Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Spoiling Your Dog

By:  Ilana Reisner, DVM

Don’t worry about spoiling your dog.

We’ve all encountered that person who insists that indulging our dogs (or children) is the devil’s work. But whether you're spoiling your dog or just treating him with kindness is really a subjective assessment. To spoil is “to impair, damage, or harm the character (of the dog, child etc.) by being too indulgent.” An additional connotation, though, is “to treat with great or excessive kindness, consideration or generosity.”

In an interesting study, “Is there a relationship between canine behavior problems and spoiling activities, anthropomorphism, and obedience training?” (Voith et al, Applied Animal Behaviour Science (1992) 34:263-272), the authors summarize, “The purpose of this (survey-based) study was to determine if dogs that were treated ‘like a person’ or that had not been obedience trained were more likely to exhibit owner-reported behavior problems than dogs not treated in those ways. Results…failed to reveal that problem behaviors were related to obedience training, ‘spoiling’, or anthropomorphic activities. Further, a discriminant analysis was unable to identify any variable (item)…that distinguished between dogs engaging and not engaging in problem behaviors. Eight variables were then factor analyzed, resulting in four factors which counted for 71.15% of the variance. The factors, which pertained to owners sharing food with their dog, taking the dog along on trips or errands, dog comfort or resting places, and anthropomorphic attitudes, were analyzed along with the obedience training and behavior problem variables in an ANOVA. The results showed that dogs whose owners interacted with them in an anthropomorphic manner, ‘spoiled’ them in certain ways, or did not provide obedience training were no more likely to engage in behaviors considered a problem by the owner than were dogs not viewed anthropomorphically, ‘spoiled’ by their owner, or given obedience training.”

Thank you, science! Yes, this is only one study, of a convenience sample of dog owners/guardians in the waiting room of a veterinary teaching hospital, but it is an impressive analysis of the owners’/guardians’ perception of their own dogs’ behavior. Again, this is subjective, but isn’t that all that matters?

The divide that separates “spoilers” from “nonspoilers” is similar to – in fact, it might be the same as –the difference between handlers who use force and intimidation for "obedience" vs. those who rely on humane, positive-reinforcement-based training. To critics, feeding dogs human food (even leftovers) and inviting them to share our beds is unconscionable and can lead only to impolite, aggressive and just plain rotten behavior. After all, these are just animals who will take every opportunity to "dominate" us (face palm). However, to those who view “indulgence” as simply assimilating the dog into the human family and treating him or her with warmth and kindness, that word never did make any sense -- and the purpose of training is much more interesting than simply creating an obedient pet. So don’t listen to the spoil-sayers – if you want to, go ahead and invite your dog on the sofa tonight and share a bowl of popcorn. Season 3 of Broadchurch is streaming.

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