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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!

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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!

There has been an outpouring of rage over the arrest of a Salem, Oregan man on Tuesday for using a shock collar on his four kids because he “thought it was funny.” The 41-year-old father is accused of using the shock collar to “torture” his children ages three to nine and was charged with four counts of criminal mistreatment in the first degree. Although it is surprising that someone would get pleasure from scaring and tormenting their children, what is even more surprising is the reaction of the police who investigated the case.

The officers who investigated the case used words like unimaginable and disturbing to describe the man’s actions. One of the investigating officers went on to say “we shouldn’t have to tell people in our society not to do things of this nature.” Why is this reaction so surprising? Because the practice of using shock collars on dogs as a “training tool” is still so widely accepted. Why is it unimaginable, disturbing and considered torment when a device is used on a child yet it is OK to use it on a dog? We know dogs are not human but that does not negate the fact that they also experience pain and fear. If the use of a shock collar made a child cry and run away, why is it considered effective to train dogs if we know that 90% of dog aggression has its roots in fear?

Victoria Stilwell describes the use of shock collars as disgusting, perverse and abusive. She like many other professional dog trainers and behaviorists has to deal with the fallout associated with the use of shock collars on dogs. From dogs who are nervous to offer new behaviors for fear of being punished with a shock to dogs that redirect aggression to people or things they come to associate the electric shock with, these types of collars result in problem behaviors in many dogs. Hopefully with the media attention being paid to the sad case of child abuse in Salem, more people will realize that these are inhumane products that are unsafe for children and our pets.

If you interview a group of reward-based dog trainers you will likely see two common threads. Professionals who use their brain, not brawn to train come from a variety of backgrounds and enjoy different breeds but the two things that dominate this group is a passion for dogs and roots in traditional, correction-based training methods. These “crossover” trainers may have used choke chains, prong or shock collars when they started out but once exposed to the benefits of positive reinforcement, embraced the concept and immersed themselves in a new culture.

When people first adopt reward-based training there is often a strong desire to stay away from any punishments. It is absolutely possible to train without harsh corrections and this will lead to an uncompromised relationship between handler and dog based on mutual trust and respect. However, people often stumble when they crossover because they feel guilty about how they trained in the past and overcompensate by allowing the dog to do what they please without providing guidance if the dog gets into mischief.

With positive training methods dogs are able to think things through and experiment to see what works, but that does not mean they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. It is our responsibility to set the dog up for success and control their environment so they don’t practice behaviours we dislike.

If an unwanted behaviour becomes more frequent, it means two things. First, your dog is getting the opportunity to practice it. Second, your dog is somehow being rewarded for his actions. Take for example the dog that drags its owner wherever he wants to go. Dogs quickly learn whose space they can control and will take advantage of this in order to meet and greet other dogs and people or to explore new places. They get rewarded by moving forward and getting attention (good or bad) from the new friends they meet in their travels. Most dogs are not physically stronger than their handlers but many people will accommodate their dogs and don’t prevent them from moving where they please for fear of appearing “mean.”

You do not need to be mean or a bully to prevent your dog from practicing unwanted behaviours. Usually a calm body block where you place yourself between your dog and whatever it is you want them to stop interacting with will do the trick. If your dog tries to go around you or walk past you, simply move your body as if you were guarding a soccer net from a ball and walk into your dog’s space to back them up. You can also teach your dog to follow a hand target to get them out of trouble without even touching them. Always focus on rewarding the positive when you are training your dog but don’t forget to manage their environment and prevent them from practicing unwanted behaviours so you can have the perfect pooch.