The first time my husband and I took Emma, our newly adopted Beagle, out for a walk, we knew we were in trouble. Emma was terrified. Her tail was perpetually tucked, the wrinkles on her brow screamed misery, her pupils were dilated and she wouldn’t budge. We were completely in over our heads. So, as soon as we got home, we called in the cavalry.
A lovely positive-reinforcement dog trainer, Dolores Murray, came over the next morning armed with her weapon of choice: Stella and Chewy’s freezedried Dandy Lamb Dinner Patties.
Within an hour, Emma wasn’t just walking with us, she was scrambling-across- rocks-on-the-shore-of-the- Potomac-River-happy walking with us. Murray showered Emma with lamb. Car drove by? Lamb! Strangers approached? She gave them lamb to give to Emma. Twenty preschoolers holding hands skipped by? Lamb, lamb, LAMB!
To this day, food is the key to helping our fearful dog overcome obstacles. So I was shocked when friends, strangers and dog trainers alike questioned what the heck I was doing. “You’re spoiling her,” they’d say. “My dog sits because he wants to please us. You should make Emma respect you.” Or, “You’re bribing her.”
I discovered that this concept of dogs doing things to please their owners has been around since before Elvis shook his hips. But is it valid? Are dogs born with a desire to please? And why, if thousands and thousands of animals— chickens and goats and sea lions and parrots and so on—have been professionally trained using food as motivation, is there such a stigma about using food to train dogs?
I went on a mission to find out.
It turns out that the definitive answer to whether dogs have an innate desire to please is … we don’t know.
There’s no scientific research to prove it either way. Dog cognition is a growing area of study today, so down the road, we might have a better sense of what exactly is going on inside our dogs’ cute noggins. As of now, we don’t have any real idea.
“I would accept the fact that because of the close relationship that dogs have had with humans for so long, they maybe do have this predisposition to want to please,” says Marc Bekoff, author and professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But then when you consider that around 75 percent of all dogs on the planet are feral … I’ve met lots of feral dogs who don’t really care about me. They want to avoid me, more than anything,” he says.
There is some evidence, though, that we may not understand our dogs as well as we think we do—that, just as they do with other humans, people have a tendency to ascribe motives to dogs that aren’t necessarily there.
“[People] project all sorts of things on all sorts of social relationships, ranging from dogs to other humans,” Bekoff says. “You go to dog parks and [you’ll hear] dogs characterized in one way: playful, standoffish, maybe a little aggressive. It’s incredible how different people watch the same dog and have a completely different personality profile for the dog.”
Alexandra Horowitz, professor of psychology and canine cognition at Barnard College, Columbia University, led a study in 2009 to test this. She wanted to see if people who claimed their dogs were showing that well-known “guilty look” when they came home to a torn-up couch or a pile of poo on the antique rug were actually reading the dog correctly.
In the experiment, participants told their dogs not to eat a food treat the pup wanted, and then left the room. When they returned, the researchers would tell the owner whether or not the dog ate the treat. However, the researchers were not always truthful. In some cases, the dog would leave the treat alone but the owner would be told that he ate it, or vice versa. Thus, sometimes dogs who did what they were told were scolded and others who disobeyed by eating the treat were not.
It turns out that the behavior dog owners were sure represented guilt— some combination of avoiding eye contact, rolling over, tail tucking, tongue flicking, pressing their ears back and/or skulking away—was tied to the owner’s tone of voice and demeanor. The look, therefore, more likely represented the dog’s anticipation of punishment or attempting to evade it than feeling guilt.