How can this be possible? A professional dog trainer that makes his living training dogs admitting that dogs can actually think they are better? What? Is this some new-age dog training philosophy? Am I nuts? No.
This is just common sense that flies in the face of the teachings of scores of dog trainers out there that are stuck in the 1960s methods of dog training that would feel right at home in the popular series Mad Men. Let me explain. You probably have heard the terms "alpha" or maybe have heard someone tell you that you "need to be the boss" or maybe even had someone tell you that you need to roll your dog on his back to make sure that he knows you are in charge.
These are all indicators that someone is talking about "dominance", "pack theory" or "alpha" strategies in dog training. In that dog training "camp" trainers urge their students to make sure that their dogs never get out of line. The recommendations can be even more severe for aggression cases including terrible physical abuse each and every time a dog growls, snaps or barks at something that causes fear.
Besides physically abusing a dog that is already scared or “misbehaving” being bad advice in individual cases, it creates a bigger problem for dogs all over. This type of thinking puts the blame on dogs for being scared, barking, pulling on the leash, jumping, or other naturally occurring responses to environmental stimuli. The resulting strategies used to “correct these problems” are often extreme, overreactions to make sure the dog doesn’t get out of line. One strategy commonly used is the alpha roll. If you are not familiar with the ill-advised alpha roll, the strategy is as follows.
If a dog growls at a dog or a person, (let’s say a child) quickly flip him over on his back “to show him who is boss” until he calms down. This is supposed to change his behavior by teaching him that this behavior is not acceptable. Since the person “is the boss” and the dog is the lowly dog, the dog is supposed to quickly change his behavior because he was told to.
What is so maddening to me about this technique is that it does nothing to address the initial fear that caused the response. If a dog growls at a child, he is afraid of that child. People yell at each other and possibly sue them if they are angry, dogs growl and bite. This is a universally understood signal announcing discomfort and to “move away or I might bite you”. Signals are good because they are warnings and provide information for skilled trainers to assess the situation and humanely desensitize the dog to the event that caused the fear.
If you alpha roll a dog you might reduce or stop the growling, but you have done nothing to address the initial fear that caused the growling. You quite possibly will end up with a dog that seems calm, but then attacks without warning at a later date because he reached his stress threshold. He might be afraid of being alpha rolled, choked with a metal collar or shocked, but at that moment the child walking by is more frightening and he has to take action.
There are many other techniques frequently used that I am fundamentally opposed to including choke chains, prong collars and shock collars all in the sake of "dog training". For the purposes of this post, I want you to think about making sure you understand that one "bad" behavior in a dog does not mean that they will go down to path of no return and turn into a "bad" dog.
But doesn’t it matter that dogs know their place in the pack? My question to you is what the heck does this mean? What does it look like when a dog knows his place in the pack? Does it mean that he knows to stay off the couch? Does it mean that he doesn’t pull on the leash? Does it mean he isn’t aggressive? To me, all of those personality and behavior traits of a dog are the result of proper socialization, training, troubleshooting and creative thinking along the way. There isn’t a manual to create the perfect Lassie in ten easy steps.
Dogs are complex animals that require a lot of time, attention and smarts to raise a well-behaved member of the family. The problem with the thinking that dogs need to be second-tier or be submissive, or lower in the pack insinuates that they are trying to take charge. That besides a fragile “order” keeping things in check dogs might change one day and become aggressive or “take over”.
If they walk two feet in front of you on a walk, this means that they think they are better than you and that all hells going to break loose if you don’t quickly bring them in check. You know what? If a dog walks in front of you all it means is that they want to walk faster than you and that they need more training. Don’t get sucked into worrying about individual details of your dog’s behavior resulting in a catastrophic turn of events where you are in the crate and your dog is in charge. If you want your dog on the couch, fine. If not, fine.
If you don’t care if your dog pulls on the leash, don’t worry about it. If you do, train him. And back to my original point, my dogs might be better than me, who am I to say? All I know is that our relationships are fantastic, they don’t pull on the leash, they come when I call them, they are not aggressive, and they make me laugh more than I ever thought possible. Those points are important to me. Figure out what is important to you and focus on those details of your relationship with your dog. Don’t let anyone scare you into making dog-human relationships more complicated than they already are.