Why dogs love strategy

We’ve seen how, without understanding strategy, people may incur in adverse consequences. We’ve seen how we can fail at learning a language or at losing weight. Let’s start to see a couple of examples that can have much sadder outcomes. The first one comes from the field of dog training. Dogs are an important part of the life of many of us, but unfortunately people tend to understand very little about their behaviour.

Actually, as with other fields, most of the things most people “know” about dogs is total nonsense: myths and urban legends that keep spreading without anyone critically thinking about them, and with most of professional dog trainers that do nothing but confirm them.
I’d like to start by quoting some parts of a TED talk titled “Dog-friendly dog training”, given by Ian Dunbar. Dr. Dunbar is a veterinarian, dog trainer and animal behaviourist. He is one of the few who really has a clue about what dogs social structure and hierarchical system looks like. Unlike most other popular “dog gurus” talking about pack leaders, alpha wolves and dominance, he actually spent years researching the matter.
He is also a wonderful communicator, combining scientific clarity with irony and a very accessible style. One of his main points is, indeed, how easily behavioural problems with dogs follow directly from what we do, and how easily they would be preventable by simply thinking about the behaviour we want and actually teaching it (what I would call a strategy).
So, I quote: Now, I’m here largely because there’s kind of a rift in dog training at the moment that — on one side, we have people who think that you train a dog, number one, by making up rules, human rules. We don’t take the dog’s point of view into account. So the human says, “You’re going to act this way, damn it. We’re going to force you to act against your will, to bend to our will.” Then, number two, we keep these rules a secret from the dog. And then number three, now we can punish the dog for breaking rules he didn’t even know existed. So you get a little puppy, he comes. His only crime is he grew. When he was a little puppy, he puts his paws on your leg — you know, isn’t that nice? And you go, “Oh, there’s a good boy.” You bend down, you pat him — you reward him for jumping up. His one mistake is he’s a Tibetan mastiff, and a few months later, he weighs, you know, 80 pounds. Every time he jumps up, he gets all sorts of abuse. I mean, it is really very, very scary the abuse that dogs get.
Speaking  in terms of strategy, let’s formulate it this way:

a) Decide how would you like your dog to greet you (i.e. “sit nicely and wait for me to come to pat you”)

b) figure out the best way of how to do that (i.e. luring him into that behaviour and rewarding him as soon as he does so)

c) Be consistent and reinforce this behaviour over time.

It’s as simple as that. And you have no troubles whatsoever with one of the most common problems that makes dog owners’ to get crazy.

Yet, do we do it? No.

We just react. The puppy jumps up, the natural reaction is that it “feels” cute. We don’t strategically think what you want to achieve. It feels cute and we reward him. Later he’s big and heavy, and when he jumps up the natural reaction changed. Now it “feels” annoying, so we punish him (although, technically speaking from the point of view of animal behaviour, that’s not a punishment, just random aggression).

Again, there’s no strategy. Just natural reactions. We don’t think how would we like things to be and how to achieve them, just react accordingly to what feels natural. This is, as I put it, the difference between a natural and the Functional Mindset
Failing to predict obvious future outcomes is a consequence of lack of strategy that is especially evident when it comes to dog training. Is it a surprise to anyone that the puppy turns out growing? No. It was obvious. We knew all the time it would happen. Is it a surprise that, if you consistently reward your puppy for performing a certain action, they will keep doing it? Hardly so. So, what are we really so surprised about?
Similar problems turn out all the time when puppy dogs become adult, actually. Often puppies will be very happy to wander around you all the time, or will have a great time with other dogs, and so on. So when you go tell the handlers the puppy needs training, they just consider it as pointless as they did it already. Their dog behaves so nicely! Well, guess what? At some point the puppy will grow. Sure, staying around you might have been the greatest thing in the world, but now when you’re out they want to sniff and run around places, and they may be not so interested in just running after you any more. Sure, when he was a puppy he went along greatly with other dogs. Have you seen adult dogs playing with puppies? They let them do whatever. The puppies jump upon them, bite their tail, and so on. But now your dog isn’t a puppy any more, and if it hasn’t learned proper social behaviour, other dogs might not be that happy when it jumps upon them or chews their tail.
Let me quote an other part of Dr Dunbar’s TED talk: My all-time classic is another “come here” one. You see someone in the park — and I’ll cover my mic when I say this, because I don’t want to wake you up — and there’s the owner in the park, and their dog’s over here, and they say, “Rover, come here. Rover, come here [screaming]. Rover, come here, you son of a bitch.” The dog says, “I don’t think so.” (Laughter) I mean, who in their right mind would think that a dog would want to approach them when they’re screaming like that? Instead, the dog says, “I know that tone. I know that tone. Previously, when I’ve approached, I’ve gotten punished there.”
Now, what part of that doesn’t make perfect and obvious sense? What sane person would not see that if you punish a dog for doing something, it will probably be less and less willing to do it in the future, and the opposite if you reward him instead?
But what people actually do over and over? Punish the behaviour they want their dog to perform, and reward those they don’t want. In Dunbar’s words: making rules and keeping them secret, while abusing the dogs when they break them.
There are many classic examples. The dog is nervous when you move around his food because he fears you are going to steal it from him? Easy: teach him that having people walking around his bowl is awesome by associating positive experiences with that. Imagine you have a dog that gets a great experience any time a person comes to visit your home. Do you think he will be aggressive toward visitors and will want to keep them away? But, what people mostly do in this case? They take the food away. The dog is nervous because he fears that you are going to steal his food. What you do? You steal its food. Great. If you fear snakes, will you ever go to a therapy where you have snakes biting you over and over to overcome it? Do you think that will work?
Having a well behaved dog is easy. Even house-training your puppy and making sure he is not demolishing your home when you leave should be achieved in a couple of weeks with a proper strategy. Yet, what people do? Apply the very same solutions that, according to all available informations – and even basic reasoning, like in the example above – just worsen the problem. Some people will accept having to buy all the furniture anew tens of times due of damage caused by their dogs, before even thinking contacting a serious professional or becoming familiar with science-based dog training guidelines. Or better: why not do that before you even actually get a dog? I know people who spent years complaining about their dog still doing its needs inside or barking as a crazy to the slightest noise, but never willing to strategically discuss what can be done to solve the issue.
How many will struggle with their dogs pulling on the leash (even people without the actual strength to keep in control their huge breed) for years, instead of strategically spending few moments (yes, literally in this case) teaching them what they want?
Training a dog is a very easy thing as soon as you think about it. What do I want to achieve? How could make my dog understand I want it? How to motivate it? In most of cases, the solutions are so elementary and obvious, as in the cases described above, that I’m really fond on this example. In this case, really basic reasoning is enough to figure out what is likely to work and what is not. Yet, most people will rather rely on all sort of magical/mystical theories, such as those based on the imaginary social structure of wolf packs in the wild. I discuss there theories elsewhere by explaining what exactly is wrong with them and why they don’t work, but really all you need is simple strategical thinking. do you want your dog to bark less? Train him to do so, by observing what kind of things make him nervous/excited and what makes him calm, and manipulate them to make him apply the latter instead of the former in the situations where you need it.

These are so simple stategies, that it is almost unbelievable most dog owner will never resort to them. And here the problem is really not a lack of knowledge or data, but the lack of strategy itself. In the case of the large dog breed greating their owner by jumping on them, driving them crazy, the problem was not the lack of understanding of some surprising concept of behavioral science. The problem was based on the obvious fact that that little cute puppy will grow and become huge, something which even the less educated or intelligent person is perfectly well aware of. So, as we can see, the fact that we simply react to situations instead of thinking strategically what is the most likely outcome can lead us to spectacular failures even when we are perfectly aware of all the required facts.

Of course, besides strategy, from the perspective of the Functional Mindset, there is an other component that may cause troubles: lack of critical thinking. This is often an issue as well, and so is even in this case. Some people think they will achieve an obedient dog without ever teaching them the actual actions they need to perform, but instead doing random “dominance” stuff such as  never letting them walk in front of them or always eating before them.
Come on, how is your dog supposed to understand that you don’t want him to bark when your neighbour comes to visit because you yell at him if he walks in front of you when you’re on the leash?

Now, this is indeed already a bigger issue, as behavioral problems with dogs are not only annoying to some people, but can actually lead the owner to abuse, abandon, or kill their dog. As Dunbar puts it: timely training saves lives. “Unfortunately, far too many dogs are abandoned at shelters and ultimately euthanized because their owners did not know how easy it was to train them as a puppy. […] Bad Behavior is the #1 terminal illness in dogs.”


As a culture, as a society, we love dogs. They are one of the few animals in the world people actually care about and respect (well, sort of). Dogs are told to be people’s best friends. But are we best friends to them?

Most people, even those well intentioned, generally will avoid a strategical and critical discussion about dog behaviour. Instead, we rely on lore, legends, oral transmission of any kind of unverified knowledge. Professionals often don’t help (partly as it’s not a real profession and any one can decide to call himself or herself professional dog trainer), and those who have real knowledge get a bad press as they contradict all the charlatanism we are used to.

Although this is a problem with critical thinking as well, which is the second component of the Functional Mindset, as we have seen this can often be traced back to a simple lack of a stategical approach, even when all the relevant factors are known.

Dogs are the final victim of all of this. Not only considering those who are abandoned or killed (I don’t use the word euthanasia for this circumstances) by handlers who get enough of them, but also those who die, for instance, because the handler doesn’t have control on them and can’t stop them from running under a car or eating poisoned food.

Yet, my final example will be even worse, and we will go completely beyond personal success and improvement in little things from everyday life, talking about serious issues that can be deadly.

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