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Many of us find ourselves bending over backwards to please our furry friends. We oblige without noticing the subtle techniques they employ to get their way
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.
1Following us around expectantly with wiggly bums and lolling tongues is a sure way to persuade us to engage with them in some fun. Other methods, with unmistakable meaning, might be to release a ball onto your lap or at your feet while you’re reading the paper, or to launch into a song of delight when you handle the car keys, so as to persuade you to include them in an excursion.
2More 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 a toilet rather than a delaying tactic to suit his own canine interest.
3We know that herding dogs are born and bred to manipulate sheep, and I have personal experience of my Border Collie herding her companion BC into a room and blocking his exit by lying at the door. Similarly, she tries to prevent us from entering the no-dog zone of our house where we sometimes spend an hour or two out of sight.
4Nudging their muzzle underneath your arm is expected to encourage an embrace.
5Pushing 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.
6In her youth, Shenanigan was an obsessive and enthusiastic agility dog. I can say without exaggeration that nothing gave her greater pleasure than whizzing through an agility course. If ever I needed her to endure a prolonged ‘stay’, I needed only to place her in the midst of an agility course, where she would remain until any willing handler would take her through her paces. The problem of her passion for the sport routinely manifested when we approached the final jump. Here she would deliberately and without any instruction take that ‘last’ jump from the wrong side, or refuse to take it at all. In order to avoid spoiling an otherwise faultless round, I would take her through a few extra jumps leading her back into the designated course so that the final jump was not obvious to her. This tactic of hers had successfully earned extra time on the course. As Mae West said, “Too much of a good thing is … WONDERFUL!”
7My 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 Shenanigan 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.
8Many 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.
9Feigning 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.
10A client’s Pug cross, Hagrid, was with me for some lessons in social etiquette. We were busy with a session on the beach when he began staring at some distant object and fervently singing a desperate aria from some unknown tragic opera. On straining my eyes I managed to see on the far stretches of the beach what looked like a small dog. If he’d been alone, Hagrid would simply have run up to the distant dog, but having me in tow, my acquiescence was required for him to make the desired acquaintance. Naturally, I succumbed to the vocal request.
11My Border Collie, Shenanigan, repeatedly uses my own methods of manipulation to manipulate me. She is required to assist me in training by helping to desensitise reactive dogs and socialise puppies. Sometimes for these exercises I use my next-door neighbour’s farm, north of my home. We have another neighbour to the south though, whom we visit socially and where Shenanigan receives tasty treats. One training day, upon exiting my driveway and heading for the farm, Shenanigan halted and refused to accompany me. I continued walking but out of the corner of my eye saw her darting behind a shrub in an attempt to hide. She watched me from behind the shrub, waiting for me to return in the opposite direction. This is exactly an exercise I train in order to make dogs keep an eye on their handlers, which results in a good recall. We call the dog once and if the dog does not heed the request we dash behind the nearest bush or tree. Shenanigan clearly didn’t feel like work that day and would rather have accompanied me on a visit in the opposite direction where she would receive a treat
12DOGTALK Some humans go to greater efforts preparing their dog’s food than they do behaviour 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.
Q. My dog becomes very anxious every time I leave him alone at home. I think he suffers from separation anxiety. Please give me advice on how to best deal with the situation, as I need to go to work every weekday and cannot take him along.