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After reading Barry Eaton’s new Book “Dominace in Dogs: Fact or Fiction?” we were inspired to update our essay on the same topic.
When the profession of dog training started taking off in the 1960s, people thought of dogs as domesticated wolves and believed they had to train them as if they were wolves being raised by their human “pack.” When L. David Mech first studied captive wolf packs in the 1970s, he concluded wolves operate in a hierarchy, generally dominated by alphas through aggression. From there, many dog trainers concluded that since dogs are related to wolves and order is maintained within a pack by dominant or alpha wolves, the same must be done in the domestic dog’s home with the human taking on the role of alpha.
Further research has since shown us although dogs are indeed descended from wolves, they are more like distant cousins who, due to evolution and selective breeding by man over the course of 14,000 years, are now very different creatures. Dogs have smaller brains, weaker jaws, altered motor patterns and many breeds are no longer able to communicate in the same way wolves do. The wolf meanwhile has remained unchanged over the span of the dog’s evolution. Consider that a wolf has 60 distinct facial expressions while a German Shepherd, one of the most wolf-like dog breeds, only has 12. Pugs and similar breeds have even fewer facial expressions.
More importantly, Mech and many others have since studied natural, free range wolf packs and have discovered that unlike the captive wolves, there are very few if any battles for dominance. The reason for this is that a natural pack generally consists of a mating pair, that year’s offspring and perhaps a couple of stragglers from previous litters. The “dominant” wolves are the parents. They protect and provide for their young, dependent cubs. Similarly, humans usually protect and provide for the domestic dog, resulting in the human naturally being the dominant creature in the relationship. Humans control access to all of the things dogs want or need, from food and water to access to exercise and mental stimulation. Just as there is no struggle in a natural wolf pack for dominance, there should be no concern that the modern domestic dog is trying to plot to take over the household.
So if behaviour problems don’t stem from dominance, where do they come from? Dogs are opportunists. This is what first contributed to the evolution of the domestic dog from wolves. The ones that were less fearful of humans saw opportunity in the garbage the humans threw away. Dogs simply perform behaviours that benefit them. If you are seeing a behaviour increase, whether you like the behaviour or not, it is somehow rewarding to your dog. This can include the dog that learns to sit in front of a closed door to get the human to open it, to the dog that learns if they snap at people who approach their food bowl, the people will retreat (if even for a moment).
Why should we dismiss dominance theory when it comes to dealing with our dogs? When we think our dogs’ actions are performed in an attempt to gain rank or status, it sets us up for a relationship full of conflict and we don’t get to enjoy our dogs for what they are – dogs! This does not mean that your dog should live without rules or boundaries. Dogs need to understand how we would like them to behave just as our children also need to learn what is expected of them. However, if we get away from dominance theory we can stop wasting our time applying rules that really have no relevance or meaning to our dogs. Consider the following rules that are usually associated with establishing yourself as the “alpha.”
- Always eat before your dog does. Wild wolves from the same group or family often eat from the same kill at the same time. If food is scarce, the parent wolves will actually feed the cubs first. If we always have to eat before our dogs, does this mean every member of the family must gather and eat before the dog does so no human in the house is seen as the dog’s subordinate? This could be very challenging given the busy schedules of most families today.
- Do not allow your dog on the furniture or bed. Your dog does not see itself as the leader because it is on your couch. Your dog may learn that the sofa or bed is more comfortable than the floor and if access is suddenly denied, they may begin to resource guard the furniture. If you don’t want your dog on the furniture due to cleanliness concerns, provide a comfortable dog bed instead. If you do want your dog on the furniture, it is OK. Simply train the dog to get on or off the furniture when you ask so they are easy to move when necessary.
- Never let your dog pull on leash. Although this is a good rule to live by to help prevent injury to you and your dog and to make your outings more enjoyable, it does not result in you gaining status over your dog. It was believed the alpha wolf always led the pack from the front. However, more thorough observations have shown that the alpha doesn’t always lead the pack and it is more likely the young, exuberant wolves are the ones out ahead when they travel as a group.
- Do not play games of tug and never let your dog win. It was believed that alpha wolves would wrestle and tug food out of subordinate wolves’ mouths. However, upon closer examination it was discovered that wolves usually tug on meat for a very practical reason – to more easily eat their prey. They work together as a team and each wolf eats whichever piece they end up with. This does not mean that you shouldn’t have guidelines for your dog when playing tug or that you shouldn’t teach a release command. You still need to make the game enjoyable for both parties!
- Alpha roll your dog to correct unwanted behaviours. One of the most commonly misunderstood element of dog communication, the alpha roll would be more accurately called the submission roll. Normal, healthy, socialized dogs do not force others onto their backs and pin them there to correct unwanted behaviours. Rather, submissive dogs will often display the posture of rolling on their back as a signal of appeasement. When humans alpha roll their dogs, they run the risk of eliciting defensive aggression.
So how do we live happily with dogs if pack rules don’t apply? First, do your breed research and make sure you pick one that suits your family’s lifestyle whether you are adopting or buying. If you are buying, select a good breeder who breeds stable adult dogs and socializes their puppies from a young age. Teach your dog what is expected from them in a fair manner using access to the resources they want or need to reward the behaviours you like. Finally, learn to read canine body language and postures so you can start to have a conversation with your dog instead of being a dictator.
Learning theory does not generally provide the punch line to many jokes or get much attention by the media, but occasionally it finds its way into today’s pop culture. A recent example of this is compliments of one of our favorite sitcoms, “The Office.”
If you are not a fan, the Office portrays life in a quirky paper company that accentuates some of the less than ideal working conditions most people have to endure at some point in their lives. A subpar boss, the office lush, eccentric coworker etc., make this show highly entertaining.
At the beginning of the episode titled “Dwight Helps Michael Prepare,” mischievous office prankster Jim conditions Dwight to want an Altoid every time he hears Jim’s computer boot up. Jim accomplishes this in much the same way Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov did back in the early 1900’s when he first noticed his experimental dogs would start to salivate as soon as they saw people in lab coats. With limited stimuli in the environment, the dogs realized most times they were approached by a person in a lab coat, they were subsequently fed. Pavlov (who was initially just interested in studying digestive systems) noticed this and began experimenting to see what else could get the dogs to salivate. He knew it was the dogs’ natural response to salivate in the presence of food to help with its digestion so he paired it with a completely unrelated event, the ringing of a bell, and found that once the dogs had made the connection between the two, they would start to salivate as soon as they heard the bell. You can play a game here thanks to the folks at NobelPrize.org that will take you through the steps of getting a dog to salivate when they hear a previously irrelevant sound.
So what does this have to do with dog training? Well, from Pavlov’s research stems clicker training. Similar to how Jim conditioned Dwight to respond to the noise his computer makes, we also condition dogs to respond to a click from a clicker. This is often referred to as “charging” the clicker and it is the very first step you must take for clicker training to be effective. Pavlov’s experiments showed us the most effective way to create associations between previously unrelated stimuli is to make sure you click before you present the food and to make the delay between the click and food delivery as short as possible so the dog will easily connect the two events. Once your dog understands what the click means, you can start to use it to shape amazing behaviors and to effectively countercondition your dog to things he may be nervous or afraid of.
Thank you Ivan Pavlov for laying the groundwork for the best dog training practices available and thanks to the folks at the Office for putting a funny spin on the science behind conditioning!
We’ve all seen them – the dogs who take their owners for a walk as they pull them down the sidewalk at break neck speeds. When puppies are very young, they are not capable nor do many want to pull their people down the street. In fact, we often hear the complaint that a new puppy doesn’t want to walk at all. So how does it get from one extreme to another?
The first thing to consider is it takes two to tango and it takes two to pull. When your young puppy becomes more adventurous, he will begin to enjoy smelling new smells and meeting new people and these will be very rewarding experiences for him. When you allow him to do these things while he is pulling or lunging forward, you are telling him he is being a good dog and you really like it when he pulls you toward things by giving him access to these things. If having a dog walk politely and safely on a loose leash is important to you, then you have to make sure your puppy does not get rewarded for moving forward on a tight leash. Timing and clear communication are important here. With a Clicker Leash, simply click as soon as your puppy offers you any slack in the leash and then reward by moving forward, being sure to stop again if the leash becomes tight. Make sure your puppy does not get access to people and places when their leash is tight. You may feel like you are playing a game of red light green light but with young puppies this method will typically begin to work quickly as long as your timing is good and you are consistent. If you allow your puppy to pull occasionally, they will try more and more often to do so in the hopes that they will get to whatever it is they want to explore even faster.
This method has proven to be effective with many puppies but the easiest way to train a dog to walk beside you and something that makes the red light/green light technique even more powerful is rewarding the dog for passive attention.
Begin by clicking and rewarding any attention your dog gives you. Do not ask for your dog to “watch” or “look” or try to get their attention. Just observe them as you are walking and if they pay any attention to you, click and reward next to your side closest to the dog. For some dogs this may be as little as an ear twitch or brief glance in your direction. Don’t reach out with the treat, feed it at your leg to build some reward value for the space around you. As your dog comes to understand that orienting to you and walking near you is a rewarding activity, he will begin to offer you more attention for longer periods of time. As you practice this activity, you can increase your expectations and begin delaying your click for longer periods of time, gradually fading out the click and rewards when your dog is conditioned to walk nicely beside you. Make sure to practice around a lot of distractions that your dog is challenged with on a regular basis, rewarding heavily if your dog can maintain their focus on you as you approach and pass the distractions.
We first learned about passive attention exercises in Leslie McDevitt’s wonderful book “Control Unleashed” and Jane Killion’s equally amazing “When Pigs Fly.” If you have a difficult-to-train dog, one that becomes overexcited and reactive or shuts down due to fear, these two books paired with a Clicker Leash will help you effectively nurture your dog through their issues.
Once your dog eagerly goes to their spot and downs you can start delaying your click and reward so your pup will remain in the down for a longer period of time. Remember to always toss your treat directly on the spot to avoid having your dog jump up to get rewarded after you click. If your dog has a habit of doing so, simply wait until your dog is down on the spot again before tossing the treat. It may take a few moments of deep thought on your dog’s behalf if you have been in the habit of rewarding out of position so be patient for the results you want.
You should also work on a release cue to let your dog know when they are allowed to leave the mat. If they get up before they leave the mat, simply guide them back to where they were and don’t expect them to stay for quite as long on your next repetition. Try to make your release cue a word or action that you don’t say or do frequently to avoid confusing your dog. After you say your release cue (we like the word “break”) hold a treat out to your side a few feet away from your dog and click when they get up to come get the food. After a few repetitions you should be able to release the dog and reward with some verbal praise for coming towards you unless you have a dog that would prefer to rest and relax in which case you may have to spend more time motivating them to leave their mat.
Once your pup can maintain a down stay on their mat for 15 seconds or so, begin breaking down the rest of the steps towards opening the door and having guests enter while you increase the length of time you expect your dog to stay. Remember to always build on success by taking baby steps to wards your end goal. You may want to invest in an interchangeable 9 foot leash length so you can keep your dog secure and your clicker on hand while you build your distance. Begin by rewarding after taking one step away from your dog. Don’t forget to practice turning your back on them as well. It is often useful to check over your shoulder when doing so to make sure your dog doesn’t leave the mat. Click when you are far away and go back into where your dog is laying down to reward. Remember, if your dog gets up after you click it is often beneficial to wait for them to down again before tossing the treat on the mat.
You will want to take small steps in the door opening process as well. Click and reward as soon as you put your hand on the door, then for turning the doorknob, then for opening the door a little bit etc. until you can open the door all the way and your dog will remain on his mat. Remember, a baby gate will help keep your dog safe at this stage of the game.
Once your dog can handle the door being opened and shut without moving, you can start labelling the behavior of going to and staying on the mat. Instead of using a command like “go to your mat” you may want to make the door bell or knocking the cue to go lie down and stay. Begin by ringing the door bell yourself or recruit a close friend or family member to help. As soon as the knock or doorbell occurs walk with your dog toward the mat until they lay down on their spot. As soon as they do, click and jackpot with up to five times the amount of reward they had been receiving.
With each repetition of the doorbell or knocking try not to walk quite as close your dog’s spot so they will actually start to travel further away from you to get to there. If your dog hesitates, let them think without speaking so as not to interrupt their thought process. Try looking at the mat instead of your dog so they will know what they should be interacting with. If your dog becomes disengaged with you or gives up, take a break but don’t make the break rewarding and when you go back to it, start at your last successful stage. Remember to always keep your training sessions short and your dog wanting more by ending the game first. Your dog will learn faster with short, fun sessions. If you hear a voice in your head say “just one more,” quit while you are ahead!
Your final step to having a relaxing Halloween or any time you have to answer the door, will be the most challenging for many dogs. When you have people enter the house, it is best to work with a team mate who can make sure your dog is rewarded for staying on the mat and not jumping all over your guests as they enter. You should practice this with a close friend who does not mind taking orders from you before the real guests arrive if you do not have a team mate. It will be important that your guests understand not to pat or pay attention to your dog unless they are down on the mat. You may also want to provide your visitors with a treat to reward your dog as they get closer to the mat and your dog stays down. Once your guests are in the house and comfortable or if you have some trick or treaters who would like to meet your dog, you can release them from their mat and reward for keeping four on he floor. For some great tips on how to accomplish this check out the second runner up of the 2009 Canis Film Festival.
Hopefully this Halloween will provide you with a chance to practice the skills that will pay off over the approaching holiday season! Remember out of every frustration comes a great learning opportunity!
While at a party last weekend, I met one of the cutest puppies I have ever seen. After six years of teaching group obedience classes, puppy socialization classes and in-home Perfect Puppies programs, I have seen my share of cute puppies but this one took the cake. The little guy looked a bit like a Border Terrier with some long-coated Chihuahua thrown in the mix. He had a striking sable colour pattern with some white spots for good measure. He belonged to the neighbor next door and was out for his nightly rituals. When the neighbor held him up to the top of the fence, he was immediately swarmed by all the “crazy dog people” at the party and he took it all in stride. He soaked in the attention while his owner said how much people seem to be drawn to him and what a great feeling it gave her spiritually to have such a special little puppy in her life after losing her old dog a few months earlier.
It was uplifting for me to see someone so attached to their puppy with nothing but positive things to say. But suddenly, things changed. The woman declared that she was an avid Cesar Millan fan, she followed everything he recommended to the letter and that was why the puppy was so wonderful. I am sure I must have grimaced slightly and the group of educated dog owners that had gathered around my side of the fence seemed to recoil slightly and gradually disband. Visions of three dogs I had tried to help in the past year whose owners had been practicing the techniques they saw on National Geographic’s “Dog Whisperer” swarmed through my brain. One dog had been re-homed after snapping at the child in the family and the other two had been euthanized for biting (one of the dog’s owners required 17 stitches to his face after alpha-rolling the dog for resource guarding). My horror continued as the neighbor informed us that she wanted desperately to go study with Cesar Milan so she could help spread his messages and methods around the world.
“But don’t you find him a bit mean?” I asked. The woman looked at me as if I had just used her lord’s name in vain. Her eyes flashed as she countered that Millan was kind and loved dogs. Various episodes of his show seemed to fast forward through my brain all at once. Dogs with tucked tails and whale eyed expressions, being repeatedly checked and occasionally choked in the name of dominance danced through my head like clips from a scary movie. All I could sputter out was the fact that the man still uses choke chains. The neighbor argued that he only used the tools that his clients wanted him to use.
Typically I do not back down from a Millan debate. With science on my side, a growing number of studies and reputable organizations lending their voices in support of positive reinforcement it does not take much convincing to convert people from dominance theory to learning theory with a focus on reward-based training methods. Once people realize their dogs are simply opportunists, not masterminds trying to takeover the household, they happily leave the alpha rolls, choke chains and other punitive tools behind.
For some reason I felt completely disarmed at the thought of this puppy being checked into submission if it stepped out of line. I felt like the ancient Greek scientists and philosophers who first suggested the world might not be flat. I didn’t know where to begin in explaining how flawed the Dog Whisperer’s techniques truly are. Should I have started with the fact that dominance or rank is rarely the root for bad behaviours in our pet dogs despite Cesar blaming it for virtually every problem he encounters? Should I have taken the time to explain the suppression of behaviors that Millan typically performs on his show often results in fallout on another level? Or perhaps I should have told her about the recent research that found 25% of the dogs observed actually acted aggressively when alpha rolls and other types of force were used?
Instead I walked away and told her the puppy was lovely as I strolled back to my chair. I felt hopeless as I have when in circular arguments in the past. It has been so long since anyone has challenged the ideas and facts that I present them and it was as if I had forgotten how to fight a good fight. I have since vowed never to walk away again. Hopefully the neighbor at the party will expand her readings beyond Cesar and pick up a scientific journal some day but I have my doubts. I have seen these same people in chat room and other blog postings and they are challenging to have logical discussions with because they believe in untruths. Just as it is equally challenging to convince people who believe the world is flat that it is in fact a sphere, it is difficult to argue with Millan’s militia.
He is very dominant. Of all the words used to describe the goofy dog that was vying for my heart on the adoption floor, these are the ones that stuck with me. I inherently knew what the shelter manager was talking about even though Buddy was my first dog since childhood and I had never studied anything about dominance theory during my university career. “He won’t start any fights but he won’t back down,” he informed me. Well, I can live with that I thought in my adoption afterglow.
Over the next couple of years I used dominance to explain many of Buddy’s undesirable traits that appeared as he entered social maturity without the assistance of obedience classes to learn appropriate manners. With a wave of the dominance wand I was able to explain all of his inexplicable behaviour problems – counter surfing, bullying puppies, humping, occasionally destroying the recliner and getting into scraps with unneutered male dogs. Everyone seemed to agree and all understood what I was talking about without a detailed explanation. He is just being dominant, I would explain and everyone would nod in agreement.
I was offered plenty of free advice that ran the gamut of using a choke chain to control him, to humping him if he humped another dog. I thought surely these secrets of dog training would help me and my pooch. I had put any memories of the tedious learning theory courses I had studied in university out of my mind and grabbed a hold of dominance theory. It was easy to understand and could be used to describe why a problem was happening and how to solve it. Long ago I had blocked the rules of reinforcement and punishment from my mind that are the foundation to understanding how all animals (including dogs) learn and respond to their environment. It was boring and none of my friends at the dog park ever talked about it.
Since those early days with Buddy, I have heard dominance used to excuse separation anxiety, dog-dog aggression, aggression towards humans, rambunctious play styles and inappropriate greeting rituals. Dominance has become a fixture in dog culture but few understand its true meaning or how to apply it when safely training their four-legged companions.
According to a number of dog trainers regularly featured in mainstream media, it is important for people to assert their dominance over pet dogs in a style that mimics wolves. They encourage clients to alpha roll unruly pets and otherwise force them to submit in order to correct or prevent problem behaviours. Often, these methods result in immediate “results” because the animal is frightened and temporarily stops the offensive behaviour. However, they do not learn an alternative, appropriate behaviour and often get into the same trouble when they feel it is safe, usually when their caretakers aren’t watching. Some dogs will even stop the unwanted behaviour permanently but may be difficult to train in the future because they fear the consequences of their actions.
What the dog training celebrities seem to have forgotten is that being dominant in the animal world means you have control over resources. These resources include food, preferred resting places and mates. As humans with opposable thumbs and big brains, it is easy for us to be dominant without ever touching, hurting or intimidating dogs. We already control access to our dogs’ food, water, sleeping area, outdoors, affection, friends and toys. By asking our dogs for a desirable behaviour, for example a sit, before we give them access to these resources, we become important in our dogs’ lives and earn their respect in an unaggressive manner.
There is a reason the celebrity trainers who focus on “dominating” dogs warn people not to try their techniques at home. What makes for entertaining television doesn’t always make safe training. Often, they will use force or flooding to change dog behaviour but in essence they are suppressing the problematic behaviour by shutting the dog down. When you suppress behaviours by scaring a dog, you have done nothing to change the behaviour and it may be lurking, waiting for an opportunity to rear its ugly head. Further, when dogs start to distrust their humans, the risk for dog bites increases exponentially.
The easier, scientifically proven way to train a dog without any fallout is to reward behaviours you like and withhold rewards when a dog presents a behaviour you don’t like. When we control access to our dogs’ resources, we control our dogs. Dominance trainers are right when they say not to give everything to your dog for free. They explain that this makes us the alpha. However, the success most people experience with this technique can also be explained by learning theory. Any time a dog is rewarded for an action, they are more likely to repeat it in the future. For example, if you get your dog to sit and wait until you exit a door first (a technique normally prescribed to gain rank), your dog will learn that to get access to the outside, they need to sit until you tell them otherwise. They are not respecting you as dominant, they are earning a powerful reward for sitting and waiting – getting to go outside and explore the world!
Another flaw with training philosophies that focus on dominance theory is that they are based on studies from the 1940s that looked at captive wolves, taken from various packs. The wolves were not part of a natural pack that typically consists of a breeding pair and their offspring from the previous two to three years. The wolves that were observed by the scientists of the time were in an unnatural situation that resulted in increased aggression and fighting.
Modern research of free-roaming dogs has found submission displays are much more important than dominance displays to maintain the peace. Because wild dogs are scavengers and opportunists, not typically predators, they generally live more solitary lives than wolves without structured hierarchies. If you observe an “alpha roll” between two dogs, try to note whether the dog on top forced the bottom dog there or whether the submissive dog actually offered his belly up.
Next time someone tells you a dog is behaving a certain way because he is being dominant, see if you can identify what might be rewarding the dog’s behaviour instead of accepting the dominance diagnosis. Consider the bouncy dog that jumps up on everyone despite being pushed down, kneed or grabbed. Is the dog trying to dominate everyone he meets or does he find human touch so rewarding that it doesn’t matter what form it takes? This approach also works for the growling dog in the safety of his owner’s arms. Is he trying to dominate approaching strangers or does the growling usually cause people to go away and leave him alone with his favourite people?
When you are watching dogs and trying to figure out what could possibly be encouraging an unwanted behaviour, remember rewards are as varied as the personalities of our four-legged friends. Food, playing, cuddling and praise are obvious rewards but dogs can also be rewarded by their own actions. A barking dog may enjoy alleviating feelings of frustration through their vocalizations or they may like the attention it gets from their human companions.
It is important to provide your dog with a clear understanding of what they are required to do to live peacefully within the rules of our society. Given that approximately 90% of aggression in dogs is fear-based, it is critical to provide structure and feedback without using scare tactics. Alpha animals (ie: the parents) act in a calm, relaxed way, leaving aggression to the insecure and defensive. People who work with wolves are quick to point out that they do not tolerate forceful humans. We are unable to communicate with the accurate timing and types of signals dogs and wolves use to converse within their respective species.
Dogs give many clear but subtle signals when they are stressed. Once you know what to watch for, it is easy to pick up on the red flags that indicate when a dog is upset. Test your dog communication skills the next time a dog training show is on TV. Pay close attention to the dog’s mouth, eyes and ears. Is the dog yawning frequently but doesn’t seem to settle? Does the dog repeatedly lick his lips? Can you see the whites of his eyes? Are the ears pinned back? If you look at the dog’s body, is it tense and moving slowly or staying close to the ground? Is the dog panting heavily without having done any physical exercise? Is the dog sniffing the ground frequently in an attempt to avoid eye contact? Each of these clues will tell you a dog is feeling insecure or even frightened. A frightened dog is a potentially dangerous dog depending on whether it chooses fight or flight.
Other not-so-subtle signals that dogs use to communicate with their humans include growling, barking, baring teeth, hard stares, air snapping and actually biting. Of course we try to keep our sensitive skin from experiencing a dog bite but many of the popular trainers also insist on shutting down the other signals dogs use to communicate, again accusing the dog of trying to dominate their owners with aggressive displays. When a dog growls or bares their teeth, they are sending out a loud and clear signal that they are not comfortable. Stopping this form of communication without addressing the root cause and helping your dog feel more comfortable, results in the dog trying to communicate more clearly. A dog that tries unsuccessfully to warn their people with a growl may progress to a snap. If the snap doesn’t get the message across then the dog may resort to making contact with skin.
Establish yourself as a leader by controlling access to resources and you will have a dog that works happily and confidently for you. If your dog is doing something you don’t like, take the time to train a new, incompatible behaviour and use the resources your dog wants or needs to instil new habits. Not only will you have a well-behaved pet, you will have a dog that loves, respects and trusts you.
Here at the Clicker Leash Co. we strive to bring humane training tools to the masses so people can develop well-behaved pets while building a life-long bond based on trust. But the possibilities are truly endless when you use positive reinforcement to train your pet and nothing illustrates this better than this amazing video that is currently being featured by Lindsey Hein on Examiner.com.
Interestingly, this video was filmed in the 1950s and begs the question why anyone ever used anything other than positive reinforcement as the foundation for dog training? How did punitive and dominance-based techniques ever rise to popularity when the power of positive reinforcement is so evident? Hooray for Jay Sisler and his amazing pooches!
New research out of the University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences found that contrary to popular belief, dogs do not aggress because they are “dominant.” According to the paper titled “Dominance in Dogs – useful construct or bad habit” published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, Clinical Applications and Research, the researchers spent six months examining dogs’ interactions at the Dogs Trust re-homing centre.
The researchers looked at interactions between neutered male dogs and found relationships were formed, usually in pairs, but they could not indentify an overall hierarchy within the group. The authors found conflicts were more likely to arise over a resource that was perceived as valuable by the dogs and pointed out the dogs would learn that aggression would get them access to the resource. In essence, the aggression was rewarded if it kept other dogs away from the item of value which would cause the dog to be more likely to aggress again in the future.
To put this into context for the average dog owner, think of the dog who becomes aggressive if another pooch comes close when he is receiving a food reward from his owner. The dog receiving the treat may bare teeth, snarl or air snap at the approaching offender and if the offender has good doggie social skills, he will likely back off and leave the dog alone. Even if the owner stops treating the dog, he will learn that aggressive posturing results in the “trespassing” dog leaving him alone. Further, he may also make a negative association with the approaching dog because his treats went away when the other dog got closer.
In our experience with the 10 resident Clicker Leash Co. family dogs, we have noticed that some of our four-legged friends place more value on various items that others. The dog that cares about the resource is most likely to become defensive if another dog approaches but thankfully because we live in a house of plenty (ie plenty of toys, food, water and special treats) the dogs typically just move on if they come face-to-face with a growl or lip curl. In our home these are deemed good communication skills because they do not result in altercations. If we ever had two dogs that both cared a lot about a resource, we would simply set up the environment so the item could be enjoyed without interference or we would work on creating a positive association with dogs approaching.
In the words of Jean Donaldson, author of “The Culture Clash,” dogs do what works!
As Dog Bite Prevention week is recognized across the United States, one of the contributing factors to this seeming epidemic may require Americans turn off their TVs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close to five million Americans are bitten by dogs annually with approximately 1,000 people requiring emergency medical attention every day. A key factor in aggressive dog behavior is the way they are trained. Experts agree the dominance-based techniques often used on popular programs increase the risk of aggression and dog bites.
Adina MacRae, President of the Clicker Leash Co., inventor of a new positive dog training tool, says this is why she brought her humane training system to market. “I have seen first-hand the results of dominance-based training methods and they can be scary,” says MacRae. “The majority of dogs bite out of fear and the techniques you see on most television shows are designed to suppress undesirable behaviors with scare tactics.” MacRae, a dog trainer known for using positive reinforcement to help dogs overcome aggression, noticed as the popularity of dominance-based training grew, she was getting more calls about growling, snapping and biting dogs. She points to the disconnect that often results when people try to take on an “alpha” role instead of being a guardian to their companion animals that leads to dogs becoming defensive.
MacRae is not alone in her experience. Most recently, the journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science published the results of a year-long University of Pennsylvania study illustrating the risks of aggressive training. It was discovered that “alpha rolls,” where dogs are rolled onto their backs and held there, and “dominance downs,” where dogs are physically forced onto their sides, resulted in an aggressive response from at least 25 per cent of the surveyed group.
The study’s findings are backed by a 2008 American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) position statement on the use of dominance in animal training. The AVSAB recommends veterinarians not refer patients to trainers who adhere to dominance hierarchy theory and the confrontational training that typically results. The society went on to recommend the use of positive reinforcement to safely train animals. Joan Orr of Doggone Safe, a non-profit organization dedicated to dog bite prevention through education, recommends clicker training as a hands-off way of training a dog while reducing the risk of bites.
Great news on the Bo Obama front! The pup’s trainer, who kept him under wraps for the first family, is a firm believer in positive reinforcement. Sylvia Stasiewicz, founder of Merit Puppy Training in Virginia was one of the first to bring humane training techniques to the area. When Stasievicz founded her business she realized the command-and-control, choke-collar approach employed by most trainers of the time was less appealing and less effective than the newer positive-reinforcement approach. She rejects chokers and harsh corrections and relies on food and lures and seizing opportunities to reward good behaviors while largely ignoring unwanted ones.
Merit Puppy Training focuses on puppies and families learning and growing together. Strasiewicz stresses the importance of starting dogs off on the right paw from a young age with plenty of socialization and good manners from the start. She has developed a curriculum that helps people create family-friendly dogs. The doggy etiquette she teaches included polite leash walking, not jumping up and no resource guarding. She also teaches people to be more dog savvy and helps them recognize their dogs’ limitations and be sensitive to their pets’ needs.
Hats off to Sylvia Stasiewicz for bringing dog-friendly training into the spotlight!