There’s No Need to Be the Alpha Dog
Last night when taking our dogs for a walk, I saw another two dog owners and their two dogs. Casually chatting, the dog owner with his older Beagle said, “Cooper gets this way when he wants to dominate me.”
This guy would do anything for Cooper, and is by all accounts as kind and gentle as pet parents can be.
In this instance, I was able to easily convince him that our dogs don’t wake up in the morning scheming to dominate us if we don’t take the initiative to dominate them.
But many people feel this way. A big part of the problem are dog trainers who continue to train dogs using assertive and aversive methods, and clients assuming that these trainers are correct when decidedly they are not.
Common sense – it seems – would dictate positive reinforcement works best. Would you rather work with someone who praises you when you are right, or merely admonishes when you are wrong?
Some say that simple statement doesn’t apply because our dogs are like wolves who require us to demonstrate we are the pack leaders.
However, our dogs are not wolves.
Yes, dogs are related to wolves, and evolved from a wolf species (now, long extinct) but actually dogs evolved with us.
So, if common sense doesn’t win the argument, how about science?
For me, the most compelling study I’ve seen is when veterinary behaviorist Dr. Theresa DePorter, based in Bloomfield Hills, MI, looked at a local dog trainer who used aversive training methods in his puppy classes. After one year, 38 percent of the puppy class grads were re-homed, surrendered or euthanized.
It gets worse, after two years, 60 percent of dogs were re-homed, surrendered or euthanized.
DePorter then convinced that same trainer to offer positive reinforcement classes, and instructed him on how to do so. The five weekly in-hospital puppy socialization classes were for pups ages seven to 12 weeks. This wasn’t a typical tiny study of a pawful of dogs; she followed 519 puppies for a year. And one year later, 94 percent of dogs remained in homes, compared to aversive training which over a third of puppies were re-homed, surrendered or euthanized a year later.
Need more? Only a few studies have analyzed training methods used on military working dogs (MWD). A 2008 survey of 303 Belgian MWD handlers revealed the use of harsh training methods were not as effective as positive reinforcement, and may even present a welfare issues. Pulling on the leash and hanging dogs by their collars were the most commonly used aversive stimuli. The team’s performance was influenced by the training method and by the dogs’ concentration: (1) low-performance dogs received more aversive stimuli than high-performance dogs; (2) dog’s distraction influenced the performance; distracted dogs performed less well.
And positive reinforcement seemed to positively impact the relationship and the bond with the handler, which for handlers and their MWD can mean the difference between life and death.
What Does the Public Know
In his blog for Psychology Today, Dr. Marc Bekoff nails it when he writes, “Research has shown many dog owners do not reach out to professionals for advice on dog training methodology. Even if they do reach out to dog trainers, the profession is unregulated, and many trainers are still using and promoting outdated methods. In addition, cultural factors such as family history or celebrity trainers influence how owners interact with their dogs. The evidence on negative welfare and behavioral consequences of training dogs using aversive tools and methods is relatively recent, and it may take time for the general public to become aware of the risks.”
As for shock collars, “It’s a shame shock collars were developed in the first place. I shudder when I think of how some still use them.”
Very few truly educated dog trainers support the notion of aversive training. Still, as Beckoff says, since the profession is unregulated (some are working to change that), how does the public know?
Pet parents (particularly millennials) are beginning to understand. I authored a blog post about a pair of trainers in Vancouver, dubbed the Dog Dudes, scheduled to launch a TV program based on their attitudes of dominance, and to use their own “pack” of Siberian Huskies to help “red-zone” dogs.
The videos I posted told the story. Both videos posted in my blog post have now been removed from YouTube (by the Dog Dudes or their production company). Coincidence? I called for readers to take action, and people did just that. And now the evidence of their methods – at least in these videos – is gone. Though, luckily I screened shot some images, which can be seen here.
There’s lots of other documentation of studies that support the contention that positive reinforcement is not only a more effective way to teach our pets, but it’s also what they deserve. After all, our dogs are supposed to be our best friends. Why would you even want an adversarial relationship?
I’ve done many videos to support positive reinforcement training. Here are only a few:
This video features a conversation with legendary applied animal behaviorist Patrica McConnell:
Here, I talk with dog trainer Kelly Gorman Dunbar about the alpha notion and training your dog like a wolf – or at least we attempt to make sense of that nonsensical notion:
In this video, Anna and our dog Hazel help me out: