Manipulating mutts

Brown dog

The many ways in which dogs are able to manipulate us, even though they do so in the nicest and most amusing manner, reveal how intensely they study us and work out how best to sculpt us into pliable, obliging and idyllic human guardians. It is highly likely that your dog knows you much better than you ever imagined!

There are many reasons for the success of the canine’s skill in manipulating humans, some of which have to do with chemistry. Oxytocin, an attachment hormone, promotes feelings of generosity, intimacy, love and tranquillity, thereby encouraging altruistic behaviour. It has been shown that levels of oxytocin increase in humans, in the same way as in a mother with her baby, when we reciprocally gaze into a dog’s eyes. Many dogs have overcome their natural tendency to avoid direct eye contact, so enabling themselves to benefit from this chemical bonding pathway. Because oxytocin encourages hugging and cuddling as well as generosity, when we succumb to those doleful eyes and hand over a portion of our dinner or extend or bring forward Bruno’s walk-time, we are probably responding to primal forces.

Operant Conditioning is a term used by behaviourists and trainers to refer to the principal of cause and effect used to modify behaviour. When behaviours are rewarded they are most likely to be repeated, and this is exactly how dogs train us. They seize the moment we are judged to be in a receptive state of mind in order to optimally condition us.

Here are a few examples from my own and clients’ experiences.

  • An injured dog always knows how to twist your arm!

    An injured dog always knows how to twist your arm!

    Following us around expectantly with wiggly bums and lolling tongues is a sure way to persuade us to engage with them in some fun.

  • Pushing the water dish around so that it makes a noise, or presenting a food bowl a little earlier than dinner time is unlikely to go unrewarded.
  • Many people spend sleepless hours in a bed that the family pet has decided is to be shared. Comfortably sprawled out, the dog snores contentedly while the consenting humans, contorted into the most awkward and cramped positions, struggle desperately to sleep.
  • More than enough cases of the next example indicate how aware dogs are of ways to feign excuses for errant behaviour. After taking the dog out for bedtime toilet prior to locking up for the night, the dog refrains from doing the necessary, or won’t come in when called. As the human’s vocal entreaties become more insistent, the dog seems to be searching with difficulty for a suitable spot, and just when patience is about to give in, assumes the necessary position, whereupon the human’s countenance relaxes into a relieved and almost apologetic smile. The dog has won! He has fooled you into believing this was a matter of difficulty in toilet rather than a delaying tactic to suit his own canine interest.
  • My dogs will come to me and offer the most fantastic rendition of their latest trick, which they know I feel compelled to reward with a ‘jackpot’. A jackpot is a very special treat given in generous quantities in order to cement a positive association and secure a particular behaviour. A recent example is a sneeze I put on cue, which was required for a part my dog played in a theatrical production. She will now come and make the most realistic sneeze to distract me while I am busy with something. I then feel obliged to stop and reward her.
  • Some humans go to greater efforts preparing their dog’s food than they do their own. When the fussy pooch pulls his nose up at it, the food is snatched away and replaced by more tasty offerings. In this way some conniving canines succeed in being favoured with only the choicest and most expensive delicacies.
  • Feigning injury for attention is another classic canine prank. Shenanigan is again an expert in this. If she thinks I am displeased with something she has done or would prefer not to do something required of her, she will proceed to limp pathetically which results in me rushing to her aid, studying her paws for thorns and gently flexing the leg muscles in search of signs of injury.

Text: Susan Henderson

The full article appears in the October issue of Animaltalk.

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