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Are Dogs Really Eager to Please?

“Importantly, this misattribution could be harmful to dogs if their owners have expectations that the dogs do understand rules, correct behavior and so forth, and believe that dogs either willfully or neglectfully violate these rules,” Horowitz and Julie Hecht wrote in a chapter they co-authored for the book Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior: The Scientific Study of Canis familiaris.

Jean Donaldson, founder of the Academy for Dog Trainers, has been the voice of opposition to the “desire to please” notion for more than two decades for just this reason.

“Trainers who make claims about dogs working ‘to please’ or strictly for praise,” she wrote in her book Culture Clash, “seem oblivious to the main motivator they employ: pain.” Rather than being given food or toys or something else they really love to reinforce good behavior, dogs are punished for bad behavior.

“We expect dogs to do things without reward, that they should know that sitting is what I want them to do, or they should know this or that,” says Jill Sackman, veterinary behaviorist and member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. “I don’t think we [reward] enough with human beings either. We live in a culture where it’s like, ‘I’m gonna point out your negative’ instead of capture you doing something really great and continuing to reward that.”

Twenty years after the first publication of Culture Clash, there is still evidence of trainers using pain to punish dogs for being “disobedient” rather than teaching them what to do and reinforcing that behavior.

Nicky Wilke turned to trainers last year for help with her 90-pound Husky mix, Charlie, who would pull her to the ground when he darted after another dog. Wilke was horrified by the methods they recommended. She was expressly told by multiple trainers not to use food because Charlie would only behave for the “bribe” and not because he respected her. “Everyone was telling me I had to be more firm with Charlie,” Wilke says.

And by “be more firm,” they meant that she should use some incredibly cruel techniques to punish Charlie when he didn’t do what they wanted: Shock him with electricity from a collar around his neck. Wrap his leash around his belly near his genital area so that it would rub when he pulled. Squeeze a pressure point right above his back leg if he reacted to another dog.

“If we say something really clear like ‘come’ or ‘sit,’ and on occasion we witness the dog not doing it, it’s almost impossible for people to interpret anything other than, ‘He knows what to do, I’ve seen him do it, and now that he’s not doing it, it’s because of some sort of power struggle,’” Donaldson says in a phone interview. “And as soon as you get into ‘power struggle,’ then we’re down the rabbit hole.”

But Charlie is one of the lucky ones. Wilke persevered, and six months ago, she found Renée Erdman, a positive reinforcement trainer and graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers. Erdman has helped Wilke teach Charlie how to walk politely on leash and how to behave around other dogs.

“She saved our lives,” Wilke says. “I used to have anxiety taking Charlie out for a walk. I went from not being able to walk past a dog to introducing Charlie to dog parks and playing with seven dogs at the same time.”

Erdman used food to do it.

“Once I started getting into different treats—really tasty treats—it was like, okay, now he’s paying attention to me. Now he’s interested in playing the games and learning,” Wilke says. “It was an amazing feeling to finally have control of the situation, and I feel more connected and bonded to my animal because he’s actually looking to me. He’s wanting to learn.”

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Beagle photo by Halfpoint

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