Thursday, 5 July 2007

Dominant, dominate, dominating, dominance...

All common words used regarding dog behaviour and dog training.

According to some, and predominantly the old school dog trainers, one ought to 'dominate' ones dog, or else he will become dominant over one....

Its a bit of a minefield really, and one not helped by language.

To dominate, is to tower above, to rule, to control, and whilst I would always agree one needs control of ones dog, is the way to get it to dominate him?

Another use of the word occurs in the darker, less spoken side of life, that of sexual fetish and also that of abusive relationships.

Sadly, I fully believe that whilst the concept of 'dominating' ones pet dog is intended by some to simply mean one is the leader, the one who sets the rules and boundaries, it is interpreted by others to mean bullying abusive tactics.

In the fetish world, one is either Sub or Dom. In the dog world its the human who is Dom, and the dog who is Sub.
Back in the fetish world, the Dom may lead around his or her Sub by a collar and leash, he or she may control their Sub by use of a whip and the threat or reality of pain.

Whilst in this context these are roles welcomed by both consenting parties, in the dog world, this is rarely the case.

Lets look at the comparison between dominated dogs and dominated humans in the context of unhealthy relationships.

All too often, someone, frequently a woman but not infrequently the man, is dominated by their partner.

They must heed their partners words, for fear of aggressive reactions, either verbal or physical. They live under the shadow of anticipated pain and fear, they must do as they are told purely because they are told. The only thing 'in it' for them is avoidance of punishment.

Often they are not aware of what is the right thing to do, they are not encouraged to do the right thing, the things they are expected to do are often not explained.... and then they are punished when they get it wrong.

I doubt anyone would disagree that this is a thoroughly unhealthy and damaging relationship.

What of the dog? Well there are a great many people who believe their dog should do as they are told because they are told to.
These people don't make it clear to the dog what is expected, what is right and what is wrong, they just punish verbally and/or physically the wrong behaviours.
Like the abused human these dogs live in fear, fear of physical or verbal aggression, fear of pain.

Like the abused man or woman, they live in complete uncertainty never knowing from one moment to the next what they can and cannot do.

Theres a big difference though.

There are few people on this earth who will advise, recommend and encourage others to abuse their partners or their children. (ok, there are some and rightly the rest of us display our utter horror at such attitudes).

There are a staggering number of people, even those who would decry the identical treatment of a fellow human, who insist that dogs MUST be treated in this way. They claim one must 'show him who is boss', and I have never yet heard that term used in the context of dog training or indeed ANY context, where it meant anything other than bullying abusive tactics... have you?

So why is this, why must we dominate our dogs, bully them, abuse them?

Because apparently, if we do not, then they will do the same to us, 'dominate your dog or he will dominate you'.

And how must we do this, well theres a range of magical techniques we should carry out.

Heres a few corkers;

  • Alpha roll/pin your dog to 'show him who is boss'... (ie, pin your dog to the floor by the throat and hold him there till he ceases to struggle).
  • Purposely walk into your dog wherever he may be at every opportunity, to teach him that you are the leader and he must always defer to you.
  • Pretend to eat from your dogs bowl so that he knows you are the alpha because you eat first.
  • Walk through doorways before your dog, the alpha of the pack leads the pack.

These may all sound passable on first reading, they all derive from our early misunderstandings of wolf pack behaviour. The theory ran that dogs are descended from wolves and thus behave like wolves, and if we mimic wolf behaviour we can mimic the actions of the alpha wolf, the pack leader and thus our dogs will respect us.

Sadly my friends, for the supporters of dominance and pack theory. This is all complete bollocks.

Lets see those magic methods again and lets see the real messages they contain;

  • Alpha roll/pin your dog. This is supposed to mimic an alpha male punishing a subordinate animal into submitting to him. This doesnt actually happen in the wild, what does happen is that a subordinate animal will roll itself, offering its unprotected stomach and throat to a higher ranking animal as a gesture of appeasement. An animal who DOES get phyiscally rolled in a fight is an animal mere seconds away from death, its the only time a higher ranking animal will force a lower ranking one to do this, before he kills it.
So what does doing this to your dog tell him? Well it tells him you are to be feared because
your intention is to kill him. Whilst its not usually the done thing to compare human and
dog behaviour, just imagine for a second your boss at work pinned you to the floor by your
neck and threatened you with a knife. Im pretty sure youd fear him, not respect him!

  • Purposely walk into your dog. This teaches your dog to move out of your way. He learns that otherwise he will get stepped on. Far from teaching him anything it lets him know you have no respect for his personal space at all, and that you are a bully. I dont know anywhere that it is recorded that wolves do this to one another.
  • Pretend to eat from your dogs bowl. If you want to you may, your dog will learn nothing and if you really eat dog food you may be ill. If you use a biscuit you'll just get fatter. It was long thought that the highest ranking pack members in a wolf pack ate first, but this not actually the case. For one thing, the packs studied were not wild but were captive, made up of non related wolves of various ages. Unsurpringly they dont behave like true wild wolves, who actually allow puppies and lactating bitches to eat first, and will tolerate quite a lot of food stealing by subordinate pack members.
  • Go through doorways first. This theory presumes that the highest ranking pack, the alpha would lead the pack through narrow gaps first. In fact he wouldnt, the entire pack would hang back and push the least useful, the omega pack member through the gap first. The reason is quite obvious and common sense. On the other side of a narrow gap there could be an animal, a human or a bear or something else dangerous (to a lone wolf a lot of things are dangerous!), the pack relies heavily on the alpha for survival and to send him or her through first would be extremely stupid. If the wolf that goes through the gap first comes across say a feral mare protecting a foal hes likely to get a kick to the head and end up dead. If that wolf is the alpha that leaves a pack without a leader. Wolves and dogs just aint that dumb!

So what about if your dog dominates you. Id be foolish to suggest this doesnt happen, it does and it happens quite frequently.
What is most misunderstood is this though, the dog doesnt want to be dominant, he hasnt set out with that aim in mind. Dogs cant forward plan in that way, its pretty dumb to think they could.

What happens is quite simple, and you only need remember one thing to understand it.

Dogs repeat behaviours they find rewarding.

In every situation where a dog is dominating a human, I can find a reward for the dog in behaving that way.

Heres one, 'Mrs Jones poodle Poochy will not allow her husband to sit next to her, he growls and snarls and bites him.'

Dominant dog right?


Poochy is a cute little guy, all white curls, when he was a pup it was funny that he didnt like Mr Jones. He would curl his lip at him when he tried to kiss his wife.
Mrs Jones thought this was funny, she petted Poochy and told him 'there there its ok' to reassure him that Mr Jones wasnt going to hurt him, or her or anyone.
As she did this, Mr Jones would back away from Poochy.

Whats really going on there is that Poochy was afraid of Mr Jones. Its quite common that small dogs are worried by big men, they are big, physically tall with deep voices. They often move suddenly and they are loud.

When Poochy was curled up on the sofa with Mrs Jones, and Mr Jones came over to kiss his wife, he leaned over Poochy, which frightened him, so he curled his lip and growled.

He was rewarded for doing this by Mr Jones backing off, and Mrs Jones patting him and speaking to him. So he gets his prize, clever Poochy.

Next time Mr Jones ignores Poochy, and Mrs Jones carries on rewarding him. The threat of big Mr Jones looming over him is still there and this time the growling and lip curling is ignored, so Poochy bites Mr Jones, he can't think of anything else to do.

This works, Mr Jones leaps back, Mrs Jones rewards Poochy more by more petting and sweet talking.

So there we have, two people who in time have rewarded their dog for the wrong thing, the dog is unhappy, hes frightened, the people are unhappy too.

Nowhere in that little scenario is there anything but a dog repeating behaviour he has found rewarding, that he found worked, in the past.

Theres a lot of human error, but theres no world domination plan on behalf of the dog.

It would be quite simple if Mr Jones ever realised that Poochy was frightened of his size and his deep loud voice, to cure the problem. Simply reward Poochy for being around Mr Jones and not growling, and make that happen by asking Mr Jones to speak softly, quietly and to crouch down rather than lean over the dog.

When the dog in question is a little poodle weighing a few lb's, things don't seem so bad (which is partly why it happens so often in small breeds).

Imagine if Poochy was a Rottwieller though. Hes still a dog, he still doesnt understand that Mr Jones isnt intentionally being scary - but when Poochy the Rottweiller bites, its a very different story.

Mr Jones goes to hospital, and Poochy is either 'shown who is boss' by one of the horrible dominance reduction techniques.... or he is put to sleep.

Hopefully the tide is turning for dog training. I say hopefully as although in the last 20 years the old school bullyboy methods have been recognised by many as being wrong and being dangerous, there are still those out there who believe it is right.

Where they are open about their methods and it is clear to see them for what they are, I am not to worried. As long as we have the strength of our convictions to walk away from the dog trainer who says we must pin our dogs, our dogs will be ok.

What worries me is the trend for dog trainers to pretend to be 'fluffy' and to have some magical abilities in animal communication. One such fellow is self proclaimed Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan.

Cesar claims he has a bond with dogs, that they recognise him as a leader and respect him.

To the average person, he is a charming, witty, likeable fellow, and hes something of an underdog himself, as an illegal mexican immigrant turned tv celebrity. Whats not to like huh?

Unfortunately as much as Cesar claims dogs respect him, the truth is dogs fear him.

His methods are not so nice as the descriptions he puts with them. He describes a desirable state of mind in a dog as being 'calm submissive'. In fact in every show I have witnessed, the dogs are displaying that they are mentally 'shut down', suffering from learned helplessness. This is what happens to any animal, humans included when they finally realise they cannot escape a punishment, that to react is worse than not reacting. It doesnt mean they no longer feel fear or aggression, it means they are too fearful of someone else to display it.

For even humans who have the ability to vocalise their feelings and emotions this is a dangerous state.

For an animal such as a dog who is armed with big teeth and the ability to exert many lb's of pressure with those jaws, this is an extremely dangerous thing. The dog can no longer display his fear with his body language or his voice, and so if cornered and pushed too far, he will bite.

Lots of people think Cesar Milan and others like him are kind people, but I put it to you that they are bullies. Cesar has a method of keeping a dog in check, by jabbing it hard in the neck with his fingers. Imagine if someone did that to you, you'd not think that kind! Imagine if a teacher did that to your child at school!

If you do have a dog, and even if you dont - have a look at the relationship you have with him, are you comfortable with how you interact? Does your dog work for you because he knows he must or the consequences will be unpleasant?

I hope for your dogs sake this isnt the case, just as I hope you are never in a relationship where you are the one who fears unpleasant consequences from a partner.


Jo said...

Fab blog.

Agree with most of it (well I couldn't agree with all of it could I?)

Karen Wild, BA(Hons)Dip App Psych said...

Thank you for this blog. We need to keep this in the media - that these methods are outdated and unnecessary. People seem too afraid to say so - and the dogs cant speak other than in ways only we can see. Biting means 'I am terrified'.