As you are probably aware, there are camps in the world of dog training. Divergent perspectives on how to reduce unwanted behaviors and even eradicate them entirely. It’s become a sensitive and often heated topic of debate between professionals. On the one hand, we have the authoritarian, strict, and sometimes – totally absurd set of beliefs in Camp A. I want to be clear at this point and say that I am not being bashful of the individuals themselves that may practice out of these more traditional models, for in many cases they are simply doing what they have heard or been taught by someone else. My issue is with the bizarreness of the ideas themselves: ideas that have been objectively demonstrated to bring psychological and often physical harm to a dog’s health. In the other corner, we have the progressive, science-based, and nonviolent positive crew. While I am certain that a small amount of investigation would lead you to know where I personally stand – I would like, if it’s okay with you, to explore this issue a little bit further.
There is an overwhelming and continuously growing body of evidence suggesting that our previously held beliefs about ‘dominance’ in dogs in domestic environments are entirely irrelevant to the practical training of dogs. Despite being rightfully accused of being a tremendous misapplication of sophisticated social structures, they continue to be popular amongst certain circles in dog training. For the purpose of today’s topic, I want to excuse myself of the task of exploring why they are incorrect, as that has been done remarkably well by many writers. I want to highlight how they may be maintained and why it is important to change the paradigm. Before we can do that, we have to face a troubling reality. Even though much of it has been discredited by notable scientific exploration, some people might be shocked to know that to a certain degree – training out of this dominance based paradigm ‘works’. While I do not personally condone intimidation (physical or psychological) as a strategy to train or control a dog, I have come to know that many trainers who involve themselves with that type of training will firmly attest to its effectiveness. But the real question is:
How do dominance-based techniques ‘work’?
Dogs learn through repetition and consistency. They are also magnificently capable of picking up emotional cues from their humans. These are the ingredients for a catastrophic misattribution in judgment. For example, say that you vow to keep your dog off the furniture at all times in a misguided attempt to somehow lower their status in the household, elevating yourself to the rankings of the superior and unrivaled ‘leader’. You may do this by making sure that his every attempt to get on furniture is thwarted. Over time and repetition, as a function of how the dog actually learns, he will learn to no longer bother trying to get up on any furniture. In addition, he may also learn that his parent means business, and always follows through and makes sure that his demands are met. While this information may lead him to test the limits of his obedience less – it is simply not because he has accepted the subordinate position, but because he is an intelligent animal that like most of us, will not waste energy towards something that never works. Almost all dominance-based techniques, when effective, have a similar misattribution associated with them which (ironically) positively reinforce the behavior of the trainer to continue acting and training in a way consistent with his set of beliefs.
Moving beyond why harmful ideas are maintained, we may ask: do they work for every dog? The simple answer is no. A misattribution is an incorrect understanding of the mechanism altogether. While it may appear that this miscalculated approach is working with some dogs, for others it will be entirely ineffective at best, and irreversibly damaging at worst. It is appalling how rampant the problem of dog behavior is in our society, and anyone that has worked in a shelter can attest to it being the number one reason why dogs are abandoned or released from ownership.
One may also ask: if it works, then why not keep doing it? Because we are sensible and intelligent human beings. There is nothing wrong with having a belief or idea that is problematic. Just like our furry companions, we too – are sometimes guilty of incidental learning that is problematic. It is far more important that we recognize when we have erred, and accept a more progressive attitude. We are also responsible for the life and care of innocent animals that depend entirely on us, a duty that should not fall in the shadows of superstitious thinking and unsupported ideas. In addition, we are involved in a society whether we like it or not, and our behavior and ideas are fed back into the system where they can hurt or help others. Our ways of doing things, as ‘effective’ as they may be in our given situation – have the potential to bring tremendous grief to another person’s situation. Why not advocate for a better and more compassionate perspective to help others learn that punishment does not need to be nasty, cruel, or painful to get the job done?
At a time when humane dog training resources for dog owners remain limited, and what is out there continues to be difficult to discern as being either helpful or harmful, we must become responsible in promoting the information that we know works for all dogs in all situations. The simplest way to do this is by vouching for these positive approaches with our words, and voting for them with our own behavior. We must also seek to understand the basis of any dog training approach by demanding explanations that extend beyond pseudo-science, and adhere closely to the true nature of how dogs actually learn.