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Pawsitive Training for Better Dogs

Pawsitive Training for Better Dogs

“A dog has the soul of a philosopher.”

Plato

Dominance

Author: Mychelle Blake

Should you be the "alpha" over your dog? Is your dog in a constant struggle to dominate your household? Should you let the dog know you are "the boss" through intimidation tactics? There are many misconceptions about dominance among the public that need to be clarified.

In the early days of formalized dog training, there was a great emphasis on using the "wolf pack" model to describe dog behavior. In this model, one wolf is the "alpha" wolf that rules the rest with an iron fist (or paw) and does so through intimidation and aggression. The infamous "alpha roll" of puppies and dogs comes from this idea, where you emulate the lead wolf by rolling the dog forcibly on its back to tell it you are in charge. The problem with this model is, it's wrong, and can be quite dangerous. More recent and longer-term studies of wolf behavior by researchers have found that this definition of "dominance" is flawed. In a wolf pack, the top wolf leads through its ability to control the resources that the pack needs to survive. These resources include the ability to hunt and find food, sleeping places, and access to mating. An alpha wolf may use displays of aggressive behavior such as growling or an erect body posture to intimidate another wolf, but the other wolf submits by rolling on its back willingly. A wolf that grabbed another wolf and forcibly flipped it over on its back would terrify the other wolf into thinking it's going to be attacked and killed. Therefore, using an alpha roll on your dog will not communicate to your dog that you are an effective leader - it will merely tell them that you are a very dangerous individual to be around and they are at risk of being attacked at any time.

The other problem with using these wolf models is, even if you use a more correct theory of wolf behavior, your dog is a dog, not a wolf. Dogs and wolves share a genetic heritage, but they are not the same and their behavior differs in major ways. Studying wolves can help in learning about dogs, but if it is the only model used, your analysis will be very incomplete.

“Dogs and wolves share a genetic heritage, but they are not the same and their behavior differs in major ways.”

Dominance is a description of a social relationship where one party has an elevated status over the other. Keep in mind that a dog that is dominant with one dog may be submissive with another. It is also quite common for dogs in a household to reserve status roles depending on the situation, i.e. one dog may be more dominant at feeding times, while another is more dominant when choosing a sleeping area. The biggest misperception that dog owners have is that dominance is equated with aggression, when in fact no correlation exists. Often times in dog and wolf packs, researchers will observe that it is the middle ranking pack members who are aggressive and who start fights. The dominant member is usually the most confident member, the one who controls resources and knows it, and shows good leadership skills. Squabbling and pushy behavior is more of a "beta" trait - dogs that will never be at the top but are insecure and anxious and try to jockey for position whenever they can.

You should always think of yourself and your family as good, effective, benevolent leaders. A leader does not rule through intimidation or scare tactics, but through confidence, charisma, and control of resources. How do you make yourself a good leader? Here are some tips:

  • Always ask your dog to do something for you before they get anything in life that they want. This can include food, walks, play, toys, petting, attention, getting on furniture, etc. Every dog is different so you will have to determine what things are important to your dog, and then take control of them. Asking your dog to sit, or lay down, or do a trick, before they get any resource is a very simple, yet effective, way of instilling structure in your dog's life.
  • Train your dog in basic obedience commands. It is not necessary to have an everyday "pet" dog trained to competitive obedience levels, but having a dog that understands and reliably performs the basics (sit, down, stay, walking well on leash, coming when called) makes life easier for the both of you. It's easier on the owner because you have a dog that will do what you ask them to do, and it's easier for the dog because you have clearly established a line of communication to him about what you want, and you've made things clear and structured for him. The more unstructured the environment is for an animal, the more stressed and anxious that animal will become.
  • Reinforce and reward deferential behavior at every opportunity. Dogs will tend to repeat behaviors that bring them good things, and stop doing behaviors that gain them nothing. Realize that dogs are basically self-motivated, selfish creatures. They do not do things "because they just want to please" or because they are little Lassie clones. The truth is, dogs want to do things that get them good things like food, walks, play, attention, etc. When they are giving you lots of love and affection, it is because it first and foremost makes them feel good. An effective leader will let them know which actions will get them what they want, and which will produce nothing. If you reward pushy, obnoxious behavior, you will get more pushy, obnoxious behavior, but if you ignore it, it will in time extinguish itself.

John Rogerson, a well-known trainer and author from the United Kingdom, stated that every dog owner should ask themselves 3 questions.

  1. In a 24 hour period, how much do you influence your dog's behavior?
  2. In that same period, how much does your dog influence your behavior?
  3. In the same period, whom does your dog spend most of its time playing with?

If the answer to #2 is higher than the answer to #1, then you are not likely being an effective leader. If the answer to #3 is not you, then it's unlikely you have much influence over your dog. The dog is determining who and what it plays with, what the rules of the games are, and when and where they happen. Think about these three questions when you interact with your dog - "influence" and "leadership" and control of the dog's resources, not intimidation and fear tactics, is the answer to having a dog that respects you and your position in the household.

Copyright 2003 by Mychelle Blake

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