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?
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.”
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!).