How Pavlov can make your man want to visit your parents and say “I Love You”

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Can you use dog training techniques to tame your man?

Dear Dog Trainer,

My boyfriend hates my parents. Actually, I’m not sure he hates them as much as he hates visiting them. They live in a trailer in Kentucky with three cats. It’s a tight space and so I get why he’s not into going, but they’re my family. We were last there for Christmas, but it required so much nagging to get him to agree to go that it took a toll on our relationship. I don’t want to be “that” girlfriend. What can I do?
Trailer Park Daughter 

Dear Trailer Park Daughter,

Well, it sounds like you’ve done part of the dog training job already by figuring out something your boyfriend finds punishing: tight spaces with cats. My first suggestion would be staying at a different place when you visit your folks. Like a dog who is running circles in a studio apartment — sending him to live with a friend in the country might be the most humane thing to do. Fortunately, your job isn’t as daunting as having to rehome a working dog. Just find a Motel 6.

And what about flying instead of driving? That might be another way to make the whole thing less taxing and reduce the number of hours he has the opportunity to complain en route. This is kind of what you do when you live of a high floor of an apartment building and you have a Yorkie who hates walking on a leash but has to go outside to pee: rather than dragging him — to the door, down he hallway, into the elevator, through the lobby — just carry him until outside and put him at the place where you want him to pee. It’ll make the most taxing part of the walk a lot shorter.

How to make him like the thing he hates

Ideally, your boyfriend would be going not because he feels he should, but because he actually wants to. This is tricky because the situation isn’t a new one. He already has a history with the subject; he has previously made bad associations with going down there. The best way to get him to feel differently will be to change his underlying emotion about going. To do that, you’re going to have to figure out what’s rewarding to your boyfriend. Then we can pair the unpleasant thing with the rewarding thing to help create a new association.

This is classical conditioning. It’s what Ivan Pavlov did with his dogs: he forged an association between the ringing of a bell with the presentation of food, until the dogs salivated when the heard the bell, even if there was no food present. It didn’t matter what the dogs were doing. Were they barking? Whining? Licking themselves? I don’t care. Their behavior wasn’t the point. Their feelings were.

For most people, understanding how to use classsical conditioning requires taking something of a mental leap of faith. If I tell a client to shove bacon bits into his dog’s mouth every time he starts barking at a strange man, they often tell me I’m misinformed: this will just reward the barking, they say. This is a logical way of looking at the situation. But, I explain, if we can  change the underlying emotion (in this case, fear) that is causing the barking, we can eliminate the behavior (in this case, barking) altogether. Because the behavior is only happening because it was caused by the emotion.

So, if the dog normally goes bat shit crazy when he is approached by a bearded person, I’ll find a bearded person who will approach the dog and throw treats. (Throwing may indeed be part of the initial set up; I don’t want to endanger anyone.) This might mean that, at first, we set up the situation so that the person is at a pretty great distance. If it’s too far for the person to lob a cube of cheddar, than someone else can feed the dog nearby. The food just needs to be paired with any mere glance towards the thing that is scary.

From Grisha Stewart’s book Behavior Adjustment Training. Illustration by Lili Chin of

What can you pair with your joint voyage home to make it less annoying to him? Let’s say he’s a foodie. You could plot a culinary tour that took him to some of the best barbecue places in the South. I don’t care if he whines the whole time. You should still be pulling off the road at periodic intervals to stuff him till he’s in a food coma. Once you get to you parents, have them ply him with homemade cookies or pie.

Dogs, like people, aren’t great at processing multiple emotions at once. There is going to be at least a second where the “Oh, this brisket is super yummy” feeling eclipses the “bearded person must die” feeling, or the “my girlfriend’s parents’ kitchen stinks of cat dung” feeling.  Also: If there’s something in the dog’s mouth (or boyfriend’s mouth), he’s not going to be so likely to bark (or whine). That gives you a moment to reinforce something good: Lack of barking/complaining. And it’s a moment where the scary trigger (bearded man /cat-hair covered parents) can take another step towards the dog, and to reward it again. The rewards don’t have to be given forever. You might always work them in periodically. But at first, they should come frequently and in good quantities. Think of it this way: Frankenstein comes to your door and hands you a $100 bill every day for a week. Day one and two, you’re screaming as he does this. But by Sunday, you’d be inviting him in for tea.

The blow job solution 

You know, Trailer Park Daughter, your situation reminds me of a situation a friend of mine was in with her boyfriend. They’d been together five years, and he almost never said “I love you.” It had happened, but only maybe once a year. Obviously he loved her, but she wanted to hear it. I gave her the following advice: Give him a reason to associate the words with some kind of happy emotion. Figure out a primary reinforcer — the equivalent of a bacon buffet for a dog– and deliver it only following his recitations of the words. I told her to pinpoint the moment he said the words (with a dog we do this using a clicker; she used a loud and staccato “Thanks!”) so that he’d know exactly what the reward was for, and then to follow it up as quickly as possible with something irresistible.

The reward she decided upon was something quite personal… something she could easily withhold much of the time but could then deliver in a bathroom stall. Something easier to deliver on demand than a platter of brisket.

While she liked the plan, she worried there wouldn’t be an opportunity to reinforce the behavior since it never occurred organically. The very first time she gave this reinforcement, I told her that it might be wise for her to elicit the delivery of the trigger. Set it up. So, she wrote him a card and then asked him to read it aloud. It contained the three magic words that had always been so scary for him to say. Before he’d even enunciated all three syllables, she dropped to her knees.

It took several trials, but today, she swears that he is one of the most effusive guys she’s ever known.

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One Response

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    June 20, 2013 7:51 am

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