Why It Pays To Pay
August 07, 2019
Imagine it’s your first day at a new job. You arrive nice and early, and want to make a good impression. You work diligently, and at lunch your boss stops to check in with you. You tell them the work is going well and ask when you can expect your first paycheque.
“Oh!” They laugh.
“We don’t pay you here. You work here because you respect me, and if you do well I’ll tell you you’ve done a good job. That should be enough, right?” HUH?
This situation is obviously absurd. No one would work for free. So why is it we expect this from our dogs?
A common question trainers get is something along the lines of, “when can I stop rewarding my dog?”. This question, and variations of this question, are all based on the same central idea. The idea that dogs should do what we say, immediately and without any sort of outside motivation. They should do it because they respect us. Because we said so.
I’d like to challenge to idea that dogs should do things for us solely because they respect us. Respect is a human concept, but because dogs are so much a part of our families, we tend to like to assign them human characteristics. All behaviour requires some sort of motivation. This applies across all species. When you think of your closest friends and relatives, how do you feel? What do you get out of those relationships that make them special? Surely your friends aren’t supplying you with treats for certain behaviours (or maybe they are, we don’t judge!). But you do get a different kind of reward; whether that be social bonding, mutual favours, emotional support, or being able to partake in shared hobbies together. These relationships are built on mutual reinforcement, and the same goes for our dogs.
Let’s say you have a new friend that you get along well with. You enjoy their company and have fun spending time with them. Everything seems fine until a few months in, and your friend stops returning favours. They start to expect things from you. To always be free to spend time together when they turn down your invites. To help them move into their new apartment when they couldn’t help you with yours. Maybe they constantly expect you to be there for them and offer nothing in return when the tables are turned. Spending time with them begins to feel like a chore. Would you want to stay friends with this person? Probably not. All healthy relationships are based on give and take. When the balance is skewed too heavily one way, relationships deteriorate.
Every time we choose to reward (or pay) our dogs, we build not only the behaviour we are paying for, but also our relationship with them. This certainly does not mean our dogs only love us for our food and toys. It just means that those rewards you give out go into providing that sense of trust and love we so value with our dogs. Here’s a human example: One of the ways my mother shows her love is by cooking for me. I truly value and appreciate the effort she puts into it, and I love it when I come home from a long day to a meal. Does this mean that, by providing me with something I enjoy, my mother is somehow bribing me into loving her? Of course not. But by purposely providing something I like, it goes to strengthen our relationship.
Something I think is important to consider is that our dogs did not choose to live with us. We are the ones that make the decision to bring these animals into our homes and lives. We owe it to them to teach them in a way that makes it worth their while. I am not ashamed to say that I carry treats with me whenever I go out with my dogs. I reward their good behaviour, and they reward me by behaving nicely wherever we are. Do I need to have treats on me for my dogs to listen and behave well? No. But I make the choice to do so; it only makes our connection that much deeper.
So go ahead, reward your dog. You’ll both be better for it.