry, huffy cough that seems to get worse the more you soothe and reassure them. You are genuinely concerned that they may be ill, and yet the puzzle pieces don't quite fit together.
For one thing, they don't seem poorly. The dog still has a great appetite, wants to go for walks, and nags you to play ball. The other strange thing that's occurred to you, is that they don't cough when you're in another room. You know because you've listened from the adjoining space. Then, when you enter the room they start huffing and coughing again. What's going on? Are they sick or faking it?
Signs a Dog is Faking a Cough
When coughing, many dogs lower their heads and extend their neck. This helps to open up the airway and make it easier to cough. The dog usually opens their mouth and after each cough, and may make a slight gagging motion with the throat.
Be alert for the characteristics of the noise of the cough as this can indicate if the cough is real or fake. For example, an extremely forceful cough, a hacking cough, or a cough that sounds moist and bubbly are unlikely to be fake. In the case of the former, the dog usually learns that a simple cough is enough to get attention, and are particularly harsh cough isn't necessary. In the terms of a moist cough, this can be due to mucus or fluid in the lungs which produces a unique sound and not one the dog can imitate.
Remember, a cough can be a vital clue to lung or heart disease, so never overlook a cough just because you suspect it is fake. It's important to get any dog with a cough checked out by the vet. Only once the dog has a clean bill of health can you assume the dog is faking things.
- Ears drop
- Forcing a cough out as you pet them
- Making eye contact
- A slow tail wag
- Coming to your for attention
History of Dogs and Fake Coughing
It is this desire to have one-to-one interaction with a human which has made the dog such a successful species and why people love dogs so much. Ever since the early man had fire and wolves gathered round, this was the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship. Whilst the wolf-dog got food scraps, warmth, and companionship; early man got a guard, tracker, and protector.
The ultimate success of this relationship was down to how dogs adore being near people, and the more attention they get, the better. This is indeed the principle on which reward-based training works.
The latter is a training method the makes use of the way dogs think and process information. Even as a puppy, the young dog will repeat actions that have a pleasant outcome but avoid actions which cause pain or make them fearful.
Whilst it might seem a long way from a puppy fetching a toy to a dog fake coughing, the same principle is at work for both behaviors. When both actions end in something pleasing for the dog (a game of fetch or a fuss) then they are going to make a habit of it. Hence, faking a cough!
Science of Dogs Faking a Cough
The fake cough comes about when a dog associates the act of coughing with getting attention and sympathy. Human attention is a powerful reward for a dog, which, in turn, makes anything that gets the dog attention an act that's worth repeating.
In a typical scenario, what might happen is that the dog has a genuine tickly throat and coughs. The concerned owner speaks soothingly to the dog in order to keep them calm. The dog coughs again, and this time the owner not only soothes the dog but strokes and pets him.
An intelligent dog will quickly make the link between a cough and becoming the focus of their owner's attention. In fact, what's happening is the dog is training us! The dog is putting affection on cue by coughing!
Training a Dog to Fake Cough
First, teach the dog that the click of the clicker means they have earned a treat. This is simple to do. Simply scatter some treats on the floor and as the dog eats each one, press the clicker. Repeat this a few times. Now check out how much the dog has learned by clicking and watching to see what happens. If you click and they immediately look at the floor, then they realize that a click means a treat.
Once the dog has learned what the clicker means, carry the clicker with you at all times. When the dog happens to cough, immediately click and then reward him. Do this as many times as you can. Once you have a few repetitions under your belt, then add a cue word. For example, the dog coughs and you click and say "Cough", then give the reward.
The more you practice, the better the dog will get. Now try saying "Cough" when the dog is paying attention, and when they cough; click, praise, and reward them.
How to React to Fake Coughing:
Make sure it is actually fake by having your dog looked at by a veterinarian.
Ignore your dog when they fake cough.
Reward them for neutral behavior so they stop attention seeking.