When we pet our dogs it’s usually because we’re feeling affectionate towards them, or perhaps because they did something which is so damn cute or good mannered that we look to reward the behavior.
Maybe we pet them because we feel it’s a source of comfort for them, as it often is for us. All seemingly good reasons yet this is the way that petting can develop into a bad habit. Our emotions play a large role in how we screw up our dogs.
Like most problems, this starts off innocent enough. We give Poochie an affectionate and hearty belly rub or a calmer, soothing rub on his chest as he sits so politely in front of us. Poochie quickly develops a strong liking to the sensation of being petted and, because dogs are smart, he quickly figures out how to get more of what he likes.
In his mind he may be thinking “Hey, if I sit calmly in front of mom or dad I get a nice rub.” So he sits in front of you hoping to get his rub, when it doesn’t come fast enough for him he begins to paw you. That’s when he’ll look at you and throw one of his paws up towards you landing it on your leg or hand or any other body part within reach in an effort to get your attention. If that doesn’t elicit the desired response he’ll do it again, and again, and again, delivering a succession of paw slaps. Paw, paw, paw, paw. Finally, you realize what he wants and give him his belly rub.
Bang! Big mistake. Cause that’s when you’re screwed.
One of the ways dogs learn is through association and it won’t take him long to connect the dots. Over time he’ll have learned the drill. Deliver a paw and I get a rub. Great deal!
Except that going forward he may no longer sit politely in front of you. Now he may follow you around pawing at your leg. He’s becoming more insistent and demanding.
Or he’ll position himself in front of you so that if you just bend over slightly he’ll slap you with the paw expecting his rub. He’s anticipating your moves and hoping it leads to something good for him.
During these times you may consider his actions to be adorable, and so the petting continues. Let’s remember that each time you pet him you’re rewarding and strengthening the behavior. Over time if your dog is smart enough and needy enough simple eye contact from you may be the only signal or opening he needs to deliver a paw slap. You think you’re giving a simple rub with no strings attached but he’s making you his sucker. He’s training you!
By this time you may be petting and rubbing him so frequently that you might not be giving it a second thought. You’re on automatic. He paws, you rub. Doggy heaven. And that’s it. That’s all it takes. Congratulations. You’ve trained your dog to expect a belly rub every time he throws a paw out in your direction.
Oh? What’s that you say? You don’t rub him each and every time? Doesn’t matter.
He’s a gambler. He knows that if he does it consistently enough at some point you’re bound to give in and deliver that rub. It’s why people gamble, why it’s so addictive, and why slot machines are so popular. It’s called random reinforcement. And it means you conditioned him to try and never give up because, like gamblers, he understands that on one of his attempts you’re going to breakdown and rub him. It’s like you have “sucker” written on your forehead.
But wait, there’s more!
Now it gets worse since he’ll soon go from requesting to demanding. He’ll be pawing you fast and often. And maybe now when you look at him he’ll gaze at you with a look on his face and an attitude that says, “Hey, this belly ain’t gonna rub itself you know.”
By the way, the paw slapping knows no limits. It’s anytime, anywhere. Oh, you’re sick? Rub me. Need to cook dinner? Rub me. Watching your favorite show? Rub me. Had a hard and trying day? I feel for you, but rub me now.
I’m an expert at training dogs to make me their bitch.
My boy Macho is a paw slapping, belly rubbed addict. Sometimes I’m scared to make eye contact because I know what he’s after. He’ll come up on the couch as I watch TV and I’ll feel his musky dog breath and unflinching beady eyes on me as he inches closer. Yeah, I’ll ignore him. And he’ll deliver a paw to my shoulder and leave it there until I acknowledge his presence and give into his demanding ways. Sounds vulgar? I usually feel violated after I give in and rub him because I know I shouldn’t have. I’m a trainer and should know better.
Here’s one example of how demanding he can be. I like to exercise by doing sit ups and push ups but it’s a bad idea when you have a paw slapper in the house. The moment I get down on the floor at eye level he’ll casually stroll over and deliver a paw to the head. He won’t even bother to sit, he’ll just paw slap me. I’ve received paw slaps to my back, neck, butt, legs, and face while doing sit ups. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tasted dog paw.
Macho figures since I’m so low to the ground and so close in proximity to his chest and belly that this would be a good time for a belly rub. And this is all because I inadvertently trained him to expect rubs whenever and wherever he asked for them.
This is about setting limits and establishing rules, something every dog parent should be doing (and I’ll get to it myself as soon as I’m done writing this).
Here are my friendly tips and advice to tame your paw slapping addict…
* If you’re going to give in and pet him anyway at least ask for something in return. Make your dog sit or lay down if you’re going to pet him or her.
* Teach your dog a cue such as “enough” or “no more” which will demonstrate to her that petting time is over. So pet, give cue, and end the petting by walking away. COMPLETELY IGNORE AFTERWARDS.
* If your dog is too insistent, walk away and ignore him and do not give in no matter how much he paws at you. While it can take some time and patience the behavior will eventually die down. Old habits are hard to die so this can take some time and there’s a possibility your dog will have some serious withdrawals before that happens.
* If you’re going to pet your dog don’t make it one great love fest by crashing on the couch and petting her for an entire episode of Breaking Bad. You’re just continuing to reinforce her and making it harder on yourself. A little bit goes a long way.