Dogs Respond To Cues – Are Dogs Really Being Willful?

by Mary Haight on October 22, 2012

Guest Post by Kevin Myers, Trainer (Retired)

Dog's response to cuesDogs And Their Human-like Expressions

With the exception of other primates, I can’t think of another animal whose expressional vocabulary so resembles our own. We often see an owner’s features reflected in their choice of dogs. We describe their eyes as knowing and gleaming, their happy smiles, their sad scowls, their pain, and their joy. It also seems that all the time we have spent in their company has not been lost on them either. They take in all environmental cues when deciding how to act and that can lead to misunderstanding.

Dogs Ability To Read Us

Recent studies have indicated that dogs can read us better than our closest primate relative, the chimpanzee. In Alexandra Horowitz’s book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, Horowitz notes that while most intelligent animals solve a deduction problem, like finding a ball that disappears into box, by watching the ball. A dog will solve the problem by watching its owner’s eyes. All these things point to an animal who can read us better than we can read ourselves. We give off unconscious cues to our emotional state all the time; because dogs respond to cues, if dogs could truly play poker, they’d clean us out every time.

Dogs Predict Outcomes Based on Cues, Humans Assume

There’s a difference here in how we react to actionable intelligence. A dog associates specific cues and environmental factors as a predictor of either what is wanted or what is about to happen. The tone of voice, and the words spoken, the tilt of the head, and the direction of the eyes, the smells coming from the treats, human, and environment, the presence or absence of objects, and of course the overall body language including hand gestures and body position. Humans often see things as black or white, behavior or misbehavior, you act guilty you are guilty; refuse to do a behavior you know, you’re being willful. However, the full range of cues that a dog responds to is invisible to us and it becomes easy to assume a human emotion where circumstantial evidence supports it.

To make a point here I am going to relate an embarrassing personal story. One of the worst spankings I ever got from my father was for something I didn’t do. He assumed I had done it because I acted guilty when he questioned me about it. My guilty acting came from being nervous around my father when he was in that kind of mood. In the middle of this particular spanking, he found out that I was not guilty and instead of stopping he spanked me harder. In retrospect I think he was angry and embarrassed at himself for what he was doing and was in the perfect situation to release that newly accrued anger. A real life example of why using punishment can be bad, it becomes outlet for things other than what was intended.

Nervousness in humans is often interpreted as guilt. How many detective shows on TV have used the phrase, If you’re innocent, you have nothing to be worry about— when trying to get someone to take a lie detector test or submit to questioning? Is the suspect ever put at ease by this?

Dogs do not understand our commands and preferences as hard and fast rules. To them it’s all about a collection of cues that add up to an expected outcome. Here are a couple examples of what I am talking about.

Dogs Acting Guilty

An owner punishes a dog for chewing on a favorite object several times. The dog eventually quits chewing on the object in the owner’s presence. One day the owner returns home to find the object being chewed upon. The dog immediately stars acting guilty and the owner punishes the dog for the offense. But was the dog really acting guilty? In this case the dog had learned that chewing the object in the owner’s presence was bad, but if the object was left out and the owner was not around then chewing on it fulfilled his need to relieve some anxiety. The owner returns while the object is being chewed and this added piece of information now predicts punishment, something to be nervous about indeed. Chewing was okay because the owner (an environmental cue) was not around. When the owner returned in the presence of a shoe being chewed upon, his presence and body language were cues that indicated punishment and the dog showed appeasement behaviors.

Dogs Being Willful

Another owner has taught their dog to sit using the verbal cue of sit along with an upward sweep of the hand, a behavior that dog has learned in just a couple of sessions. The owner decides that they want the dog to sit and wait before exiting any door. The owner takes the dog to the back door and gives the command to sit followed by the upwards sweep of the hand and the dog just blankly stares at the owner. After several attempts with no success the owner assumes that dog is just being stubborn and willful because they have previously demonstrated they understand the command. But more likely it’s a case of mistaken cues or poor generalization. When they taught the dog to sit, it may have been in a certain area under a certain set of circumstances that are no longer present in the equation. Or perhaps the dog was really responding to the fact that they leaned forward when they said sit before, something not being repeated in this new location. Again, the dog is looking for a certain set of conditions and cues that haven’t been met, but in our minds we believe the correct cues have been given so willful behavior must be the culprit.

Dogs Have Their Own Emotions

Remember that although dogs can reflect our own facial expressions and body language, they are not always in direct correlation. Dogs are expert at reading our body language, scent, and vocal strain. They predict our behavior based on things we are not even conscious of, which can be misconstrued as human reactions and emotions. Our dogs are smart, but they are dogs with dog motivations and emotions, not human ones.

Additional Resources on Dogs Respond To Cues

The Disappearing Sit

Why Does my Dog Misbehave?

Kevin Myers is a Web Designer, Freelance Writer, a dog trainer and creator of the website Dog Lover’s Digest.  You can reach him there, on Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin.




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