Regardless of whether you call yourself an “owner,” a “guardian,” or simply a “friend,” in your quest to be the best human possible to your cohabitating canine companion, one of the most challenging obstacles you will confront will also be one of the most adorable:
Your dog’s longing, sorrowful, expectant gaze.
Those big, round, sad eyes. The creased brow. Maybe a slightly cocked head. Some soft whimpering. When they come together they pack a powerful emotional punch (if I did a respectable job describing the phenomenon, you’re probably feeling it right now as you imagine this pitiful look).
When your dog wants something from you, she seems to know that a woeful look is one of the most persuasive ways to ask for it.
And she probably does, in a way.
She has evolved to naturally display certain behaviors – including focusing a sorrowful gaze upon you – in order to serve certain desires. Over time, we reinforce those behaviors by capitulating to her desires, thus turning the behavior into a habit.
And that’s the problem. Because the longing, expectant gaze makes you forget all about how to help your dog be as healthy and happy as possible over the long-run. You dissolve into the emotions generated within you by her adorable expression and forget that many of the things she’s “asking” for aren’t good for her because they aren’t going to make her both as happy and healthy as possible in the long-run.
A prime example of this arises when your dog begs for treats and snack foods in between daily meals. These treats are spiked with sugar, fat, and salt, a trio of ingredients that are highly-addictive, lead to increased overall desire for food, have little nutritional value, and will eventually lead to the development of horrific conditions such as obesity and diabetes. Don’t believe me? Read this.
You know all this (even if you didn’t when you started reading today’s post, you do now) but your dog doesn’t. She may have many great personality attributes but I am confident that logical reasoning and scientific fact-finding aren’t among them.
For her, treats are little bursts of pure satisfaction. They quell her general desire for food and, more importantly, satisfy her addiction (sorry, there’s no other way to describe it) to fatty and sugary foods. When she eats a treat, it feels great to her in that moment—and that’s all she’s really capable of considering.
But you know better. You know that unhealthy treats are equivalent to narcotic drugs—providing brief, immediate satisfaction only at the expense of much future suffering. Fueling her addiction will strengthen her psychological attachment to unhealthy but great-tasting foods, causing them to occupy a larger and larger role in her life even as she grows larger and larger herself!
This awareness is one of the reasons why humans and dogs make such a good pair. In exchange for all the companionship and love they provide to us, we use our big, logical brains to help them regulate their behavior in ways that serve their true self-interest.
But sometimes—such as when your adorable pup flashes her big, glassy eyes and whispers a quivering little whimper—our logical brains find it really difficult to do their jobs. They get short-circuited and we lose the nerve to do what we know is in our friend’s best interest.
So what can you do about it? Here are some strategies that I have found useful:
Prevent, Don’t Repair – This is by far the most effective strategy, although it won’t be available in many cases. If you can prevent bad habits from forming in the first place, you will ensure that your dog doesn’t act-out in furtherance of those habits down the road. So don’t feed treats in the first place, don’t indulge unwanted attention-seeking behavior with affection, etc. Like many of our problems in life, avoid it on the front end and you won’t have anything to worry about down the road.
Avoid the Problem – Many unwanted behaviors can be prevented by shaping conditions to prevent the behaviors from arising in the first place. Resist the urge to buy treats when you are shopping in the pet store – you’ll find it easier than resisting your dog’s woeful expressions later on.
Write it Down – Goals take on a new vibrancy and immediacy when we write them down. Try making some notes and posting them around your house in order to remind yourself what is best for your dog. When you feel your discipline and resolve weakening you’ll be able to use those notes as crutches to prop you up.
Remove and Reappraise – The key to overcoming unwanted emotional states is to get your conscious mind focused on something other than the emotional trigger. You can do this either by focusing your attention on some entirely different phenomenon or by considering the triggering phenomenon in a new light that doesn’t cause the same emotional responses. So, when your dog’s woeful gaze is melting your resolve, try spending 1-2 minutes consciously trying to focus on something else that’s enjoyable or engaging for you. Or try reminding yourself of all the points I’ve explained above in an effort to recast your dog’s desires as not truly being reflective of her best interests. Remind yourself that you’re the one with the big brain who knows best how to make her happy and healthy in the long run.
I hope that you find some of these strategies effective for you. What other methods have you found to be effective in overcoming the destructive power of your dog’s adorably sorrowful gaze?