DOG QUEST: Teaching survival skills, or, “It’s a human’s human’s human’s human’s world.”

…with apologies to James Brown.

I’m currently feverishly promoting this article. If it’s too long for you (it is long, but it’s not dense – very readable), the tl;dr version is this:

Dominance theory is dead. It does not work. It is fail. Application of dominance theory results in traumatised dogs, dog “aggression”, injured humans and a certain amount of stress.

First, I will briefly explain what dominance theory is (for more detail, please do read the linked article. It is very important). Then I will explain how this has applied to my own experience, my own dogs, and the training philosophies I have picked up along the way.

If you have ever heard anyone talk about how you must be “alpha” with a dog – that’s dominance theory. If you’ve ever had anyone tell you that you need to roll over and lie on your dog – that’s dominance theory. If any behaviour that occurs is interpreted in light of canine aggression and a desire to move up in the hierarchy – that’s dominance theory. It’s based on flawed interpretations of wolf pack structure and, believe it or not, Nazi justification of eugenics programmes (the latter came as some surprise to me).

If you have these ideas about dog training and behaviour lurking around in your head, don’t feel too bad. They are almost universal, and pop up in everything from poorly-researched documentaries to romantic werewolf literature (of which I read a great deal. Shh). We pretty much all grew up with these ideas of alphas and omegas and dominance. The best you can do is to replace this all-pervading pile of horse-puckey with good information, and reassess how you interact with your dog.

Dominance theory promotes the idea that there are leaders and followers in a pack, and that this is what dogs look for, and if you don’t nip it in the bud quick smart, your dog will think you are a follower and will try to be leader.

Firstly, wolf packs don’t work like that. Wolf packs are nuclear family units: mum, dad, and various generations of pups who stick around until they grow up and sod off to find their own mate (sound familiar?).

Secondly, dogs aren’t wolves, and haven’t been for a very, very long time. Dogs have been bred by humans to be tame and easily domesticated, and to look to humans for leadership and companionship. They are not the same. Behavioural observations drawn from one group can not be readily applied to the other. That’s a little like saying we behave like chimps (with some caveats); it’s not that we don’t have any behaviours in common, but their expression is wildly different.

I went to the Dog Lovers Show in Melbourne at the start of May (and I need to post about that, it was largely a very positive experience), and sat in with a behaviourist giving a presentation about dogs and kids. She said that the best way to understand dogs was to describe them as toddlers (intelligent, affectionate, playful, self-motivated, largely amoral) with mouths full of knives (what big teeth you have, little Abby-dog).

The comparison of kids to dogs is a common one, and there’s a whole blog post in that too, but I’m going to point out what I personally feel is the absolute crucial functional difference between raising a dog and raising a kid, and why I’ve given this post the title that I have.

When you raise a kid, you are – ultimately – guiding a little fellow human towards independence and autonomy. You are protecting them and loving them, yes, but you are also teaching them how to interact safely with the world and make their own decisions. One day, they will talk back, and one day soon, they will argue, and then, they will start making their own decisions, and eventually, they will make all their own decisions and you will be left biting your nails and watching the end result of all your parenting (not that it ever really ends, or so I’m told, but there’s a letting-go-point and I understand that this is nerve-wracking).

When you raise a dog, this never happens. There is no letting-go-point. Dogs cannot ever be autonomous or independent, no matter how intelligent they are or how well trained. They’ll be able to do certain things – work out where they are allowed to poop, for example, or operate those toys that deliver treats, or herd sheep – but they’ll never be able to feed themselves, or refill their water bucket, or contribute to financial decisions which help pay for their food. They will never be self-sufficient. Dogs are companions and friends and an absolute delight and treasure; but they are pets, and they are completely dependent on us.

Dogs have to live in a human world, and if they live solely as dogs, they are not safe. For example, biting and mouthing is one of the ways in which dogs communicate. They nip, they herd, they push, they pull, they demand attention, they nag, they play. Biting and mouthing are not automatically warnings, or aggressive behaviours. They certainly can be, but it’s far from certain.

If dogs are not trained out of these behaviours, someone will get hurt, and ultimately, it will be the dog who pays the price.

The same can apply to containment. Dogs will naturally wander about, establish territory, interact with other dogs, and explore – but they live in a human world, a world full of cars and trucks, bigger dogs, pounds and council regulations. Again, the dog will ultimately be the one to pay the price.

This is why I don’t call what I teach my dogs “tricks”. I call them “survival skills” (or, sometimes, fun games). Recall – getting your dog to return to you – is definitely a survival skill. Holding positions like sit, drop and stand may seem more like tricks, but not only are they good for discipline (and fun to learn. Dogs love to learn, especially if there are rewards like treats, and praise, and playing), they are good for veterinary examination. I teach my dogs that they have to let the vet play with their feet and their ears and examine them, and while they are still pretty wriggly at the vet, they’re well-behaved overall. Drop is also good for making big dogs less threatening to small children – I’ve had kids who were very scared of Amos come over and give him a pat once I got him into a drop.

It’s not that tricks aren’t fun to learn – but none of these things are idle. We don’t teach dogs “heel” and “sit” and “drop” because we want to show off or dominate our dogs; we teach them because it makes it safer and easier for dogs to interact with humans in a human world.

Achieving a good level of obedience is not about being a bully in the way that dominance theory espouses. Dogs need boundaries to their behaviour because they live in our world, not theirs, and unlike children, they will never be able to live in their own world. We’ve bred them for ours. This is where dominance theory is so seductive to people: it’s a simple might-makes-right solution to a complex problem (and simple solutions to complex problems are almost universally wrong). We accept the first premise – that we need to teach dogs to obey certain commands that we give them – and perhaps the second premise – that in order for that obedience to take place, a dog must respect us – and then we go bananas with it, because that respect is as much about trust as anything else. Dogs are self-interested. They have to trust that you won’t hurt them, that your decisions are best, and perhaps that sometimes obedience results in cheese (Amos’s favourite thing in all the land), while disobedience results in dogs being put outside and ignored and not getting any attention (let alone any cheese).

The attitude espoused by dominance theory – that we must physically bully our dogs into obedience – is harmful. Training is one thing. Reward. Praise. Repeat. Occasionally passive punishment (ignore dog! possibly combined with sharp words – “Bad puppy!” is still very effective with Amos) helps for things like jumping and mouthing. I used to believe otherwise (I used to think I knew everything), but now I know better. The science is not behind dominance theory.

I have a few great examples.

Amos has, on two occasions, behaved in a way I might describe as “a challenge.” In both cases, I told him to go outside, and he didn’t want to. His posture got very stiff, and he stared at me, and he growled when I touched his collar. This is un-Amos-like behaviour, and the Cesar Milans of the world would probably say that he was challenging me for dominance. Bullshit. In both cases, there were special circumstances. The first time was shortly after we got Abby – he’d been sick, there was a new dog around, and he was stressed. The second time, he was not feeling well. He was stressed, he was shitty, and he didn’t want to go outside, and he’d had enough.

I’m not saying it’s acceptable behaviour – it absolutely is not! – but it’s not a challenge, and it’s not aggression. In fact, when I told him off, and persisted in touching the collar, he backed down. He continued to growl and grumble, but he got up and went to the door. He was protesting. He was, in fact, trying to see what he could get away with – pushing the boundaries – and all it got him was being told off, put outside, and ignored. At no point did he attempt to mouth, or bite, or cause me any damage.

[side note: this is one point where the difference between dogs and kids would come into play. With a kid, depending on their age or developmental stage and what the behaviour was, I would ideally explain why those boundaries existed. I can’t do that with a dog]

I have had people tell me that my dog was “being dominant” when he licked me (or anyone else). This is such extraordinarily stinky bullshit that I do not even know where to start. Licking is affection, greeting and excitement. I ran into some difficulty when my dad kept telling Amos off for licking him, and Amos started licking him more – because all Amos knew was that dad was cross with him, so he licked him to say, “Do not be cross with the puppy! Be friends!” and the cycle was a bit confusing for everyone.

I have had people tell me to hit my dog.

There was a time when I would have listened, and thus, when I would not have the trust from my dog that I have now.

Dog behaviour is fascinating and complex. You want the trust and respect of your dog. You do not ever want their fear. If fear makes people stupid, imagine what it does to dogs who can’t reason through their emotions.

Please… read the article.


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