This article was written by globally recognised Animal Behaviourist, Zoologist and Trainer Mark Vette. Mark brings together a unique combination of academic studies with 40 years of applied clinical animal behaviour consulting and treatment through his behaviour clinic (primarily working with dogs). He's well known as New Zealand's go to media commentator on all things animal, and his popular TV series Purina Pound Pups to Dog Stars.
There’s a reason “how to stop my dog begging at the table” yields 12.3 million search results on Google! Our dogs are highly skilled at using their good looks and charm to get what they want from us…and much of the time, that’s food!
What are the “puppy dog eyes”?
Every dog owner knows that yearning look, and there are strong drivers behind the scenes that make it nearly impossible to resist!
Dogs have co-evolved with humans for over 30,000 years. As a species, they’ve adapted perfectly to getting what they want from their loving benefactors (that’s us). In this article, we take a look at how they developed the uncanny ability to get whatever they want from us!
Who’s training who?
Early canine cognition tests initially indicated that dogs were less intelligent than wolves. However it turned out many of the tests were misled by the fact that dogs, unlike wolves, were looking to the human researchers for direction. They were factoring us in as intelligent tools to help them solve problems, they knew that watching us was the best short-cut to working out how to do something. You can’t say that isn’t smart!!
This intelligence came about from being an animal that has lived with and depended on humans for so long. From ancient times, we have been the provider of so many resources and so their focus has shifted to us. Dogs learned long ago that the real gold wasn’t just scavenging resources from our dumps, but actually us and what we could do for them - something the likes of seagulls and rats haven’t figured out, evident by them still being in dumps and not our homes.
Dogs can read us, learn from us and ask us for things - powerfully intelligent strategies. The centre of their intelligence is their sociability and ability to connect with us.
This is why they work so harmoniously in our lives and are so trainable, they are programmed to seek our direction and follow our guidance.
So they know they want our help…how were they able to get it?
The puppy-isation of wolves
Dogs self-domesticated across a period of 30-40,000 years, and the main attribute that drove their domestication was friendliness and cooperation with us. Survival of the friendliest.
The attributes humans respond to best are puppy-like behaviours, as we find them more attractive and cute as well as safe and easy to live with. Dogs are effectively puppy-ised wolves (called neoteny) - must be why we call them “puppy” dog eyes!
Soliciting is a key puppy attribute, as pups needed to solicit food from the pack elders when they came back from the hunt. Pups would stimulate the elders to regurgitate their food by licking their jowls, pawing and giving lots of subtle “asking” behaviours.
Soliciting like this is the only way to get food as a pup, it is their primary way of surviving, and they need to be good at it! Given their juvenile qualities, dogs are very good at soliciting what they need from their modern human pack elders. They also do this primarily through eye contact, pawing, head tilting, licking and solicitous barking.
Wolves find it hard to hold eye contact as they see it as threatening, but the dog’s evolution to be friendly to humans and to solicit what they need from us means they are much more comfortable holding eye contact with those people they love and trust.
Why are they so irresistible?
When we gaze into our dog’s eyes, oxytocin is released in BOTH ours and our dog’s brains at high levels. This hormone of love and bonding gives you that warm fuzzy feeling of connection. Research shows that even just looking at a picture of a puppy elicits this response, in similar levels to what mothers experience when they look at their own children.
So when they “ask” for something by staring deep into our eyes, those warm feelings make it hard for us to resist! They might be wanting cuddles or play, but more often than not it’s FOOD (the most powerful natural driver).
All sounds good…right?
Gentle eye contact between a human and a dog is very special and important. It enhances your dog’s trusting bond with you, which in turn leads to much better behaviour (as they look to you for direction).
However! The danger can come when you find it hard to resist your dog’s beautiful puppy dog eyes, particularly when it comes to food. A significant number of foods that are safe for humans, pose a risk for dogs, so it’s incredibly important to understand which foods are safe to share and which aren’t as we can easily be sucked into feeding them whatever we are eating!
When you need to resist
A survey by Southern Cross Pet Insurance found that one in three pets are at risk of getting sick or worse because their owners accidentally share human foods and drinks that are toxic to dogs and cats. Nearly 40% of New Zealanders don’t know that raisins are unsafe for pets, over 50% don’t know avocado is unsafe and around 35% didn't realise you shouldn’t feed your pet garlic and onions either!
Plus, over 60% of respondents said they feed their pet leftovers, so many people will be accidentally feeding their pets harmful foods!
It’s essential to learn which foods you can’t give to your pet, and to resist those irresistible eyes when things aren’t safe.
Helping educate pet parents is why I’m proud to support Southern Cross Pet Insurance’s new initiative Paws Off! - a warning symbol to let us know when foods aren’t safe to share.
If you see this cute wee symbol, keep your treats to yourself and be vigilant about where you store those foods to make sure your dog can’t access them.
Even better still, if you’re involved in food production, get on board and display the Paws Off! warning symbol when your products aren’t safe for pets! You’ll be helping keep our furry family members safe from serious harm. It is free for anybody to use, anywhere around the world! Go to pawsoff.co.nz to download it for packaging, signs and menus.
Teaching your dog to “ask” for something politely
If your dog is more in the pawing, jumping or barking camp when they want something from you, here’s how you can train them to sit and gaze up at you adoringly instead.
I call this ‘Zen Sit’ and it can be taught to any age pup or dog. If you practise often enough, it will become your dog’s automatic way to “ask” you for something (instead of jumping up, barking or pawing). If you don't have a clicker, use a ‘yes’ command in a positive tone of voice in place of the click.
- With your dog in a Sit position, hold a treat in your hand up near your eyes to direct your dog’s eye line toward yours – click and reward gentle eye contact
- If they’re not looking into your eyes, wiggle a finger on your lure hand so the movement draws their attention and/or give a slight whistle or call their name
- CLICK the second you get their eye contact, then follow up with a treat
- Don’t put your hand in your pouch to get the treat during this process as they’ll follow that hand with their eyes
- Keep your eyes soft, not staring. You’re rewarding your pup’s soft eyes too, not hard staring which is a sign of fear and/or aggression.
- Once you’ve got it going well, you can introduce a Watch command. Then you can stop using a treat to get their eyes up to yours and instead just hold your hand up at your eye line and say Watch! and wiggle a finger if necessary. Soon you won’t need to use the hand at all, and will likely find your dog looks up to you for direction automatically without any command needed!
You will love the effects of this training and how quickly it develops the bond in both of you.
Foods that are unsafe for dogs
- Chocolate (oh what a shame, we’ll have to eat it all ourselves…)
- Fruit pips & stones (choking hazard)
- Xylitol (artificial sweetener, sometimes found in peanut butter)
- Cooked bones (can splinter)
- Corn on the cob (can cause a blockage or perforation)
- Raw meat and fish
- Fatty foods and meat trimmings
Foods you can share
- Apple (no pips)
- Cooked egg
- Plain popcorn
- Peanut butter (unsweetened, unsalted)
- Cooked rice
- Meat (cooked, no bones)
- Green beans
- Chicken & fish (cooked, no bones)