Imagine your child (or future child, if you don’t have children yet) comes home from school one day with a huge black eye. After the initial shock of such a gruesome injury on your baby, anger starts to take over, “what happened, who did this to you?!?”
Little one looks down at the floor, “Teacher did…”.
Your blood boils over, “what possible reason could your teacher have for hitting you?!”
His face turns red, he tries to make himself invisible, “he said I was displaying dominant behavior like an alpha male chimpanzee…”
This story is absurd, right? Anyone reading it probably thinks I’ve lost my mind by the time you reach the end. But, what if I told you that this story plays out every single day, in millions of households across America, and even on network television!?
The 1st worst mistake new dog owners make is listening or adhering to the tenants put forth by something called “Dominance Theory”
What is Dominance theory?
Dominance Theory(DT from here on out) states that “a hierarchy based on dominance relationships(dominant individuals vs. submissive individuals) is the organizing principle in –dog– social groups.
If you are at all familiar with the “Dog Whisperer” show, Cesar Milan uses this theory in his methods. Many, many, many people in the dog world abhor this man, myself included, because his tactics are animal cruelty plain and simple. Yet the public remains largely uneducated about why this theory is incorrect and why the methods it proposes are so abusive.
Overview of problems with DT.
There are many issues that come into play when we discuss why DT is incorrect. I will touch on the larger ones here.
-The original purpose of the research that led to DT was conducted on wolves. It was meant to try to define wolf social behavior and was never meant to be shoehorned into an explanatory role of dog social behavior.
-These same studies have been largely discredited by later studies because they were initially conducted on groups of wolves that were not natural packs. These “forced” packs displayed unnatural behavior that has never been reproduced in the study of natural packs in the wild.
-There are a lot of issues with these studies because of the time they were conducted and who authored them. There has been a litany of proposed observational biases that the researchers showed. This is almost impossible to prove so I can’t say one way or the other if it is true, but it’s important to make ourselves aware of the existence of such predispositions when we are looking at behavioral studies.
-Perhaps the most glaring problem with DT, and the studies associated with its bedrock principles is that it asks us to take behavior that was observed(incorrectly, as mentioned above) in wolves and to apply those tendencies to dogs based solely on a genetic ancestry. It is akin to the teacher in the story hitting the child because he was displaying behavior that chimpanzees show when trying to assert their dominance to other chimps. As you can see, the idea that we are asked to do this in DT is completely ridiculous.
I want to touch on some of the most prominent conclusions of those that believe in DT that I commonly see from dog owners. Unfortunately, these methods have, somehow, become ingrained in our culture.
“Your dog is trying to dominate you”
-Whether it be running in front of their owner, winning a game of tug of war, going through the door first, etc, etc, people often assume that their dog is trying to dominate them. It simply is not true. Dog’s don’t form tight-knit social groups that would necessitate any displays of dominance and have no reason, whatsoever, to dominate their owner’s. It’s actually quite easy to see the proof of this if you ever see a gathering of more than a few dogs. They form loose, temporary groups while interacting with each other. Unless there is a dog there with behavioral issues that have nothing to do with her need to dominate other dogs(usually this behavior is based on fear), you will see a few come together, then go do something else, then form another group with new members, and so on.
One of the issues that many people attribute to being the result of a dog trying to dominate their owner is guarding their food or toys. Quoting a study done in 2003 “Thus, it is assumed that food guarding is an early sign of a “dominant personality”in a dog (Overall 1997). In fact, this correlation is a result of operant conditioning. In guarding food, aggression may be reinforced by the other (human) animal’s withdrawing to a greater distance. The reinforced behavior emancipates itself and, reinforced in other situations, becomes a generalized behavior. This is an example of the way in which statistical analysis can produce trivial information and serve to mask rather than reveal the mechanisms which are, in fact, operating. It is also an example of how a model, once adopted as a persistent belief, can act as a filter distorting perceptions to the point that observations lose all value and enter the realm of fantasy.”
So why is DT #1?
If you have ever watched Cesar Milan’s show then you know the answer to this question. The methods that this theory advocates are extremely violent and dangerous for everyone, including the dog, involved in the training.
In addition to being abusive, violent, and cruel. The methods that DT would have a dog owner employ also don’t work for an overwhelming majority of dogs!
Yup, you read that correctly.
This type of training only works for the most resilient, mentally toughest, “hard”, individuals. What will usually happen with most dogs is something called shutdown and fallout which do not fit the definition of “work” in my book–nor anyone else’s that I know–.
A bit of back story here to define shutdown. There was a study done a long time ago before ethical considerations would have prevented it from happening, where dogs were subjected to a room with an apparatus(floor or box) that delivered a continuous, painful, electric shock.
Some dogs were put in rooms that had a switch that would turn off the electrified object and thus stop the excruciating pain. These dogs learned very quickly to hit the switch when the it was turned on (obviously right?).
There were other dogs, though, that were subjected to rooms that had no switch. Which meant that absolutely nothing the dogs did would turn off the shock. These dogs eventually just laid down in the middle of the floor and coped with the pain. These dogs developed what is known as “learned helplessness” and even when they were given access to rooms with a switch, or even rooms with an exit, they just continued to lie in the middle of the floor. This is shutdown, and it is what happens when a dog is exposed to training methods such as those proposed by DT trainers.
The reason why this, thoroughly debunked, the theory is so stubborn about going away is because of something caused suppression.
What happens is that the behavior in question, let’s say pulling on the leash during walks for example, when met with a leash pop(in our example), stops until the leash pull stops, then the behavior starts again, leash pop, stops again, leash pull stops, pulling starts again, and on and on and on. I think most people have seen this scenario play out with their own eyes. The owner feels like they are accomplishing “training” in these cases because the behavior is suppressed for a short time but in reality, all they are doing building up the associations that will eventually lead to more problematic behavior. This type of training is referred to as “nagging” and is very ineffective, most of the time, leading to shutdown in the dog. So the owner feels like the training is “working”(because of the short-term results) but, as we have shown, that is far from the case with most dogs.
The other, more serious, major issue with DT training is fallout. The easiest way to understand fallout, in my opinion, is to think of a statistic that I’ve heard a lot when people talk about abuse victims. I don’t know the exact number off hand, but a large portion of those who suffered abuse as children, grow up to be abusers themselves. This is due to the mental issues related to the fallout from the trauma of being abused.
In dog’s, fallout can manifest itself in many ways, from aggression to extreme fear, to phobias. The mental problems that DT training causes are more numerous than I could possibly get through here. Suffice to say that many dogs subjected to these training methods will end up being euthanized because of the mental issues that the DT training caused.
So we come full circle and have arrived at the reason why #1 on our list is DT related training. A huge number of dogs are surrendered to the pound every day because of behavioral issues. It would be impossible to figure out how many of those problems were directly associated with their owner’s use of DT training, but I’m willing to bet the number is quite large.
The best way to avoid this mistake is to use training methods that are based, mostly, on positive reinforcement. Mainly because it works, but also because your dog will be happy, healthy, and any problematic behavior can be trained as opposed to, alpha rolled away.
Some great resources for +R(positive reinforcement) training can be found below:
Also, I have dedicated a section to our blog that lists books that only deal with +R methods. This list also contains books that deal with specific behavioral problems and a section dedicated specifically to puppies.
This last entry in our series of the top 10 worst mistakes new dog owners make will also be piggybacking into our next series. We will be dealing with an in-depth, scientific, foray into dog behavior. From learning to competition, we will delve into our favorite 4 legged friends world!
If you missed them, here are our 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th worst mistakes new dog owners make