June 10, 2010

Why do dogs care about what we want?

My dog had just chased off a cluster of ducks, and I got to thinking about the nature of bonding. And of course, that got me to thinking about dogs, and the nature of their bond to humans. While it has been proven that a duck will “imprint” on and follow a human if it is the first thing it sees after hatching, I think of “imprinting” and “bonding” as two different things.

Imprinting is a simple instinct stamped into the brain that dictates the duckling will follow its mother. She is likely to lead that duckling to sources of food and shelter. This increases the offspring’s chances of surviving infancy, reaching sexual maturity, mating, and propagating the species. Again, the gene succeeds, the gene continues.

But what is bonding?

I think of it as something more complex. Something more bound to social order. Instinctual? Probably. Still related to survival? Definitely. But still complex.

Dogs in the wild, since their earliest descendants, understand social order and collaborative hunting. A well ordered pack of wolves can successfully hunt, shelter, raise offspring, and pass on their genes. A pack suffering from social strife will not have clear leadership or collaboration, and will eventually die.

Dogs understand this on a genetic level. It is why a properly socialized dog understands how to communicate with other dogs using their species’ unique and understandable body language. It is why we, as dog trainers, are sometimes described as being able to “read” dogs. We’re simply recognizing attitude and thoughts, and yes, even emotions, by interpreting body language. And that is precisely what allows us to shape dog behavior by using our own body language to clearly show a dog what we want from them.

But why do dogs CARE about what we want from them? That is the question that has both mystified and thrilled me ever since I got my first dog at the age of 11. Why is a dog willing to be trained? Why do they thrive on it in fact? Why is a dog remotely interested in what we want from them?

A cow doesn’t much care. So we eat them. Most horses I have known and ridden will yield to humans, but they seem to me to prefer their own company to mine when given a choice. But because they yield to us, and helped us form our nation, as a culture, we’re horrified at the idea of eating them.

Wolves, I am told, are canids whose behavior can be somewhat modified by men. But they will generally return to behaviors for which they are genetically programmed, regardless of what training they have had.

So what is it about dogs? Why do they care about what we want? Why did my first dog remember and perform his utility signals exercise into his dotage, way after deafness, strokes and until shortly before he died at seventeen and a half?

His name was Gus. He was a Sheltie born April 29, 1969. He came to me in a dream several years ago and he spoke to me in words that did not come out of his mouth, but which I heard in my head. These are the exact words of the interchange.

“Where are you?” he asked, intense in his sadness.

“I’ll come to you one day,” I told him.

“But I have been waiting so long,” he said.

“Because it’s not my time yet,” I told him. “But I will come.”

He paused, but only briefly.

“I’ll wait for you,” he said.

“Find Bobbi and Frannie,” I said. “They are Greyhounds They are mine too, and they will know you. They will wait with you.”

“I will,” he said, and he left me slowly, reluctantly, at my bidding. I woke up crying, as I cry now recounting the experience.

I have always known that dogs care about us on the deepest possible levels but only recently did I put together my own concept of why. I think it was that dream of Gus. I told you he spoke to me in words. The words did not come from his mouth. They came from his mind into mine. But they had a voice. And that voice was my own.

My waiting dog spoke to me in my own voice. We love our dogs. But they adore us on a level beyond love. They are what we ask them to be, becoming part of us if we ask them to. I think Gus came to me that night, or perhaps my unconscious summoned him, because I was finally ready to understand the answer to my long held question.

Dogs care about what we want from them because, when led properly by man, they consider us to be more than their pack mates. We provide more than food, shelter and more than comfort. We provide dogs what the concept of God provides to us, a sense of meaning, comfort, a sense of purpose, a sense that we are not alone.

Dogs do not love us. They worship us. But not from afar. They live with their gods. They worship us from the foot of our beds, they adore us as they look at us, and they long for us even as we touch them.

Trained dogs submit and yield to this worship readily. It satisfies them on a level which humans with our questioning mentalities may not fully comprehend. The faith of a dog, particularly a trained dog, is absolute. He never questions or has a crisis of faith. He doesn’t believe. He knows.

Have you ever noticed that after putting a dog through even a basic course of obedience, other behaviors change for which you have not trained? If you do your work artfully, the dog gives up undesirable behaviors without even being commanded.

This occurs because the dog always knew his owner didn’t like the behaviors. After all, they grumped and yelled when he did it. He simply didn’t care. He felt no particular compulsion to give up a treasured behavior such as jumping on guests.

But when a dog is trained, he learns to look at his humans in a whole new way. He learns that the bond has more meaning that he ever knew before. He learns that he no longer has to make every decision for his life. It’s not satisfying to a dog to pull on the leash and be out of control. Yet, if that behavior is all he knows, he’ll do it over and over. I now see that behavior as a cry for help, the way the dog shows his profound need for leadership.

But once the dog has learned to yield his decision making to a human, a bond between dog and handler is formed that knows no limits of depth. So why do dogs care about what we want? Why are they willing to do what we ask of them if we can only show them clearly what we want? Why will they yield their willpower to ours?

They do it for the love of man. They do it because they love us more than they love themselves.

Is it genetic? The gene succeeds so the gene continues? Probably. But I think it’s more than that. I think the dog has a void that only we humans can fill. Even those of us who succeed the most with dogs don’t quite have the same love for dogs that they have for us. We can’t. We don’t have that gene. But we can understand and honor the dog’s need for leadership.

We can bring a dog to a place where his need for us is absolute yet doesn’t destabilize the independent nature of his being. Lest you take from my words the idea that I am a tree hugging dog spiritualist, I will tell you flat out that I am not. I am a dog trainer. I both correct and reward my dogs. That’s pretty much the way life treats me.

The ultimate reward for us both is a bond during the dog’s lifetime that exceeds any other comfort he can ever know. And after the dog’s death, he brings a form of comfort that some, like me, have not known before.

Someone is waiting. Someone who loves me more than he loves himself.

About the Author:  Marc Goldberg is an IACP Certified Dog Trainer specializing in the rehabilitation of difficult dogs and improving relationships. He is Vice President of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) and Editor of SafeHands Journal. The author also educates professional dog trainers in his techniques. 

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