Discarding Dominance and Leading with Love   6 comments

Everyone wants a well-trained dog, one they can walk down the street with to the envy of all around, who is calm and friendly in the house, and does all you ask of him in an instant. But as any dog owner can tell you, that’s not easy! How do we go about transforming our dog into that perfectly behaved pooch?

In our society today, it is considered common knowledge that any misbehavior by our dog comes from her trying to assert herself as “leader of the pack.” Our relationships with our dogs are looked at as power struggles. Any affection we show our dog or reward we give her is considered showing weakness, inviting her to take over. To maintain order, we are taught we must intimidate our dogs into submission, giving them painful corrections when they misbehave, and physically overpowering them until they comply with our wishes. This is the only way, we are told, that we can have a good relationship with man’s best friend.

In reality, this view of canine behavior is outdated and has been proven inaccurate. The theory comes from 1947 research which was done on unrelated wolves in captivity who were put together to form a pack and observed while hunting. With no supporting evidence, the research was then extrapolated to apply to free wolf packs, which are typically made up of a breeding pair and their offspring, to those wolf packs at all times, not just while hunting, and to domesticated dogs’ interactions with each other and with humans. We now know that the conclusion of this study is not applicable to the interactions of wild wolves, let along domesticated dogs who have been selectively bred for thousands of years. For more explanation of how this theory has been disproven, see the references at the end of this post.

This is good news for dog owners and lovers everywhere! Now we know that to have a happy and loving dog who is a joy to have in the family, we do not have to dominate or intimidate him. Rather, by using modern methods of conditioning, we can teach our dogs to follow the rules of our household. Using these methods not only do our dogs what we ask, they take joy in it!

Think of Pavlov’s dogs. Every time a bell rang, they salivated. This was an automatic and predictable response; the dogs heard the bell, and they eagerly anticipated food. Now imagine what Pavlov could have accomplished if he had asked his dogs to earn the sound of the bell. Say, for example, that every time a dog laid down, the bell was rang, and the food promised by the bell followed. You can imagine what would happen: pretty soon he’d barely be able to walk with all the dogs lying around his feet, hoping for the sound of that bell!

This is the principal on which clicker training works, but instead of a bell we use a “click.” By teaching the dog that the “click” means they get food, soon we have dogs who are excited and eager to figure out what we want them to do to earn the “click.” Once they have learned a cue, we stop using the “click,” but because that behavior has always been a fun thing they’ve wanted to do, they will continue to happily do it when asked. And wouldn’t you rather have a dog who gets excited when you ask him to do something rather than cringes?

Recently, Debbie of fearfuldogs.com wrote a post I absolutely love, illustrating the common perception among Americans that training your dog has to mean forcing him into submission. She points out that the good behavior she gets from dogs comes from teaching them the “culture of human,” rather than demeaning or punishing them until they figure it out. Her story is a great example of how powerful positive training can be, so that even those who don’t necessarily put stock in it recognize the results.

Modern research supports the power of positive training, as does the experience of trainers of all kinds of species, including chickens, cats, and dolphins (ever tried to give a dolphin a leash correction?). It is good for your dog, good for you, good for your family, good for your relationship, good for everyone! So give it a try, and discover how quickly and eagerly your dog can learn.

A Few Resources Debunking Wolf Pack/Dominance Theory

Position statement on dominance training by the American Veterinary  Society of Animal Behavior

Database of publications by recognized wolf expert L. David Mech

Specific article by L. David Mech through the United States Geological Survey (USGS) discussing the lack of a heirarchical system in wolf packs

Specific article by L. David Mech discussing modern science’s almost unilateral acceptance that “alpha wolves” do not exist

Article on dominance training by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers

Article on dominance theory by the head of the International Positive Dog Training Association

Discussion of 1947 wolf pack research compared to more recent dog pack research with conclusions

Interview with Ray and Lorna Coppinger, biologists, trainers, and authors

Article on the myth of dominance theory (no references but very accessible)

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6 responses to “Discarding Dominance and Leading with Love

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  1. Absolutely LOVED this post!!

    I don’t believe in intimidating my dog into submission, I believe in positive reinforcement, as I’ve seen it work.

    Kodiak’s just 2, so I’m still using treats as rewards fairly frequently, but he performs a lot of services and skills without even receiving a command.

    I have a clicker and was using it to train him, but I find that in practical settings, I don’t necessarily have the clicker with me.

    Do you set aside specific time for clicker training and working on skills or do you wear it around your wrist or have it on hand?

    I appreciate you stopping by my our page.

    “Tail Wags”

    • Thanks! I quite enjoyed writing it! :-)

      I saw a lot of the things Kodi does for you in videos on your blog. What a great dog, and clearly he has a great trainer! I absolutely love service dogs and the myriad of things they can do to help their people. Congratulations on so successfully training your own!

      I use a clicker to train new behavior. Once my dog (a one year old shih tzu) knows the cue, I stop using the clicker. If he doesn’t know the cue well enough for me to not need the clicker, that tells me he doesn’t really know the cue yet, so I won’t ask for it if there are a lot of distractions or if we aren’t in a session.

      Typically, I will set up sessions during the day where we practice new behaviors, mostly ones which still need the clicker. These are cues he is just learning, which may not be to their final stages yet (i.e. when teaching him to put his head between his paws and look up, at first I clicked for any head lowering. This wasn’t the finished behavior I wanted, so it had no name and needed clicker sessions). As it gets to the point that he will respond to a verbal cue, I phase out the clicker, and then that cue will go into my “everyday” repertoire that I practice regularly during the day. That’s not to say I never take my clicker out with me, but it’s mostly just for behaviors I have to introduce while we’re out.

      Keep in mind that my dog is a shih tzu, which is not a naturally intelligent breed, so the amount of time it takes him to work past needing the clicker is longer than most of the dogs I work with. He’s a dedicated learner who loves it, but he’s slow. A lot of more intelligent breeds will only need the clicker for one or two sessions, and then I can start asking for the behavior in general settings and reward with just a verbal “Yes!” and treats. In those cases, the clicker’s only needed when the cue is very first introduced. The clicker is to communicate that that PRECISE action was correct. Once he knows (or has a good idea of) the action he should be doing, he doesn’t need such precise reinforcement anymore. It does help that first introduction to the behavior go much faster, though.

      Also, keep in mind my sessions may just be a few minutes. I keep clickers with my treats, so if I’m going to be working on something that needs one, I have the other, and I can just grab them and go!

      And finally, I see no problem with using treats to reward behavior, even for the whole life of the dog. As long as the dog doesn’t NEED treats to do the behavior, I think treating the dog for doing what you ask or figuring out what you need is great. No matter how much I enjoy my job, I enjoy it more and do it more eagerly when I’m paid for it, and the same goes for our dogs!

  2. We are moving into another phase of Kodi’s training, now that he’s learned a half dozen or more skills and is consistent with some obedience commands, I’m now introducing non-verbal cues.

    Obviously a person with a service dog, who plans to have him accompany them into public settings has to be able to communicate with their partner in quiet settings, such as church, the movies, etc.

    He knows my signal for ‘sit’, ‘lay down’, ‘paws up’, ‘wait/stay’ and ‘hold’. He’s working on ‘pick it up’ sometimes knowing that one and other times forgetting.

    I think approaching training of any kind in stages is probably the most effective way to know success.

    I look forward to coming back and reading more of what you have to share.

    • That’s great, I typically teach hand signals with all my verbal cues, too. It is really useful to be able to communicate silently with your dog. Hopefully you’ll find this process to go relatively quickly; dogs communicate with each other primarily through body language, and very little communication is done through vocalizations. Thus, it is actually usually easier to teach a physical cue than a verbal one. Good luck, and happy training!

  3. I LOVE this post! I LOVE your blog, what fantastic topics and information in every post!!

  4. The clicker worked just great when training our border collie pup. He is now 6 and you couldn’t ask for a better dog. We can take him everywhere with us including hotels. I am so glad we made the effort to train him well from day one.

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