This Just In From Dogs: It’s Not All About Us

I would bet a large stack of cool, hard cash that you’ve met a dog who is a friendly neighbourhood “watchdog barker”. These dogs love people: they are immediately friendly with strangers at home and on the street...their feet all tippy-tappy and their tails all wiggley-waggley. But seemingly at odds with their love of all humans, watchdog barkers announce people with a ready helping of real noise: when the doorbell rings, or if someone moseys by the living room window, these dogs bark. If the person comes inside, the barking ends as the friendly neighbourhood watchdog barker completes their standard greeting ritual. This probably involves leaning in for ear scratches or jumping around like a gleeful if bumbling jumping bean (you know the routine). And if the human at the door or on the sidewalk outside walks away, the barking abates on its own, after a time.

Rewards Required?

Many dog behaviours need to be reinforced if we’d like to see them again in the future: sits, downs, stays, coming when called, acrobatic dance routines...when your dog does any of these, they need the paycheque of a treat, or they’ll blandly resign from your proffered job and find another, more lucrative, position (see “gettin’ in that trash can again”, below). There is a subset of behaviours, though, that dogs do even without our reinforcement. In some cases it’s because there is already food reinforcement involved, even if it doesn’t come from our hands: dogs will readily perform the behaviour of “gettin’ in that trash can again”, for example. But food, or any other external reward, isn’t always the end goal. Dogs will gleefully, and with no need for reinforcement, play with us and other dogs, dig with abandon, chase balls and bicycles, and howl in unison with their canine compatriots or ambulances alike. They’ll snooze, they’ll walk, they’ll run, they’ll sniff the cat, and they’ll...ahem…‘empty’... on the lawn. If there is no outside reward or threat making the behaviour happen, the stuff that dogs naturally do can be seen as simply enjoyable for them.

So, I suspect you are probably starting to pick up what I am laying down here, my friends. That gleeful if piercing bark that friendly, social dogs perform with abandon when they see people or dogs...that behaviour needs no reinforcement. Just like you need no reinforcement to stretch languorously in the spring-time sun, watchdog barkers need no reinforcement at all: they just bark. And just like it feels good for you to yawn and stretch in the sun, friendly but barky dogs probably just find the behaviour...you know. Kind of glorious.

Is It All About Us?

A while ago a client was wrapping his head around his dog’s “watchdog barking”. He had set up some training sessions with me and we were working to reduce the amount of time his lovely dog would bark when people approached. (This is not a hard job for a good trainer, and uses nothing even close to old-time corrections). But as we worked together, I kept feeling like I was missing the mark with my explanations of what was going on. My client kept saying that his barking dog was “alerting” his humans. That his dog was “letting them know”. Or, “doing her duty to them”.

Photo credit Nickala Squire from  Carefree Canine .

Photo credit Nickala Squire from Carefree Canine.

But wait. Is that what they’re doing? Is it really all about us? If it were, our dogs wouldn’t bark when we’re not home. Any number of nanny-cam scenarios and complaining neighbours can prove false that fable: watchdog barkers bark, no matter if someone is there to listen. And they wouldn’t bark at us when we pull up in the driveway, which pret’near all of my own dogs do. We don’t need to be told that we’ve arrived home ourselves, after all.

When you walk out into the spring sun and stretch, languorously, are you doing it for someone else? Are you signalling to your spouse that spring has sprung, and the grass is riz? Or are you just doing something that naturally feels good? Now sure, it’s possibly the case that during domestication, humans selected dogs to be avid watchdog barkers, in the same way that we selected dogs to have floppy ears, cute faces, and chocolate brown eyes. Watchdog barking is and was a useful trait, alerting us to intruders. But to say they’re doing any of those things for us is...well that doesn’t make sense, does it? They aren’t floppy-eared for us. They don’t wake up every morning looking like a donkey and quickly head to the bathroom mirror to tame their ears into a perfect flop, anxious that we might see them in their natural state. Their ears just flop. And when they see people or dogs, it’s the same thing. They just bark.

Our dogs are absolutely bonded with us. They’re a part of our family, as furry and fuzzy and floppy as they are. We share our homes and our hearts and heck even our couches with them. But they’re also their own little beasties. They are adult organisms and have their own motivations. Seeing dogs as they really are involves a bit of a switch in our thinking. And I’ll be honest: it might feel like we are losing something special. Dogs are so perfectly suited to be our companions that we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that they exist and behave just to meet our needs. But we gain something much more special in the exchange. We gain insight into how dogs actually work, and the door opens to real curiosity about, and real admiration of, our dogs’ behaviour. But the best thing we gain by seeing them as they really are is the wondrous knowledge that even though they don’t choose to hop up on the couch next to us to please us, they choose to hop up next to us to please themselves. And isn’t that so much better?

Kristi BensonComment