Eager-to-Please or Just Trainable?

Ever heard the phrase “eager-to-please”? When I think of that phrase, the first thing that comes to mind is motivation, trainability, and intelligence. In science-based training (positive reinforcement/force-free), principles of psychology are used to help understand, modify, and predict behavior in animals. Let’s look at each of these topics using psychology to see if Rover is really…eager-to-please.

One principle that helps us understand dog behavior is the Pleasure Principle by Sigmund Freud. According to Freud’s Pleasure Principle, behavior is driven by the desire to seek out and repeat pleasurable experiences and avoid painful ones. Since dogs are specifically seeking out pleasurable experiences, using positive reinforcement is a fantastic tool for you to use during training your fur-baby. Since living creatures (including dogs) are behavior driven, reinforcement must be given immediately after a behavior for it to increase the likelihood of it occurring again. Not only does it increase the frequency of the behavior but you’ll see the dog’s willingness to perform new behaviors increases too! This is called operant conditioning. The dog learns that they change the outcome of their environment. Do the behavior and get a treat, don’t to the behavior, don’t get the treat.

Remember, reinforcement is not what you find motivating, it has to be what the dog finds motivating. Start by ranking them. It will help during training to know what reinforcer to use in specific settings and situations. Consider what they enjoy: food (primary reinforcer), toys, affection, deer poo (#truth), life rewards such as getting out of the crate, putting on a leash, chasing a squirrel, etc. Now that we have identified reinforcers, when do we give it to them? Immediately after the behavior. Dogs need instant gratification. Timing is everything.

What is Trainability?
Every proud pet-parent says, “My dog is so smart.” They say this while beaming when they scroll through pictures and completely revel in their fur-baby’s awesomeness. When we look at intelligence, we have to look at trainability too because they usually go hand-in-hand. According to Dictionary.com, trainability is capability of being trained. As for intelligence, the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Dogs, like humans, learn at their own pace and have strengths and weaknesses. That being said, there are specific breeds that were specifically bred to work with humans. Working, sporting, herding, etc. which helps with trainability. The dogs have been bred to work with humans to do various tasks. You’ll see in the list below, some familiar breeds. Remember, the dog’s breed along with individual personality, instinctive drive, and genetics affect trainability. All dogs are individuals and may not fit breed standards.

According to Stanley Coren, in his book “The Intelligence of Dogs”, he “contacted all of the dog obedience judges registered with the AKC and the Canadian Kennel Club, and provided them with a long questionnaire that allowed them to rank the various breeds in their working and obedience abilities.” After narrowing down based on multiple factors, a told of 133 breeds were ranked. These are the top 10 dogs for working and obedience intelligence:

1 – Border Collie
2 – Poodle
3 – German Shepherd Dog
4 – Golden Retriever
5 – Doberman Pinscher
6 – Shetland Sheepdog
7 – Labrador Retriever
8 – Papillon
9 – Rottweiler
10- Australian Cattle Dog

Do you agree with this list? My doxies didn’t make the cut.

For those that don’t have a Lassie on their hands, dogs can be intelligent in other ways. According to Stanley Coren, dogs can have instinctive intelligence, adaptive intelligence, or work and obedience intelligence. Instinctive refers to what the dog was bred for such as herding, retrieving, tracking, guarding, etc. Adaptive intelligence is refers to what a dog can learn to do for himself. Working and obedience intelligence are those highly trained animals that appropriately respond to their guardians cues. Working and obedience intelligence is the most important because it was the spark that helped the domestication of dogs.

If you are interested in seeing if your dog is an “Einstein” or a “Socialite” or an “Expert”, there is a Dognition Assessment that can help you determine which profile your dog fits into. There are 9 according to this program. It was created by scientists, trainers, and behavioral specialists. The Co-Founder, Dr. Brian Hare, is the Director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center and author of “The Genius of Dogs.” (Very good book.) The best part, you get to find out your dog’s profile while playing games!


That being said, dogs are eager-to-please, well…themselves, not us. Dogs are self-satisfying but beautiful creatures that at times just-so-happen to be something (we) humans want. Hopefully in the future, we can replace “eager-to-please” with a better description of your dog’s attributes. What are your thoughts? What motivates your dog? Is your dog trainable? What category of intelligence does your dog fall into?

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