TO DOMINATE OR NOT TO DOMINATE?
THIS IS THE DOG’S QUESTION
By James Turner
I was both aghast and frighted. I have two dogs, one a Great Pyrenes, the other a Catahoula. I love them both dearly. However, the behavior of Dexter, my Pyrenes, has committed some impertinences up with which I will not put. I will list these for your pondering. As I lay in bed Dexter, who is no small dog, jumped up on the bed, stood over me looking down straight into my eyes. It startled me as he looked like white wolf. It immediately came to my mind that Cesar said, “Never allow your dog to be higher than you as it is an attempt to dominate.” I screamed and pushed Dexter away and sat-up breathing heavily. Second, I was eating breakfast and Dexter, sitting beside me, lifted his paw and placed it on my leg. The same thing happened when he was beside me on the couch. He unceremoniously placed his paw on my leg. I pushed it away from me and scolded him. I told him “No. Never do that again.” He looked away from me knowing I was in command. He knew he had done something wrong. This is what topped all this off and instilled in me the awareness that I had to get Dexter under control. I was sitting in my rocking chair. Dexter approached me straight from the front, from the front. He placed one paw on the chair between my knees, then the other, pulling himself up. Now he is no small dog. Dexter, on his back legs stands tall about six feet. He looked down directly into my eyes. Those bright brown eyes set in that large white head just seemed to look right into me. I froze. Was he going to grab my throat and tear my larynx out? I couldn’t move. I read somewhere that when something like this happens one should just play dead and maybe the wild animal will leave. So I closed my eyes and played dead. I felt Dexter move. I knew it didn’t work. Then Dexter further shocked me. I felt a wet tongue on my face and he got down. I guess he didn’t like what he tasted because here I am, writing about these frightening accounts.
Well, you guessed it, the above is a parody. An attempt to exaggerate the silly, misguided thinking traditional trainers across this country espouse. Thinking that became popular through Colonel Konrad Most (1910), traveled through Barbara Woodhouse of the 1950s, and was the persuasion of traditional dog trainers down through Cesar Millan, the New Skete Brothers and seen on TV with those who make “instant” behavioral changes. It is the attempt to convince you that your dog, from the Chihuahua to the Saint Bernard, is out to dominate you. Your dog wakes up in the morning thinking, “Today I am going to dominate my master. I will unseat him and become the alpha of this relationship.” Does he? I mean, it sounds so reasonable. He is a direct descendent of the wolf. Wolves have a despot as a leader. He ferociously keeps his subordinates in line. Not! This is all a fallacy that has been sold and bought. The fact is, now we know this not only to be untrue, but that looking at the lives of wolves scientists have found little behavior to apply to domesticated dogs. Most of the comparisons that are made are from observing the North American timber wolf which is a distant relative of the modern-day dog, so distant, that they do not even factor into the dog’s behavior. The Eurasian gray wolf is directly in the ancestral line of the dog. However, the grey wolves studied to make sense of dog behavior is the modern day grey wolf. The dog traces back as far as 20, 000 years or further. There is no comparison of the grey wolf from which cam proto dog to the grey wolf of today. That grey wolf had to be different and is forever gone. The fact is proto dog remains a mystery. It begs the question, “What was proto grey wolf like?” That species must have been of a more tamable disposition. That wolf must have had a propensity to become familiar outside of itself. Now tamable does not imply domestication, but it does make domestication possible when the right time and the right environment is present. It is my persuasion that even before there was a split to what led to the modern-day wolf and the modern-day dog there was a different kind, a different breed of wolf. From that tamable wolf came the split of the modern-day wolf that remains wild and the dog that would become our modern-day, domesticated dog. That process was over thousands of years, but the potential was at that point of split.
Why is all this important? What is important is this. If we keep misapplying the wild wolf paradigm to our dogs, many methods we apply to prevent them from being “dominant” will damage and destroy the human/animal bond. To pursue these outworn, unscientific and aversive methods of control is to insure a dog that is fearful, conflicted, cheerless, possibly distressed, no matter how well you provide physically for him. Why, then, do many trainers continue to espouse these techniques? Well, in reading Cesar Millan’s writings, he said he gained his methods from watching how wolves behaved. That’s a pretty-narrow window of resource. His methods of training “stopped” the unwanted behavior therefore the methods were a success. People then bought into his wolf paradigm of interpreting the dog. If one’s purpose of training is to “stop” certain behaviors any aversive method will work. The more the dog resists just increase the level of aversive until the dog surrenders. But you will not have a companion which adores you, cooperates with you, or has a meaningful bond with you. Remember, quick fixes are not always lasting fixes. I learned early in my animal behavioral career, “You cannot train what you just traumatized.”
Catherine Waters, of Bro & Tracy Animal Welfare offers this list to let you know if your dog is “dominant.” Comments in red are mine.
Dominant dogs are pushy, unresponsive to training and may not have good house and company manners. They will try to have everything their own way.
This is simply an untrained dog. Sounds like the reward used is not high enough.
Pushing through doors, inside or outside, before you.
Meer excitement, natural. It is your choice, but for safety should be trained. Can be modified in 5 minutes.
Jumping or reaching for food or treat before it is put down or in reach.
You’re kidding. My granddaughter does this. Just withdraw it until he sits.
Putting his or her feet on you, standing on or pawing at you.
That’s right! Correct all of his expression of affection out. Just ignore the behavior. It will stop.
Barking at you when told to do something or when he or she wants something.
Sounds like he might be confused. Sometimes WE need to listen to him. Clarity, on our part, eliminates some of these behaviors.
Trying to be physically taller than you.
If this is a bear he doesn’t want to dominate you. He wants to eat you. If it is your dog this is so silly I have no answer. Tell this to an owner of a Great Dane. If you don’t want him on your lap or shoulders, move. He will stop. Teach “4 on the floor.”
Getting on furniture before you or before being given permission.
This is the owner’s choice. If not wanted on furniture just don’t start it.
Reluctance to move from a spot you want to sit on, walk through or put something in.
This is funny. I always say to me Great Pyrenes, “Don’t move, Dex. I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.” But I also know he has arthritis. Give me a break! If you feel this is a polite issue, teach, “excuse me.” Not at all difficult. But don’t punish the dog.
Staring at you; prolonged eye contact except when you ask for it in a training or working situation.
Again, give me a break! I want to encourage eye contact. If you knew dog talk you’d know he is trying to tell you something. You’re not listening.
Reluctance to obey simple, normal commands such as sit, go-out, get-off, etc. May be a refusal or slow compliance.
I’ll bet it’s not reluctance. I’ll bet the owner is not being clear. “Get off” sounds like a frustrated owner who needs training him/her self.
Marking (urinating or defecating) in house, marking your personal belongings or bed.
This calls for a vet visit and putting those undies away.
Sexual behaviors, such as mounting, with an inappropriate partner.
Mounting in this context is not a sexual behavior. What is an inappropriate partner? That shows the absence of logic. Unless you’re married and it’s your mate who is the offending party.
Putting her or his head on or over your head or shoulders.
I encourage this from my dogs. It is like a sleeping pill.
Eating before you.
I have not the words to express how stupid (That’s a technical term for unintelligent) this one is.
To be honest, every one of these is more about power on the part of the owner than it has to do with dominance or power struggle on the part of the dog. This list should be titled, “How to Develop a Conflicted, Insecure Dog.” Or maybe, “A Shortcut to Developing a Schizophrenic Pet.” Talk about peddling nonsense.
Dogs do not want to dominate, they want to cooperate. And when we approach training in a force-free, caring manner the dog will cooperate. He is a dog not a wolf. He, long ago, made the decision to be with humans. This is not something we have to teach him, it’s instinctual. Many say, “I didn’t choose my dog, he chose me.” Then what makes us think we need to punish the wild wolf out of him. A wolf doesn’t choose you. A wolf avoids humans.
Let me suggest that it is not about dominance. Your dog is not your adversary. He doesn’t want to eat you or run the house. He wants to fit into your life. He wants to know the boundaries. He wants to live a fulfilled life. You need to know his breed. It is your responsibility to know his breed or non-breed make-up. If you don’t want a dog pushing you, or your children then don’t get a Border Collie. If you want a calm dog don’t get a Jack Russel or a Lab. Think. Ask, “Why do I want a dog?” “What kind of dog do I want?” “What is my lifestyle? Will a dog fit into it?” I had a client that lived in a three-room apartment. He got a Great Dane. A beautiful dog, but my client worked 10 hours a day. A cage wouldn’t fit and he didn’t want his dog to be bored. Do your homework.
Well, I guess what I’m trying to say is this. Don’t call a trainer who applies wolf behavior to dogs. The dog will not build a bond based on the inevitable methods of training that will be applied, or I should say misapplied. The dog trainer you want is the one your dog can’t wait to see and hates to see leave. I tell people all the time, “If your dog doesn’t act like this to his trainer, GET RID OF THE TRAINER!