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Is My Dog Winning

Mile High Dog Magazine
April/May 2010
Is My Dog Winning?
The Truth About Pack Leadership
By Pat Blocker, Certified Professional Dog Trainer
“If I let my dog do that, aren’t I letting him win?” When asked that question my first thought is, “Winning what?” It seems that somewhere along the line dog training has become a perceived battle of wills, a conflict over dominance.
“Alpha” and “dominance” are trendy words used on popular TV shows and in certain dog training philosophies. They are words used to describe leadership status in the relationship we have with our dogs. I think we’ve gotten it wrong. The words infer that a struggle has taken place and that the leader fought his way to the top position. Actually, the leader just gets to make the rules.
While dogs may have descended from wolves, they are not wolves. Much of the information used in dominance based dog training comes from the observation of captive wolves. Wolves in captivity do not behave the same as they would in the wild, e.g. captive wolves live in forced packs. In the wild wolves do not live in packs but, in family units. The parents became the natural leaders by mating and producing offspring. Likewise, living with dogs should be more like parenting than having to dominate. Remember how Mom could simply give you the look and you knew exactly what to do?
“Alpha” can be defined as: Priority access to limited, critical resources. That’s fancy talk for, “I’ve got the cookies, that’s why”. Many believe thatthe alpha dog always eats first or goes through doors first. I don’t believethat I have to eat first. Until my dog grows opposable thumbs and can workthe can opener, I’m in charge. I’m the one who provides the critical resource(food) in exchange for polite behavior (sitting quietly).
One problem with the dominance based theory is that so many of the behaviors we are trying to modify, such as excessive barking or failure to come when called have nothing to do with critical resources. These behaviors are occurring because the dog is getting reinforced for them in some manner. Positive training methods look objectively at the facts of the undesirable behavior. Knowing that dogs do what works for them, we ask what the payoff for the behavior is, stop the payoff, (the reinforcement), and then train a preferred behavior. No conflict. Problem solved.
I am not here to say that dogs don’t form hierarchies. I am here to say that dominance is not synonymous with leadership. Dominance is better described as a state, not a trait. It is a relationship and it is contextual. In a human paradigm, the boss may prevail over her employees at work, but those same employees make the rules with their children at home.
Dog training seen through the filter of the dominance theory, can result in some ridiculous ideas. I’ve even heard some say that a dog’s obsession with chasing a laser light can be attributed to the fact that the dog wants to dominate the light! How did we get that idea from observing wolf pack behavior?
In addition to explaining away undesirable dog behavior, the dominance theory is often a justification for physical punishment. I don’t use aggression with my dog, because I don’t want him to use aggression with me. To peacefully establish my place at the top of the hierarchy I use the nothing in life is free program, a benevolent, yet effective method. The method makes me the type of leader my dog wants to follow.
Positive does not mean permissive. In the nothing in life is free method, a dog learns that polite behavior gets him what he wants, e.g. sitting before he receives his food or greeting people at the door with a polite sit/stay.
A benevolent leader has the ability to elicit good behavior from a dog and maintain it with proper reinforcement. Others wait for undesirable behaviors to occur and then punish them. Both methods work. However, the positive leader augments the dog/owner relationship; the leader using punishment can impede it.
A dog that is trained using positive methods will enthusiastically offer behaviors to discover which ones work for him. A dog that has been continually punished in his quest may become afraid of the trainer and shut down. Shutting down is often mistaken for submission; in reality, the dog has given up. A worst-case scenario for punishing a dog is that the dog will decide to fight back.
Being the pack leader is not about conflict. Leadership is about the ability to influence the pack to behave in a desirable manner. Let’s not wait for our dogs to make a “mistake” and then correct them. Let’s teach them acceptable, polite behavior and reward them for it. Life is so much happier that way and everyone wins.
Want to know more on this subject? See the following:
AVSAB Dominance Position Statement:
Pat Blocker, CPDT-KA, is a certified professional dog trainer with over 17
years experience. She offers private in-home training, group classes and
specializes in solving canine behavior issues. Contact Pat at Peaceful Paws •