I swore to myself that I wasn’t going to write this. I wasn’t going to think about it. I wasn’t going to go near this subject. I kept thinking back to the trainers who are wiser than me and how they say not to poke the sleeping dragon, because it isn’t going to change anyone’s mind anyway. But I also kept thinking about all the dogs who don’t have a voice, and for whatever reason, I don’t have it in me to stay silent. Perhaps it’s my age, I’m young and sometimes it seems like the world isn’t moving fast enough for me. Perhaps it’s my own guilt, and that I bought into this and brought it upon my unsuspecting dog. Perhaps it’s because I desperately want people to see what I have seen and learn what I have learned. But for whatever reason, I have to speak, or rather, write.
I’m not going to write another blog about how dominance and alpha status don’t exist in my eyes, about the science and the research that backs a lot of that up. I’m not going to bore you with statistics, except for one. In the Regional Shelter Relinquishment Study funded by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, of 71 reasons for relinquishing an animal to a shelter, 24 of those reasons were behavioral. Biting accounted for 22.2% of that, aggression toward people counted for another 17.4%. People aggressive animals don’t get a second chance in shelters.
The dominance and the alpha dog theories promulgated by Cesar Millan and his countless acolytes have a tendency to encourage aggression, especially when used by owners who don’t know what they’re doing, who take it too far, or who wobble between methods. The very nature of this dominance theory is based upon the person aggressing toward the dog. If you don’t think a collar pop, hanging a dog, touching him/her in any way that makes him/her uncomfortable, forcing him/her into a space he/she doesn’t want to be in, or exposing the dog to a potentially frightening situation are forms of aggression, I hate to be so blunt, but you’re wrong.
Now that I’m writing this, I have mixed emotions. I feel relieved, to be addressing this problem in the best way I know how. I also feel anxious, because I know how poorly received this is most likely going to be to some of the people who follow this blog. But here’s the thing, to put this simply – I’m angry.
I have a temper slow to flare, but when it does, it becomes increasingly difficult to quash it without some sort of outlet, and I think Joe may be sick of hearing me rant about this issue at home. Maybe then this statement is more personal catharsis than altruism, but whatever it is, I’ve begun it, and I must therefore finish it.
So here’s why the dominance theory, while it may exist, still doesn’t matter, and why you shouldn’t use it in your training.
Even if your dog is “dominant” or “alpha”, they are going to defer to the one who provides food, shelter and water.
A clicker trainer provides all of these things, without any aversives mixed in. Do I get mad at my dogs? Yes, of course. Do I tell them no? Absolutely. Do I ever collar pop them? Never. I sing nasty songs to them in a happy voice, and sometimes I even let my temper get away from me, and I yell at them, but I try my very best to never physically discipline them, and I make it a goal for every day to take a deep breath when I get angry and remember that my dogs are just dogs, and they are doing doggy things. Their failings are only a consequence of two things – age and lack of proofing. Not dominance.
And even if you believe in the dominance theory, you don’t need to use it in your training. Patricia McConnell, an internationally recognized positive reinforcement trainer with countless hours of research and experience, says in her book The Other End of the Leash that she will debate with other positive trainers over whether dogs are truly ever “dominant” (for the record, she believes they can be), but at the end of the day, she and her colleagues will fall over laughing and let bygones be bygones because dominance doesn’t matter and doesn’t affect her training methods at all.
Why not? Because positive reinforcement training does not take into consideration a dog’s social status (or lack thereof); it doesn’t have to. It takes into account a dog’s emotional state, and more importantly, what they want at the moment and how to give it to them in exchange for something you want. It is a training method based entirely upon providing sustenance and affection.
“Exercise, discipline, affection” is one of the saddest phrases I have ever heard. Positive reinforcement training is all about putting affection and the bond between human and dog at the top of the list, not the bottom. Did you get a dog to be a drill sergeant or did you get a dog, because you wanted someone to love and someone who would love you back?
Dominance is prevalent in our society because we make it so, not because dogs do. Every animal can be and has been classified as “dominant” when they are being “disobedient”, but the animal probably doesn’t see it that way. He/she most likely sees it as being a dog, horse, bird, etc. (Actually, he/she probably doesn’t see it as anything except for instinct, because most animals are not self-reflective). We are the ones who make dominance such a big deal, because we are propelled by the idea of dominance. Human beings are social climbers, but if you really think about it – how much of your day is dominated by dominance? Break it down. Probably not much. Even if dogs are propelled by dominance like humans are, most of their actions are not dominance related. So how is assuming everything they do is just an offshoot of their attempt to be dominant over you an effective training method?
My now four year old, then two year old German Shepherd rescue had a dog aggression problem (often labeled as a form of “dominance” and actually diagnosed as such by a few trainers we spoke and met with). We tried all the punitive methods we could think of, read about, learn about and watch, and he just got worse and worse and worse. Perhaps, people would argue, we weren’t using these methods effectively, or correctly. Perhaps those same people would be correct, but that’s sort of the point – isn’t it? I, like many others before me, took these punitive methods and applied them to my dog in some universal form to correct his “dominance” problem. Instead of getting better, it got worse. This is the point where so many of these dogs are surrendered, never to have a warm home again.
Smokey was lucky, we didn’t give up, and we were willing to try something different, try something positive. As it turns out, Smokey’s problem was not dominance at all, but trauma and fear, and it took a positive trainer to point it out. The other trainers we met with saw him snap, saw him growl, and said he was dominant, to collar pop him and make sure we were the boss, to be “calm and assertive” and tell him “a stern no”, followed by a correction if the problem persisted. The positive trainer saw him step back, saw his back legs shaking, saw the whites of his eyes and his excessive panting. She saw the fear, and she knew how to address it, and it wasn’t with more fear, it was with affection and sustenance. Because of that, Smokey no longer has an aggression problem, and he didn’t end up back in a shelter, or worse yet, dead.
So if you want to crucify me because my method of training is “weak” or “too hard to do”, or that my dog “doesn’t truly respect me” go ahead. But keep in mind, punitive training is not the solution to all the problems – it’s the cause of many. Dogs don’t end up in shelters because they smile at the sound of a click.