My Dog is a Self-Serving Bitch–And I’m Ok With That

Golden Retriever sleeping on the porch

Of course I love you. You're not going to make me get up, though, are you?

You hear it all the time. Dogs give unconditional love. No matter how badly someone mistreats them, they can’t help but return love.


I don’t think dogs are better than people (although they do have their moments). If a dog appeases someone who kicks him, he does it because it will help him survive. Not because he continues to “love” someone who harms him.

I think the reason dogs and humans are so close is because they are exactly as manipulative and self-serving as we are. And as species, we evolved together over a very long time to be that way.

The Experiment – Do Dogs Prefer a Generous Person?

I started thinking about this when I saw a video Mel of No Dog About It Blog posted under the title, “Is Your Dog Watching You?”. I had read about this study conducted in Milan where the scientists tested to see if a dog would prefer someone she saw behaving generously over someone behaving selfishly.

You can check out the video for yourself.

To me, it seemed obvious that the dog observed one person sharing. And the dog said to herself, “If that person shared with another person, maybe she’ll share with me.” And that’s very smart reasoning.

One of the commenters at Mel’s blogs wrote that she assumed dogs would want to be around the happier, more cheerful person. She noted that the person who didn’t share also used a harsh voice.

Which got me thinking…

The Experiment Tried a New Way

If you conducted an experiment where you had a bouncy, happy person speaking in high tones who never shared treats sitting near someone who spoke harshly, stomped around like an ogre, but had liver falling out of his pockets every few seconds, who would the dog prefer?

I expect the dog would say, “Show me the liver.”

Here’s our terribly unscientific test:

My husband Mike and I went out onto the front porch leaving Honey in the house to watch through the glass, storm door. We each had a bowl of cooked chicken and sat equal distances from Honey.

Mike spoke harshly and ranted while slowly eating bits of chicken. I spoke in high pitched, happy tones. After Honey had watched this for a few moments, I let her out where we continued our behaviors.

However, Mike started tossing chicken on the ground while he was ranting and raving while I did not toss chicken but continued to talk in a happy voice.

Honey came up to me immediately and sat down in front of me. When she realized Mike was dropping chicken, she went over to eat it but quickly returned to wait in front of me for a treat. When Mike increased the speed with which he dropped the chicken, she stayed close to his side but kept looking back at me.

Eventually she realized I was not going to share and she remained at Mike’s side while he continued to rant and drop chicken.

What We Learned From the New Experiment

  • First, we learned that we need more friends willing to get up at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning to help us with our crazy dog experiments. This would have gone much easier with two more people.
  • Honey has very strong associations of receiving treats from me so that even if I’m not offering treats, she assumes (for quite a long time) that I will give her something eventually. It made her unwilling to turn her back to me to get the treats Mike was tossing.
  • Honey may also have been responding to the “cutesy” tone of voice I was using but we’ll never know for sure. I don’t often talk like that with her so I think she was just expecting treats based on my past history with her.
  • Finally, we learned it’s a good thing both of us have found work outside the scientific professions because based on our half-*ssed experiment, we would not have jobs for long.

Softening the Swagger

Golden Retriever on bed

I prefer any person generous to share his bed and let me use his butt as my pillow.

Listen, I know it sounds harsh to call a dog (and even a human) self-serving. It doesn’t fit with what many of us know about real, altruistic acts by dogs and by humans.

But the reality is that animals (canines and human) need to survive long enough to reproduce. And without having that concept in the front of our brains all the time (have you ever heard a teenager ask himself, “If I jump off that waterfall into a river I know nothing about, will I live long enough to pass on my genes?”), it still influences our behavior.

And yet, I do believe that dogs love us just as we love them. You may find scientists who explain changes in a dog’s brain chemistry when they bond with a human. They’ll tell you emotion has a biological explanation and not to get too “mushy” about it.

But I love the fact that Honey is complex enough to act in her own best interests some of the time while deferring to our interests (which is ultimately in her best interest since we buy the kibble) at other times. I love the fact that dogs are smart enough to try to figure out how to manipulate their world to get what they want.

If I didn’t, I’d just have a goldfish.

What do you think? And have you ever done any “experiments” to test what you think you know about your dog?

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  1. Interesting. My cats will suck up to whoever is in the kitchen where the treats are located. But cats actually are self-serving. lol.

    • Everyone says cats are self-serving. And yet, although they could find anyone to feed them as strays, they aways come back to the same place.

      Maybe housecats don’t get enough credit for loyalty.

  2. How interesting to do your own experiment, I am already thinking about all kinds of variations. Like letting a stranger toss the treats. We also have a cat so we are used to the idea of being manipulated. As dogs seem to be able to hide their “manipulative” thinking better, would that give them an advantage over cats? New experiment maybe?

    • I’m sure the original experiment featured people who were strange to the dog. It would have been better for us to do that too. But I’m no kind of scientist.

      I think it would be interesting to recreate the original experiment with cats as well. If you try it, please post some video.

  3. Hey, don’t short-change the goldfish! There have been many experiments done with those guys that prove they are not only capable of learning but also of manipulating their environments. I can’t find the links to the scientific studies at the moment, but check out this impressive video:

    Your experiment was certainly interesting, but I think every dog is a little different. Some dogs are not as motivated by food. Also, Honey knows you and Mike very well. She knew his angry voice and erratic behaviour would not hurt her in any way. I think the test would need to be done with strangers, people Honey has zero experience with, in order to make a statement.
    Not that I disagree with you. I think all animals are a lot more like us than we think. In fact, I think even if Honey was to move away from Mike because his behaviour frightened her, she will still be acting in her best interests. It’s not smart to approach someone waving a knife around, even if they are dropping one hundred dollar bills.

    But I am under no illusion that my dog loves me unconditionally. There are times, like when I am removing a piece of garbage from her mouth, that I am quite sure she doesn’t like me very much at all. It’s lucky we are they are quick to forget such things.

    • Thanks for linking to the goldfish video. That was amazing.

      I was thinking of just that kind of thing when I wrote the phrase. I remember reading Karen Pryor talking about clicker training a fish.

      If we decide to improve the experiment, I’ll see if I can get some random strangers to play along. That will confirm to my neighbors that I’m a lunatic. :)

  4. I think you nailed it. I read a study some time back where the owner was told to drop to the ground and pretend to be unconscious to see what the dog did. Results varied, but there is no doubt in my mind that my dogs, led by Misty the alpha Poodle, would eventually pick out someone, introduce themselves: “Hi, we are a well behaved pack accustomed to regular meals, comfortable places to sleep, and occasional treats. Our owner doesn’t seem to be able to supply those, so we are prepared to give you that unconditional love you’ve read so much about.”

    And I’m all right with that.

  5. My dogs world seems to revolve around food. If you have food, she wants to be near you. I actually make her wait until my hubby gets home to eat dinner, so she will “act” happy to see him. She is 12 and she seems less interested in showing us how much she loves us. When we come home, the most we get is a tail wag or a glance in our direction (unless of course it’s feeding time!).

    She stays at our neighbors house (with 2 other dogs) when we are away and we could swear that she is disappointed when we get home :(

    She used to love us . .somehow we have gotten boring to her. I try not to take it too personally!

    • Honey spins and dances every time a stranger comes to the house. But when I come home, my greeting is nowhere near that spectacular.

      I tell myself it’s good she feels so well cared for she can take us for granted. :)

  6. I couldn’t help but laugh when I read your blog post. Who knew that post would inspire such a clever experiment? I LOVE that you did this! So very clever of you two to try it and see what would happen. And, very interesting results.

    I have no doubt that a dog would be self-serving and go to where the food was being offered, but I also agree with Kristine that every dog is different. Any way you could get the neighbors to try it with Honey? I’m sure they’re all wondering what you guys were doing anyways, so why not recruit them? :)

    I have no doubt that Daisy would go to the nice person handing out treats (as in the experiment), but I know she would never go to Mike if he were stamping around and acting all angry, especially if he were a stranger. She is a smart girl who has survived a lot, so perhaps her instincts are a little more towards the self-preservation side (safety) than the food aspect. Hard to tell.
    I am so glad I got to read this post. So cool!

    • My town is famous for sleeping in. I often wonder where everyone is on a weekend morning. So believe me, there was no one around when we did our little experiment. I didn’t even see any joggers. :)

      We didn’t conduct a good experiment, but I told my husband to make sure he didn’t make any big gestures likely to really frighten Honey. She’s pretty used to him ranting about random stuff, though. :)

  7. You had me giggling while I read this post because years ago, my husband and I decided to do an experiment with our dogs. We wanted to see if they’d actually try to help us if we were in distress. We both took turns laying down on the floor and rolling around like we were hurt. The dogs were curious, but didn’t worry about us for long. When we pretended that he was hurting me, sadly, no dog came to my defense! lol It’s true, never get a Greyhound if you want a watch dog! We were even goofing around one Saturday morning and I tried to get Morgan to jump in and protect me, and it was just too much for her Shepherd brain. The pack must be protected at all times!

    And no, hubby and I should not be relying on science experiments for a living, either!

    • You think greyhounds shouldn’t be watch dogs? It sounds to me like they shouldn’t be service dogs! :)

      Of course, it may be that all the dogs would leap to your rescue if they thought you were in real trouble. Maybe they’re really concerned about you and you and your hubby are just bad actors? :) At least, we can hope.

  8. I like the term unconditional love (after all, I use it in my book subtitle!) but I take it to mean something a little different. Dogs love us even if we are homely, chubby, live in the poor part of town, or just got fired from our job. That’s how I like to think of it. Not that they will love us even if we mistreat them. I don’t know, maybe some dogs will keep going back to people who kick them, but that is not something to be celebrated. Of course, a dog’s non-judgmental love is wonderful!

    • I think the term non-judgmental love is terrific! It just doesn’t roll off the tongue as well, does it?

      Sad to say, I have read many times of dogs taking abuse without responding as an example of unconditional love. It’s terrible to think of anyone ever seeing that as a good thing.

  9. To heck with the dogs, cats, and goldfish. I’m coming over with a video camera and recording you and your hubby acting like idiots ranting and dropping food, and posting THAT to YouTube.

    Unless, of course, you pay me not to. 😉

    • My, my, my… blackmail rears its ugly head at Something Wagging This Way Comes.

      I suspect if you stopped by with your video camera you could find many more ridiculous things to post to You Tube than our experiment. A volunteer at the local SPCA told me if you don’t look ridiculous with your dog, you’re not doing a very good job training her.

      If that’s the case, I must be the world’s greatest trainer because I certainly look ridiculous. A lot! :)

  10. wow, really funny… I have not conducted any experiments with cici… she LOVES men, and stays far away from crazy yelling people, so not sure what she would do, hide behind me? she also knows I am a softie pushover when it comes to food/treats so she’d expect them from me… and yet right now, today, am feeling like she is rejecting me (taking it personally) that she has not snuggled with me in a week… don’t know why she does not love me anymore… boo hoo…. I think that we project onto dogs our own feelings and insecurities and they do what they do as self-serving creatures. they are very much about me, me me, very dog-centric like a 2-3 year old child. and that is ok… except when they don’t snuggle with their mommy BOL… then it’s is she sick, did I do something wrong? do I have B.O? well, if I stink, she’d be ALL over me because dogs LOVE stinky… it’s a full-time neurotic occupation trying to figure out my dog… am glad am not alone LOL… sometimes we dog owners need to get a life and leave our dogs alone and love them just because… we want their love and they want ours, too… as far as abuse goes, I think dogs will do whatever they need to do to survive. A friend once told me about a very abusive man with a cringing wife and cringing dog. They cringed around him to survive, were leery of him, which was smart because he was unreliable and not to be trusted. Ugh.

  11. Dogs are resilient and will do what they need to survive. Personally I don’t think they are any more self-serving then most people. Perhaps that’s where they learned it. :-)

    I joined the bloghop, but can’t get the linky tool to work on my page. I admit it; I am a technalogical idiot. I’m sorry!

  12. I think I’m too tired right now to properly process your questions, but as I sit here reflecting on my late dog, Molly, while gazing at my two snoring corgis, I just have this to add. Dogs might not be capable of unconditional “love” as we know it, but then again, they are incapable of holding a grudge. I believe it’s their inherrent “hope” in mankind (to feed them and provide companionship) that keeps them glued to our sides (or in the case of a “bad” human, keeps them from running away to the nice neighbor down the street). It’s pretty profound to think about. :) They truly are our “best friends.”

  13. I don’t know about being “self-serving” but I can tell you that some of them certainly have an attitude.

    Take my 2 year old Shih Tzu boy, for instance — he’s smart as a whip, bright eyes and bushy tailed. But he’s got an attitude of superiority.

    In response to my call he starts out by ignoring me, then looking over his shoulder and then meandering over in slow motion as if to say, “I’ll come when I’m good and ready.”

    I’ve taught him quite a few tricks for which I reward him with a trick when he performs them on commend. Lately, however, he started performing them without my commending and then demands his treat with annoying whining. In other words, he shows me that he’ll perform when his mood strikes him whether I’m ready for it or not.

    Now that I think about it, maybe he is self serving.

    • I vaguely recall reading somewhere that coming toward you slowly is actually an appeasement display, especially if they’re sniffing the ground as they go. It’s may not be so much “la di da, I’ll come when I’m good and ready” as “look at me *not* charging at you, see, I’m friendly and don’t have any interest in fighting with you at all.” Maybe it was

  14. I think “willingness to take abuse” is a deeply and profoundly messed up definition of unconditional love. I like Peggy Frezon’s definition–dogs don’t care about the superficial external stuff, they love you because of how you treat them.

    I agree with you that it’s okay that dogs are self-serving to a certain extent. It’s not so much manipulative as it is being smart enough to get their needs met. If you’re a small fuzzy critter with no opposable thumbs and no credit card, and you depend on the two-legged critters for all your needs, *of course* you’re going to gravitate to the ones that have and share food.

  15. Everything in life is conditional. Life itself is conditional. For life to exist there needs to be gravity, oxygen, ozone layer …

    Everything that exists exists only under certain conditions.

    With love, the conditions might come from the outside or from within. But there still will be conditions.

    Jasmine is a caring dog with huge heart. She cares about everybody. She also likes getting her own way. And she learned how to make that happen. She gets what she wants when she wants it. But if you get in trouble, she’ll be there like a dirty shirt.

    She cares about us. Does she care about us because we are an always winning slot machine? Perhaps. I mean, who’d want to lose that?

    Would she love us without that? Perhaps. Dogs have the inner need to bond with somebody. I guess we’ll never know, because the day when I’ll stop spoiling her rotten isn’t coming.

    JD seems to be different in that respect. All he seems to know is what he wants. I still think that the bond would be stronger than wanting.

  16. No, we’ve never conducted any experiments on George, but I like yours. Very interesting…I think if we did the same experiment exactly the same way, George would behave like Honey…He’d instinctively come or look at me, since I’m the one he gets titbits from, whilst my husband doesn’t normally ‘share’ with him.
    I agree that dogs are intelligent enough to have worked out ways of getting us to look after them … And that they are capable of love towards their owners. I once had a goldfish, and I can’t say the same thing about it.

  17. Lu is like Honey – she’s so used to paying attention to me, that when my husband and I take the dogs out for a walk, even if he has the leash and treats, she’s always looking at me and trying to heel to my side.

    Once, on a group walk with our training club, I let him walk Lu so I could work on loose leash walking with Wally. We were walking ahead of them and somehow ended up out of Lu’s sight. She laid down on the ground, kept looking back for me and refused to walk any further. I was so focused on Wally, that I was completely unaware that they were so far behind. When I realized, I stopped and waited.. and eventually, my husband came trotting along CARRYING Lu! She had completely refused to walk! Maybe she thought somehow we were behind her and she was waiting for us to catch up? Of course, once she saw me she was overjoyed and I took her for the rest of the walk.

    We’ve given up and now he only walks Wally, who is anyone’s best friend as long as they have a cookie or a tennis ball. 😉

  18. What an interesting idea… I like your “experiment.” I don’t know what Bella would do. She’s pretty sensitive to harsh tones, so I don’t think she’d choose the ranting and raving even if there was food. But maybe I’m wrong… I don’t have the heart to try it though!

  19. Seeing as there’s only me I can’t do any experiments like this, but it would be interesting:)

    Yes, I know you wrote this a week ago but I’ve been too busy to read blogs lately so I’m having a catch up:)

    Basically I think dogs know which side their bread is buttered on and act accordingly. Dogs who are abused probably don’t know anything else and think all dogs are treated the same. The clever ones probably run away. I am sure dogs know how to love and have many emotions the scientists say is impossible. I’ve had a few dogs who have been great smilers. They don’t do it because they’re feeling guilty or trying to appease you, they do it because they’re happy. I’d love another smiler:) You can’t help but smile back.