Archive for the ‘pack leader’ Tag
It stands to reason that if we have not ever lived with a seriously scared dog that we would not have developed the skills to work effectively with them. Even if we’ve assisted other people living with a dog like this, there’s nothing quite like 24/7 to put our feet to the fire.
I regularly speak with people embarked on the bumpy journey to change their dogs. Many, after hearing the suggestions I make, express regret that they had been going about it ineffectively for as long as they had. It was obvious that what they were doing was ineffective, but unaware of the protocols used to change emotional responses and behaviors in dogs, had no way to discern if the problem was with the dog or with them. Many were following the advice of misinformed trainers or veterinarians and doubted their own ability to apply what were ineffective protocols to begin with.
The two ingredients which are essential to the process of helping fearful dogs are skill and patience. We can often stumble along making slow headway if we are missing one or the other, and it’s what most of us do when first confronted with the challenge of training fearful dogs. It’s when both of these key ingredients are missing from the mix that it becomes frustrating and potentially deadly for the dog. It is often our lack of patience with a dog that compels us to put too much pressure on them and some will snap, literally snap. Dogs who bite people or other animals run an increased risk of being abandoned or killed.
We improve our skills through education and practice. It takes time and energy. That education can also help increase our patience with a dog. When you understand that a terrified dog can’t do what you are trying to get them to do and is not being willfully disobedient it’s easier to cut them some slack. No one stands a 9 month old baby on their feet and implores them to walk or is surprised or disappointed when they don’t. Or we become able to see their behavior for what it is, a warning or a plea.
We shouldn’t be surprised that someone who has only ever lived with happy, social dogs would struggle when an unsocialized or abused dog lands in their home. We need to extend some of that patience to ourselves as the dog’s trainer and caretaker. We too can continue to become more confident and competent in the way we communicate and go about the unending process of becoming better than we already are.
What are the other ingredients you add to your work with fearful dogs?
It would seem that it is too much to expect that people who decide to make a living from “working” with dogs, actually spent some time learning about them. There are plenty of jobs out there that don’t require any education for someone to excel at them. If you want your lawn mowed and raked hiring a neighborhood kid with the tools is probably not a big risk. But if you want your fruit trees pruned you’d better be careful before you give that kid a pair of clippers.
Awhile back I caught grief for suggesting that as admirable as her intentions might be, having a 15 year old run an animal rescue might not be the greatest thing in the world to happen to animals. A similar thing happened when I suggested that stopping to let a newly freed group of rescued laboratory beagles out of their crates to explore the great outdoors, might not be the best choice. That any animal copes and thrives when handled inexpertly is not an excuse for the handling method.
The pet industry is booming. Anyone can label themselves a trainer or behaviorist. Log on to any chat board and it’s apparent that many of these so-called trainers base their understanding of dog behavior on what they’ve seen on television. There’s a saying that if you can’t “dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” One of the problems is that many of the bafflers have no idea that they’re doing it (some do and are laughing all the way to the bank).
I was asked to go through the hand-outs that a vet gave to new clients with puppies. The information came from another vet who made the rounds on the speaking circuit. I was aghast at what I read. Despite the lack of evidence that dogs form rigid social hierarchies or live in packs, the literature was full of advice for owners on how to securely position themselves at the top of said hierarchy. The methods for doing so ranged from cruel to absurd. This came from a vet who, like the rest of us, has access to information about animal behavior and the science of learning. That they were unaware of this information, or chose to ignore it in favor of their own, scientifically unfounded hypotheses on behavior, is inexcusable.
Anyone can start a day care center, dog walking or sitting service. These are people who will be in direct contact with an animal, or numerous animals. If you’ve got a happy dog who only needs to get out for walks, finding someone who enjoys being with dogs may not be a bad decision. But once someone sets themselves up in business they should be held to a higher standard of behavior. I recently heard about a day care center that employed one of the most misunderstood forms of punishment, the time-out. A dog who became overly aroused and did not play well with others was removed from the group and isolated in an area where he could see, but not get to the group of dogs continuing to play. Did the staff expect that by doing this the dog would come to the conclusion that he needed to play more appropriately?
Since I brought it up, the time-out is a tool that is used to end a dog’s ability to continue to perform an inappropriate behavior and then set them up so they can be rewarded for performing the right one. Putting a dog into a time-out and expecting that they’ll come out when they decide to apologize is as silly as it sounds, but yet, it is not far off from what people think is going to happen.
Someone who labeled themselves the “top behaviorist” in their country (I discovered that it’s crowded up there at the top with other self-appointed “tops”) called me an idiot for suggesting that comforting a fearful dog did not tell them they were correct in being afraid. Though they had an impressive history working with and training dogs, they held no certification or credentials as a “behaviorist.” This is not uncommon in the dog world and pet owners would be wise to cotton on to it.
When someone decides to label themselves a surgeon, and goes on to perform surgeries, they end up in jail when they are finally caught. And within the medical industry a surgeon who practices psychiatry, without first taking (and passing) the requisite courses is also frowned upon. If you are inclined to suggest that performing surgery and training dogs are completely different things, maybe you should think about it from the dog’s side of the equation. Screw up a gall bladder operation and you might end up with a dead patient. Screw up teaching a dog to stop resource guarding and there’s a good chance you end up with a dead dog. As someone who takes animal behavior and training very seriously, this thought is never far from my mind.
If we truly love and care about our pets as much as we claim to, we have to put our money where our mouth is. The hope I hold in my heart is that when the art and science of dog training and behavior modification is respected for what it is, and people who put the time, effort and money into learning about it, are both respected and compensated for it, one day the knowledge that we have will filter out into the general population. It will replace the misinformation and myths currently touted and adopted as truth, and dog trainers will have fewer behavior “issues” to deal with and can focus on teaching dogs to open the refrigerator and get their owner a can of soda.
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.
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.
If you are living with a fearful dog who has inappropriate responses to the things it’s afraid of, cowering, lunging, barking, growling, fleeing, etc., it is important to understand something about how animals (including humans) behave when stressed. When your dog is afraid, it is experiencing stress. When an animal is stressed and needs to respond it is more likely to perform whatever behavior it has performed in the past, you could call this behavior a habit. So your dog may be in the habit of snapping at small children. As long as your dog feels stressed, and this is the habit your dog has, this is the behavior you are most likely to see when near small children.
People who are required to perform in stressful situations, police, fire fighters, soldiers, actors, or musicians, for example, will practice whatever behavior is appropriate for situations they may find themselves in. A police officer will practice drawing their weapon, aiming and firing, soldiers may practice dropping to the ground, actors will rehearse their lines and stage directions, musicians will practice their piece over and over again. When these people find themselves in a stressful situation they are more likely to perform the behaviors they have practiced and which have become habits.
In order to help a fearful dog behave more appropriately in stressful situations it’s important to give them the opportunity to practice an alternate behavior at which they can become proficient. This will become the behavior which will replace the one that you don’t like. But in order to learn and practice this new behavior the dog needs to be in a situation in which it does not feel stressed or the level of stress has to be low enough so that they do not revert to whatever behavior has become a habit for them.
The way to learn any behavior is to begin slowly, gradually adding to the difficulty of it. The fewer mistakes made in the process the less likely those mistakes will be repeated. If you are teaching someone to drive a car, it’s best to begin in a parking lot, preferably empty, rather than on a busy highway. If you are working to teach your dog to sit and look at you, it’s best to begin in a place where your dog feels comfortable and can focus. As this behavior becomes more reliable in this place you can begin to work in more challenging locations, always striving to practice the appropriate behavior, not the old habit.
When it comes to dogs and people, practice may not always make perfect, but it does make it more likely!
For more information about how to help a fearful dog be sure to visit the Fearful Dogs website
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.