Doggy desires, training, and vulnerability​

Have you ever wished that you didn’t want something?

chocolate cakeFor me, it is chocolate cake. Not fudgy chocolate tortes, but Devil’s Food Cake. I can’t imagine saying ‘no’ to an offer of chocolate cake. I wish I didn’t want chocolate cake, but I do.

Philosophers call these two kinds of wanting first and second order desires. I have a first order desire for chocolate cake, and I have a second order desire that I not want chocolate cake. First order desires are what a person wants. Second order desires are what a person wants to want.

Here are some things Milo the AwesomeDog frequently wants to do:

  • Play
  • Chase things
  • Eat
  • Chew bones
  • Snuggle
  • Sniff things
  • Please me

These are some of his first order desires.



Milo’s a pretty intense chaser of things.

But what about second order desires? Can Milo want to want something?

He has conflicting desires. For example his desire to chase things and please me almost always conflict. You can see this in his behavior. When I ask him to sit in the absence of anything ‘chaseable,’ he plops his bum down and looks up at me with soft eyes. He is alert and relaxed.

When I ask him to sit while a skateboard whizzes by, he sits but hums with tension. His whole body focuses on the potential chasee. Hips tense like a runner in the starting blocks. One paw lifted anticipating his first bound. If I released him, he’d be off like a rocket. But, he restrains himself, because I ask him to.

He and I do all sorts of exercises to help him learn self-control, and you can frequently see him wanting to do something, and not doing it.

But, wanting two conflicting things, or wanting something and not acting on that desire, can be different from having a second order desire. I doubt Milo is thinking anything like, “Boy, I sure wish I didn’t want to chase that dude on the skateboard.”

However, if I consider Milo and me as a unit, I am the part of that unit with the second order desires. In other words, I think that MY desires can play the role of second order desires for Milo and here is where his vulnerability and my responsibility come into the picture.

Humans foster first order desires in dogs in lots of different ways:

  1. Herding and hunting dogs are bred to be biddable. A biddable dog wants to please its handler. A dog bred to work with a person to herd livestock needs to figure out what its person wants it to do and do it. Milo is biddable—he wants to please me—in large part because he’s a German Shepherd Dog, and through careful breeding, humans made German Shepherd Dogs biddable.
  2. Milo and I have a healthy relationship. I took a workshop from a hardcore Schutzhund trainer, and she commented, “He really loves you.” What a great compliment! I work hard on Milo and my relationship, which isn’t difficult because he’s an angel. We love and respect each other. This relationship contributes not to his general biddability, but to his biddability to ME. I nurtured his first order desire to please ME.
  3. Training a dog involves manipulating its desires. In all strictness, I don’t train Milo to sit. I train him to want to sit when I tell him to. I pay close attention to what he values, and by controlling his access to those things, I can make him value other things.

Here’s how all this plays out. Milo has first order desires to please me and to chase skateboards. I have first order desires for chocolate cake and for Milo NOT to chase skateboards. So, if we think of the two of us as a unit, he and I both individually have first order desires. Additionally, I have second order desires for both of us, and I can manipulate Milo’s first order desires. I am the one who wants him to want things. I can make him want to sit more than he wants to chase.

Vulnerability and responsibility.

Sometimes we humans manipulate dogs’ desires to make them perform dangerous work. Police dogs, military dogs, and even search and rescue dogs put their lives on the line for us.

I don’t put Milo in danger, in fact, most of his training is to keep him safe, but I do manipulate his desires. I don’t just have the power to confine him physically. I have the power to confine him psychologically and emotionally, not with harsh punishments, but by controlling what he values, and what he desires.

I have to admit that he trains me as well: how can I not desire to scratch his head when he lays it on my lap and looks up at me with his big brown eyes? But when I train him I have science, coaches, and 150 years of selective breeding on my side.

This makes him vulnerable to me, which is a responsibility that I take seriously.