Affection and dogs

A week rarely goes by without someone telling me, shamefaced, that they let their dog sleep on the bed or a couch, or give their dog love just for the sake of giving them love. I know that this stems from a training theory I’ve heard from others: that giving dogs too much affection can cause problems. Some theories say that it makes the dog believe you’re not the alpha dog. Some theories simply say that it creates spoiled behavior. Other theories say that if we are to use affection as a reward, it must then be limited to your dog doing something. I say, phooey.

First of all, if we stop and analyze these theories there’s not much evidence for them.

“It makes the dog believe you’re not the alpha dog.” Aside from the fact that the status of “alpha dog” is highly debated among trainers and those who study dogs alike, this is simply untrue. In groups of dogs it was found that any dog higher in the pack hierarchy was perfectly willing to console another dog. (Often after a scuffle, the winner would go console the loser.) Of my two dogs, Lily is definitely higher than Cash, yet she consoles him when he’s upset, gives him attention even when he’s not, and generally rains affection on him. Clearly, it’s not affecting whether or not he thinks she’s top dog; he still treats her with deference, and I don’t enforce that. This pattern is repeated over and over, with clients who tell me, “Fido beats up on Fifi all the time, but then turns around and is so sweet. It makes no sense!” Alpha or not, dogs give affection to each other.

“It creates spoiled behavior.” I snuggle with Lily when I’m sick or when her special red blanket is on the couch. Lily has four different sweaters, one of them hand-tailored for her. She puts her head on my knee and demands attention when I’m writing, and I usually give it to her. Cash likes to put all 110-pounds of himself in my lap. He breathes in my face when I’m writing, hoping I’ll give him attention (and oftentimes I do). They both get pets and love just for looking at me in the middle of the night when I’m having insomnia. They both also get treats for doing tricks, but sometimes they just get treats because I feel like it.

Are they spoiled? Absolutely! But they’re not spoiled rotten. If Cash is breathing in my face and I tell him, “Not now, go lay down,” he does (or at least wanders off to find a toy!). If Lily is cuddling with me and I need her to move, she does. If I tell Cash to get off my lap — yeah, you’re getting it. So, has this become a problem? No. If I don’t mind, then it doesn’t really matter. You can’t call a dog spoiled when the owner is enjoying the behavior.

Finally, “[I]f we are to use affection as a reward, it must then be limited to your dog doing something.” This might be true. Maybe affection is more powerful if you limit it. But here’s the thing: have you ever had a friend, a boss, a coworker, or a family member who didn’t offer praise and affection? Have you had one that did? Quin, my beau, is one of the most loving and affectionate people I’ve ever met. I’m the lucky beneficiary of this affection most of the time. I could get affection from her* for doing nothing, but I find that the affection makes me more likely to do things that will make her happy. I’ve also worked and been friends with people who weren’t affectionate. When they did give me affection or praise for a job well done, it was far less motivating than it was with friends or bosses who were more praise-giving. I didn’t know when it was going to come again, and in general I just wasn’t as interested in pleasing them (because they were difficult to wring praise from), so I didn’t bother.

I’m anthropomorphising, here, but maybe dogs are the same way. I’ve never had a well-loved dog turn down yet MORE love for performing something. I’ve seen plenty of non-adored dogs refuse to try, or refuse to keep trying even after praise was given.

Now, a caveat to all this: if you give a dog affection when they’re being rude, demanding, or needy, it will make them more rude, demanding, or needy. But if your dog was being a sweetheart, hanging out, doing not much at all, and you want to love on him? Love on him! You don’t have to make him work for that. Love is unconditional, and the more you love, the more your dogs will work for you.

As for being on the furniture… sure, why not? Packs of dogs all sleep together. There’s no alpha-rule about that, even among studies that do find alpha behaviors. If you enjoy it, do it. And while you’re at it, give your dog a nice belly-rub. It’s good for both of you.


*Quin is in the midst of transitioning, so you may start hearing me refer to him instead of her. Don’t worry! We didn’t break up, we’re still getting married. It’s just a pronoun, and I couldn’t be prouder of her/him for being true to her/himself!


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