Her words struck me so intensely that you might have thought I’d been physically hit. I heard, “she doesn’t love you.” That’s not exactly what she said about my dog, but that’s the message I received.
Most hands went up, including mine, when the puppy class instructor asked, “who thinks dogs have a natural desire to please their owners?” “Of COURSE they do,” I thought. There I was, brand new to dog ownership but very much buying into “the desire to please,” “alpha status,” and “no people food” myths, along with many others. Those are the messages I’d heard and believed, and now this woman was telling me that they weren’t accurate.
It’s hard to accept, digest and embrace information that conflicts with what we believe in, especially when there is an emotional attachment involved. Add a hearty dose of long-standing habit, all the “they say” experts, and it becomes exceptionally difficult to change a way of thinking or doing, no matter what we are trying to change.
“The Concept that dogs have an innate desire to please us is a direct result of our desire to be demigods.”
That quote is one of my favorites because it effectively captures the essence of why we may hold onto unrealistic concepts such as “desire to please” and “unconditional love.” We humans thrive on the feeling of being important, in control and superior, so it gives us the warm fuzzies when we say, “my dog loves to please me” (e.g., “I am a demigod”). We are also quick to blame the dog when he fails to please us. We place ourselves at the summit of nature’s hierarchical pyramid. In doing so, we miss out on seeing the world from our dogs’ perspective, and we may interpret their behaviors solely through our human lens. This affects our relationship, training, and more. It is impossible for the dog to live up to our expectations.
Does it make sense for one species to exist solely to please or “protect” another species, when there’s nothing in it for him? From an evolutionary standpoint, it would be disastrous for one species to sacrifice oneself purely for the benefit of another species.
What does “please” mean, anyway?
We throw that word around a lot when we talk about our companion animals. Well, not cats. I’ve not heard much about “pleasing” and cats. But why not? We share our lives with them, too (by the way, you can train cats).
Where is the line?
If dogs truly wanted to please humans, I argue that there would be no “problem dogs”, no stray dogs, no dogs in need of homes, no dogs who pulled on leash or chased bicycles.. the world would be filled with dogs who only did what humans liked, in the perpetual pursuit of pleasing us. And I would be out of a job I love, because no dog would ever need training.
Our dogs can love us deeply without the need to “please” us
This is the lesson I learned in that class so long ago. I learned that I had to separate my emotional desire to be my dog’s raison d’etre from the reality that she was a sentient being whose Number One was, and always would be, herself. I took the onus off her to understand what I wanted and put it on me to help her learn that pleasing me meant pleasing her in the process.
Dogs learn that our pleasure may predict something good for them, but we shouldn’t misconstrue this by claiming our pleasure is the inspiration for their behavior. It all comes around to patterns: if the consequence to a behavior is something a dog values, the dog is likely to repeat it, regardless of whether or not it pleases us.
All this being said, I do believe that we dog owners want to please our dogs on a regular basis! Proof? The US petcare market is valued at over $200 billion. That’s a lot of toys, treats, beds and food!
Now go out there and please your dog some more!