"He Knows Better"

I’ve gotten a lot of dental work done the last few weeks, and both my dentist and his hygienist are dog owners. Naturally we’ve talked about all the various things people talk about when we “talk dog”: the cute things our dogs do, the annoying things our dogs do, the ridiculous things our dogs do. The hygienist recently asked me how to deal with her adolescent Lab’s counter-surfing (for those who know the behavior but not the terminology, that’s scoping out the counter for food or anything else that it might be fun to chew on). 

The first thing I asked her was whether he’d ever successfully gotten anything off the counter. She assured me that he had, that he found treasure almost every time, in fact. My heart sank. I told her, “Of course he keeps doing it! He’s been consistently rewarded for it since he’s been tall enough to get his paws up there!” 

Her frustrated reply was: “But he doesn’t do it when I’m watching. He obviously knows better.”

Here’s the thing. Dogs don’t “know better.” They don’t know what we like, what we don’t like, what frustrates us, or what amuses us. They only know what works. If your dog jumps up to grab a toy or some food out of your hand, and you let go, your dog learned how to get access to something he wanted: jump up and grab it! That’s pretty straightforward, right? Sometimes, though, the definition of “works” is a little fuzzier. If a dog does something cute, and we laugh and say something sweet in response, that was probably rewarding to the dog. It worked! He got us to make that comforting sound, make eye contact, even just to tear our attention away from the computer screen for five seconds. 

For my hygienist, her dog has learned a pretty simple rule: When she’s watching him, counter-surfing doesn’t work. She stops him before he gets a prize. When she’s not watching, on the other hand, he has a very high success rate. This is some pretty advanced strategizing that he’s learned, but it’s not the same as him knowing that counter-surfing displeases her, and hiding the behavior accordingly. 

It’s also possible that my hygienist’s dog has learned that he gets scolded and dragged off the counter when his mom is watching, but doesn’t when she’s out of sight. That is the flip side of the lesson above: Bad things happen when Mom is around and I do this, but not when she’s elsewhere. That looks just like “He knows better,” I realize. But it’s not. It’s “Bad things happen in X scenario, but not in Y. I will do more Y and less X.” 

I try not to let my exasperation show when I’m talking through a behavior problem with anyone, even if it’s in the dentist’s chair, where my patience is already worn a bit thin. But it took just about everything in my power to stop myself from saying “He doesn’t know better. YOU know better!” when she said that she hadn’t yet gotten in the habit of keeping all the food off the counter when the dog was unsupervised, or doing a better job of supervising him. Her dog now has a six- to nine-month history of practicing an incredibly rewarding—and therefore obnoxiously hard-to-extinguish—problem behavior. I honestly didn’t have much advice for her. The path to fixing it will involve so much more effort than what she would have had to put in to prevent the behavior from building in the first place. And I try to avoid clichés (like the plague, of course), but in this case it’s true: An ounce of prevention would have been worth several pounds of pork roast, bread, cheese, and whatever else this resourceful dog has gotten his mouth on. 

I am loath to end this post on that much of a bummer note, so I’ll try some advice instead: If you find yourself thinking “But he knows better!” when your dog does something that frustrates you, take a moment to consider what your dog is getting out of that nuisance behavior. Food? Attention? Relief from stress, or from the need to eliminate? Remember, dogs do what works. Figure out what about the behavior is working for your dog, and then figure out how to meet that need another way.