By Karla Gardner Hamlin, B.S. RVT. Published in Off Leash, March/April 2003
The literature is full of it. The breed books warn against it. Spoiling a dog is cautioned against as it is said to cause behavior problems in dogs. According to Miriam Webster’s online dictionary, the definition to spoil is:
(A): to impair the disposition or character of by overindulgence or excessive praise (B): to pamper excessively.
We regularly hear from dog lovers guilty confessions that they knowingly spoil their dogs, which is often followed by a smile of helplessness. What is so bad about spoiling a dog that you love?
Dogs are pack animals by nature. Some are driven by genetics or by their successful efforts to obtain access to food, comfort, attention, and other valued things to put forth a lot of effort to gain and maintain control of their world. Our pet dogs don’t have to work herding sheep, guarding flocks, or hunting to find food. However, their ancestors were selectively bred to do such a job all day long, over and over, without losing interest.
In a litter with littermates and mother, puppies learn to push and shove other puppies to get to the greatest quantity of milk, to climb to escape the nesting box, to growl and threaten to maintain control of a food dish. The more successful they are at controlling things, and the more willing they are to try to do so in other aspects of life. If they do not learn to defer or submit to protect themselves or to gain access to the pack, they may be unwilling to do so in later life.
Certain breeds of dogs are selected for traits that create this kind of bold and confident personality. This type of dog may be resistant to complying with the rules required for successful life in a house with people. Spoiling occurs when the demanding puppy makes known to a person/owner that he wants something and the person complies by giving the puppy what he wants.
Responding to a command like “sit” before receiving something desirable causes the puppy to defer or become compliant. A puppy who is raised in an environment where he must defer or comply to get the things he craves, learns to need and to listen to the owner/trainer. Upon compliance, the owner might feed the dog, let the dog outdoors, stoke the dog, throw the toy, etc. This is the time to show affection.
There are dogs who desperately want access to the pack. Some of these dogs grovel and defer by licking, crawling to people, and avoid directly looking at people. You might think that their tails will fall off from wagging so much. They smile and grin and seem to enjoy bodily contact. They can be like clinging vines. When this behavior brings the stroking and talking and attention that they crave, they do it more. These dogs can become very dependent and subsequently can become destructive when ignored or separated from the person of their affection.
There are other dogs who want to escape confinement. They may start by finding their way out of a box, then pushing at a door and making it open. They often learn to jump fences, climb over, dig under, operate gate latches, etc. and roaming their neighborhood communing with other dogs, being menaced by some, following trails, playing with children, eating garbage and generally scavenging.
Still other dogs are motivated by a desire to vigilantly gain and maintain control of all valuable resting places, food, and resources by menacing and threatening certain people who confront them or approach and appear to be encroaching on their possessions. These dogs often get very stimulated with play and sometimes go overboard, with excited play looking more like aggressive behavior with accompanying growling and biting. Some dogs really enjoy confrontations and fighting.
When we spoil or indulge such dogs by stroking and coddling the “clinger”, or letting the “escape artist” loose, or leaving the “tyrant” alone when he menaces or threatens to control some resources, we can fuel the growing fire. Such dogs grow increasingly more strong-willed and neurotic. From spoiling we can give rise to separation anxiety in the “clinger”. From spoiling we encourage aggressive behavior as the dog learns to defend himself and maintain possession of things with biting, growling, and menacing. From spoiling we teach a dog that he does not need us for anything as he can get what he wants for himself and so he roams the neighborhood and becomes less and less a companion to the family who claims him as theirs.
“But I got a dog so I could spoil it!” the indulgent owner wails. “I love him and he bites me!”, “I love him and he runs away”, ” I love him and he destroys my home!” Or how about “…but he doesn’t like a collar… or he does not like to be indoors… or he does not like to be confined to our property…” People actually surrender their beloved companions to dog pounds because they could not bear to confine their dog in order to solve their problems.
There is a wonderful secret for those who seek the answer to this problem. Don’t just train your dog in an obedience class to sit, down, come, stay, and heel. Teach your dog that he will sometimes be ignored and that accepting that is his only choice. Securely confine him to prevent escape. Help him learn that the attention which he seeks will be given for his good behavior, for his responding to those commands he learned from you in training. If you dog is reluctant to be handled, teach him that his clam acceptance of your handling will earn him release from restraint, rewards, and reassurance from you and that struggling and fighting will not gain him anything. Let him see that calmly chewing on his favorite bone or a Kong filled with delicious treats when you are separate yourself from him will result in your calm and reliable return.
Dogs who make demands and have them satisfied by their human family due to spoiling are rewarded for all of the things that make them less a companion and more of a dictator. When your dog learns to live with you by your rules, he also learns how to please you and earn the things he likes with good behavior.
Good management, supervision, and security confinement of your dog creates a companion who is bonded to you for the right reasons. Dogs who earn good things in life look forward to being with their human and to being asked to do something for which they can be rewarded, which is the most healthy way to love your dog!