For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don't Balance Scolds and Praise
Preliminary data show we say "no" or "don't" far more than "yes" or "good dog."
Posted September 9, 2017
During numerous forays to dog parks I kept getting the impression that people said or screamed something like "No!" or "Don't do that!" or "Stop that!" far more than they said something like "Good dog" or "That's okay." It seemed like scolding and praising were out of balance. I bounced this idea off of a few people, including some who spend a lot of time with dogs either studying or simply hanging out with them, and they agreed. As a fan of citizen science, here I offer some preliminary data on scolding and praising that can serve to motivate more formal studies into the ways that people scold or praise their own and other dogs.
I've spent a lot of time — some say far too much — at dog parks. Sometimes I just hang out and watch dogs and their people and take notes about what's going on. Dog parks are excellent places for learning all sorts of things about dog-dog, dog-human, and human-human interactions. At some dog parks, many people know that I study dogs, while at others, if I hang out incognito on the periphery, I'm just one of the gang. I'm always open to talking with people about all things dog, and I try to impress on them how important it is, and how much fun it can be, to be a naturalist in a dog park and learn more about their dog, themselves, and other dogs and other humans.
Helicoptering humping, sniffing private parts, and eating disgusting stuff
Over the course of a few years, I collected data on patterns of scolding and praising. I looked at 300 instances in which people talked to, or yelled at, their own or someone else's dog, by either saying something like "No!" "Don't do that!" or "Stop that!" to get them to stop doing something and when they said something like "Good dog" or "That's okay" to praise them for doing something. My best estimate is that between 75-100 different people were sampled.
The results of this pilot study are very clear. I discovered that dogs were reprimanded almost five times more than they were praised. On 248 out of 300 (82.7%) occasions, scolding was recorded, whereas 52 of 300 (17.3%) times praising was recorded. On only 3 of the 52 (5.8%) times dogs were praised was the positive message spontaneous, that is, when the dog wasn't doing anything other than just walking around or hanging out.
I often find myself saying "good dog" just to be nice, when dogs are being nice to one another or to a human or when there's no apparent reason for the praise. On a number of occasions, people asked me why I said it — perhaps they had missed something — and I told them I said it because giving praise and being nice and showing affection and love are okay even when a dog is just walking around or sniffing and isn't doing anything in particular. I also often praise dogs when they're playing fairly and allowing all of the players to frolic and have fun. It's possible that the data are skewed the way they are because some people told me that they don't offer praise just to be nice or don't say anything "when their dog is behaving appropriately."
As I said, these certainly are preliminary data, but the trend toward far more scolding than praising is very obvious at least in the places in which I collected data. Clearly, more data are needed.
When I asked people about why and when they scolded their dog or another dog, I got the strong impression that dogs humping other dogs, dogs sniffing and licking the private parts of other dogs, dogs jabbing their nose in human groins, dogs eating poop and other disgusting stuff, and their playing "too roughly," were among the acts that elicited the most scolding. Future research should concentrate on which acts elicit scolding and praising.
It also would be important to increase the number of dogs and people who are sampled and to learn if women and men and younger and older humans differ in their patterns of scolding or praising. Other variables that also could play a role in patterns of scolding and praising include the personality of the people, the familiarity of the people with a dog, and perhaps where the interactions take place. It also may be that the location of a dog park influences how people talk with dogs. The list goes on and on. A large number of variables likely influence scolding and praising, and there are many research projects waiting to be done, the results of which will benefit dogs and humans.
The importance of dog park chatter and citizen science
Dog parks are fertile places for citizen science. For example, I learned a lot when I analyzed patterns of tug-of-war that helped to show that when dogs play this game it's not always about competition or dominance. (For more, see "What's Happening When Dogs Play Tug-of-War? Dog Park Chatter.") I've also learned a lot not only about dog-dog encounters but also about dog-human and human-human interactions, about which I write in my forthcoming Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do.
An excellent discussion about the importance of citizen science and dog research can be found in an essay by Laughlin Stewart and his colleagues called "Citizen Science as a New Tool in Dog Cognition Research." They write, "In the future, citizen scientists will generate useful datasets that test hypotheses and answer questions as a complement to conventional laboratory techniques used to study dog psychology." Of course, citizen scientists can also help provide information that will complement studies of free-running dogs in dog parks and elsewhere.
When it comes to our life with dogs, citizen science can indeed, at times, improve our knowledge of the species, but it can always improve the person’s life with their own companion animal and might also inspire the creation of future scientists
It's important to balance scolding and praising when we talk with dogs in a human-dominated world.
I hope that researchers will follow up with more formal studies of patterns of scolding and praising. Scolding, especially incessant or misplaced reprimanding, can be stressful and add to the pressure with which many dogs live as they try to adapt to a human-dominated world.
In a previous post I noted that Jessica Pierce provides an extensive discussion about stressed dogs (and other companion animals) in her excellent book called Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. Along these lines, in her book Love Is All You Need, Jennifer Arnold notes that dogs live in an environment that “makes it impossible for them to alleviate their own stress and anxiety.” (p. 4) According to Arnold, “In modern society, there is no way for our dogs to keep themselves safe, and thus we are unable to afford them the freedom to meet their own needs. Instead, they must depend on our benevolence for survival.”
Dog-human relationships are often asymmetric and one-sided, the sort that many of us would not tolerate with another human. Simply put, dogs want and need more freedom. (For more, see The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age.) Arnold also notes that we abuse our power over dogs when we impose our will on them without considering their thoughts and feelings. Ample research shows that dogs are deeply thinking and feeling social and sentient beings.
All in all, we impose a lot of demands on dogs and other companion animals, day in and day out. Balance in how we interact and talk with them is critical, as it is in human-human interactions. I look forward to further and more formal studies on patterns of scolding and praising and the variables that influence how we interact with dogs in different social situations. It'll be a win-win for dogs and humans when we know more about the nature of their interactions.
What an exciting time it is to study everything dog.
Stewart, Laughlin, Evan L. MacLean, David Ivy, Vanessa Woods, Eliot Cohen, Kerri Rodriguez, Matthew McIntyre, et al. “Citizen Science as a New Tool in Dog Cognition Research.” PLOS One, vol. 10, no. 9 (2015).
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at marcbekoff.com.