A Little Thought Experiment

I have some expertise in the field of negotiation, some training and experience. Sometimes as an exercise I like to think about negotiations from a different perspective. Something akin to Einstein’s thought experiments; though perhaps not as profound. One of my favorite thought experiments is thinking about how I might teach a dog to negotiate.

Dogs possess a few weaknesses as negotiators. Dogs are seemingly not strategic thinkers. They display their emotions openly. They react to a different set of stimuli than people. Dogs are much less complicated than people.

They are not hopeless, however. Dogs are excellent observers. They read us very well. I have two dogs and on watching them interact I suspect they are good at reading each other. I cannot be entirely sure of this, but they seem to know how to get on each other’s nerve as well as any pair of siblings. A couple of things I noted as a weaknesses a paragraph ago, that they display their emotions openly and that they are less complicated than people, could also be considered negotiating strengths; that is, if they are dealing with a trustworthy counterpart. I suspect that dogs dealing with each other would generally be trustworthy.

So how do you teach a dog to negotiate? They already do it to a certain extent. My dog Jasper is always running around. He is a whirlwind. However, if he thinks there might be a snack involved he sits perfectly; telegraphing that he is a good dog and deserves a treat.

Ginger, my other dog, generally shows no interest in treats. However, if she knows Jasper got a treat she will usually show up to make sure she gets a treat too. Ginger communicates that she does not want to be left out.

Thus, I know my dogs have negotiating styles. Jasper is direct and immediate; Ginger is indirect and usually shows up well after the negotiations with Jasper have started. Jasper gets more treats because of his directness. Sometime Ginger misses out because she is late to the table.

I have watched other dogs in action. I have watched dogs play tug of war with whatever toy of the moment is at hand, until one of them gets away with the toy and a chase ensues. The winning dog will attempt to keep the prize from the other. When the other dog loses interest in the game, the winning dog will drop the prize, and they both move on. The game will pick up a little later when a new toy is discovered or the old toy is rediscovered. Thus, they are playing a zero-sum game.

The first lesson I would try to convey to a dog is the difference between distributive bargaining and integrative bargaining; that is, the difference between zero-sum and win-win negotiations. The winner take all of a session of tug of war is a fine example of distributive bargaining in the context of dog negotiation.

This would lead into the second lesson: tail control. In a distributive bargaining situation a dog’s tail will give them away. They might start wagging their tail as soon as they received an offer they liked, giving their counterparts insight into their positions. In an integrative negotiation this would just be a signal that the negotiation is on the right track. In a distributive negotiation this could lead to the current offer being rescinded and replaced with a worse offer.

The hard part is teaching a dog the difference between a distributive and integrative situation. They are pretty straightforward creatures. When I figure this part out, I will update you all.