Thursday, 27 August 2015

Dominance.. again. What it is, what it ain't.

Before I start this, its worth keeping in mind the phrase 'A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing'...

Never does that apply more when it comes to discussing dominance and dogs, and dog training and dog behaviour!

So first of all let me be clear about some of the following terms:

Context - a set of circumstances or facts surrounding a specific event or situation.

In discussing dominance, we need to know about the environmental context, and the social context.

In other words, WHERE it happened/happens, and WHO was involved.

Resource - something valuable to the involved parties.

So here we mean toys, food, water, attention from a person, access to a choice sleeping position.

So what is dominance - well that depends on who you are, whether you are discussing in a purely scientific context, or a more general context. Here are some definitions of 'dominance' or 'dominating' or 'domineering', some of them are in fact incorrect but are in common use.

Dominant - the winner of a competition, the strongest, the fastest, the top of the heap, the boss, someone who controls others actions

Domineering - behaviour displayed by someone that controls the actions of others

Dominating - the act of controlling others or taking over a situation, conversation or other social interaction

Dominance - power or influence over others, suppressing others

SO now lets look at dogs. For a long time a large section of the dog owning public has believed a number of things that aren't quite true.. or are even entirely false.

Here's one.

Dogs want to become dominant over their owners.

Here's another.

Dogs fight for dominance over each other/over humans.

Thats just not true, looking at the dog - human social context first, dogs have no concept of DESIRE to dominate human beings for the sake of then being the dominant party.

Looking at the social context of dog to dog interactions again, dogs do not want to dominate other dogs so that they are then 'top dog'.

This is why people will tell you, 'it doesn't exist'.. what they mean is, the DESIRE to become dominant, does not exist.

And that is true.

BUT... dominance does exist.

Every person or dog, who has their actions controlled by a dog - so the person who's dog growls when they try to sit on the sofa, so they sit on the floor instead, the person who's dog yells at them till they take it for a walk... the person who has a dog who won't let the other dog play with a particular toy...

In all these situations a dog is dominating another dog, or a person....

But here's the crucial point... this dominance is the OUTCOME of a social interaction and usually, is specific to a particular environment as well.

It is not something the dog set out to achieve for its own sake. The dog did not think 'ah ha, I shall control my owners actions, by refusing to allow him to sit on the sofa I shall achieve dominance over him and thus I shall raise my social status'.

Nope. What happened was the dog liked lying on the sofa, the dog learned that growling at the person meant he could stay on the sofa, maybe he learned that the person approaching the sofa was scary so growl, oh they go away, that works, repeat it.. hey I get to stay on the sofa, excellent.

This outcome however, does end up domineering the humans life, but it IS NOT because the dog desired to control the humans life, its because he wanted to stay on the sofa.

The same applies to the dog who won't let the other dog he lives with, get the ball. He has not a single care about being dominant, having any kind of social status, what he cares about, is the ball. He likes the ball, he values it highly, and he has via trial and error, figured out that he can prevent the other dog from having the ball by displaying certain behaviours.

So, why is this important and why do so many trainers and behaviourists tell you dominance doesnt exist.

Well, several reasons - and back to my 'a little bit of knowledge is dangerous'...

Because there is this misconception that dogs WANT to become dominant, and because unfortunately so many shysters and TV shmucks like to blame every behaviour they see on 'dominance', the word has become poisoned. We don't want to use this word because its real meaning is lost, because sadly a huge number of people use it wrongly, we don't want to be mixed up with that.

I don't need to tell you that your dogs inappropriate behaviour is dominating your life .. you know that! I don't want you to hear me talk about dominance, then hear some bumhole on the TV talking about it and think we are discussing the same thing, because we sure as shit ain't!

The major point is, dominance is really nothing to worry about, its not relevant, I don't need to discuss it with you when I come to your house to assess your dog, you don't need to know about it.

In the same way that you can appreciate the blue skies on a sunny day without knowing that the molecules in the air scatter blue light more than they do red light and so the sky appears blue... or you can watch TV without needing to understand how electricity works or how digital signals are transmitted or how an LCD actually turns that digital signal into a picture...

You can deal with behavioural problems, you can live happily with your dogs, without knowing how dominance actually occurs.

All you really need to know, is this:

Dominance does not CAUSE behaviour, dominance is the possible OUTCOME of behaviour.

So when you hear that a dog pulls on the lead because he is dominant - no. When you are told that your dog barks at you when you tell him off, because he is dominant - nope. When you see on TV some pillock explaining that a dog is shitting on the carpet, weeing up the walls, raiding the garbage can, humping his toys, growling at the kids, running away from home, killing squirrels in the yard, guarding his food bowl from you, stealing items and guarding those from you.... because he is dominant.

The answer is no, none of those things are caused by dominance. To say something is 'caused by dominance' is like saying 'smell the colour 9'... it actually doesn't make sense.

So when we tell you to forget dominance, you really can do so, just do it - because even though all those behaviours above and many many more MAY WELL dominate your lives...

We can fix them without once thinking about our dogs as being dominant, or domineering, because they don't WANT to be. They just want to chase the ball, lie on the sofa, eat their own meal in peace.

So, now I hear you saying ok, but what about with other dogs, how about when my dog is stealing other dogs balls in the park.

Your dog may well be dominant over another dog in a particular context, over a particular resource.

Fluffy may not allow Fido to have that ball, Rover may not want Spot to sit next to him on the sofa.

As long as the dogs themselves understand these rules and can get along, thats fine, its not a problem, frankly, its none of your business don't interfere, keep your clumsy human nose out of things. 

If Fluffy is the dominant dog when it comes to Fido and the ball, as long as Fido doesn't give two shits, thats fine.  If Rover is the dominant dog when it comes to Spot and the sofa, and Spot couldn't give a flying fuck, thats also fine.

It's totally irrelevant to you. Its also totally irrelevant to any other context and any other social grouping. The fact that Fluffy is dominant over Fido when it comes to the ball, in your house, has NO bearing whatsoever on whether Fluffy is dominant over Rover in the field.

The fact that Rover is dominant over Spot when it comes to the sofa has NO bearing whatsoever on whether he is dominant over Charlie at Nana's house.

These situations are determined by behaviour, they are driven by the desire to win the resource, and of course, the desire not to be involved in conflict, because its not just about 'who is strong enough to take what they want' its ALSO about 'who is diplomatic enough to quit rather than start a fight'.

In all these situations where you could identify a dominant dog, keep in mind that the OTHER dog chose to back down.

Problems can of course occur, when two dogs want the same resource, both are well matched and value it highly and are willing to fight over it.

But even here, DOMINANCE is not the problem, the desire for a limited resource, and the inability to resolve who wins it IS the problem.

This situation is generally not that common UNLESS the dogs in question have particularly poor skills at communicating with one another! Generally speaking, dogs who communicate well, will back down, will find a way of diffusing the situation.

More commonly I see dogs who are in fact highly anxious, that are described as 'dominant' who are not at ALL dominant.. but ARE constantly fighting to guard, or keep control of resources that they fear they will lose.

These dogs are not attempting to take over the world to gain social status, they are not attempting to control others so that they achieve some grand high poohbah prize of a Chufty Badge and a We Am De Best hat...

These dogs are highly anxious and stressed and just want to feel secure and safe!

So lets put this one to bed for good shall we? Dominance is not your concern, unless its with a fully consenting adult of the same species as you, a can of squirty cream and some handcuffs!


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

STOP focusing on the behaviour... think about the DOG...

I feel compelled to write this down as I have today seen several examples of what I am about to discuss, via the life-invading ever present Facebook of course.

So yeah, STOP focusing on behaviour - dog owners, pet parents, dog minders.. whoever you are.

Look away from that unwanted behaviour for a second, we aren't going to forget it entirely, no, but the first, most important, crucial element here is NOT that turd on the floor, its NOT that irritating barking, it is NOT that chasing of livestock or escaping the fence or humping Nanna's leg...

Its also not the expensive of the carpet cleaner, its not the irritation of your neighbours and its even not the scratches down Nanna's leg.

The FIRST thing you should consider here, is the dog.

Thats right, that goofy furry guy down there, him, or her of course - THATS your first consideration, THATS your priority (yes it is, I don't care if you have kids, elderly rellies, if the second coming of Christ is your godson.. the DOG is the priority right now)...

Look at the dog.

The dog is performing these behaviours, these behaviours did not manifest themselves alone, without the presence of a dog (if you have turds on your carpet and you have NO DOG then you HAVE got some serious issues that I am not qualified to deal with, move along please!)

Are you looking at the dog yet?

That furry dude has needs - he has inherited behavioural traits and desires, he has instincts. He also has some cognitive ability and he has emotions that are not dissimilar to your own.

He feels stressed, he feels relief, he feels hunger, thirst, pain and discomfort. He feels fear and anxiety as well as joy, he feels rage and he feels desire. Your dog can panic, and he can lust...

So whilst he won't have all the same reasonings for those emotions as we would, because he can't understand the concept of an over due mortgage payment causing panic, and he can't equate a bonus in a paypacket with joy, the basic, simple emotions are the same.

Ask yourself then, WHY did this emotional furry dude DO the behaviour you don't like?

He's not complex enough for the reason to be 'because he hates you' or 'because he wants to pay you back for leaving him home alone' or 'because he wants to take over the world' so you can rule those ideas RIGHT out, straight away.

If you focus on the DOG, and you ask why something happened, and how can we CHANGE things so that something doesnt happen any more... we can address most problems really pretty easily.

Why did the dog shit on the floor?

Because he needed to shit urgently? Because he didn't know where he should shit? Because he's scared to shit in the place you want him to shit? Because he got a sudden fright and effectively, shit himself? Because he couldn't GET to where he would have preferred to shit? Because you have inadvertently taught him to shit on the floor?

Loads of potential reasons there, you know not one of them is because 'he is a dirty bastard and wants to make you suffer'...

So how might we address this whilst thinking about the DOG rather than the behaviour as the priority.

Well when the DOG is the priority, that has to rule out all the methods that might be harmful to the dog - so lets take a guess that rubbing his face in this shit won't be an option, and probably shouting at him when you find the shit isn't an option. Those methods don't put the dogs needs as a priority, they put YOUR needs to feel like you are righting a wrong, in first place.

Here's a big newsflash - a dog has ABSOLUTELY, ZERO NEED to know he did something that you consider 'wrong'.

He does not need this, he will never need this and, you will never teach him this, in a million years. He is not capable of learning 'wrong' from you.

For sure he can learn ' this person is sometimes angry and scary' and he can learn 'never do THAT thing in the sight of THIS person'... but he has not learned that this action is 'wrong'.

Learning that certain actions are inherently wrong is a HUMAN thing, its a social construct and it changes from country to country and culture to culture. I can't really be bothered to list them but its safe to say there are things you can do in the UK that would be RUDE in Latvia, things you might find are considered polite in the USA but are shockingly, unspeakably wrong in China.

So stop wasting your time and confusing your dog, hes never going to learn it and attempting to teach it will frustrate you, and damage your relationship with your dog.

So, theres absolutely no need to try and impart the idea or knowledge to your dog, that he has done something humans consider to be wrong or bad.

What do you do then - well back to putting the DOG first, before the behaviour.

Your dog shit on the floor, did you teach him to shit outside?

Its a lot easier to teach a dog, and build a habit, that 'we always shit outside on this grass' and you do that by preventing any other option, and pairing the correct action with a high value reward.

We do this with children, its not hard - star charts and sweeties for sitting on the potty and making doodoo, nappies off and dust sheets down and a potty in every room to avoid the unwanted behaviour of 'shitting in our pants'.

We do not potty train children by just taking off the nappy and letting them run around and GUESS where the toilet is, and then when they make a mistake, rub their noses in it or drag them to it, point and shout BAD BOY...

If you did potty train a child like that, I am calling Child Protection/Social Services...

What if you taught your dog the wrong place to toilet, lets say you accidentally taught him to go on soft padded surfaces, ie, puppy pads.. and NOW you realise those pads are SO similar to carpet. oops your dog thinks thats the right place to go.

Same deal, prevent the error, provide the correct place to go, reward the correct action. Not hard, just requires some management and vigilance on your part.

We are now thinking about the DOG here - what does the dog know, what does he understand, what mistake has occurred and wrong thing learned, what will motivate him to repeat the action we DO want.

So way back near the start of this rant I said the dog takes priority over everything when you are solving a behaviour problem, the DOG is more important than Nanna's scratched legs or the ruined carpet.

I stand by that - you will not fix a behaviour problem by freaking out about Nanna's legs - yes that shouldn't occur, but no it does not justify an aversive methodology.

If we prioritise the dog, if we focus on MANAGING the dog so it can't happen, and in understanding WHY it happened, what motivated the dog, what produced that behaviour, we can address the behaviour in the right way and stop it happening again... which in the end is GREAT for Nanna, surely!

Trainers - this is why owners do things that are aversive and are, with the benefit of greater knowledge, horrible.

It is almost always NOT because the owner WANTS to be horrid to their dog, it is because in focusing on the awfulness or scaryness or expense of the unwanted behaviour, they FORGET the dog in the equation.

And that is very easy to do, when you have Nanna bleeding in the hallway and you have shit on the expensive new rug or you have neighbours threatening to call the authorities becuse your dog barks.. its SO easy to forget the dog and focus only on the behaviour.

Be sympathetic, YOU may know why the methods chosen are abhorrent to you but the owner is JUST trying to solve the problem and has prioritised the wrong thing.