Inside the Mind of a Dog Trainer: Do Dogs Want to Please Their Owners?

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What does it mean when someone says their dog, "really wants to please"? What is their dog doing that makes people believe he wants to please them? 

Despite the pervasiveness of the "he wants to please" statement, it isn't really true.

Dogs are essentially very selfish creatures. They approach life with a "what's in it for me?" attitude. When your dog is faced with a choice between chasing the squirrel or responding to your "Come!" at the backdoor, he views the choice as 1) boring house, or 2) fun squirrel. Clearly, #2 is the right choice! 

Last time we said that because dogs don't naturally understand English, it isn't a first-line option for changing behavior. Verbal instruction has to be systematically taught before it can be expected to work. Today, we'll begin exploring what things do work to change behavior. 

Because dogs are selfish creatures, their desires and emotions always take priority*, and they predictably behave in such a way as to fulfill those desires and emotions:

  • If there's food on the counter, table, or in the trashcan, they go for it--they're naturally opportunistic eaters
  • If they're scared of something and growling or snapping makes it go away, they growl and snap
  • Increasing excitement causes increasing nibbling in puppies
  • Pulling on walks often happens because the dog is eager to check out the next pee-mail station
  • Dogs enjoy a comfy resting spot as much as the next guy so they often choose the couch or bed instead of the floor

A dog's behavior is very seldom motivated by a desire to please people, but more often by a desire to please himself.

It's important to understand this reality because desires are both motivating and rewarding. When we begin training with a belief that the dog's ultimate desire is to please his owner, we run a great risk of frustration and lack of progress. Why? Because a reward isn't a reward unless the dog thinks it's a reward. The dog decides what's reinforcing.
If you reward your dog with "owner pleasure" and don't see an increase in the preceding behavior (i.e your dog doesn't do X behavior more often), he's telling you that "owner pleasure" isn't a good enough reward for him. He is not motivated to try and get more of it.

I assume the "eager to please" label has to do with the body language response people get when they smile, happy-talk, laugh, or verbally praise their dog. I am not arguing that dogs don't enjoy these things, but they are seldom valuable enough to the dog to create the behavior many owners desire.
A good relationship built on trust, good times, and a reward-based philosophy is one way you can make your "pleasure" even more valuable to your dog. You can also pair your verbal praise with small food treats.

Next time, we'll discuss how to use your dog's real desires to change his behavior!

*Anecdotally, some will argue that dogs aren't always self-centered. What about the service dog, Excalibur, who pulled his unconscious partner out of an overflowing bathtub despite a fear of running water? These instances of sacrifice cannot be ignored, but in general, we can expect dogs to behave in their own best interests. It's precisely because Excalibur's behavior was unexpected that it's so special.