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 These out-of-date methods are now, thank goodness, by and large a thing of the past.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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These things (pinch collars)? Never useful.

When you have a strong belief about something controversial, and you know you’re unlikely to change someone’s mind, do you keep quiet or speak your mind?

During a visit to a dog rescue, I found myself on the other end of an elaborate defense of pinch collars. “A lot of trainers are starting to realize the benefits of pinch collars,” the dog rescue lady told me.

Really? Because I haven’t heard of a single positive reinforcement trainer defecting to the use of an antiquated pinch collar, saying, “Yeah, my force-free methods have failed and I now realize aversive training is the way to go.” Quite the opposite. My understanding is that the most current research has shown force-free methods to be the preference.

Rob and I were walking beside this woman as a powerful pit bull pulled ahead of her on his leash, demonstrating certainly that it is possible for a collar to constrict against a dog’s neck without causing it pain, but not really making a case for training loose leash walking.

She’s telling us that they have to use pinch collars because a lot of her volunteers aren’t very experienced, so they need to be able to control the dog in case it tries to bolt after a rabbit. She adds that Haltis would cause more damage to the vertebrae than a pinch collar if a dog raced to the end of its leash.

I’m thinking, These aren’t acceptable defenses of a pinch collar. Don’t let inexperienced volunteers walk your dogs. Don’t let a dog bolt to the end of its leash. But I’m also thinking, She’s so sold on this device, what’s the point of telling her I think she’s wrong? It’s not like I’m going to change her mind.

Still, I couldn’t stay quiet. Trying hard not to be overly bitchy, I offered, “With our first German shepherd, we used a pinch collar for more than a year, and it didn’t stop her from pulling. The only thing that solved the problem was a Halti and clicker training.”

I knew I wouldn’t convert her on the spot, but at least she didn’t say, “You’re wrong!” I feel better that I at least put that information out there.

I can’t prove that using a pinch collar made Isis neurotic. What I know is that we had an anxious dog who got progressively worse while we were using aversive training methods. What I know is that everything I tried failed to stop her pulling on the leash, until I tried a Halti and a clicker.

My first misgivings about this rescue came when they sent me an email with a list of helpful videos for socializing puppies. Among them were videos from Leerburg, one of the websites I consulted when trying to figure out what I was doing wrong with Isis’s pinch collar. I don’t object to the information in their video about bringing home a new puppy. I think it’s a good idea to use an X-pen to keep a puppy separate from adult dogs, so the puppy can watch and learn the proper way to behave inside. (Though the crazy dog mom in me can’t imagine not letting the dogs play with toys in the house.)

Another video was labeled “This is what you will end up with if you think just love alone will be enough. Do not be fooled by positive only and harness programs. All dogs need discipline.” It shows how a pinch collar is used to mellow out a rambunctious pit bull. Nice demonstration, but I’ve seen the same exact thing happen with a Halti and a clicker.

The list of videos and ignorant comment about “positive only” programs didn’t deter me from my primary goal of visiting a litter of puppies at this rescue.

If we were going to get another dog (and we're not getting another dog), we'd get a boy. But Rob had a hard time keeping the girl puppies away.

If we were going to get another dog (and we’re not getting another dog), we’d get a boy. Rob can’t help it if he’s a girl puppy magnet.

Once there, in separate conversations, I told both the rescue owner and her trainer that my original intention was to get an older dog, but I found the photos of the puppies hard to resist. The trainer said that with two adult dogs in the house, we’d be better bringing in a puppy. The owner said that with two adult dogs in the house, we’d be better bringing in another adult dog. That’s how we wound up on the walk with the pit pulling on the pinch collar.

This dog would need a strong leader, the rescue owner told me, then asked a series of damning questions about our current dogs. Yes, they sleep on the bed. Yes, they walk slightly in front of us on the leash. “Then your dogs don’t see you as the leader,” she pronounced.

Busted. But allow me to again quote Victoria Stilwell’s book, Train Your Dog Positively:

The irony is that to believe dogs see us as their pack leaders actually requires that we first anthropomorphize dogs by assuming they share our human concern regarding rank and what others think of us.

… the entire concept that we must assert our claim to the throne of pack leader before our dogs is based on a mirage. For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that dogs are completely motivated by a burning desire to become pack leader over their human counterparts. At some point in this theoretical exercise we must necessarily decide to disregard the simple truth – that dogs are well aware that we are not, in fact, dogs.

…It is time, therefore, to finally retire the term pack leader – especially when it refers to humans interacting with dogs. Domestic dogs don’t live in true packs, and even if they did, we, as a different species, wouldn’t be a part of them.

I didn’t expect to leave the dog rescue today with a puppy in hand. We weren’t 100 percent ready to get a third dog at this time anyway. But I really didn’t expect to leave feeling so discouraged and disgruntled. I can’t believe anyone still endorses these training methods.

Even more surprising was that the rescue owner badmouthed force-free training. The most offensive thing she said was that positive reinforcement is a problem because when that training fails, dogs wind up in shelters, and a pit bull in a shelter has only a 1 percent chance of survival. As if the only dogs being given up are those for whom positive reinforcement has failed!

That riled me up on the way home. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say something at the time, but what would I have said? “Have you looked at the percentage of unadoptable dogs that get euthanized after pinch collars and dominance methods resulted in aggressive behavior?”

No, it’s probably better that I said nothing and left on pleasant terms.

How about you? When was the last time you found yourself torn between being polite and being honest about your opinion?

Separation anxiety (mine) and the canine oxytocin connection

While in Atlanta for BarkWorld, I missed my doggies like crazy. More than usual, probably because I was thinking about dogs and surrounded by dog-lovers all weekend.

The highlight of the social “petworking” conference for me was meeting Victoria Stilwell. As a fan of her television show, I already knew that she is a champion of positive reinforcement training, but I did not realize the depth of her passion for educating dog owners and old-school trainers that force-free methods are the only humane way to work with animals. Her talk at BarkWorld was inspirational.

On the flight home, I began reading her book, Train Your Dog Positively, appreciating its well-written, scientifically backed explanation of dog psychology mixed with anecdotes about her own dogs and client dogs.

On page 51, I had to nudge Rob to take off his earphones and listen to this:

When we pet a dog lovingly, for example, the warmth and happiness we feel comes from a release into the bloodstream of oxytocin — a “bonding” hormone that has a powerful effect on dogs and humans. Dr. Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, a doctor and professor of physiology and a pioneer in the study of oxytocin, studied this hormone release by taking blood samples from dogs and their owners before and during a petting session. When owners stroked their dogs, they had a release of oxytocin similar to what mothers experience while nursing babies.

Interestingly, petting also triggered a burst of oxytocin in the dogs themselves. Miho Nagasawah, of the Department of Animal Science and Biotechnology at Azabu University in Japan, showed that even eye contact between a dog and human causes an increase in oxytocin. This interaction between our two species has a powerful physiological effect on both of us, promoting feelings of love and attachment while lowering blood pressure and heart rate, soothing pain, and lessening stress.

Oh my god, yes. Forget eye contact, I feel releases of oxytocin just by saying my dogs’ names.

Here’s a scenario that played out in about a dozen variations throughout the weekend: Rob would mention one of the dogs, let’s say Mia. I would moan, “Meeeeeeyaa. I miss her so muuuuch.” Then I might chant her name, “Mia, Mia, Mia,” or sing the song Rob made up about her resemblance to a bear, then autotuned and used as the soundtrack to this montage of photos:


The Leo version often included some form of his nickname: Leo Bug or DJ Leo Bug, which I then abbreviated to DJ LB, realizing that LB also stands for Little Boy. Little Boy Leo Bug.

I know. I’m completely insane.

But saying their names, thinking about them, looking at their pictures in my Facebook albums — all of these fill me with a warmth and happiness reminiscent of petting them and kissing their soft heads.

Naturally since we’ve been home, I’ve been on an oxytocin bender. Every time I leave the house, I look forward to my next opportunity to revel in our scientifically proven bonding ritual.

Our dog sitters (Grandma and Grandpa) reported that Mia seemed anxious while we were gone, but Leo was his normal self. Maybe he wasn’t distraught by our absence, but I can tell by the smile on his face that he’s sure happy we’re back.

Leo sports his new bandanna, courtesy of Unleashed by Petco

Leo sports his new bandanna, courtesy of Unleashed by Petco