By Irith Bloom, CPDT-KSA, CBCC-KA, CDBC, CSAT, KPA CTP, VSPDT, CBATI, VSDTA Faculty, DWA Faculty
Have you ever wondered if your dog respects you? Do you worry that your dog won’t respect you if you use treats in training? These questions (and more) are answered below!
The Oxford Languages dictionary defines respect as:
(1) A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.
(2) Due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others.
A dog’s eye view of respect
There is evidence that all mammals feel certain basic emotions (Dr. Jaak Panksepp titled these 'PLAY', 'PANIC/GRIEF', 'FEAR', 'RAGE', 'SEEKING', 'LUST' and 'CARE'). So we know our dogs feel things. But given our current understanding of dog cognition, it’s unlikely that dogs have as complex a concept as “respect” in their minds. And what would it mean for your dog to respect you, anyway?
“A feeling of deep admiration”
Let’s look at each of the definitions of respect listed above separately. Definition (1) is about admiration. Can a dog admire us? I’m not sure. I am convinced dogs can love us. I am also confident that dogs can learn that we – with our magical opposable thumbs – control access to just about every resource the dog wants. If a dog wants food, access to the outdoors, or a chance to play fetch, they usually have to go through a human to get it.
This is a good thing. It means we can teach dogs to do something we want (but which may not come naturally to dogs) by giving them things they like for doing it. These rewards could include a fun game of tug, a chance to play with another dog, a sniffy walk, and of course treats.
So does all of that amount to a deep feeling of admiration elicited by our abilities? Maybe? Can dogs even feel admiration? I’m not sure. I’m certainly not going to hang my hat on that idea.
So what about definition (2), “Due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others”? Again, it is unlikely that dogs think about things at that level. Dogs have a pretty simple attitude towards life. They try something and see what happens. If a behavior results in something that works for the dog, the dog is more likely to do it again. If a behavior results in something that doesn’t work for the dog, the dog is less likely to do it again. Does that have anything to do with a conceptual regard for human traditions? I doubt it.
So why should my dog do what I want if he doesn’t respect me?
You might worry that if your dog doesn’t respect you (whatever that means) your dog will never do what you want. As mentioned above, dogs do what works for them. If you make behaviors you like “pay” well, your dog will do those behaviors more often.
Think of your own work situation. Do you work because you respect your boss? Maybe (and if that’s the case, good for you!), but maybe not. Many people do not respect or even like their bosses, but they keep doing their job anyway. Why? Often, it’s because of the paycheck. We want the paycheck, so we do the work.
Treats are a great paycheck for dogs (who would probably hold up signs saying “will work for treats” if they could write). Treats are a lot more affordable than most people’s salaries, too. So why not use treats to help motivate your dog to do what you want?
But I use treats and my dog still doesn’t do what I want!
There is no question that treats (like any other tool) can be used wisely or poorly. If you give your dog attention when he is annoying you by pawing at your leg, you are making poor use of the power of your attention. If you give your dog a toy because he’s barking at you, that is not the best use of the power of that toy. Just as with everything else, there are better and worse ways to use the power of treats.
The most common mistake I see with treats is that people show the treat to the dog before they give the dog a cue. In this case, the treat is acting like a bribe. Many dogs learn to wait until you “show them the money” (or in this case, the treat) before they do the behavior you are asking for. To avoid this problem, it’s important to make sure treats appear after the behavior has happened, not before (at least for behaviors the dog already understands).
In other words, it’s not the treats that create problems; it’s how and when they are used. As I mentioned above, we are the ones with the opposable thumbs. That means we can get the treats out of the treat jar, and decide when and why to do that. Instead of teaching my dog that a treat will always appear before I say “sit,” I like to ask for a sit, get the sit, and then make the treat appear. With a little planning, you can give your dog the impression that you are a magician who can make treats appear anytime. It’s worthwhile to sit when asked if a treat could always be hiding right around the corner, right?
Bottom line: Humans can control the supply of treats. Dogs will work for treats. Put those two things together wisely, and you can teach your dog to do things you like for a very small salary.
- Irith Bloom is a certified dog trainer and behavior consultant who specializes in teaching dogs how to make better choices. She helps clients worldwide live the good life with their pets.