Spoiler Alert! For those who baby their dogs.

You’ve seen them – whether it’s an adorable Papillon (the kind whose ears look like butterfly wings) or sturdy service dogs—they’re dressed up like ballerinas on their way to a rehearsal of Sleeping Beauty, carried in posh Louis Vuitton bags, or spoken to while they lie at the feet of Madame who’s feeding bits of her croissant while she sips her café au lait at a fancy pastry shop. They are, in one word – spoiled.

Treating a dog as if it were a human child has long been a source of argument, both from dog owners as well as animal behaviorists. The question is not whether the dog is spoiled but whether this kind of interaction promotes bad behavior.
Some say, “Yes!,” others, “No!”

A reader posed this question to Dr. B who researched it for us.  Here is her response:

We’ve all seen them: the dogs who are treated as if he or she is a prized member of the human family.  But many people wonder: Does this turn the dog into a nasty, badly behaved, temper-tantrum-type two-year-old who didn’t get the candy he demanded?

dog on bed on pillow

Dog on pillow in bed
Photo Credit: Gloria Yarina

Studies from the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Mercer University in Georgia set up experiments to determine the results of treating dogs as if they were children with fur.  Dog custodians were given a series of questions.  The first set of questions asked what types of “spoiling” the dogs were receiving.  The survey looked at a variety of actions, such as whether the dog was allowed to sleep on their guardian’s bed, get on the furniture, share human food, receive tidbits from the table, have his or her own birthday party or, in general, receive a variety of other indulgent treats and attention.

The answers were coded against the most commonly described behavior problems, such as aggression, elimination, barking, destruction, running away, not listening, etc.

Happily, for those of you (and me!) who conscientiously “spoil” our beloved pooches, the answer is in. Both studies concluded that spoiling your dog does not promote bad behavior.  In fact, the research points to exactly the opposite finding: Spoiled dogs behave better! To quote from one of the studies: “…dogs taken on trips or that received shared snacks or food from the table were significantly less likely to engage in behavior problems”

But . . . (there’s always a “but” isn’t there)?  This so-called spoiling does NOT mean there were no rules or limits on the dog’s behavior.  Nor does it mean that spoiling the dog causes fewer problem dogs.  As one study noted — and must be considered: “It is possible that people who spoil their pets . . . simply ignore behaviors that others would consider problems.”

mmd dog at bNb at table

Breakfast at the B&B
Photo credit: Gloria Yarina

Almost every dog trainer will caution that a dog without limits is an insecure dog.  Numerous studies conclude that insecure dogs never achieve normal behavior.  These, sadly, are the dogs who bite out of fear or defensive aggression, or become so attached to one family member, that he/she will growl at other family members (and guests as well as strangers) who they think are invading their territory – which includes the territory between the person to whom they’re most attached and everyone else.

But (and this is the good “but”) spoiling a dog by allowing it to do something others might not allow (for example, sit on the couch with the family while watching television) is actually okay. Why is this?  That’s because you, the dog’s leader, is consciously giving the dog permission to do this.  In other words, YOU are setting the limits – not the dog.  For a dog to feel secure in its environment, there must be rules, expectations the dog will follow those rules, consistent training and, where necessary, corrections for misbehavior.

So, what’s the answer?  Does “spoiling” your dog hurt?  Does it make him/her less obedient, or even less doggie? My feeling is that a properly trained dog will not suddenly become a rabid, demanding maniac if he or she is spoiled a bit.  A few pieces of table food, or dog hair in your mouth in the morning because your pooch sleeps with you on the bed, won’t hurt. The key is to make sure these extra treats are done on your terms, not the dog’s.

And on that note, you’ll have to excuse me.  My dog has just come into the room so obviously, I must stop immediately to play with him, give him some of his favorite human food from my stash of cheese-sticks, and tell him (again) what a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, sweet, adorable doggie-poo he is. Kiss, kiss, kiss.

P.S.  I just discovered that he chewed up our TV remote.  Poor darling. He probably didn’t like the program that was on and was only trying to change the channel.  I must remember to be more responsible, to be sure that the program I have on is something he would like. . .

P.P.S.  Just joking.  Dr. B has a service dog, trained by our consultant from All About Obedience, Pat Brown-John.  His manners are impeccable.  (He could teach me a thing or two!).

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11 Responses to Spoiler Alert! For those who baby their dogs.

  1. Jaana Hatton March 5, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    Great points! Having grown up with dogs in the family, I wholeheartedly agree that they can be spoiled – after they know the rules. Training a dog is vey much like raising a child. Love them, but set boundaries. Like you mentioned, Patricia, knowing the limits makes a dog feel secure. Humans, likewise. There really are no problematic dogs, but owners who create them.

  2. Fran Miller March 5, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    I spoil my dogs but not to the extremes of the article. They sleep in bed, get the best dog food and lots of love, with boundaries. I don’t understand women who take their dogs shopping in the baby carriages for doggies. My dogs are well-behaved and fit in to my family like a family member. If you spoil anything too much it will have negative results.

  3. Mary E. Trimble March 5, 2014 at 2:42 pm #

    But, but…he’s my baby! I think you’ve made some good points. It’s been my observation that people seem to spoil (that is, no manners) small dogs more readily than large ones. Yappy, climbing into stuff, biting heels. Because they’e small, those dogs get away with bad behavior. Although it took awhile for our chocolate lab to grow up, it’s a pleasure to have Toby a part of the family.

  4. Liz Tarbet March 5, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

    Being the eldest in a 4 generation family home with an adorably spoiled weekend visiting three year old princess, a manly man teen, several adult kids, grandkids and their friends, gives me the right to spoil our 2 dogs and 3 cats, who are the best behaved of the bunch! They never argue or complain, don’t tie up the phone or bathroom and are happy to see me all the time as they know I keep their treats in my room. My daughter spoils me, so what’s wrong with being spoiled? :o)

  5. Bill Thorn March 5, 2014 at 5:18 pm #

    Excellent advice Patricia. Having met your Morgan, you’re obviously practicing what you preach. He’s the best behaved dog I’ve ever met. I realize this is a dog blog, but how well do you think this philosophy works with cats, kids or spouses??

  6. Ann Barbas March 5, 2014 at 5:59 pm #

    I never spoiled our labs but of course Pete did. My rule was no dogs in the house (what a meany) however, one of our labs was allowed in occasionally and headed straight to his rug. The rug was in the living room and he knew that was his only domain in the house. Thank you Patricia for spoiling your beautiful Morgan.

  7. Hemlata Vasavada March 6, 2014 at 8:21 am #

    Great advice, Patricia. Just as they say, “Too much love never spoils a child,” they should say, “Too much love never spoils a dog.” The dogs need to know what is expected of them and that their human friends are there for them to guide them. You have given Morgan love while teaching him about the limits. He is an extremely well-behaved dog.

  8. Kathleen Kaska March 6, 2014 at 8:37 pm #

    Loving your dogs, spoiling them, and treating them as if you would a (human) child is fine with me ,as long as you keep your pup dog-healthy and teach them to behave, especially in public.

    • Patti Cole March 8, 2014 at 11:53 pm #

      Great information. No more guilt trips for me! Thanks Patricia!

  9. Liz Tarbet March 19, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

    Have never found a diamond but our lab has been known to gobble pennies. Do you suppose she needs more copper in her diet?

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