This is on my mind this morning so I am going to write about it. You may or may not be aware of the current contraversy over dominance-based training methods. If you watch tv and don’t live under a rock, you’ve probably seen or heard of either The Dog Whisperer (Cesar Milan) or At The End of My Leash (Brad Pattison). I am not here to pick on either of these shows or these trainers, there is good and bad to be taken from every trainer including myself. However, if you know me, you know I am a big supporter of positive training methods, which in all honesty Milan and particularly Pattison are not often seen using. However I do watch Dog Whisperer often (not going to lie – mostly as a lesson in what not to do) and have noticed a trend in Cesar changing his methods to be more dog friendly. I want to talk about the holes is dominance based training theory, and also how I recommend to become your dog’s “alpha”.
First, I want to mention that when I say positive training, this does not equal permissive. I firmly believe that dogs need consistent, clear, and fair leadership and that we as dog guardians need to be in control when it comes down to it. What I mean by positive training, is that we at every opportunity try to use positive reinforcement to train new behaviours, and use humane punishments as consequences for unwanted behaviour. What you will find when you commit to this and get creative, is that aversive training methods are seldom, if ever necessary.
I also want to mention that the argument over alpha is in many ways semantics, the problem is the term came from incorrect (now debunked by the man who coined the term) research based on captive wolf packs. While current research is telling us that wild domestic dogs travel more in loose social groups with fleeting associations rather than a traditional wolf-like pack, and a wolf pack is more a family than a group of strangers held together by violent rule, we still see many dog trainers who cling to the idea that dogs are “pack” animals and we must be “alpha” through violence and physical force, and that nearly every bad behaviour is the result of your best friend trying to usurp the household. However, no trainer in the world worth their salt will tell you not to be in control of your dog, or be your dog’s leader. The difference between positive trainers, and outdated domiance-theory trainers is how you achieve this.
Dominance theory trainers believe that dogs are constantly trying to move up rank in the household heirarchy, and blame pretty much every bad behaviour on dominance. The generally recommended course of action is the use harsh physical or vocal corrections to stop bad behaviour, hitting (Pattison likes to smack across the nose or under the chin), choking/hanging (watch for the leash up high on the neck), collar jerks, yelling/screaming (Cesar no, but Pattison a favorite), kicks (one of Cesar’s favorite corrections is a swift well aimed kick to the abdomen/genitals), alpha rolls/push ups (putting the dog onto its side/back/etc using physical force), and more lovely not-so-dog-friendly techniques. What really blows my mind is that trainers who use these techniques will say that it “doesn’t hurt the dog”, but I will tell you, it most certainly does, or they wouldn’t work. Try them on yourself to see before you use them on your dog. Have someone put a slip around your throat and give it a yank, or punch you in the kidney, slap you across the face or give you a quick snap on the chin. The assertation that these corrections do not hurt the dog are outrageous!
There are many problems associated with training using these techniques as well. Scientific study has shown us that using aggressive techniques on your dog will likely cause them to become aggressive or more than they already are. This is called redirected aggression, where the dog focuses his emotions onto the handler, or other person or dog or object when punished for showing “aggressive” behaviour. Punishment is also an incomplete program – you are only teaching the dog what not to do. Imagine yourself in a work situation where your boss did not give you clear directions, then constantly chastised you for getting it wrong. Would not feel very good now, would it? Training with corrections/punishments has the same effect on your dog. Punishments also will not make a behaviour truly dissapear, as they do not fix the root of the problem, rather they will only suppress it temporarily or while you are present.
In positive training, we focus on teaching the dog what to do, using small food treats, play, praise, and a variety of other reinforcers. We understand that dogs do things because it works for them, they are gaining some sort of reinforcement out of it, rather than blame everything on dominance. Leadership (alpha) is obtained through resource control and not physical force. What do I mean by resource control? Well, when you think about it, we have one major evolutionary advantage over dogs – thumbs! We are (or can be) in control of literally everything the dog enjoys. Oh the power! Once once realizes this fact, it becomes easy to see how physical force is rarely if ever necessary. As humans we can give or take away everything our dog likes – food, water, toys, playtime, walks, attention, and we can use this power to get our dogs to behave in ways we want. We can either give good things, or take them away in order to increase things we like and decrease things we don’t like. Having a good grasp of this and also understand the concept of management (controlling your dog’s environment) can easily make you alpha without getting physical.
Dogs enjoy it more too, a calm, predictable leader with fair rules. So why doesn’t everyone do this? Well it takes a lot of patience and self control – something many people are lacking in. We as a species like to punish, it makes us feel good and is reinforcing for us. Positive trainers know that the science tell us that punishments really are very hard to get right, and order for them to be effective, have to be pretty emotionally or physically damaging to your dog. They have to be bad enough for the dog to want to work to escape them, or they will just have little or no effect. It take patience and some brain power to think of how to fix problem behaviours in a positive manner, but is much more effective in the long run and healthier for your dog and your relationship with him. Training always will take patience, self control, a calm demeanor, and very importantly, consistency. If you don’t stick with your rules they’re not going to be effective no matter what training methods you use.
This is turning into an essay, so I think I will end it with some examples of common behaviour problems and solutions from a dominance theory and a positive training point of view.
Dog growling at other dogs:
Dominance trainer – you are not being a good enough alpha/improve your rank through alpha rolls or other dominance excercises. Correct the dog for growling as he is showing dominance over you.
Positive trainer – the dog is insecure and displaying totally normal and acceptable dog behaviour in response to something he is nervous about or perhaps the other dog is being rude. Ignore and do not punish the growling, and reinforce with small bits of food or play (whatever the dog prefers) when the dog is confident. Socialize with friendly dogs as much as possible. If aggression is serious desensitization and counter conditioning programs will be recommended.
Dog jumping on the couch:
D – dog is being dominant, give correction by yelling/collar correction. Yank him off couch. Dominance exercises such as alpha rolls/push ups.
P – Say off and gently guide dog off couch. Be as firm as you need to but not harsh. Praise and/or treat when he goes off. Either do not allow him on the furniture and be consistent with removing him and praising when off, or allow him to come up only when you want him to and have him sit or lie down or perfom a command or two before coming up. If he is going on the furniture when you are not around he should be confined in a crate or pen when not supervised until he can be trusted.
D – Dog is being dominant/handler is not dominant enough. Correct the barking with collar corrections, vocal corrections, or a shock collar. Continue with alpha roll/push ups regimen.
P – Determine the reason the dog is barking. Boredom? Guarding property? Has the owner accidentally trained this behaviour by giving attention when the dog barks? There’s many methods for barking and it depends greatly on the motivation. If the dog is bored or lonely, can he be given more excercise in the day and not be left alone for so long. Perhaps crating indoors rather than leaving outside can help improve. Reward the dog with attention/food as soon as he stops barking, even for a second. Train him to bark on command and senseless barking should decrease. Give the dog an ultimatum – you can bark at that like a crazy animal or you can come next to me and do a downstay (redirecting). Barking becomes much less reinforcing then! The problem with yelling at a barking dog is they think you are joining in the fun and often it is actually a reinforcement for the behaviour.
Dog pulling on leash:
D – dog is being dominant and wants to be the leader. Correct the dog with a collar correction or kick whenever he pulls. Use a choke/prong collar placed high on the neck to make corrections more effective.
P – Wait for the dog to be calm before going on a walk (Cesar also recommends this). As soon as the leash goes tight, either turn in the opposite direction or stop and get your dog to refocus on you with their name or an attention-getting sound. When the lead is loose you can again more forward. This way the dog learns that walking on a tight leash doesn’t get them where they want to go, but walking politely does. Dogs pull on the leash because they are excited and want to get somewhere and we follow. A front attach harness or head halter in conjunction with training may also be helpful.
Dog jumping up:
D – dog is showing dominance to you. Common corrections are knee in the chest, immediately perform an alpha roll, hit across the nose (Pattison), hiss/sharp poke/kick/pinch to abdomen (Milan).
P – dog is jumping up because he is excited and wants to greet you in a respectful doggy way, by licking your face. The dog wants your attention, so best treatment is simply to totally ignore the dog by crossing your arms, looking into the air, and turning your back. This removes all sources of attention the dog is seeking. Once the dog has four paws on the floor, turn and give affection. This clearly teaches the dog that jumping up will not get attention, but being calm and on the ground will be. Take patience and consistency, but is very effective and never harms the dog in any way.
So you are probably getting the picture in the difference in philosophies. I will say I think Cesar has a lot of good advice that positive trainers would agree with, like no touch/talk/eye contact (ignoring excited behaviour), exercise/discipline/affection, be in control of food and resources etc. However all to often he falls back into the incorrect dominance theory, and harsh corrections. He does seem to be taking criticism and steadily improving his methods. I predict in several years, he will be a positive trainer, and At The End of My Leash will hopefully be off the air.
I will close with a quote that embodies my dog training philosophy: I would rather have treats in my pocket, than a chain around my dog’s neck. Of course eventually we don’t need treats! Good day and until next time, hug your dog and be kind to animals.