It is a strange question, but I have been wondering whether one can do too much for one’s dog. It came to mind as I was reading a series of studies done with a multitude of species showing that many animals actually prefer , or choose, to work for for food rather than just receive it as a handout.
This phenomenon is called contrafreeloading. In a nutshell, studies have shown that animals,including Siamese fighting fish, rats, parrots, and humans, will choose hard work over freeloading when it comes to dinner. There are many hypothesis as to why this is so. But it boils down to this: animals prefer acting on their environment. They prefer and seek to affect their surroundings. And this is precisely what operant conditioning is, and is the basis of clicker training. The term “operant conditioning” refers to an animal “operating” an influence on its environment. With my dogs for example, they may chose to lay at my feet quietly thereby affecting their environment in that this behavior sometimes gets a click and a treat and if done for a long period of time might result in a game of tug- of – war.
I think there is some sort of emotional gain for our dogs when we train this way. An experiment was done with three month old human infants in their cribs. The cribs were set up in one of two ways. With one group of infants, a mobile hanging above the crib was activated every time the baby turned its head. In the other group the mobiles moved as much as the baby – activated mobiles did, but they had no control over its movement. It isn’t surprising that the movements of the head in the first group increased and in the second group they did not.
What the scientists found however, was that the happy cooing and smiling of the babies in response to the movement of the mobile stopped in the group that did not control the movement of the mobile. Those babies who had some control of their environment continued to gain pleasure from the moving mobile.
This idea fascinates me. It is a good argument for training your dog throughout its life. There is a training approach that is known as NILIF, meaning “nothing in life is free.” I am not sure who to attribute this approach to. It is often used for dogs with various behavioral issues. But I am now beginning to rethink this. Maybe that approach should be used more generally and liberally. I think I would amend that to be ANILIF (Almost Nothing In Life Is Free.) Moderation in all things.
We know that dogs thrive on mental stimulation, so perhaps we can help our dog’s emotional well-being by making them work for more things. I would include those interactive toys that dispense food, like the Wobbler, Weasel Balls, or the Buster Cube.