"Are Dogs Really Hard-Wired to Manipulate Us?"

There's no evidence that dogs routinely try to take advantage of people.

Posted Aug 11, 2020

A few months ago, Betsy emailed me to ask, "Are dogs really hard-wired to manipulate us?" And last week, Warren asked, "What do you think about claims that we're actually dogs' pawns?" My answer to both: "I'm tired of reading this sort of garbage, and while a few dogs may exist just to use us, I know of no studies on this topic and I don't think most dogs are born manipulators nor do I think most people really believe this."  

I also told them much about the idea that dogs are manipulators is pure and uninformed media hype and referred them to my post, "If Dogs Truly Were Human They Would Be Jerks." This piece considered a myth-filled book, The Truth About Dogs: An Inquiry into Ancestry, Social Conventions, Mental Habits, and Moral Fiber of Canis familiars, which includes such passages as:

  • "Dogs, in short, are a brilliant evolutionary success almost without parallel in the animal world, and they owe that success to their uncanny ability to worm themselves into our homes, and to our relentlessly anthropomorphic psyches that let them do it."
  • "Let’s face it: If dogs truly were human they would be jerks. As dogs they are wonderful."
  • "Dogs are 'biological freeloaders'...have got us exactly where they want us, and we, idiotic grins fixed to our faces, go along with it all."
  • "They ... play us like accordions."

What citizen science says about dogs as hard-wired manipulators

I found no research on the web about dogs as innate manipulators, so, in the spirit of citizen science and hoping that future systematic studies would follow, I began asking people who were with dogs what they thought about dogs as hard-wired manipulators. I've found that most people like to talk about their canine companions, so it was pretty easy to get them to express themselves, and on occasion, it was difficult to get them to stop. Here's what I did and learned.

I asked 100 unfamiliar people (50 women and 50 men) who were with dogs if they thought that their canine companion was hellbent on manipulating them: 82 said no, 13 said something like, "No, but sometimes they try," and 5 said, "I'm not sure, but sometimes I feel they're playing me." I also asked some people I knew, and the array of answers looked about the same. I didn't see any relationship between people who like to "be in control" and their responses, nor were there any gender differences. 

When I talked with some people about these numbers, including some trainers and others who spent a lot of time watching dogs, they agreed that while some dogs seemed intent on playing their humans and manipulating them for food, attention, and other rewards such as getting on a comfortable couch, when they looked at the context in which these behaviors occurred, there were other equally suitable and simpler explanations. Also, a dog who wants to lead you out the door isn't necessarily asserting dominance or trying to control you by playing alpha. It's possible they sensed something outside of which you were totally unaware, or perhaps they just might like being first some of the time. 

For example, when a dog constantly tries to get on a couch or bed despite your saying no, they're not necessarily trying to manipulate you. A simple explanation would be that they find a couch or bed to be comfortable and safe places to rest just like you do, and it's possible they might even need more of you some of the time because they need some reassurance and it feels good to snuggle. One of my dogs, Jethro, was a couch and bed dog and after trying to keep him off of them mainly because he weighed around 90 pounds, I decided it was fine to share them with him. In all honestly, I really enjoyed the connection and he did as well. His desire for canine comfort was good for both of us.

Pixabay, free download
Source: Pixabay, free download

It's also possible your dog doesn't know what you actually want them to do–there's a failure to communicate–or they're not really "listening" because they're distracted, fearful, unmotivated, or simply inattentive. Sound familiar? You might also be sending confusing mixed messages–sometimes it's okay for them to get on the couch or bed and sometimes it's not–and they have no idea what's up. 

One topic that comes up rather often when I talk with people about how to reward their dogs is whether or not it's okay to use food. I tell them that training dogs with food is fine and your dog will still love you. ​I've always been surprised to learn that some people think that using food to train/teach dogs is a bad habit because then the dog will not really feel attached to the person(s) or love them. Perhaps some dogs do "use" us for food, but using these instances—which, as far as I can determine, are very few and far between—to come up with a rule that food shouldn't be used because the dog doesn't really love us is ridiculous. As Boulder force-free dog trainer Mary Angilly stresses, food can easily be used to form positive associations. One of my friends who's a dog expert says, "The 'food thing' is more about the person than the dog." I agree.

I'm reminded of an excellent essay by dog trainer and journalist Tracy Krulik called "Eager to Please," which stresses the importance of factoring in context when trying to figure out why dogs are doing what they're doing. It's easy to make superficial claims about a dog's motivation, but we can surely increase the reliability of why we think they're doing something when we take into account all of the nitty-gritty details, as good citizen scientists and ethologists do. In Krulik's essay, I note, “You go to dog parks and [you’ll hear] dogs characterized in one way: playful, standoffish, maybe a little aggressive. It’s incredible how different people watch the same dog and have a completely different personality profile for the dog.”

Beliefs don't substitute for facts

There are a good number of other annoying myths about dogs that need to be put to rest. These include the notions that dogs live in the present (they don't), dogs love unconditionally (they're not), dog are our best friends (not so), dogs need to be dominated to train them (alpha-inspired dominance training doesn't really work and it's dogs' worst nightmare), dogs don't display dominance (similar to numerous other animals, they do form different types of dominance relationships), and dogs don't form packs (they do).1,2 

Cute and slick prose all too often misrepresent who dogs really are and ignore large individual differences among these amazing beings. Demeaning prose used to write off dogs as social parasites doesn't work, but in a number of places, catchy words are offered up as the "truth" about dogs. Fortunately, based on empirical research and a dose of common sense, some of these misleading views are rapidly disappearing. However, readers and dogs need to beware of uninformed "truths" and how and where they lie. 

Stay tuned for further discussions about why dogs do what they do. It's essential to pay close attention to sweeping species-wide generalizations because each dog needs to be viewed as the individual they are and these differences in personality and temperament need to be factored into interpretations and explanations of why they do what they do. And keep in mind that you could be part or most of the reason your dog has no idea what you really want them to do, and you may wrongly conclude that they're trying to manipulate you when nothing of the sort is actually happening in their brains.

It takes two to tangle and to untangle, and becoming "fluent and literate in dog"–or better yet, "fluent and literate in the ways in which your particular dog communicates"–will go a long way toward fostering better communication and understanding. Punishing a dog when they have little or no idea of what's happening adds to the confusion, and makes teaching them much more difficult, if not impossible.

I look forward to more controlled studies that focus on the topics and questions I've discussed here. For example, it'll be interesting to learn of the personalities of dog guardians influence how they view the motivations of their canine and other dogs. I well remember Margot once saying about Daniel who was always calling his dog back to him even when he was playing, "Oh, he's a control freak, so he always explains the behavior of his and other dogs as being manipulative, when clearly it's not. And his dogs always seem confused." How exciting it is that there's still so much to learn about dog-human relationships. 

Facebook image: Megan Betteridge/Shutterstock

References

Notes

1) Detailed discussions and numerous references about dominance in dogs can be seen in "Social Dominance is Not a Myth," in which there is a much-needed clarification of renowned wolf expert, L. David Mech's views on dominance in wolves; "Dominance and Pseudoscience: Making Sense of Nonsense;" "Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate" (Dominance is alive and well so let’s get over it and understand what it’s all about.); "Dogs, Dominance, and Guilt: We've Got to Get Things Right"; "Dominance in Free-Ranging Dogs: Age and Social Tolerance" (Based on a study called "Age-graded dominance hierarchies and social tolerance in packs of free-ranging dogs" we know that dogs display age-graded linear relationships and injurious fighting is very rare.); "Dominance in Dogs: Owners' Reports Are Scientifically Valid"; and "Dominance, Individual Personality, and Leadership in Dogs." Links for these references and for other myths can be found in Dominant Alpha Humans Don't Garner Dogs' Respect and Trust.

2) A very useful discussion of dominance and dog training can be found in a piece by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). 

3) I thank Mary Angilly for helpful comments on this piece.