Why your dog doesn’t respect you

AdobeStock_88585177.jpeg

“He did it to get back at me.”

I hear this from my clients occasionally. People call to report a problem behavior and they say that it’s because the dog “doesn’t respect me.” And, boy oh boy, can I relate. I remember when Juno was younger, she’d sometimes look at me when I called her and then walk away. She might as well have shrugged. Or rolled her eyes. Or flipped me the bird. Clearly, she didn’t respect me. It was obvious. 

Time passed and I started getting geeky about animal behavior. And one of the things I learned is that, no, dogs don’t respect us. None of the dogs. Not just Juno. But it’s not because they think they are better than us.

It’s just that the concept of respect has never crossed their minds. 

Dogs simply don’t think in terms of respect. They think of “this works/this doesn’t work” and “that’s safe/that’s unsafe.”  

Dogs behave to create a consequence they want (works and safe) or to avoid one they don’t (a waste of effort or unsafe). In the end it really comes down to these motivations.  

So, when Juno was out in the yard sniffing all the things and I called her, she paused and did this simple calculation - stay out here (which works because SMELLS!) or go inside (which means the end of smelling just to sit in the boring house alone while they go out for dinner). And she decided that staying out worked better for her than coming in did.  

See, it’s all about motivation. She had strong motivation to stay outside (fun) and no motivation to come (no fun). And when you look at it that way, who could blame her?

So how do we get dogs to do what we want? We train them by providing motivators like food, play, praise, and petting (but hint: most dogs will work far harder for food than praise or petting). And we do it over and over and over so the dog has a strong history of receiving that motivation.  

And then we don’t have to do it anymore, right? 

Wrong.  

I like my job. Quite a lot. But if my pay stopped, I’d stop working (I bet you would too). No pay, no motivation. And it’s true for everything we do. As a very smart trainer, Kristi Benson, recently explained, if your plants stopped producing fruits and vegetables, you’d stop bothering to grow fruit and vegetable plants. Would you make the effort to go to the grocery store, walk up and down the aisles, put things in your basket, and leave with nothing? No, most of us wouldn’t. The food we get to take home is the motivation (unless you find grocery shopping a LOT of fun - then the act of collecting all those things in a basket could be enough for you though it wouldn’t be for most people). 

Dogs are like us in this regard - they’ll stop spending their energy doing things that don’t pay off. Sure, they’ll come if you don’t have a treat - but if you never pay them, you can expect them to stop coming if there’s something more interesting to do instead. I would stop too. 

So, what do dogs naturally find motivating? Digging, playing, napping in the sun, running outside to explore, sniffing, eating disgusting things (or rolling in them). And if you want your dog to come, or sit, or leave it, then you have to provide them with something more motivating than what they have in front of them.  

No, your dog has never considered whether or not to respect you, but they think constantly in terms of motivation. And you can provide it.

Tim Steele10 Comments