Why Dogs Don’t Use The Internet

What we can learn from man’s best friend.

Posted Mar 13, 2017

Bill Davidow
Bailey Gives Owner A Shot Of Oxytocin Rather Than Playing With Squirrelly Sam On Her iPad
Source: Bill Davidow

By Bill Davidow and Andrew Logan 

Because dogs don’t engage in transactional relationships, even if they could, they would not go online. Dogs know what they need, how to get it and, most importantly, who to trust. Conversely, a lot of mankind, while seeking connection and pleasure, blindly places its trust in Internet technology companies whose primary goal is to lure us to endlessly click for profit. This also distracts us from being productive, as we attempt to accomplish too much.

To understand why dogs don’t use the Internet, we need to appreciate the role of operant conditioning, the neurotransmitter dopamine and the hormone oxytocin. In the 1930’s, Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner, developed the concept of operant conditioning. Skinner presented his subjects, pigeons and rats, with cues that caused them to engage in activities to earn rewards, food. 

Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we now understand the brain chemistry driving operant conditioning—dopamine. We know that the brain perceives all pleasure in a similar way whether the pleasures result from earning a dog cookie, sniffing a line of cocaine, winning a jackpot in Las Vegas, leveling up in a video game, getting a Thumbs Up, or receiving an alert that tells you your favorite stock just went through the roof. We know dopamine releases are involved in drug addiction, gambling addiction, compulsive behaviors associated with the use of the Internet, and the playing of electronic games. 

Oxytocin is known as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone. It is associated with bonding. Oxytocin is released by our brain when we connect intimately. Studies have shown that snuggling with loved ones and our dogs sends rushes of oxytocin which enhances the sense of connection. Humans use the dopamine response in dogs to train them via operant conditioning. In return, the dog stimulates oxytocin in the human through connecting and rewarding mankind’s generosity by getting closer for patting or belly scratches. Our dogs create relationships built on herd instincts of love and trust, which usually ensures that man does not abuse his power. This behavior has led to their moniker as “man’s best friend.”

On the Internet, humans often cannot see the forest for the trees and frequently mistake the dopamine rush we feel from a “like” with a deeper mutual connection. Ironically, because we cannot find genuine connection online, we simply continue to search there for the dopamine kicks. If we feel lonely, we wonder if an online quiz will help. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that we all need love and belonging before we can achieve esteem. Self-acceptance is the ultimate goal, yet belonging must come first. If only we could see the fruitless pursuit and that we are literally barking up the wrong tree when we look for intimacy online. The Internet company wants us to search, but does not care if we waste hours of time.

Many Internet companies use the same operant conditioning techniques to increase dwell time on their sites and control visitor behavior. The customer depends on the free market to insure Internet sites do not abuse their power. Counting on the free market to moderate our behavior has proven to be foolish. The site is not able to feel, nor does it want to moderate the amount of operant conditioning it produces. The Internet company’s goal is profitability, not being mindful of abusing its allure or leaving the user over-stimulated and exhausted, something we would never do to our pets. Dog training experts suggest it is critical to use operant conditioning in short doses when training dogs. This builds trust and allows the dog time to process what he or she has learned. It also allows time for play, cuddling and bonding.

Operant conditioning gets a free ride on many Internet applications. Users get a cue or an alert that a text has arrived; they then engage in an activity, reading the text, to get a reward like some type of exciting news. But Internet companies also engineer “addictive environments” to keep customers engaged. Zynga, the company that gave us Farmville, engineered what they called “compulsion loops” into the game. The goal was to keep the customer engaged for countless hours. Just as dogs cede control to their trustworthy trainers, many Internet users give up control of their time to random Internet applications—autonomous trainers.

Thankfully for dogs, they are too smart to enter into such a one-sided relationship. The dog looking its owner in the eye—see the picture of Bailey above—encourages touching, and “smiles” at its owners while engaging in vigorous tail-wagging. This stimulates oxytocin releases in his owner’s brain and creates a deep and fulfilling symbiotic connection. The dog trades control for love and trust and a deep and loyal bond. Humans on the Internet make a different deal with no genuine connection nor oxytocin involved. They trade control for free services and hope the free market will limit user abuse. Sadly, they are left wanting.

Every dog we know is too smart to take the free market deal. That is why dogs do not use the Internet.

Unfortunately, Internet companies have to make a living. So many are driven to control our attention using operant conditioning techniques, monetizing our privacy, and providing intriguing and false information to capture our attention. Many Internet companies engage in A/B testing in an effort to design online experiences that trigger dopamine releases. Much of this behavior is innocent on the part of Internet engineers. In discussions with a number of them, we discovered that the majority had never heard of the concept of operant conditioning. 

Smart Internet users realize that for many Internet activities market forces drive providers behavior, and trust is a secondary or non-existent consideration. As a result, they manage the Internet rather than letting the Internet manage them, and they approach the Internet with caution.

There are many things users can do to avoid the trap. One of the most important is to accept the fact that, like dogs, humans cannot multitask. Because people can switch between simple cognitive tasks in seconds such as texting and driving, many think it is safe to do both. In those seconds, your car may have gone a tenth of a mile. It’s clear that texting and driving at the same time is dangerous. After answering an email or text, getting back into complex cognitive interactions such as writing a computer program can even take minutes. If you want to understand the science behind this, read Adam Gazzaley’s excellent, but highly technical book, The Distracted Mind. 

The word multitasking is computer lingo for doing multiple things simultaneously.  The reason computers can multitask is that they are extremely fast relative to the jobs they have to do. They switch tasks so quickly they appear to be doing things simultaneously—multitasking. So if humans are going to be effective task switchers, they must match the switching time delays to the environment.

One simple rule for gaining control over the Internet is to devote time to a single task and minimize the number of times you switch.

In daily Internet life, it leads to some pretty simple ideas for humans:

  • Never switch tasks in complex fast moving environments, such as driving a car, cycling or walking 
  • Budget blocks of time to complex tasks and do not task switch during those times, lest you become distracted and less productive

Since they know we won’t abandon our screens, our dogs would add these pursuits, away from technology, to find deeper connection and meaning:

  • Engage in symbiotic relationships that are mutually rewarding
  • Take walks and exercise daily
  • Enhance your bonds by snuggling with your loved ones and pets

Recently, we purchased our dog, Bailey, an iPad game—Squirrelly Sam.  She just refused to play. She informed us with a wag as if to say she only accepts cookies from trusted sources, despite whether they are chicken, beef, or even Internet flavored.

Andrew Logan is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, operating a private practice in Woodside, CA. Prior to becoming a therapist, he worked in high-tech marketing for two successful start-up companies. Before opening a private practice in 2008, Andrew spent seven years as a therapist at a mental health agency, including four years counseling adolescents at a middle school. A supporter of education, Andrew has also served as as trustee of an elementary school. Andrew is married with two children, is an avid surfer, writer, and lover of music.