Monday, October 1, 2012

Rehabilitation & Canine Psychology

What does it mean to rehabilitate a dog?

There are two definitions in the dictionary that apply to canine rehabilitation.
1) to restore to a condition of good health, ability to work, or the like.
2) to reestablish the good reputation of (a person, one's character or name, etc.).

Both of these definitions imply that when you rehabilitate a dog, what you are doing is returning that dog to a natural state - good health, the ability to work, to be a dog and do dog things - and to restore that dog's reputation with the humans who live or interact with that dog.

The words rehabilitation and psychology are all the rage these days due to TV's influence on dog training and behavior consulting. So let's look at what psychology actually is as well.

Psychology is defined as:
1) the science of the mind or of mental states and processes.
2) the science of human and animal behavior, sometimes concerned with the methods through which behavior can be modified

So, if you are claiming that you use canine psychology to rehabilitate a dog, what you should be doing by definition, is using the science of mental states, emotions, how they affect behavior and the actual normal behavior of a canine to bring the dog back to a natural state.  

Sounds good.  But what is the natural state of a dog?  Is it, like decades of trainers and behaviorists have stated - like a wolf? If so, what is the natural mental and behaviorial state of a wolf?  Is it what we've seen on TV - pack structure with dominant, aggressive, alpha canids who rule the group with an iron fist making sure all other members are submissive and don't move until given permission?  

Despite the arguments for and against alpha dominance and aggressive leadership, and whether or not dogs should be treated the same as wolves, dogs are domesticated. This is their evolved natural habitat - here with us. It’s an arrangement that we take for granted, but it’s far from ordinary. Having dogs as our companions and helpers is and was one of the most extraordinary things that ever happened. If our ancestors hadn’t teamed up with their ancestors, we simply wouldn’t be living the way we do.

Dogs exist in amazing numbers around the world. There are many dogs that are loosely attached to people and are in continuous contact within the greater population of dogs. Exploring the behavior of these village dogs gives us not only the dynamics of how dogs earn a living, but also suggests how they evolved and adapted to civilization. It also provides an insight into dog behavior.

Behavioral ecologists look at the results of an animal’s motions. The animal hunts for food. Hunting for food has a cost, which can be measured in many ways, including the expenditures of time and energy. The big question for the behavioral ecologist is, how do animals capture enough energy to accomplish all of their biological requirements?

This behavior, as studied by the ecologist, ethologist and behaviorist, is what a dog should be rehabilitated to if you are strict to the definitions of rehabilitation and psychology.  But we are human and we wish our dogs to live with us, not as part of a village.  So what would you study to find out the "natural" behavior of dogs in response to a human world?

While dominance theory and dog pack dynamics are interesting areas of study, the argument of whether they apply to us and our domesticated dogs, is actually a moot point.

"All human suffering is the result of believing in lies. To become aware of this is the first thing we must do." don Miguel Ruiz

A lie is an alteration in the time, the place, the form or the details of the event itself. In dog training, there are many lies, or if you wish, misinformation. Each one is designed to promote a specific method of "training" your dog. That method is part and parcel to the attitude and emotional balance of the humans who promote it. The quick resolution is one of the most prevalent. "Show" the dog who's boss in whatever fashion gets the point across fast and you have a well behaved dog. There are two lies here 1) that the dog is now well behaved and 2) that dogs respond to an aggressive display with subservience and good behavior. What you really have is a dog who is terrified that that method is going to be used again. Every fight or flight instinct is in constant restimulation, which means the physical, emotional and hormonal structure of the dog is contantly out of balance.

So, creating a dog who is in a constant state of stress - suffering - is the result of believing a lie. What is the lie? The lie is that dogs are wolves and that wolves are aggressive and constantly seeking to be dominant and alpha.

"Dogs do not cause dogfights; people do". "It's not the dog, it's the human". "Be calm and assertive and your dog will be calm and submissive". All these and more are espoused as the "natural" way to rehabilitate a dog. The only communication needed, say these types of trainers, is energy. And yet, what you see these trainers doing is a form of communication that says "I don't care what you want, what you think, what your emotions are - you will do what I say or I will hurt you". Shock collars, prong and pinch collars, nearly wire thin slip leads, choke chains, dressage whips, pokes, pinches, kicks and prods are the methods used by those who relagate communication to the trash heap of "New Age Alien Abductees who came back from the Mother Ship with the uncanny ability to read your dog's mind".

Just as dogs are not humans, humans are not dogs.  You cannot be your dog's pack leader - you are not a dog. Contrary to common belief, dogs know that they are dogs and not human. They also know that we are human and not dogs. It is us humans who frequently get confused on these matters.  Even the terms dominance and submission have more to do with primate behavior then canine.

Since we are human, we are not expected by our dogs to act like dogs. We must communicate with them in a way that they can understand, but that does not mean that we should try to act like them. Not only would we be poor imitators, but however well we pretend, we would still be human, and our dogs will always know what we are.

Because our dogs live in our very complex human world, it is necessary for us to assume real leadership and teach them our rules. We must provide for them not just in terms of food and shelter, but also in terms of their health and safety. But in order to do all this, we must be able to communicate with our dogs.

This is the missing factor in all the dominance based training - communication.  If dogs acted only out of a desire to be dominant and alpha over all pack members no matter what the species, or even as I have seen on TV - over objects and spaces - there would be no need for the complex and subtle communication signals that dogs display.

However, most of the schools for dog training in this country totally neglect "communication" as part of their curriculum.  Some of them cover the generalities and some of the "calming signals" made popular by Turid Rugaas, but none of them educate about how to actually communicate with a dog.  None of them teach the subtle combinations of signals, none of them teach you how to actually be an observer and see what the natural state of a dog is.  

Training or rehabilitating a dog is not just a matter of asserting human will, training and rehabilitation require a human to learn to express himself accurately, communicate aptly and observe a dog's reaction to it all in order to gauge the effectiveness of what is being communicated.  

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