Archive for the ‘alpha’ Tag
Language is important. The words we use to convey ideas matter. Times change and language changes with it. It is helpful to know that when someone is describing something as fat, they mean it’s phat. There’s nothing wrong with being gay and happy, or gay and homosexual, but using the word gay as an insult, as in that’s so gay, should be discouraged, even if the kid saying it does not realize its implications.
Frequently I am asked for my opinion on trainers who I have never met or have seen working with dogs. When someone with a fearful dog is going to consult with a trainer, often a coup in itself, the skills of that trainer matter. With nothing other than a website to go on I have to make assessments as to whether or not that trainer has the ability to help a dog struggling with what may be extreme fear based behavior challenges. And helping the dog means helping the owner understand and work with the dog. I am well aware of, and share with owners, the limitations that exist with my long distance appraisals. One of the things I take into consideration is the language a trainer uses to describe the relationship between the owner and their dog.
Years ago, some of the best trainers in the world used the term pack leader to describe that relationship. But times have changed and like a poisoned cue, the term has become outdated and potentially dangerous. There can be endless debates regarding the different definitions of leadership and how we implement that leadership, however one need not have a shred of leadership ability (whatever the heck that means anyway) in regard to dogs in order to effectively look at and come up with ways to change their behavior.
A trainer who advises dog owners to act as leaders may do no harm, and even some good, when dealing with dogs who are only lacking in basic skills and manners. But once you move on to dogs who need more help in changing their emotional and behavioral responses, the leadership recommendation is often sorely lacking and frequently misleading. Owners don’t need to be better leaders, they need a better understanding of what is setting their dog up to behave the way s/he is and the steps to take in order to change that behavior. Even the parent model, or otherwise benign leader model does not give owners the skills they need to effect the changes they want to see.
Dog owners don’t need to become professional dog trainers in order to help their special needs dogs, they need information about behavior and what ends or maintains it. It’s a much simpler and safer solution than encouraging owners to come up with ways to be respected as pack leaders, which is something even dogs don’t have a definition for.
The term ‘red zone’ dog has come into vogue to describe aggressive dogs. There is the connotation that these dogs are different in some fundamental way from other dogs. The term is often used to justify the use of severe punishment in order to train them. It’s as though, unlike every other dog on the planet, they are only able to learn if punishment is used.
Creating ‘red zone’ dogs is a fairly straight forward process. Take a dog, preferably one who is fearful, and force them to deal with things that upset them. Add one or more humans who are either arrogant, uneducated, ignorant, mentally ill, or some combination of the aforementioned. Do not allow the dog the freedom to get away, and maintain constant pressure on them in the form of punishment or threats of it. Any resistance on the dog’s part should be addressed with physical punishment, almost anything will do, a collar yank, a slap, kick or alpha roll. Yelling at the dog can suffice in some cases. The goal is to remind the dog that they are completely out of control of what happens to them, and that humans will make sure it stays that way.
The domestication process gave us dogs who are not likely to behave aggressively toward humans. Unfortunately some glitch has created people who are all too willing to behave aggressively toward dogs. And like a self-fulfilling prophesy, create the problem that allows them the excuse to continue to do so.
There are plenty of professionals who are routinely frustrated by the beliefs held by their clients or potential clients. Researchers studying climate change are likely among them. Humans are complicated creatures. On one hand we seem to be capable of stunning thoughts. Whether in the arts or sciences, we can come up with remarkable ideas. On the other hand, we are also bound by a brain that seems to have a mind of its own.
Ask a roomful of people if dogs need pack leaders and I’m going to guess you’ll see more hands raised than not. Why is this? Chances are that the only reason they believe this to be true is because they’ve heard it before. It turns out that we are inclined to believe a statement is true because we’ve heard it before, regardless of whether it is true.
Brain scientists call it the illusion of truth effect. In some cases it may be absolutely benign, believing that when you die you go to heaven doesn’t hurt anyone and likely provides comfort to many. Whether it is true or not doesn’t matter (except of course once you’re dead). The problems arise when someone is repeatedly exposed to slogans or edicts which are not true, or should be questioned.
The ray of hope that force-free trainers should see from this is that so long as we keep talking, keep putting information out there about how animals, even snarling, aggressive ones, can be trained without persistent punishment or coercion, people will start to believe it. So don’t despair, just keep talking. We’ve got more than illusion to back us up.
How would you justify going to a surgeon who claimed to be really good at cutting out tumors but had flunked out of classes on physiology and biology? Maybe some of their patients survived the surgery and went on to live full lives without a tumor, but what about the others? What about that nerve bundle that the surgeon nicked because they didn’t realize how important it was to walking? Or that the tests ordered prior to surgery were read incorrectly and the wrong blood type was requested? If someone was desperate and grasping at straws I could understand how they might use this surgeon. But how does that surgeon explain putting themselves out there as a professional?
At a seminar I was attending a young trainer described how she explains to potential clients how she trains dogs. It was along the lines of; All dogs are different and I do whatever works. It’s a statement I could even make about myself. I had the opportunity to watch this trainer handle a rambunctious, young, male, Labrador Retriever. She had been unable to provide a rate of reinforcement that was high enough to get the behavior she wanted from the dog. She was also unable to explain to the owners how to do this and instead the dog wore a shock collar and was subjected to repeated collar corrections in order to get him to ‘calm down’. I realized that she wasn’t doing what worked, she was doing what she could do.
I understand how challenging high energy dogs can be, but I was stunned. The foundation reward-based trainers build with a dog is finding rewards that are reinforcing enough to the dog they will repeat behaviors to get them. Sometimes this can take some exploring, but with a lab? A lab!? Labs are the poster children for food and play as reinforcers.
Unless you have the skills to teach behaviors without inflicting pain, yelling, or threatening a dog, with a level of proficiency that demonstrates knowledge of how the various types & schedules of reinforcement get behavior, you have no business, as a professional, resorting to punishment as a solution to a behavior challenge. Even if you can demonstrate that skill and knowledge you should also be able to identify the potential risks and fallout of using punishment, should you decide to use it, so you are prepared to identify them should they occur. Knowing how to punish a dog to stop behaviors is not enough, you should be well versed in all the reasons why you shouldn’t.
Back in the early 1980′s I was intent on finding ways to get university credits without actually sitting in a classroom. I discovered study programs which were taught ‘in the field’ and awarded credits toward graduation. I spent months hiking in the Sierra Nevada in California, weeks canoeing rivers in Montana and sweating in Death Valley. My biggest regret to date is that I didn’t participate in a wolf study program because someone told me all you ended up seeing was wolf scat.
On a reading list for one course was Barry Lopez‘s Of Wolves and Men which followed the histories of people’s relationship to and mythology about wolves, and made a case for the conversation of the species. It seemed long overdue that I would visit a place like Wolf Park where I could actually meet, and interact with wolves. A 3-day seminar contrasting the behaviors of wolves and dogs, and the agreement of a friend to join me, tipped the scales, and I sent off a check and booked a flight.
As a dog trainer focusing on fear based behavior challenges I’ve had to consider how current popular attitudes about wolves and their relationships with each other have impacted how dogs are being handled and trained. Notions of ‘pack leaders’ and ’alphas’ have been questioned and redefined but for a variety of reasons have been slow to percolate through to the cultural knowledge of the general population.
What I observed at Wolf Park was not only educational, it raised my opinion of dogs, which says a lot since I already hold them in the highest of esteem. This was not because my opinion of wolves was lowered. Never having seen a natural pack of wolves interacting with each other, I didn’t have an opinion. My opinion of dogs went up because of their connection to this extraordinary animal.
The sophistication and fluidity of the emotional responses of wolves was awe inspiring. The wolves appeared to rely on a spectrum of emotions that changed smoothly and rapidly to communicate preference and intent. I was reminded of the difference between our sense of smell and that of canines. With more scent receptors to work with they can detect scents and levels of scents that we cannot even fathom the sensitivity of this ability. Their social interactions seemed to include a constantly changing emotional kaleidoscope, which made human interactions seem bland by comparison.
If our dogs have retained even a fraction of the emotional sensitivity of wolves they must think us brutes in our interactions with them. We ascribe them limited variability in personality, pulling labels from a short list of attributes. And as a trainer friend commented, then we insult them by asserting that they are merely reflections of their almighty human handlers. Certainly our behavior affects theirs, but they have their own ‘souls’ as my friend said, or unique identity, if the religious implication of ‘soul’ is off-putting.
Many of us have been fortunate enough that we are able to take certain things in our lives for granted. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time watching wolves. I am even more fortunate to be able to spend time with dogs who prod me into opening my eyes and mind wider. And who also never fail to remind me to pay attention to what both my heart and gut have to say, even if I’m not listening to anything else.
As smart as we humans consider ourselves to be, we can be remarkably short-sighted or inconsiderate of the effects of our beliefs or actions. Antibiotics have saved countless lives and I consider myself among the lucky in history to have lived in an age during which we have access to them. But we have also learned that unless we use them judiciously, the fall out of resistant bacteria is very real and can be deadly. Yet for many, including, surprisingly, doctors, they continue to be misused.
When I meet trainers or dogs owners who believe that dogs need to be dominated in order to be appropriate pets I rarely doubt that they enjoy having dogs in their lives. However the perpetuation of the myth that dogs need to be ‘shown their place’ in the household pack hierarchy may have had serious consequences for breeds of dogs some trainers and advocates have specifically targeted for image improvement. This impact goes beyond the routine effect on a dog who has been ‘dominated’ displaying increased fear and aggression. That alone should be enough to reconsider the practice.
Touting the concept that dogs are inclined to seek a higher status in their relationships with people, including displaying aggression to do it, is scary. Growling, used by dogs to indicate that they want to maintain or increase their personal space, which may include food, locations or toys, is upsetting enough that many pet owners and trainers will punish a dog for it. It scares us. It scares us even more if we believe that it is a rung on the ladder up to domination. ‘Nip it in the bud’ is the tactic employed by many, and can have unintended consequences. Stopping growling does not necessarily stop the preference the dog has for being left alone, anymore than if I was punished for asking the fellow standing next to me on the subway to stop touching me, means I welcome his behavior because I’m afraid to speak up about it.
As sophisticated as humans are we are still ‘animals’ and have retained many of the responses that kept us alive long enough to evolve and achieve our own level of global domination (germs and cockroaches aside). We are as concerned about being attacked as the next fellow mortal regardless of how many limbs they use to walk, or whether they swim or fly. When we incorporated the myth that status seeking in dogs is a powerful enough desire that they are willing to attack and kill humans to get it, red lights started flashing in the parts of our brains that respond to immediate threats which affect our survival. This unfortunately has led to less use of the parts of our brains that are capable of critical thinking.
There is plenty of information, provided by biologists, ethologists, behaviorists, and writers, far more skilled than I, to include the research done on both wolves and dogs which indicates that both animals interact within a system that promotes cooperation far more than it does conflict, especially conflict which might lead to grievous bodily harm, in this post. I welcome readers to include links to that information in comments. My goal for this post is not to address that, but rather to suggest that when you convince people that dogs need an ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’ in order to be a safe, ‘balanced’ pet you instill a level of fear in people about dogs which may have led to the increase in breed specific legislation and heightened laws regarding which dogs communities feel safe having in them.
I have rarely doubted that trainers like Cesar Millan and others who follow his ‘premises’ about the relationship between people and dogs, like and love dogs, but the unintended consequences of maintaining the ‘alpha’ and pack leader paradigm, including practices and handling techniques which can increase aggression, may be proving to be deadly to the very dogs they claim to care about.
In a blog about fearful dogs you wouldn’t think that I’d pay so much attention to this whole dominance virus that has infected the health of our relationships with our dogs, but it’s major. I run an in-home boarding business for dogs. It’s a nice set-up for the dogs and the owners that use my services are conscientious pet owners. It’s not a scene that every dog would appreciate, but for those that do, it’s not only a nice way to spend a few days, it helps them brush up on rusty social skills since most live as solo dogs.
A potential client and I had an email exchange recently about her dog. She described him as a friendly, good natured dog that had some issues with select dogs when he first meets them. He barks at them. She went on to say that she never had an ‘alpha’ dog before and was learning how to deal with it. Certainly a dog that sees other dogs and barks at them must be trying to dominate them right? Ah…no.
Confident dogs, or dogs that are intent on being the big dog on the block rarely spend a lot of time barking at other dogs, far from it. They get their point across with their bodies and their eyes. Well socialized dogs, even in situations in which they are establishing their place in the playground hierarchy, rarely even fight. It’s a beautiful thing to watch a group of socially adept dogs determine ‘who I am to you’. With looks, stances, paw & head placements, the messages are conveyed and then the games can begin.
So what difference does it make if someone mistakenly believes that their dog is trying to be ‘alpha’? It matters because our responses are usually based on what we think is going on, AND how we feel about it. The results of our responses to our dog’s behavior may or may not be what we were after, and if our responses don’t make things better, they can make what we see as a problem, worse. It is probably not far off track to assume that most of the behavior problems seen in dogs relinquished to shelters or by trainers, have been caused by inappropriate responses to their behaviors, by their owners.
Fearful dogs that never bit anyone in their life can be provoked into biting by a handler assuming that the dog’s behavior is a challenge or attempt to dominate the situation. Physical intimidation, promoted by National Geographic’s Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, is exactly the stuff that can make this happen. Remember that one does not need to hit or touch a dog to scare or intimidate them. I remember cringing through one episode in which a dog that was afraid of the bathtub was man-handled until it finally bit Millan. His response to this bite was along the lines of ‘good, he was just having a tantrum’. Someone like Millan who doesn’t seem to mind the occassional bite can intimidate a dog enough so that it does not learn that biting works to keep scary things away. But for most of us the prospect of being bitten makes us back off, which is what the dog has been trying to communicate all along by cowering, growling, lowering its head, rolling over, etc. Now an owner has effectively taught their dog that biting works, that the dog basically needs to shout since the owner has proved themselves hard of hearing.
The dog whose owner believed it is trying to be an ‘alpha’ dog is one of the lucky ones. This owner is not into harsh or intimidating techniques of managing her dog. But what of the other scared dogs that are not so fortunate? Many defenders of trainers like Cesar Millan will say that it’s not his fault if people do not use his training techniques appropriately (even used as directed they can have disasterous results). I disagree. He is promoting the domination of dogs and is responsible for the outcome from that. Supporters seem to be willing to give him credit when the outcome is positive but not when it isn’t. When a leader of a country says publically that AIDS is not a sexually transmitted disease (as has happened) and therefore people do not need to take the appropriate precautions to prevent contracting the disease, I believe that he is responsible for the potentially deadly results of his actions.
The results of the belief that dogs need to be dominated can be deadly, especially with fearful dogs.
I make no pretenses about it, I am obsessed with my fearful dog Sunny. Not only do I think about him, I am always looking for ways to help him, and other scared dogs. Leafing through an old issue of Newsweek I read a quote attributed to Tibet’s Karmapa Lama and of course, thought of scared dogs.
“For any living being, when you feel the force of being cornered time and again, more and more, the time comes when you have nothing else left except to explode.”
He is not speaking directly about dogs, but of the Tibetan people, yet sadly for both humans and dogs, too often when we protest about our situation we are either ignored or punished. In either case we may feel compelled to escalate our response.
Pay attention to how dogs are treated when they attempt to make their feeling known, often they are reprimanded, “Bad dog!”, No!”. Their intentions are misinterpreted, instead of people understanding, “Please leave me alone!” they are told by some trainers that their dog is trying to be dominant or challenging them. Punish a dog that has asked, in one of the few ways that dogs can, ‘leave me alone’ and you can end up with a dog that may become even more frightened. Punish a behavior and you may stop that behavior, but you don’t necessarily stop the emotion that causes that behavior. Prevent a dog from communicating with a growl and they may resort to a bite.
Wouldn’t it be great if those people who considered themselves the leader of the pack, whether it was a pack of dogs or a country, were willing to hear what those they were controlling were asking for? What most of us want is just to be able to live our lives free from fear and oppression. Don’t put your dog in situations in which it feels the need to growl or protect itself and you are on your way to not only changing how your dog feels but you are also preventing your dog from practicing a behavior you also want to change.