Dominance fallout – aggression, fear or both.

dominance not workingI’m starting Johnny’s story with a little rant on dominance from my soap box.

As a force-free, modern trainer/behaviourist I don’t need to dominate a dog to get compliance.

I won’t say that dominance – being very firm and overpowering – doesn’t work. It can and it does. Sometimes.

In the old days I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know better and that is what I did until I learnt how inefficient it was. I have been there. I know what I’m talking about. Being kind and allowing the dog choices does not mean being permissive. I apply rules also. I don’t use force.

Many people still believe that being what they erroneously think is ‘being the Alpha’ is the right way to train and control their dog. It’s not helped by certain TV trainers who make a lot of money using old-fashioned techniques that look like quick fixes.

Unsuitable for ‘Alphadom’

Few dog owners psychologically would make effective ‘Alphas’ anyway. Continue reading…

Control – Carrot or Stick?

GSD lying down

Murphy

Update on two dogs I saw some weeks ago.

After a run of German Shepherds who are very reactive to anyone coming into their home, it was great to go to a Shepherd who welcomed me immediately.  Murphy and Mastiff-type Bailey are well socialised, well-trained and gentle with their children.

Carrot – or stick?

Continue reading…

Guarding Food. Guarding Resources.

“We must show the dog who’s boss”.

Rex guards his food.

Guarding food and resources can be a contentious issue where human response is concerned.

Many conscientious dog owners, doing what they believe is best, follow dangerous, outdated notions.

These techniques can involve, right from the start as routine training, interfering with a puppy’s food while he’s eating and forcing objects out of his mouth. An easy-going puppy may simply tolerate it. Another may not. Instead of making the puppy back away from something he values, it can teach him to run off with the item and then, cornered, defend both the item and himself. I’ve seen this many times.

How might we ourselves react if someone tried to take bits of food off our plate or mugged us for something we had picked up?

There is that infamous clip of Cesar Millan ‘dominating’ a Labrador guarding food and his bowl. Guess what happened? Yes, the poor dog ultimately had no choice other than to bite after all his warning signals had been ignored. As a result of the uproar about this, he was interviewed by Alan Titchmarsh which is interesting to watch.

Guarding food when someone is closeSomehow this ‘being the Alpha’ with our dog thing had became popular culture, but it’s been totally debunked over recent years. Not only was it based on false assumptions regarding wolf packs (and domestic dogs aren’t wild wolves), but that using force is the only way to create an obedient dog.

Even this word ‘obedience’ suggests dominance and forced compliance.

Just one problem with this approach to resource guarding is that a strong-minded and confident dog is likely to stand up for himself – eventually. Some dogs genetically are more wired to guard.

If a ‘dominated’ dog backs off due to being overpowered by a particular human, what happens when someone else tries it?

“Why should I want your food anyway”?

How much better and simpler in every way it is to teach the dog that you’re no threat to his food; if nobody wants his food, what’s the point of guarding food after all?

Giant Schnauzer Rex is a very intelligent and energetic adolescent dog. He’s on the go most of the time when people are about, back and forth looking for trouble. This includes nicking anything he can that may be of value to his humans. It triggers a chain of reactions.

He’s probably under-stimulated where appropriate enrichment is concerned, so he orchestrates his own action.

It’s only natural for us to try to control over-excited and aroused behaviour by trying to stop it. Unfortunately scolding and warnings, Uh-Uh and NO, introduce conflict and confrontation. Even conflict can be rewarding and reinforcing in a way (else why do humans enjoy certain sports so much?).

Rex’ owners will now be on the lookout for every little good or desired behaviour to reinforce instead.

It’s proven beyond doubt that removing reinforcement from unwanted behaviours and adding reinforcement to behaviours we DO want leads to success.

Interfering with Rex’ food while he’s eating.

Using the ‘interfering with his food’ technique seemed to work when Rex was a young puppy. Unfortunately, guarding and growling re-appeared big time when he started to be fed something that was, to him, of much higher value.

Instead of leaving him to eat in peace, various suggestions had been given including hand-feeding him, touching him while he was eating and taking his bowl away. Instead of feeding him somewhere out of the way, the bowl is deliberately put where people regularly have to pass by him.

He freezes. He growls. They reprimand him. This can only go in one direction.

He simply needs to know that nobody is interested in his food anymore. He will be fed somewhere out of the way.

After some weeks of this they may from time to time walk past him at a distance, not looking at him, and just chuck in the direction of his bowl something particularly tasty – maybe a leftover from their own meat dinner. The food must be something of higher value to him than his own food. They shouldn’t hover or speak to him.

‘I happen to be passing anyway so here’s something nice’.

Over time they can get a little closer. If he growls, they have got too close or maybe stood still, and will need to leave it for a few days and do it from further away the next time. Any approaching person will deliver something better than what he has.

This really is in case of emergency should later someone, without thinking, get too close to him. They should only do this from time to time – a random and casual thing.

Back in the day people would have said, ‘Leave the dog alone while he’s eating’. We expect a lot from our dogs today.

We may need to do some serious, systematic work on general resource guarding.

‘Operation Calm’ is the first priority.

Rex’ high arousal levels and restlessness make work on his guarding food and other items more difficult.

This is a huge challenge because it’s hard for us humans, like old dogs, to learn new tricks. It also means that Rex will initially become very frustrated when his usual attention-seeking tactics no longer work. He will try harder. They will hold their nerve and add as much appropriate enrichment to his life as possible, activities that don’t depend upon their ‘fielding’ the behaviour he throws at them but instead are initiated by themselves.

I suggest very regular short bursts of activity including mental enrichment, hunting, foraging and sniffing, particularly in the evenings when they sit down and he’s the most trouble. He then won’t need to be pestering for attention.

Guarding food becomes unnecessary.

If he feels it’s not under threat, Rex won’t need to be guarding food. If he has plenty of attention offered, he won’t need so desperately to indulge in the attention-seeking ploys that he knows get the most reaction.

Getting Rex calmer involves most aspects of his life and will be a gradual thing.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Rex because neither dog nor situation will ever be exactly the same. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog, you can do much more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important, particularly where any aggression is concerned. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page).

Dominant Alpha or Friend and Guardian?

Staffie Boxer mix Digby came out of his shell after a couple of hours. What a character.

This is yet another story that could make me cry. A young couple get themselves a puppy. They don’t do this lightly but ‘read all the books’ and look on the internet.

Digby was only six weeks old when they picked him up and it’s probable his fearfulness is partly genetic. He’s now two years old.

The Alpha myth.

Alpha dominance doesn't work on Digby

How can a new dog owner tell if a trainer who sets himself up as an authority won’t do more harm than good?

So concerned were they by Digby’s increasing fearfulness and barking at people that they had a trainer to their home to ‘teach’ them what to do. When the sensitive dog did something they didn’t like, they were shown to throw metal discs on the ground in front of him.

Digby can become very easily over-aroused and will then redirect quite roughly onto the young man in particular, grabbing his arm with his teeth. The poor young man just doesn’t know how to deal with it.

The trainer’s answer to this was to spray him with ‘bitter’ spray (surely also wiping out Digby’s number one sense, his sense of smell, for a long while).

This trainer, in the name of dominance and teaching an owner to be the Alpha, seems to think it’s okay to push the dog over the edge with over-arousal and then to punish it.

That’s just ridiculous. Why not instead limit the arousal so that this redirection onto someone’s arm isn’t necessary? Why not get to the bottom of why it’s happening and use healthy stimulation and calming activities instead?

Here is another thing – another ignored by Dibgy’s owners. Apparently he shouldn’t be allowed to settle in one place for too long before he’s moved to another room. How can an Alpha wolf be blamed for that?

Old wolf-pack theory dominance methods rely on superstitions and quick fixes that may work in the moment. I have been to countless cases demonstrating conclusively the long-term fallout.

So, after the ‘help’ from this individual, the young couple have felt increasingly unhappy about doing this dominance stuff with their beloved family pet but have known no alternative.

Digby goes out for a walk with his tail between his legs.

He shakes when his collar comes out. Out on the street he is scared of everything. In this state he may react by lunging and barking at a person or dog he sees. The trainer’s advice was to put him on a Gencon and basically force control onto him.

This same trainer had advised them not to shut Digby behind the gate anymore when people came to the house. A couple of days after his visit, Digby bit someone coming into the house.

He was in such a state of panic that he emptied his bowels right where he stood in the room.

Poor Digby. His young owners were beside themselves with distress for him.

Anyway, things are now changing.

For the first time since he was very young, a relaxed Digby was wandering around the sitting room and lying down beside a visitor. He began behind the kitchen gate, barking. We started with him brought into the room on lead and muzzled. As the couple relaxed and the lead was loosened, so did Digby relax. The lead was dropped. The muzzle came off. Then the lead was removed altogether.

Digby fished in my bag. He nuzzled me. I gave him food. He did a naughty dash upstairs (not allowed – he was called down and now rewarded for coming). The beautiful dog was so happy.

The power of positive methods unfolded before our eyes,

Looking ahead, all instruments of harshness will be abandoned in favour of rewards and positive reinforcement. Digby will get a comfortable harness and a longer lead. The restricting Gencon will be ditched.

They will be giving him two kinds of walks, field walks and road walks. He’s much more confident out in the fields and going by car. It’s leaving the house to walk along the road and pavements that scares him so much.

They will pop him in the car and walk him on a long line as often as they can.

Meanwhile they will get him happy just standing outside the gate to begin with. They can use his tail as a gauge! If his tail drops between his legs they will turn back.

How to be an Alpha Male according to wolves

 

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle with maybe a bit of poetic licence. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approaches I have worked out for Duke. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important,particularly where fear or any form of aggression is concerned. Everything depends upon context. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies tailored to your own dog (see my Help page).

Consequence Drives Behaviour

Leonberger puppyI have just been to the most stunning puppy. A four-month-old Leonberger called Amra.

What was troubling the couple was their large puppy’s painful biting and pawing, particularly directed at the lady when she comes home. The gentleman initially referred to this as ‘dominance challenge’.

It’s easy to explain behaviour where the dog seems to be controlling us as ‘dominance’. This is now an outdated, unhelpful notion that leads to a confrontational training approach which, with a spirited dog, can eventually make for defiance – even aggression.

This beautiful dog fortunately has a lovely gentle nature and merely gets too excited. He then can’t control himself. He’s just a puppy being a puppy, but being the size he is makes biting and pawing, something he’s quite persistent with, painful.

What is behind the behaviour isn’t dominance – the puppy wanting to become Alpha – but that certain behaviours bring him the most reinforcement. When he gets a bit rough he can bank on getting rewarded in terms of attention of some sort. A confident dog and kindly treated dog isn’t at all upset by being told NO. The word may stop him in his tracks, but does it teach him anything positive?

Amra’s ‘silly’ times can be anticipated. They can pre-empt the puppy wildness with various occupations that keep him busy including hunting and chewing.

With each thing they want to change (and there are very few), we can analyse just what happens immediately afterwards – realising that it’s the rewarding consequence that is driving a behaviour to repeatedly occur. Sometimes what that consequence actually is needs searching for.

Here is an example. When the lady comes home from work (the gentleman works from home), Amra gets very excited indeed. The manner of her arrival and their greeting helps to trigger a mad and rough half hour. The pup will grab her leg. What happens now is that the gentleman calls him away and then distracts him – maybe plays with him. The dog’s reward could be that he indirectly gets quality reaction from the man.

I suggest, if they’ve not successfully managed the situation by setting things up differently in advance, that  the gentleman experiments with simply walking out of the room and shutting the door as soon as the dog grabs the lady (and that she wears tough jeans for a week or two)! If that doesn’t work, what Amra is ‘getting out of it’ needs to be re-examined as will the things that lead up to it.

I always love going to a puppy that has been to some formal old-fashioned type of training based on ‘commands’ and ‘control’ and to introduce both people and dog to the notion of using Yes instead of No – constantly reinforcing desired behaviour and having the puppy wanting to please rather than simply being expected to comply.

This same principal applies to when walking Amra on lead. They already have him walking around the house and garden beside them off lead, but once the lead goes on he’s pulling down the road. It’s so easy to have a puppy walking nicely if one has appropriate, comfortable equipment and a different mind-set.

Because Amra will grow to be so large, from the start they have been doing everything they can to make sure he grows up to be a gentle and well-mannered adult dog.

‘Alpha-Rolled’ Cockerpoo for Being Scared

Not a very good photo I’m afraid – black dogs are difficult and I wish you could see his lovely face.Eighteen-month-old Cockerpoo Algie is becoming increasingly wary of men he doesn't know

Eighteen-month-old Cockerpoo Algie is becoming increasingly wary of men he doesn’t know – and some that he does. He was a somewhat timid puppy, and when he was about nine months old they moved house. The first indication of problems was when he began to growl at the men working on their new home. As people do, they probably told him ’No’ and ‘’Stop’ and put it down to the upheaval in his life.

The couple used to take Algie to work with them when it looked like he might be alone for more than a couple of hours, and the owner didn’t actually see what happened in the second incident because it was outside the office. Men would be wandering about. This time he actually nipped. Next he bit their gardener, a man he knows, so they called in a trainer.

Following this things have escalated to such an extent that, in addition to biting a couple more men, he now barks and lunges at male callers to the house; his reactive behaviour and barking in general is increasing. The lady is having a baby very soon and Algie needs sorting out.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if his fear had been addressed in a positive way as soon as it manifested itself, if his body language could have been read before he even did his first growl at a man, it would not have got to this stage. Instead, they got a trainer in who taught them to Alpha roll him.

Oh dear.

After twice pinning down her beloved dog for growling, the young lady felt so bad she couldn’t carry on, and they called me. It just felt so wrong. The man is a quite a well-known trainer in the area, and people tend to do what they are told. Thankfully she could tell she was damaging the relationship she had with Algie. She wanted him to feel safe near her, not threatened by her. This reaction as demonstrated on Algie by the trainer will most certainly have added to his fear of men.  The side effects of punishment can be more difficult to deal with than the original behavior it is meant to cure. Now he is reacting to nearly all men rather than growling at just a few. He even growled at me a couple of times which was unusual. It can only go one way unless approached differently.

Zak George has this to say: Immediately abandon any training advice you’ve heard about being the “Alpha” or being “dominant” over your dog. Any dog trainer advising you who uses these terms is likely basing their approach on 20th century myths that originate from flawed studies on captive wolves. These are the buzz words of past superstitions in dog training when less was understood’.

As much as anything, punishment like pinning down fails to teach the dog what to the next time he is in that same situation. It disempowers him even further. It failed to give the little dog confidence in the one person who should be his protector.

What is Algie’s growl saying? It’s saying ‘I’m feeling scared’. If this was a child, would it be appropriate to harshly say NO, or worse still, throw him onto the floor? No. We would be looking into the basis of his fear, find the triggers and work on desensitisation and counter conditioning – big words for getting Algie accustomed to men from a comfortable distance and associating them with good things.

From the start they have done what they thought was the best for Algie, sending him to doggy daycare which he loves and training him conscientiously. Like so many people they have been the victim of bad, outdated advice, but they will bring him around I’m sure – if they take things slowly.