Monday, October 29, 2012

A New Paradyme - Releasing Dominance Theory

In the beginning, I was taught the “dominance” theory by many trainers who I followed and even idolized. In those years, even though I believed what I'd been taught, looking back I realize that I never really applied that theory to my own dogs. I never did use choke chains, prong or pinch collars, mostly because I fell in love with a slip collar made out of 1/2" rope early on. Yes, a slip collar can be used in similar fashion to a choke chain and in recent years has been made popular by a famous TV dog show. What I used however was 1/2" thick not the thin braided nylon used on said TV show, much less potential for harm. Because it was rope it was soft on my hands.

Because it was a slip collar it went on easily and came off the same. But it was only there to contain a dog in it's initial training phase, not as a method of control. There were no, or very few, leash laws when I was growing up and going to college and even into the 80's and that's what I think of when I'm working with dogs. I still train as naked as possible and teach others to do the same.

Along with dominance theory are other words and practices in use then and now for "controlling" the wild animal nature of a dog that most people seem to think is real- or a product of their own fears. But again, as I look back, I never did apply this theory to my own dogs - we were friends and companions always. Even today, most of the "commands" that my dogs learn they learn by use, not by a strict regimen of training. "Leave it" is already known by Cinnamon the 4 month old puppy, as is "back it up". But I didn't train them, I just used them in appropriate circumstances. Are they "commands" or just a communication asking the dog to please do something? "Leave it" in my world means back off - not a whole lot different then "back it up" but used in a different context. Even in the late 80's, dominance and obedience were not a part of my personal world with my dogs. Princess, an Aussie I had in the middle 80's, never had a leash on her neck, ever, and yet without any training in recall or heeling would follow me everywhere. She would race beside my bicycle all the way to work, stay with me at work and then race me home.

Although I never did teach the use of tools or techniques that involved pain or heavy control, I did teach the “dominance” theory and the importance of “leading the pack”.

Dog owners and trainers often use the “dominance” theory to explain and make excuses for a variety of unwanted canine behaviors. This concept is also used to justify the use of aversive tools and techniques designed to over-power a dog with the objective of intimidating the dog into submission in order to stop those behaviors. This type of “training” works because the dog becomes afraid to move in certain manners for fear of pain or the pressure of intimidation and challenge.

Many of the trainers who use dominance theory consistently challenge the dogs they are training with threatening body postures, pokes, prods, kicks, punches and loud commanding voices.

These methods teach avoidance but do nothing to address the root cause of the behavior issue - issues which are usually only issues because humans don't like them. It’s much like doctors who treat pain with pain killers as opposed to finding out what is causing the pain and curing that.

“Dominance exercises” commonly cause fear, aggression and other unwanted behavior that result in suffering by the dog and often euthanasia. In one case, a trainer in Florida actually killed a dog while attempting to force it into submission. After muzzling the dog and sitting on it for over an hour, the dog lost consciousness and later that day, had to be euthanized due to its injuries.

Things like spitting in the dog's food to handle food aggression, peeing on the wall higher then the dog is peeing to make a dog stop marking in the house, alpha roles that don't truly exist in nature, scruff shaking so hard it causes the same internal damage as a shaken baby, hanging the dog by it's collar until it passes out or vomits and a plethora of weird and wacky means to "put a dog in it's place".

You don't see much of the weirdest of these techniques, but they often made me wonder, in those days before the Internet and easy access to information, if the main techniques of harsh obedience training, alpha roles, poking the neck and kicking the abdomen are from the same trough as spitting in the food and peeing on the wall. I've seen it all, tried it all, discarded all of it after the first use. There were techniques that I did keep around for a long time however. But again, only with my clients, never with my own dogs.

Every canine behavior blamed on “dominance” is normal in canine terms and can be explained by simple motivation and the search for reinforcement. It's quite simple, dogs want to survive and survival means going after what is considered good stuff. If you saw a $100 bill lying in the street would you not pick it up? Why then is a dog helping itself to your dinner “dominant” when they are scavengers by nature? It's not a “dominant” dog that takes your food it's a normal dog doing what comes naturally to its species. It’s not about dominance it’s about resources and the ever strong survival instinct.

I ask you, as a thinking reasoning being, to try and get the concept that culture and nurture play a huge role in how a creature views it's world, what it considers reinforcement and how it responds to danger and even what it considers dangerous. A human from the depths of the Amazon jungle would NOT pick up that $100 bill. A human born and raised in Los Angeles would not eat monkey brains. Dogs have been domesticated for a very long time, they are no longer, by environment, nurture or nature, wolves, just as we are no longer aborigines living by the spear in the jungle.

At one point in my life, I realized that I was getting nowhere in trying to apply what I'd been taught about dogs by others. This was before I discovered the massive amount of information about dogs, behavior and training on the Internet. I knew, however, that I was living one way and teaching another. I stopped. There were other factors involved in that, but I stopped training completely. It was pointless unless I could figure out how to teach what I did with my own personal dogs.

For example, I no longer teach the words “obedience” or “command” to clients. Obedience is not a natural thing for a dog, it's demeaning and was born from the need to quickly train dogs during war time to be messengers. It was never meant for pet dogs. The greatest percentage of my clients just want a pet that doesn't drive them nuts with behaviors (natural to dogs) that are dangerous, annoying or intimidating. In the past I would tell them to be the pack leader and give them a set of rules to live by. Then teach the dog to obey about six commands and this was all supposed to produce a dog that could be lived with. The Canine Good Citizen test is the epitome of this philosophy. It has 10 testing points, none of which actually address how humans and dogs can live together in harmony.

Dominance theory has no place in the pet dog world. It has no place in the sporting world either, but most definitely not in the pet dog world. I believe that the interest in and use of dominance theory comes from a deeply hidden need to control things because of the fear of being eaten / mauled / hurt by a wild creature. It comes from a misunderstanding of what dogs have evolved to be, what they are capable of and how evolution has shaped them to avoid conflict because it is a non-survival behavior. I believe it comes from the need to be at the top of any pyramid no matter whether it's human, canine, feline, equine or any other species. Dominance theories abound in the training world with nearly every species being trained. Even prey animals like horses are treated with the harsh methods created by the need to dominant. It's a human need that has been anthropomorphized onto every other species out of fear.

There is a trainer here who posts the exact same ad every day on Craigs List trying to get customers. He is a "traditional" trainer. He believes that dogs should be controlled and submissive. He treats humans the same way. In his mind (and this is solely based on my knowledge of him from his writings and responses), he is the only one qualified to train your dog. In his mind, he is the best there is and has the police department as his proof - even though ( and I could be wrong on this ) the only thing he's done for the police department is snake aversion work. He also sites that he worked at a wolf sanctuary as a caretaker. I called that sanctuary and his duties were clean up and feeding of captive animals that couldn't express themselves in a natural way. Whatever he learned there - and he claims he learned alot and uses what he learns on your dogs - couldn't be the truth of a DOG, only of a captured wolf and only their responses to his maintenance duties.

So, dominance theory in a small package. Myth topped off by seeing one situation and applying it to all. The same way dominance theory came into being for all trainers.

I have figured out how to teach others the way I work with my own dogs. So we all learn how to use a dog's natural instincts - a dog's need to play and a dog's desire to learn to be with us and interacting with us no matter what that might be - and they learn faster and more reliably then "traditional" methods. Everyone enjoys themselves once they get into the spirit of play and understand that even they learned best when the learning process was a game and when the tests were a challenge and not a stressful activity of proving oneself.

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