D is for Dominance

I’m so encouraged that Bark and Lunge has received the following endorsement:

Bark and Lunge is worth reading slowly for the details and for the joy of it. The book recognizes the inappropriate use of simple dominance theory, which is so common and so wrong for dogs. Many dog owners will recognize some of the questions they have, and now, will have some answers.
— Professor Alan M. Beck, Director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond, College of Veterinary Medicine, Purdue University

Oh no! Mia's on my pillow! She's trying to dominate me!

Oh no! Mia’s on my pillow! She’s trying to dominate me!

It’s almost absurd that I had to learn about Dominance Theory the hard way.

At least as far back as 2001, Dr. Ian Dunbar wrote in Before and After Getting Your Puppy:

If you physically force and dominate your puppy, he won’t respect you. He may heed your commands — grudgingly and fearfully — but he certainly won’t respect you. More likely, your dog will grow to resent you. …

Push-pull, leash-jerk, grab-and-shake, alpha rollover, and domination techniques are now considered ineffective, besides being adversarial and unpleasant. These out-of-date methods are now, thank goodness, by and large a thing of the past.

Dunbar, by the way, is a veterinarian and has a PhD in animal behavior. Cesar Millan, despite being the founder of something he called the Dog Psychology Center, does not have a degree in psychology. So forgive me if I refuse to accept this diagnosis on his website:

Dog aggression stems from the dog’s frustration and dominance. The dog’s frustration comes from a lack of dog exercise, and the dog’s dominance comes from a lack of calm-assertive leadership.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. (The aggression/dominance connection, anyway. I do agree that frustration often can be alleviated by increased exercise.)

Victoria Stilwell, another dog walker turned trainer turned television personality, advocates for science-based dog training. In her book Train Your Dog Positively, she writes:

Unfortunately for dogs, a dominance-related misdiagnosis of their behavior problems usually leads to the worst-case scenario: traditionally prescribed behavior-modification techniques usually include punishment, intimidation, fear — precisely the opposite of what dogs really need to overcome most behavioral issues.

This is why so many trainers and behaviorists take issue with the Dominance Theory. It prescribes owner dominance as the treatment for dog aggression because it misdiagnoses the cause as the dog’s desire to dominate the human. In truth, most dog aggression is caused by fear. When you treat a dog’s fear by trying to dominate the dog, the prognosis is more fear. More aggression.

D is for Dominance. Don’t Do it.

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How to train a dog to do anything (and prevent bites)

I read Ian Dunbar’s Before and After Getting Your Puppy before and after we got Leo. Unfortunately, I had not yet heard about puppy socialization when we got Isis, whose story I tell in Bark and Lunge.

That’s why, after reading an advance copy of my book, Ian Dunbar said: Prospective puppy/dog owners can save themselves a lot of heartbreak by reading Bark and Lunge, which tells the story of what can go wrong when a puppy is not properly socialized and when unsuspecting owners are bullied into using aversive training techniques. Please read this book so you don’t make the same mistakes with your puppy.

Ian recently came to town for a six-hour seminar at Tails-A-Wagging, where he taught us how to train a dog to do anything in four steps:

  1. Cue
  2. Lure
  3. Response
  4. Reward

1, 3, 4 are the science. The art is in the lure. The simplest example is:

  1. Say, “Sit.”
  2. Show the dog a treat in your hand and then lift it above his nose.
  3. Most dogs, as they look up, will sit down. Some dogs won’t quite get it, and therein lies the art.
  4. When the dog sits, you say, “Good sit!” and give him the treat.

Training Defined

Ian says he’s astounded when people tell him their dogs don’t like treats. They don’t like to fetch. They don’t like tug.

“Training is not just teaching a dog what to do, it’s teaching him to like it.”

Let’s say the dog doesn’t consider treats to be very exciting rewards, but he really likes for you to chase him. Use the treat as a secondary reinforcer, like a clicker, before you reward him with what he really wants — to be chased. The treat becomes mega-secondary reinforcer. (At least, that’s how I understand it. Ian will be discussing this further at his workshop on Biting and Fighting Tuesday in Olympia.)

#1 Training Error

The biggest mistake reward-based and positive-reinforcement trainers make is to not phase out food soon enough. Or ever, in our case. We still can’t get Leo to sit unless we have a treat in our hands.

After a dog is four or four-and-a-half months old, the lure becomes a bribe.

A lure takes a willing dog and tells him what we want him to do. A bribe coerces an unwilling dog to act against its will.

Preventing Dog Bites

You know what the biggest bite trigger is? Grabbing a dog’s collar.

Here’s how you turn it around: Once you’ve already taught sit and come, call the dog to you. Have him sit. Grab his collar. Give him a treat. Let him go back to doing whatever he was doing before you so rudely interrupted. Most likely, playing.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

You have turned the biggest bite trigger into a tertiary reinforcement. (Play is the primary reinforcer. The treat is secondary.)

Girl Problems

Apparently there are a lot of female dog trainers who have trouble walking their own reactive dogs. I saw this happen with Isis because my own anxiety about what she would do fueled her anxiety. Men don’t have this problem, because, in Ian’s words, “Men don’t give a shit.”


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