Friday, February 10, 2017

Teaching Moments: Clients Ask Questions - Let them, Answer them, Show them

This has been a week of client questions. Not what I wanted them to ask, but what was on their mind were things like "being alpha", "dominating their dog or their dog dominating them" and "why is positive better versus resorting to aversion sometimes". 

Truly, I know these questions will be asked, but I am always shocked they are as this is old news anymore. The 21st century is here and we have science to show that positive reinforcement (R+) works and the discipline of removing something is more than enough for punishment (P-).  

Looking at  questions as a teaching moment can go a long way in the client trainer relationship.  I love those moments. Let's take a look at these questions.

To be or not to be alpha, that is the question

As positive trainers, we hear this all the time. Sadly it is human nature to look to aversive choices, if it is unknown that other choices exist or peer pressure from a neighbor, relative or friend who has "had dogs" starts coaching, or if they are simply not understanding the dog they live with and brought into their household. 

Understanding a dog's body language, calming and stress signals are important. Our dogs are expected to learn our language and its meaning, but it is rare that the opposite is true, learning a dog's language and how they communicate and creating a communication bridge.

Stress release chart by Turid Rugaas

"The term alpha isn't really accurate when describing most of the leaders of wolf packs because it implies, the term implies, the wolves fought and competed strongly to get to the top of the pack . In actuality, they achieve this by mating with the opposite sex producing a bunch of offspring, which are the rest of the pack then." Dr. David Mech, Senior Research Scientist, U.S. Department of the Interior. (His full commentary on this issue can be viewed from resources below.)

According to an article by Maureen Ross, M.A. titled "Alpha This, Alpha That" (in resources below), "The original alpha/dominance model was born out of short-term studies of wolf packs done in the 1940s. 

These studies were a good start, but later research disproved most of the findings citing three major flaws: 

1. Being short-term studies, the researchers focused on the most obvious, overt parts of wolf life-- hunting. The studies drew conclusions about "wolf behavior" based on a small percentage of wolf life/living. 

2. The studies observed what are now known to be ritualistic displays and misinterpreted them. Unfortunately, this is where the bulk of dominance theory came from and was used by many as the foundation for writing books and training dogs. 

3.After the studies, the researchers made cavalier extrapolations from wolf-dog to dog-dog to dog-human based on their "findings."

Our domestic dogs are not wolves, even if they share DNA. The key term is "domestic", thousands of years of domestication has led to the dog having quite different habits from wolves and these are verified in studies of village dogs, stray dogs, and wild domestic dogs.  In our homes, the dog becomes a family member and responds to the environment in which they are raised. In our homes, our dogs do not grow up and are dependent on their humans for food, shelter, comfort and more.  If aversive methods are used, it becomes an unsafe environment and they simply default to survival behaviors.

What is really wrong with exploring the term alpha when it refers to our canine companions is that it denotes aversion. It denotes "being over your dog" instead of living "in peace with your dog". Dr. Ian Dunbar, founder of the APDT and internationally known positive dog trainer said in reference to a term called alpha rolling that, a wolf would flip another wolf only if he were going to kill it, imagine what that does to a dog's psyche. 

If there were positive connotations to be had with the term "alpha" it would be that a true alpha doesn't have to fight to get there and that those who do are seen as weaker. So if you think you need to be an alpha and exert power over a dog, in the dog's eyes you are less than worth listening to.  It kind of changes the way you look at the term.  The term will always be out there, it will always mean to humans that they need to "put their dog in their place" or "to be king of the house", all erroneous and the reality is humans can never be dogs nor are they wolves and studies continue to flow when it comes to the domestic dog and behaviors.  Following the science is the best way to make determinations versus taking the advice of various popular television shows or nonprofessionals.  

It is the connotation of the term itself that messes up the mind when thinking in terms of raising our domestic dogs and teaching them (often referred to as training).  

Alpha seems to denote that you must be dominant over your dog or your dog will be dominant over you. Let's take a look at the definition of dominance " from the Merrick Webster dictionary:

  • . the fact or state of being dominant : such asa sociology :  controlling, prevailing, or powerful position especially in a social hierarchy (see hierarchy 4) <male dominance> <political dominance> <companies competing for dominance in the market> <dominance over their rivals>b genetics :  the property of one of a pair of alleles or traits that suppresses expression (see expression 1b(4)) of the other in the heterozygous conditionc ecology :  the influence or control over ecological communities exerted by a dominant (see 2dominant 2b)
  • . biology :  functional (see functional 1b) asymmetry between a pair of bodily structures (as the right and left hands) <right brain dominance>

Dominance is a human term, but in the dog world what is probably more likely is that resource guarding is being seen, which can translate to food, toys, locations, and to people. Labeling is a horrible conundrum to get into with animals and we apply the terms, we as humans are used to and have learned.  The dog is exhibiting either instinctual, learned or ingrained behavior, most likely they aren't trying to take over the household but may have been challenged in some way and see getting through the day as survival.  Some dogs are more active, jumpy, overaroused, hyperactive and many of these behaviors can look like bullying, body slamming, pestering, growling at and also attention seeking.  So being specific about the how, when, why, what of the behavior and when it is displayed is key to solving it. Jumping to conclusions and applying labels helps no one.

False bravado is how Karen Deeds, CDBC, describes dominance. She says, "Modern, educated dog trainers know it is always extremely important to identify the behavior and body language of the dogs without labeling it. But pet owners have most likely already done that! When they describe their dog as alpha or dominant it is important to get the actual physical behavior instead of the label. I give them another more accurate characterization of the behavior: “False Bravado”. A dog like this displays an almost over-the-top amount of courage but in reality, it is a false show of bravery. As mentioned previously, this behavior is a symptom of insecurity or anxiety. The dog is compensating for their lack of confidence and appropriate communication skills by bullying."

Positive versus slipping into aversive to get a "quicker" result

When we discuss using positive techniques (training that uses reinforcement versus fear) versus aversive methods (fear training), it really is as simple as looking at cause and effect.  Both are techniques, but the decision becomes do I want my dog to fear me or not. At least for me, it is that simple.  For companion dog owners who are barraged with tons of information on how to train a dog, it is easy to think that fear is an effective ideology. 

Focusing the client on places like Dogwise books and DVDs ( where hundreds of positive books and DVDs are available or Tawzer Dog DVDs ( is what I usually do so that they can be exposed to the positive reinforcement aspects of teaching their dog.  Just Google "the fallout of punishment in dogs" and get 19,200,00 links. This is a great start for personal study and revelation.

In behavior modification, using aversives means you wait for the dog to do something wrong and then punish them (a jerk, shock, manipulation, coercion, loud voice, force), which deals with the "act" in the moment and appears to stop it. Since it stopped, the pet guardian perceives it worked.  Stopping in the moment occurs because the dog fears further punishment. However, does the behavior go away or does it lie under the surface waiting to resurface?  Are you really dealing with changing the behavior? No, you are dealing with the behavior in the moment and that can cause confusion for the dog. The behavior is subdued and the fallout can come in a later occurrence of the same behavior or the behavior intensifies or the dog simply shuts down and would rather do nothing than to be further punished.  This causes stress in the dog, and to me, the biggest benefit of positive reinforcement is using a stress-free, force-free environment for teaching the dog what you want them to do instead of punishing what you don't want them to do. The former is teaching, the latter has an anger element to it. What has happened is a relationship has been tarnished, trust has been tested, and safety and confidence have been violated. 

In teaching an animal, starting with a strong history of trust, safety and building confidence sets the why of positive reinforcement. Those elements are strongly woven into every interaction with a dog, or any other animal. In our human lives, the dog will come into contact with more than enough scary experiences, and then in those times it is the relationship we have with our dogs that become crucial to working through those scary moments.

Positive doesn't mean permissive

Time to destress can be one positive disciplinary tool. Remove, redirect or relax or a combination of the three is a positive communication that speaks loudly.

In understanding, I think this is where the wheels meet the pavement. People think positive IS permissive, but when it starts to sink in that it is not, then the client has new tools to get better manners, create boundaries and be proactive rather than reactive. In positive reward-based training, discipline means "taking away", "being proactive" in the form of removal (social removal of you or your dog or both, as well as reinforcements). This works because dogs are social and value social contact, food etc. Another tool is to redirect behavior into something else, a game, an alternative behavior, a change of environment. A relaxation period also goes far and is implemented before the dog arouses, or acts out, or is a positive timeout in an environment that allows the dog to destress. One or a combination of any of these are highly effective teaching tools that don't employ pain or fear.

At the end of the day, any day in the life of a behavior trainer, it is important to listen to clients, embrace those teaching moments, educate and inform and shed some light on a topic if it comes up. Showing what else to do in comparison to what was done is also a big part of helping with understanding what to do instead. Most do not want to use punishing methods, it just doesn't feel right to them and so there is an opportunity to show, to compare, to evaluate, and to progress forward in a positive, results-oriented, systematic process to get to the basis of and change behavior. We can hope that we hear these words and phrases used less and less often.


Alpha This Alpha That by  Maureen Ross, M.A. The best quote on alpha rolling is from Dr.Ian Dunbar - a wolf would flip another wolf only if he were going to kill it - imagine what that does to a dog's psyche

"Alpha" Wolves, Dr. David Mech added to the definition of the "alpha wolf" in his studies, but revises his original version because they are no longer scientifically accurate and that was eight years ago on Feb. 15, 2008

Debunking the Alpha Theory,Whole Dog Journal 

The Truth About Dominance by Victoria Stilwell

Tough Love: A Meditation on Dominance in Dogs by Sophia Yin This 2012 documentary feature (produced by Anchorhold Films & Tower Hill Films) traces the history of the “alpha dog” concept from its origins in 1940’s wolf studies to its current popularity among ordinary

Dog Behavior and Training - Dominance, Alpha, and Pack Leadership - What Does It Really Mean?
By Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM March 2011, 

A reference list for the side effects of the use of aversives in punishment, negative reinforcement, and without behavioral change, by Eileen Anderson

This letter came out just this week and further discusses these issues and the fallout of punishment based techniques. AN OPEN LETTER TO VETERINARIANS ON REFERRALS TO TRAINING AND BEHAVIOR PROFESSIONALS Written by Niki Tudge 

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, AVSAB Position Statement The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals 


The Ecology of Stray Dogs: A Study of Free-ranging Urban Animals by Alan M. Beck

The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour and Interactions with People edited by James Serpell

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