We all show our dogs our affection. From hugs to kisses, from petting to play, we love to make sure our canine companions know how much we care about them. Our dogs tirelessly return this affection in their own particular ways. These behaviors are a natural method of communication between humans and dogs, however, the ways in which humans and dogs show one another their affection could not be any more different.
Affectionate behaviors that are particular to a species are known as "affiliative behaviors". Affiliative behaviors are any sort of behavior that is enacted with the intent of supporting or improving one's individual union with others or which is connected more so with a drive to build, upkeep, and improve close individual partnerships with others.
When it comes to affiliate behaviors that are canine-specific, you can bet that hugging, kissing, and cuddling are not among them. In fact, for many dogs, these gestures of affection can be annoying or threatening. You may see your dog duck away, or her ears flatten back. Another good indicator of a dog that is uncomfortable with human forms of affection is a stiffened body and wide, "whale" eyes.
Here are a few affectionate behaviors that you can rely on as indicators of just how much your dog treasures you.
1. Allogrooming. Regular licking rituals are common to many species of social animals, including dogs. If your dog is gently licking your hand, arm, leg, or face, it is because she wants you to know just how much she cares.
2. Play. If your dog is regularly bringing you her toys, offering you that all-too-tempting play bow, and in the case of my Cocker Spaniel Gus, standing by the back door and shifting his weight from foot to foot, your dog wants to play! This is one of the most common ways our dogs show us their affection.
3. Closeness. Does your dog follow you from room to room? Sleep at your feet when you're watching TV on the couch? Curl up on the bottom corner of your bed, just close enough to cover your feet? These, too, are all signs of just how much our dogs love us.
Remember this the next time you go to give your dog a big hug and she backs away from you with uncertainty, or you swoop in for a kiss and your dog leans dramatically in the other direction. It's not that they don't love you or want to be the object of your every affection. It's simply that they show it differently. Instead of that hug, grab a favorite toy and head out into the backyard with your furry friend. They'll get the message, loud and clear.
I have more 'pet' names for Gus, my Cocker Spaniel, than I can count. He is my 'little wan', my 'sweet boy', the 'cutest of the cute' and just about every other endearing moniker you can think of. I love him so dearly I can't imagine my life without him, and frankly, I don't want to. He's my rock, my sweetheart, and I adore the very earth he walks upon.
Now, all that said, I want you to try to imagine this scenario for yourself. You walk into the house of a new acquaintance. You don't know each other well but a friend of a friend had a feeling y'all might get along. You're feeling positive about making this new acquaintance into a new friend. Amazing!
Suddenly, this person demands that you "Sit!". He even gives you a hand signal. When you don't, he asks it again. This time, it's more demanding. Tentatively, you sit down, unsure what to make of this behavior. Your "acquaintance" approaches you again. "Down!" He commands. You freeze. You're not going to lay down in his house. Is this guy kidding?
You're probably wondering what the heck I am getting at, and you can definitely imagine just how off-putting and confusing this scenario would be if you actually lived it. You're not a dog, you don't deserve or expect to be treated like one. Right?! Right.
And yet, here's the rub. We are doing this to our dogs every day.
"Camille, what the heck are you talking about?"
Very frankly, I'm talking about the infantalization, and humanization, of our pet dogs. Let's go back to our weird scenario with our new "acquaintance" to help me further illustrate what I'm trying to say here.
Imagine that you are actually moving in with this person. There are no other options for your living arrangements - you're a stranger in a strange land, and you have to make it work in this place if you want a good life for yourself. So you do it. You "sit" when he asks you to sit. You lay "down" when he asks you to lay down. It's weird, but heck - you're safe, you're warm, you're fed, and sometimes, when he's not asking you to do weird stuff, you may even feel a little at home. And yet, time and time again, you realize he's treating you like a dog. Even though that's not what you ARE. You're a human being - a living, breathing person, and this arrangement simply will not do.
After awhile, you begin to act out. You refuse to comply with this guy's demands and orders. You insist on being treated as the human being you are, and to your utter dismay, he persists with his weird demands. The situation cannot stand.
Here's where my very strange analogy has to end. Unlike dogs, we humans have a measure of autonomy that will allow us to extricate ourselves from a situation as bizarre as the one I describe above. And bizarre it is.
Guess who doesn't have that same choice?
When we decide to treat our dogs like infants in puppyhood and toddlers in adolescence and adulthood, providing for every want, giving in to every demand, and expecting a kind of reasonableness or rationality that an animal simply isn't capable of in return, we do these beautiful creatures an incredible disservice. As their behavior escalates to nearly unmanageable levels our of sheer confusion, we become angry, despondent, and desperate to figure out what went wrong. We ask ourselves:
"Is it genetic?"
"Did I just get the bad seed of the litter?"
"Clearly it's just a bad dog. That's just the way it is."
And much, much less frequently.. "Did I do something to cause this or that behavior?"
That latter question is the one we must be asking ourselves. It allows us to reflect on our treatment of our pets, bringing to the forefront questions surrounding the need to set good expectations and boundaries from the beginning of our time with our dogs right through to the end. We must take a hard, long look at whether or not we are giving our dogs the respect they deserve for the noble, brilliant animals they are, not for what we might desire them to be. And for all of our anthropomorphizing of dogs, we do them a terrible, terrible harm, because we never get to truly know them. Their quirks, their myriad personalities, what drives them, what turns them off - all of these important, essential qualities are lost in our desire to make them more human.
Do your dog a favor. Learn about him or her as a dog. Educate yourself on what dogs need, on how to set healthy boundaries in your relationship together, on nutrition, play, enrichment, and what constitutes a good life. In this way, you can ensure a long-lasting, loving, functional relationship for all the amazing years you have to come.
What do we mean when we talk about stimulus control in dogs? Well, in short, canine behaviors are under stimulus control when there is an increased possibility that the behavior (ie. barking, jumping, biting, nipping, etc) will occur as a result of a specific antecedent stimulus. But what does all of this actually mean? Let's use the example of a dog barking every time the doorbell rings. In order to understand how to interrupt and change any behavior under stimulus control, we have to understand what we're dealing with on a conceptual level.
First, a few definitions to get the ball rolling.
Behavior: the way in which an animal or person acts in response to a particular situation or stimulus. Example: a dog barking (behavior) every time someone knocks on the door/rings a doorbell.
Okay, great. But what's a stimulus?
Stimulus: a thing that rouses energy or activity in someone or something: a spur or incentive. Example: the ring of the doorbell.
Makes sense, so far. What's an antecedent?
Antecedent: preceding in time or order; previous or preexisting. Example: the doorbell rings before the dog begins to bark.
When we put this all together, we begin to form a picture of what we mean by stimulus control in relation to behavior. In this case, it indicates that the presence of the antecedent stimulus (ie. the doorbell) results in an increased likelihood of a particular behavior (barking). The behavior (barking) is therefore under the control of the antecedent stimulus (doorbell).
Now it starts to come together. If you're wondering why you cannot for the life of you to get your dog to listen to you once he's started barking at the door, no matter how many times you tell him "Quiet!", you now understand why. It's because the barking is under the control of the doorbell, not you, and certainly not under the control of your dog. It has nothing to do with your dog being a 'jerk', being 'disobedient', or any other adjective you can think of. It means he's lost control.
And so what do we do when our dog has lost control?
1. Figure out what is controlling the behavior.
2. Identify the unwanted behavior itself.
3. Determine the existing consequence.
I'd like to get deeper into what I mean by "3". Points "1" and "2" are pretty straightforward, but what on earth do I mean by "3", consequences? Well, consequences can look like pretty much anything. Maybe you yell at the dog. Maybe you clap your hands together, or stomp your foot. Maybe you even grab your dog by his collar and haul him away from the door. Whatever your response is, that's the consequence.
With all of this in mind, here's where things get interesting. If we long to control our dogs in the presence of these stimuli, we must begin to talk about antecedent control.
Some forms of antecedent control remain outside a handler or pet owner's direct influence (e.g., genetic and biological factors such as breed-typical tendencies, inherited traits, and some behavioral thresholds). On the other hand, some instances of antecedent control are under the direct influence of the dog owner or handler. Let's use the doorbell as an example. The doorbell is both in and out of our control. If we're very clever, we can disable the doorbell to put it firmly under our control, disallowing the antecedent stimulus altogether. But as we know, that does nothing to change the behavior itself.
Better is if we lower the volume of the doorbell to a level at which the dog is non-reactive, desensitizing our canine companions to it's sound and frequency. In this way, we can build up the dog's tolerance to the doorbell, and all the while, classically condition our dog's to offer an alternative, incompatible behavior than the barking we all know and, in most cases, do not love!
It is only via the thorough analysis and understanding of our dog's behaviors that we can begin to modify them. By utilizing these three aspects of antecedent control with your dog, you can safely, effectively. and swiftly manage the behaviors you do not want. create the behaviors you do, and live happily and engaged with your canine companion for years to come.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.