Identifying patterns and predicting what will happen next can help our dogs feel good and more comfortable. As Steven Kotler writes in his book,The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, “So important is prediction to survival, that when the brain guesses correctly-i.e., when the brain’s pattern-recognition system identifies a correct pattern-we get a reward, a tiny squirter of the feel-good neuro chemical dopamine.” Unfortunately, sometimes we find our dogs’ predictions of our behavior annoying and inconvenient.
At my house, Gambit will go to the back door and look at me eagerly in the morning. He’ll wait for me to go play soccer with him, or if the weather isn’t nice we train inside. But once we are done with soccer and our walk, that’s it. There’s no whining and obsessing over the back door. Inside my house Gambit amuses himself with chewing on one of his many bones or playing with my Golden Retriever, Clover.
But when we visit at my friend’s house, Gambit whines incessantly at her back door until I go outside and play with him. His whining is very annoying.
Why does Gambit whine to play ball at my friend’s house but never at home?
Similarly, my German Shepherd, Kira continually paces and pokes at my husband when he tries to work on his computer at night. She makes it very difficult for him to get his work done. When I came home from teaching the Mica Dog Sports Club Class the other night, my husband asked if I had exercised the dogs as much as usual. I’d given the shepherds their usual walk in the morning and trained them and played soccer with them in the afternoon. When I’d been home with them earlier, before leaving to teach class, they’d been relaxed and laying around. Yet, they’d been pacing and poking him.
So, what is the difference? Why does Kira harass my husband endlessly but fall asleep when I sit down to read a book?
The answer lies in our patterns of behavior and our dogs’ predictions. Kira and Gambit are predicting what will happen next and the majority of time they are correct. We have built expectations with our patterns and created whining and harassment.
Gambit knows that I sometimes play a second or third round of ball with him at my friend’s house. If he waits long enough at her back door I will go back outside. At my house, after we exercise in the morning we are done until the afternoon. There is no reason to whine because Gambit has no expectation of playing ball again.
Kira’s pattern is to continually convince my husband to get up to get her things. And it is hard not to give Kira whatever she wants. We have almost lost her several times to serious illnesses and she is 12.5 years old. My husband enjoys giving her ice cubes, cucumbers and other treats. Kira has learned that if she pokes him enough his pattern of behavior is that he will get up to give her something and that he will usually get up more than once.
If your dog is persistent and continually harassing you to play ball, feed them, etc., try taking a look at your patterns of behavior. How does your dog predict when food or play is coming?
My husband acknowledges his pattern of behavior but he is unlikely to change. He likes seeing Kira happy so he will have to put up with her pacing and poking at him as he works. If Gambit’s whining at my friend’s house truly annoys me then I will have to be clearer about when we are and are not playing ball. We will both need to change our patterns of behavior to subsequently alter our dogs’ predictions. Our behavior patterns are the key to quiet visits and sleeping dogs.