Feminism & the art of dog training

painting of early dog fightingIf when I was in university someone had suggested that my major of Women’s Studies would help me be a dog trainer I probably would have thought they were crazy. Majoring in Women’s Studies was like majoring in Philosophy or English Lit, it made for good late into the night conversations with housemates but the job market might be thin when it came to hiring someone with a degree in it, as a dog trainer or otherwise. But I think this course of study has helped me in the development of my skills as a dog trainer.

I will not be the first person to make the correlation between the way women and animals are viewed and treated in our culture. In 1978 Woman and Nature written by Susan Griffin included this introduction-

“These words are written for those of us whose language is not heard, whose words have been stolen or erased, those robbed of language, who are called voiceless or mute, even the earthworms, even the shellfish and the sponges, for those of us who speak our own language…”

She goes on to assemble documentation from textbooks, manuals and scientific theory detailing attitudes, practices and beliefs regarding nature and women that have been disseminated over the centuries. They range from silly to barbaric. That masturbation caused blindness may have been distressing news to many teenagers but that animals did not experience pain in the same way that humans did, and that their shrieking was merely an automatic response, led to practices in animal husbandry that can only be described as obscene.

Theories and edicts exist to support the status quo and provide excuses for the inhumane treatment of both people and animals. Between god, science and country there have been no shortage of excuses for inflicting pain and bondage on, as John Muir calls them, “our fellow mortals.”

For me feminism was about discovering the untold stories, the stories of those rendered voiceless. History is not just about wars and the acquisition of land & wealth. It’s about how women, children and people of color lived, dreamed and created. It’s about art, music, health care, education, community development.

When Suzanne Clothier suggests that even dogs have prayers to be answered in Bones Would Rain From The Sky, I read her words and felt the same kind of euphoria I experienced when I discovered that my experience as a woman in our culture was not a singular event. My feelings of inferiority and fear had been cultivated by a society which held stock in keeping me compliant and shopping (literally!) for ways to alleviate them. That I might consider what a dog wanted- was not an indication of a weakness of character or softness of countenance, but was instead a valuable approach to changing a dog’s behavior- was validation for me as a trainer.

I couldn’t help having my BS radar go off when a television personality came up with the explanation that dogs need ‘pack leaders’ to excuse and explain his physical control and intimidation of them. That this was also a man who could explain that women, being what they are, give affection first, at the expense of attaining control over a dog, did not surprise me (women have been blamed for the problems of their children, and the ways we choose to interact with people has often been said to be inferior to the ways of men). What surprised me most was how easily this was swallowed by so many dog owners and trainers.

“Look!” they will say, “See how the dog complies and is cured of their desire to do something of their own choosing.” (Women needed husbands, slaves needed owners-how else were they to survive and know how to ‘behave’?). But it’s a benevolent control, they will argue, the dog not only needs it, they want it, it’s in their blood. The proof most often heralded, wolf pack hierarchy, was shown to be faulty, yet the belief that dogs live in packs with a defined leader persists. As if without a ‘pack leader’, canine or human, all hell will break loose among a group of dogs.

Indeed hell does break loose but too often it’s a hell which we have created and then fault and punish our dogs for struggling to climb out of it.


36 comments so far

  1. Hepzibah E. Hoffman-Rogers on

    Love this!
    I also am a trainer (with a BA in English) and cannot begin to enumerate the number of dogs that I work with who must first be rehabilitated from the effects of previous dominance training. Fortunately, I see the tide turning and many more people are now willing to consider the idea that their non-‘obedient’ dog is confused, not rebellious.
    Amen, sister!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Hepzibah, nice to meet you.

      Yes the tides are turning and the swell of positive based trainers is growing and am always heartened to hear from trainers like you. The dogs in Texas are lucky to have you!

  2. Donna in VA on

    Can we separate the notion of “leadership” from “dominance”? I think leaderships is beneficial. Leadership is when I step between my dog and an unknown off-leash dog. I ask the unknown dog to stop. I want my dog to let me deal with this problem and to remain passive. I think that is leadership. I am the leader, I will deal with the problem. I get to decide the rules of the house, which furniture is OK to be on, which furniture is off-limits. I ask the dog to respect my rules. I will also pay with treats for the behaviors I like, since a leader should recognize and reward good behavior. I think of leadership as taking an active role. Too many people take the passive role with their dogs and the dog gets to decide everything – the result is often pretty unattractive. Like the off-leash Saluki that ran up to me about 10 days ago. He poked his nose in my crotch, in my butt, and jumped up and put his paws on my chest – incredible! And the owner never even apologized! Note normally I would not tolerate this sort of thing but I suspected this dog of being the subject of a police bite notice that got posted around the neighborhood last winter. I didn’t want to take a chance on finding out if it was the same dog. Maybe that’s why the owner was so passive too, possibly a biter? This dog really needs an active leader and instead got an owner that has absolutely no control and no clue of how to manage her animal.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You sure can separate the notion of leadership and dominance!

      We can also separate the notion of leader and trainer.

      Dominance is one of those words that has been poisoned by its popular use, IMO. Leader is fast joining it’s ranks due to its association with ‘pack leader’ I’m afraid.

      • Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

        I’m with @FearfulDogs. Leadership is different from dominance, but that word has been ruined in the PACK Leader usage. In denotation it’s accurate. In connotation it is not (any longer) … said the English major.

        These days I think if it more as guidance or protection on my part.

      • Mary Doane on

        For me, it’s not leadership or dominance. It’s good parenting. I know that my dogs are not humans. But I sure extend the idea of parenting to include them. Just as I extend care and respect, inherent worth and dignity to non humans. Deb, this writing is magnificent. And, it is the basis of my thinking as well.

        It all fits together… subjugation of women, children, animals… it’s all the same. The recognition that men, usually white ones, are in control.

      • Donna in VA on

        Guidance/protection/good parenting are all good descriptions of my goal and I may change my offhand use of “leadership” as a descriptor. It took me a while to think that through. I also realize I have strictly an owner mindset. I still wish many owners would take more of an active role with their dogs though. Pay attention, teach good manners, take responsibility. I won’t go near the person who’s talking on their cell phone while “walking” the dog – they have no clue what their dog is about to do.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for replying Donna. It’s an interesting topic. Language is important. Someday we can reclaim ‘leader’ and ‘dominance’ and not worry how they will be interpreted by the reader or the one hearing them. Unfortunately how it seems to stand now is that both terms have come to indicate the need to respond in ways that are best controlling and at worst violent.

      While there’s nothing inherently wrong in controlling a dog when they need to be, more often I’d choose to have the dog learn to control themselves. Makes for less work for me in the long run.

  3. Margarat Nee on

    Terrific post. As one who minored in Women’s Studies and went on to a Master of Fine Arts degree I loved this post for it’s intersection of ideas. Will you be taking the discussion further? What about the notion of cooperation as a feminine trait vs an aculturated one? Can dogs be trained without hierarchy (an anarcho-feminist mode)? I find the discussion interesting, and certainly important for informing our choices. The trouble comes when trying to overlay our human culture onto dog culture. Where they intersect is the place of study.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting Margarat. I’d love to take the discussion further, care to sit up late into the night, sip some wine and help? 😉

      I’m not sure I’d be confident addressing what might be ‘traits’ vs learned behaviors as far as men and women go, however. OMG I’d be downright scared to on a blog!

      At the end of the day our dogs are dependent on us, that in itself establishes an inescapable hierarchy. And of course not all hierarchies are bad, indeed being the student of an inspired and inspirational teacher or mentor is one of the great gifts we can receive in life.

      I’m attending a seminar this weekend with Suzanne Clothier during which she will be presenting on her Relationship Centered Training philosophy. To me it’s an appealing direction to be heading.

  4. leashedForLife on

    i can only agree, debbie –
    EXCELLENT post, and BTW i have my own copy of ‘Women and Nature’.

    being seen as uncontrollable, irresponsible, childish, emotional vs logical, etc, is WHY a married woman in many Mideastern countries must have a male-escort as a “minder” –
    if no adult will do, her own 12-YO son is adequate to the task.

    this of course begs the Q, if his mother needs him to ensure she does not do something stoopid, immoral or illegal in public without his guidance, how can she possibly guide -him- in any effective way, now that he’s no longer in diapers and needing basic-care, or a pre-school boy, in need of manners?
    A: she cannot – he has outgrown her; she is never an ‘adult’.

    similarly, dogs – who BTW invest enormous effort in NOT getting into serious fights – are somehow unable to cope without firm, even aggressive LEADERS – who just happen to be male and authoritarian, to say nothing of machismo and its cultural roots.
    * we can lead without domineering
    * we can teach without suppressing
    * we can get compliance without power-struggles

    the sexism and speciesism inherent in all this “dumbinance” where every individual supposedly strives for petty and ultimate control, all the time, is blatant.
    * intra-species not inter-species
    * an event, not a character trait
    * about resources – not status.

    why is it that most adult-dogs are content to let the puppy eat that meal, unmolested? why do most dogs permit any other dog to *keep* what they’ve got – the pig-ear, the bone, their favorite chewie?
    ‘dominating’ a dog by insisting on interrupting or removing their meal is a great way to be bitten, along with being rude and teaching precisely what we don’t want the dog to learn:
    that humans are untrustworthy and thieves.

    leading is not physical or emotional intimidation or confrontation; that’s just bullying and coercion.
    we can lead by teaching – and the first lesson is,
    Trust me – always; i am reliable, i am consistent, i am providing.
    without that foundation, the human-dog relation is a house of cards.
    – terry

    terry pride, APDT-Aus, apdt#1827, CVA, TDF

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Terry. It’s fun for me to pick up my musty, dog-eared copy of W&N and see which passages I highlighted or the comments I made 30 years ago!

  5. Dee Green on

    Debbie, I’ve been a fan and regular RT/referrer of @fearfuldogs and fearfuldogs.com posts for the last year.
    So it’s no surprise that 3/4s of the way into this entry, I was excitedly contemplating sharing it, suggesting any woman who’s ever loved a dog should read it.

    Then we got to “pack leader.’

    I am of the belief that 99% of dog learning is based on them making a positive association with a new behavior/word/place/sound/person. As a behavior specialist, and dog co-habitator, I seek to motivate their desire to DO something, rather than discourage them from NOT doing something else.

    I also very much believe this is as easy as it is with the dogs in my sphere of influence because I’ve spent 2+ decades studying and replicating the behavior I witness between dogs. Specifically, I seek to replicate some of the behavior of the dogs that I observe who earn the immediate attention and added respect (for lack of a better term) of other dogs they spend significant amounts of time with. In my experience, this occurs largely without violence and with very little direct confrontation over the course of a dog’s lifetime in the company of other dogs.

    I refer to the dog that in my experience is treated with more/exceptional deference by the other dogs in its pack as the pack leader because:
    A) I speak English.
    B) Use of “pack leader” to describe a dog that appears to enjoy preferential access to resources, and/or controls the behavior among the dogs it lives with is consistent with standard English dictionaries and scientific and academic publications.

    In recent years, a group of people affiliated with a specific training protocol politicized the term “pack leader,” and it became fashionable to deride same. Doing so did not make the words untrue. Scientifically, the habitat of Canis lupus familiaris continues to be known as a “den,” young dogs are known as “puppies,” and groups of dogs are still called “packs.”

    For the record, I reject any assertion that words such as “leadership, pack(s), pack leader(s), or discipline” equal physical coercion, physical punishment, inhumane treatment, or abuse.

    Anyone who has seen me work with dogs can attest to the fact that I spend the majority of my time DISCOURAGING any form of “punishment,” verbal, physical, or otherwise, while finding new and inventive ways to mark any and everything I can with dried liver/tugs/tennis balls/chin scratches! They will also tell you that their dogs go crazy with excitement when they see me (especially those that have stayed with us). And most will tell you that when followed my recommendations, and emphasized being leaders to their dogs over being play mates, their dogs respected them more, were visibly calmer and more confident, they listened more readily, and, most importantly, it DEEPENED their relationship with their dog.

    I appreciate your selflessly sharing your bountiful knowledge about the dogs that need us the most, and loved the analogy to our experience of being socialized as females in this society.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading, sharing and commenting Dee. I agree with you that being the leader of your pack of dogs does not automatically indicate that one abuses that position (and privilege).

      The goal of play in the work that I do with dogs goes beyond just being their ‘buddy’. Play is a resource, which I, as owner, leader, camp counselor, caretaker, trainer, rehabber, whatever you want to call me, control. Play is another tool which can be used to reward and motivate dogs. It is also an activity which along with creating positive associations, works directly on the reward system in a dog’s brain, and it is this that gives it such power in helping fearful dogs. I see the failure of many pet owners to be not that they are their dog’s playmate but that they are not their trainer. The two are not mutually exclusive the way I see them.

      I do not doubt that you share my care and concern for the well being of dogs. If the work you do helps people and dogs live better, less stressful lives together, more power to you I say! My point in this blog post was not that being a leader is always a negative thing, but that with dogs, as in other arenas of our lives, the abuse of leadership can and does occur, and when it does, this abuse is often explained away as a necessary evil (for the well being of the abused!).

      I don’t think that many of us are on different pages when it comes to working with dogs, we just use different fonts.

  6. Dee Green on

    My choice of comparing being a “leader” to being a “play mate” was unfortunate and frankly incorrect.

    100% agree with you: play, among domestic dogs, is the supreme form of communication. Play is social lubrication, instinctual repetition of hunting rituals (common amongst mammals, apparently), affection, energy/endorphin release, boundary test, and just about every other thing a dog seems to thrive on rolled into one. Appropriate play with humans is vital to the canine-human bond, IMO, and dogs that actively avoid play with all other dogs very often have a host of other social adjustment issues.

    “Equal” would have perhaps been a better choice than “play mate” in my analogy? Or perhaps “friend,” in the sense that children and employees and dogs benefit when parents and management and canine guardians/dog owners behave more like leaders than friends. I think. 🙂

    Also agree 100% that leadership and dominance can be used to excuse abuse, and so can love in the form of food. Modern media sensations don’t get to brand our language just because they use it.

    So I’m here, reclaiming the words “pack leader” and “leadership” in the context of dog-centric, dog-nurturing, balanced training that I believe trainers/educators/owners of all persuasions would be comfortable with.

    • leashedForLife on

      U can use whatever terms float Ur boat, dee –
      but since domestic-dogs don’t form co-operatively hunting packs, hunting, killing and sharing big-game,

      nor do they pair-bond monogamously and rear a single litter co-operatively with minding, rearing, feeding and teaching the pups being a group enterprise, and all pups being fed by any adult they beg from [they regurgitate to feed the pup when solicited],

      the term PACK seems a misnomer – unless we refer to the activity centered around hunting as an EVENT by a group of dogs, who may share the same household or kennel, or be total strangers during a hunt-trial, like an assemblage of Beagles who are total strangers to one another, or Coonhounds in a Nite-hunt who are run by random-draw ==

      so those may be common activities that the dogs engage in as a group, but it’s hardly a social-group of related animals like a wolf-pack which is extended or nuclear family,
      nor is it an artificial “pack” who happen to have been adopted, bought or reared by the same owners –

      a Lab who’s 5-YO, an 18-MO JRT who was adopted at 7-WO,
      and a 3-YO Golden-mix who all live in the same home,
      are not ‘family’ except in the sense of living together;
      and their breed traits are not very similar, either.
      the Lab may bring thrown objects back; the JRT merely chase them and lose interest when they stop moving; and the Golden-mix just carry them around, play keep-away, and rip them apart if they are not promptly rescued.
      – terry

      • fearfuldogs on

        It seems that we like to search for connections and define relationships we create and observe in our lives. Hard to get away from our love of analogies.

    • fearfuldogs on

      First let me thank you for participating in the discussion Dee.

      I know what you mean about the behavior of pet owners who for whatever motivation, fail to teach their dogs appropriate behaviors. Regardless of what we choose to call ourselves in relation to our dogs we remain the ones who get to decide whether coloring on the walls is ok or not.

      I picked on the ‘playmate’ comment because it’s my soapbox, that the first step owners need to take with their fearful dogs is figuring out how they play, what makes them play, and that establishing leadership (or school marm status), obedience training can come later. We first need to find ways to integrate ourselves into the lives of these scared creatures in ways that do not add to their discomfort. The inability to correctly interpret their behavior and define much it as a challenge to one’s ‘leadership’ causes more harm than good and unfortunately it seems to be all the rage these days.

      I think much of the success we have with any approach to training our dogs comes from consistency. Dogs are marvels at figuring out patterns and learning to predict consequences from events. Even if the consequences are predictably bad, a dog is more likely to be successful than if the consequences are scatter shot. It is for this reason that I think practices that routinely use (painful or intimidating) punishment to train dogs can work (not that I recommend them). It is consistency and predictability of the outcome that help a dog learn, and help to relieve stress. There’s nothing quite as crazy making as never knowing whether you’re going to get cuddled or smacked for doing the same thing you did yesterday. We know that consistency of reward can achieve positive results as well.

      Alas, in our culture nothing quite brands language as effectively as a media sensation 😉

  7. Lizzie on

    Hear hear Debbie! I’m with you all the way.

    Consistency, predictability, repetition, patience, throw in a lot of kindness, and you can work wonders with a fearful dog.
    But first there must be trust. The dog has to want to be around you, has to have the freedom to make choices.

    Domination plays no part in a good relationship.

    I don’t think that you need to be a professional to understand that 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      So true Lizzie. While the media often lauds new discoveries and techniques, many of us are just shaking our heads and thinking, “I coulda told you that ages ago!”

  8. Deborah Flick on

    I am totally there with you! I have often thought the same kinds of things, what with my women studies background. Great post!!!

  9. fearfuldogs on

    Not sure if you heard the comment CM made regarding working women and why dogs have problems. If I’d have been drinking coffee at the time it would have come out of my nose!

    • Deborah Flick on

      Yes, I do recall that sexist remark. Apparently the chickens have come home to root. Illusion is divorcing him and this TV show has not been renewed by NG for next season.

  10. Kenzo_HW on

    What a great post. Pack leader and dominance theory re-bunked once more. Feminism has many great principles, and we should use it more to shine light on our relationship with dogs.
    Happily the trainer/behavior world is female “dominated” so we don’t have to wait on man 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m not sure if it’s ironic or just interesting that in the States today we have two dog training celebrities, Victoria Stillwell, an advocate of reward based training techniques and Cesar Millan a proponent of a developing relationships with dogs based on a hierarchy of dominance. Some graduate student out there is writing a thesis I just know it!

      • Kenzo_HW on

        Those are “just” celebrities 🙂 Dog training is a women business, do you see any males commenting on this blog LOL

  11. Mary Haight on

    Great writing, great post! A Chalice and the Blade moment:) The cooperation with instead of domination of dogs honors them, as any animal, with compassionate communication and they deserve no less. Hey, as I read all these comments it occurs to me that this is a book club I’d want to join;-D

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Mary, I’ll dust off my Mary Daly and Adrienne Rich books!

      • Deborah Flick on

        This is too funny. I can’t believe not a few months ago I decided to clean house and THREW OUT ALL of my women studies lectures and gave away nearly my entire library. Now I wish I had them back. Damn. I thought that was all behind me, that I had turned a corner. Apparently I’ve just been circling around in a cul-de-sac. There are TONS of similarities between the way women have been ‘socially constructed’ and teated ‘under the law’, for example, and our social construction of animals (dog in particular) and their legal status. ‘Property’ anyone? The language angle on this subject is particularly interesting. Language as metaphor. Referring to women who are not attractive according to patriarchal standards as ‘dogs.’ Call me a dog and I’ll say ‘thank you.’ And then, of course, there’s my personal favorite, ‘bitch.’ I hope I’m not offending anyone’s political proclivities, but I still have a fondness for ‘Bitches for Hilary.’

    • Mary Doane on

      Agreed…. a book club …. skype…anybody in?

  12. fearfuldogs on

    You are welcome to borrow copies of mine Deborah and if I dig around I might just find that speculum from those ‘discovering your cervix’ health classes in college.

  13. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks for commenting Mary. When I asked a trainer friend what the best book would be to give my niece who had just adopted a dog she recommended Trish King’s Parenting Your Dog. It was a good choice.

  14. Deborah Flick on

    LOL!! Those were the days.

  15. melfr99 on


  16. Michelle Julien on

    Hi !
    Does s.o know the name of the painting that illustrates this article ? Thank you for your help

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