“He Should Do It Because He Loves Me”

“I shouldn’t have to give my dog a treat when he comes. He should do it because he loves me.”

Oh, how these words make us trainers cringe! This common and persistant myth that dogs should always be perfectly obedient just because their owners told them to is ridiculous and is harmful to the human-canine bond.

Photo credit: barkntucson on flickr

This myth seems to have originated from compulsive training techniques. With traditional techniques, a dog was praised when he made the correct choice and was corrected (punished) if he didn’t comply. Dogs trained using these methods do indeed work for praise alone without the need for a more substantial reward like food or a toy, but they do so because praise serves as a safety cue.

These dogs learn that when they’re being praised, they’re not in imminent danger of a correction. While praise in these situations certainly functions as a reinforcer, it is more importantly a conditioned marker signal that means “nothing bad is going to happen right now,” much the same way a clicker serves as a marker signal for “something good is about to happen.”

Make no mistake, dogs who work for praise alone are no more loyal or devoted to their handlers than dogs who work for treats or toys. Their motivation is just different. Food doesn’t cheapen your relationship with your dog in any way, and many would argue that using food treats actually increases your bond. Eating is a great bonding activity: couples go out to eat together when they’re dating, and children who regularly sit down and eat dinner with their parents are more likely to talk to them about serious issues.

Dogs are not robots, and expecting a robot-like response from them is unrealistic.

Consider your own relationships with loved ones. If your significant other asks you to get him or her a soda, will you always do it? If you tell them to get off the couch and get it themself, does that mean you don’t love them anymore? Love and obedience are not the same thing, and a healthy relationship acknowledges this.

If your dog doesn’t obey you, he has a good reason for it. Scientists sometimes say “the rat is always right,” since animals don’t lie. Your dog may be confused, tired, distracted, or sore. He may not be motivated to do as you ask because you haven’t built up a history of reinforcement and thus haven’t yet explained to him why he should comply with your requests. Regardless, his disobedience does not mean he loves you any less.

The bottom line is that it’s okay to “pay” your dog for listening to you by giving him a reward such as food or a toy. Would you keep going to work if your boss told you that he would no longer pay you, since you know what your job is now?

This isn’t to say that it’s not possible to fade food treats and teach your dog to work for you for the joy of the work itself (and we’ll cover these topics in future posts). However, as with all relationships, the foundation must be laid first.  If your dog doesn’t truly enjoy training with you in exchange for toys or treats, how can you expect him to enjoy working for nothing but your positive regard? Let’s give dogs a break, and not expect more from them than we’d expect from other loved ones in our lives. Everyone will be so much happier with this mindset… especially your dog.

19 responses to ““He Should Do It Because He Loves Me”

  1. Really great post here!! I feel like this is something I say in broken-record format to people… it really is OKAY to pay our dogs with good stuff to build up a strong reinforcement history and to make the act of training fun which then makes the training a self-reinforcing behavior to some extent.

  2. Dear Paws4udogs,
    Thanks for the above, It may very well sound corny, it is corny but developing adore, devotion and surrender in your union may well exceedingly nicely be the solution for saving a troubled have a passion for existence and make your partnership fascinating and interesting again. (In 1973, Columbia Records produced an album by Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin titled “Really like, Devotion and Surrender”. It contained tracks of praise and inspiration, not adore tracks).
    Nice One!
    Dog Fancier

  3. Dogs don’t feel love; that’s a human emotion that has no currency in your relationship with your dog, or at best, it is a one-sided thing. The important thing to realize is that a dog will always do what is most attractive to him at the time, hence, they will answer yes, no, or not right now. Our skill as trainers rests in making what we want the most attractive thing in the world to our dogs, so that when we ask for a behavior, he sees more value in offering that behavior than anything else around.

    • goldenmargaret

      And you know that dogs don’t feel love how? Have you any tests that prove that? On the contrary, lab tests on the brain shows the same parts lighting up as in humans in parallel situations.

    • You can believe what you wish, but I had a wonderful border collie for 11 years — she just passed this summer — and I did not train her with clickers or treats or anything. She was just the most adoring and lovable dog, and if she didn’t love me, well then….love itself does not exist.

      She was more capable of loving and expressing love than 90% of the humans I have known.

    • You are absolutely incorrect. Show me proof. You won’t be able to. They feel love, empathy, sympathy, anger, disgust, joy, everything. I’ve observed it a million x’s. I would suggest you get out of training dogs and move on to training something like lizards. You scare me.

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  6. I don’t work free and neither should my dogs!!! Thanks for the article a good insight. Positive reinforcement is definitely the way forward and must be promoted. Food has such a positive effect on the dogs mind, I know plenty of dogs who wouldn’t be where they are today if it wasn’t for their food wage packets, nice post.

  7. Most people work for pay just to pay their bills. Few are lucky enough to work at a job they love and would continue to do if another way was found to pay the bills and they were no longer paid for their job.

    The most calm, relaxed and responsive dogs are those who work for the joy of the work. They are happiest when they are fed a meal and then allowed to continue their work. They are pleased to be a part of a working team and consider it the worst form of punishment to be “fired”, i.e. not allowed to work anymore. Wild, frenzied behavior does not equate a happy dog, it just equates an emotionally out-of-control dog.

    • goldenmargaret

      Certainly a good retriever loves the job. But teaching a dog the complete routine of the hunt, the wait, the gunshot, marking a falling bird, waiting for permission to retrieve, bringing the bird to hand and delivering it, etc., involves lots of small steps that a dog might regard as tedious. Grabbing that bird and running with it, tossing it around, might be enjoyable too. So you make each step worthwhile until you can combine them into the job the dog considers so rewarding. Paycheck! (It doesn’t have to be food. I can work my dog and reward her by tossing a tennis ball.)

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  9. Excellent post! Thank you for this. I’m sharing on my FB page!

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