Arguably, the most fascinating interaction we have as humans is with our dogs - two species that are so different and yet found such a beautiful common ground! Likely the biggest factor in this symbiotic relationship is a dog’s propensity for compliance; they listen to us completely and respect our commands. But where does this come from? What’s the psychology behind obedience?
Wolves mingling with humans resulted in the domestication gene, making the dog compliant and obedient. Dogs are people pleasers, because we’ve bred dependence into them, which leads dogs to bond tightly with us. This leads to trust, which leads to compliance. Training and socialization should start as young as positive. Positive reinforcement is one of the best ways to shape behavior.
In this article, I am tackling a complex and fascinating topic revolving around how we got here! Why dogs are so compliant, how their evolution played a role in this, and how early training can make a big impact.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
To talk about the evolution of the dog and human relationship, I have to explain the beginning to you.
Although the exact details of how the domestication of dogs occurred is rather contentious and fuzzy, we do have a general idea of how this happened: Dogs originated from their wild counterparts, the wolf. Wolves are naturally pack animals, living in families and enjoying a community lifestyle. This is (as you can imagine) very similar to us who also live in families and enjoy community!
But, the idea of humans stealing wolf pups and raising them in a human setting has been proven false. On the contrary, modern biology and anthropological studies have shown that the domestication process was slower and matched the pace of human evolution. Long story short, both species evolved together! Wolves began scavenging human kills and humans became more lenient in allowing wolves to come close. Eventually, the two found a method of hunting and sharing food together, alerting one another to danger, and with humans not threatening the lives of the wolves (and vice versa).
Wolves eventually began to live with humans, and humans began breeding them selectively. This process of domestication began to shape the behavior and inclinations of our four legged best friends, primarily because only certain wolves would stay with humans while otherwise would continue avoiding humans at all cost (subsequently separating the animals and somewhat selectively breeding without intervention).
Once dogs began being selectively bred by humans, desired traits were bred to other desired traits, canceling out less-than-desired traits. One of the primary favored characteristics was dependence, which was heavily bred into dogs. Dependence manifests in obedience and forming very close bonds with us humans, leading to the relationship we have now.
How the dependence came about is actually a rather interesting thing; in order to keep dogs more apt to be our best friends, we actually left their brains in “puppy mode” so to speak. This has to do with the domestication gene (or a series of genes), an actual traceable gene that went as far as to alter the appearance of the wolf to look cuter, less threatening, and puppy-like. This also altered the brain function, pumping the mind more with serotonin to keep the primitive wolf more docile and friendly than normal.
The domestication gene kept the dog’s mental state closer to that of a puppy throughout its lifespan rather than ever maturing into the wild brain. Puppy brains keep dogs dependent on us, looking to us as parent or authoritarian figures, and very inclined to listen as a result. The puppy brain is also where the desire to please comes into play as well, which I’ll get into in the next section.
Ask anyone who shares their life with a dog, and they’ll tell you that pups are people-pleasers! Believe it or not, this drive is actually a psychological need that domestic dogs have.
With us breeding such a heavy dependence on our furry friends, paired with the dog’s natural instincts for community and companionship, we’ve created the perfect recipe. Not only in dogs being people pleasers but in dogs also being perfect complements to our lives. Our dogs often sleep in the bed with us, go on all the adventures, and provide such incredible love and comfort.
All of this would not be possible without the deep emotional connection that develops between a dog and their human. When we spend time with our dogs, train our dogs, and raise our dogs, the bond they begin to share with us is pretty unbreakable. The bonds also result in great trust; our dogs trust us and the decisions that we make. It’s why they respond obediently without thinking twice.
But with that bond also comes great responsibility on our end, primarily in keeping our dogs mentally sound. This is where our various training methods come into play.
Positive reinforcement is one of the more productive training options available, which plays on the natural bond dogs have with humans. By reinforcing good behavior with praise, treats, and affection, we humans effectively shape how we want our dogs to behave. This is why dogs are considered so moldable to our lifestyles; no matter what life you lead, your dog will adapt and fit in pretty well!
You are delighted when your dog obeys your directions and receives a reward, and they are delighted that you are delighted. So long as you don’t overdo the treats, this is a really healthy and enjoyable technique to train your dog. It creates a positive circle of enjoyment that you can have with your pet.
Now, just because dogs have instincts and biological predispositions don’t mean that these will come out without our intervention. The goal is to set each dog up for success in their life, which means starting the socialization and training journey early. This encourages dogs to push further into their desires to please, their mental soundness, and enjoyment of training and learning.
This journey starts as early as birth - responsible dog breeders should be caring for their litters using various scientific rearing methods such as Puppy Culture. Puppy Culture is one of the more popular ones, although it is certainly not the only one! Puppy Culture is a how-to lesson plan for exposing puppies to various sights, sounds, and sensations to develop a tolerance and awareness of them. The plan also includes various types of socialization to keep puppies confident and comfortable in new environments.
If done correctly, puppies will be adaptable to the world around them by the time they go to their new homes at 8 to 10 weeks of age. This is because exposure to different environments, people, and other animals in a safe capacity build confidence, a very important word for a dog. Confidence is what keeps dogs mentally sound and able to mold into any environment they are presented with.
Once the puppy comes home, continuing the socialization and training with positive reinforcement training is the way to go, building a strong obedience foundation that will aid your dog throughout their entire life.
Dogs respond better to positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement because in positive training, you’re adding something to your dog’s life rather than taking something away in negative reinforcement. When you reward your dog when they sit, they will do it more frequently in the future because you’ve reinforced the behavior.
The big reason that positive reinforcement is more reliable and dependent is because of the dog’s association between the training and the result. With positive reinforcement training, the dog associates rewarded behavior with, well, rewards. The rewards range from praise to affection to treats. Think about our own selves; we will be more inclined to cooperate if we get something good out of it than not!
With negative reinforcement, which is another training method, the dog will begin to associate training (or the trainer) with something negative. Although this training method does lead to the same result, it is much less reliable than positive reinforcement. Dogs trained with negative reinforcement tend to lack enthusiasm for learning, a reluctance to attempt new experiences, and a weakening relationship with their person.