Modern dog training methods are very different to those of twenty years ago. Instead of having a dog obey through fear, today’s trainers use positive motivation to achieve truly astounding results. If what you want is a perfectly behaved, happy dog, the first step is to understand how dogs think.
1.1 Debunking dominance theory
1.2 How a dog really thinks
1.3 Brain power
1.4 What every dog secretly craves
1.1: Debunking Dominance Theory
Are you ready to have fun training your dog?
This course is based on current, up-to-date research into dog behavior and training. Read on if you want to teach your dog using proven methods that make his tail wag and eyes light up, and lead to brilliant results.
If you are looking for new ways to dominate your dog, stop reading now because you won’t find them here. Actually, do keep reading because you need to know this newsflash: Dominance theory has been discredited.
This matters because understanding what motivates a dog is key to modern training methods. In order to get a dog to do our bidding, be that sit, stop barking, or fetch the TV remote, they need to know what we want them to do. Since dogs don’t speak human, it’s up to us to make our wishes clear in a way they ‘get’ and reward-based training is a fun way to make this happen.
If it’s some time since you’ve trained a dog, then you may be feeling skeptical because the old methods worked just fine. The chances are, when you pulled on the choke chain the dog did sit, but there’s also a good chance he sat because of a respect born of fear. Fear or resentment. Either way, we don’t call dogs “man’s best friend” for no reason, and do you really want your best buddy acting out of anxiety lest he get something wrong? No. Now is your chance to do things differently and have a huge amount of fun along the way.
What is Dominance Theory?
The idea of “A wolf in your living room” is a powerful one, and the image is responsible for most people’s grasp of dog psychology. For most of the 20th century, people believed dog behavior was similar to that of wolves.
In turn, they believed wolves obeyed the law of the pack. An alpha dog bossed the pack. What he said went. If you were a young wolf, a female wolf, or generally lower down in the pecking order, then watch out! Take something that belonged to the alpha and he would growl, snarl, fight and bite, and generally do whatever it took to assert his supremacy. Indeed, the pack was in a constant state of flux with youngsters taking a chance on usurping the established head, and it was only by the alpha keeping those challengers down, that kept him safe.
So dominance theory went that the wolf in our living room was constantly challenging our authority and it was essential for the owner to ‘dominant’ the dog in order to keep him in his place and prevent mayhem.
This led to harsh training methods based on constantly proving you were in charge of the dog. Remember the choke chain? Well that was a classic training tool from the dominance era. Remember the alpha roll? (And for those that don’t – it involves the owners forcing the dog onto their back and holding them there.) Another classic dominance move.
Part of the reason this method lasted so long is that it gets results. Half choke a dog and say “Sit”, and the dog will learn to sit to avoid being strangled. Execute an alpha roll, and the dog will behave…but because he’s half-scared to death…which isn’t great for any caring relationship.
Why Dominance Theory is Wrong
Unfortunately, as it happens dominance theory was wrong all along, because it was based on a lie. OK, well not a lie, but faulty science.
There were two basic mistakes:
#1: Actually dogs behave like dogs and not like wolves.
#2: Wolf behavior is family orientated, not dominance based.
So where did it all go so very wrong?
The story goes that those early observations of wolf pack behavior were made on animals in a zoo. These were unrelated individuals thrown together in a small space, and then left to sink or swim in strange surroundings. Quite understandably, when forced together in such a stressful situation the wolves answer was to fight for the best places to sleep or the first helping of food. They fought for food and territory because in the zoo these were precious resources.
Now fast forward to more recent years. Satellite tracking and GPS allows scientists to watch wolf packs in the wild. It turns out that after all they live in comfortable family groups. They keep order based on a parent-offspring model, with older wolves being in charge because they have more life experience. They eat together (none of this ‘alpha male eats first’ business much copied by certain dog trainers) and share domestic duties within the home territory. Just like any family, most of the time they get along well enough, with the occasional ruckus when a misunderstanding occurs. But the important message is that dominance does not exist in the form we were once led to believe.
As dominance in wolves does not exist, it is bad for canine welfare to continue using a faulty theory to train our best fur-pals. So instead, we’ll shortly shift thinking and concentrate on what works AND makes dogs happy: Reward-based training.
1.2 How a Dog Really Thinks
If your dog isn’t plotting how he’s going to usurp your authority, get the key to the biscuit tin and become top dog in the household, then what is he thinking?
If you have a dog that growls when you go to sit on the sofa or snaps when your try to take a toy away from him, then you could be forgiven for thinking he’s trying to boss you. But he isn’t. This isn’t true dominance but a case of mistaken motivation.
Many, many dogs behave badly, but not because they have a master plan to take over the household. These are dogs that lack clear rules to live by or their bad behavior has been rewarded. In fact, these dogs are often living evidence that reward-based training works.
Let’s take a closer look:
Your dog snuggles down in your favorite armchair. You go to move him off and he growls. You back off.
What happened here is the dog’s bad behavior (growling) was rewarded because he got what he wanted (to stay on the chair). At this point, let’s make it clear you shouldn’t challenge or punish a dog that’s growling or aggressive…that’s a whole different argument…but more on that later.
In other words, if by acting a certain way the dog gets what he wants, then of course he’s going to act that way because it gets results. Also, if there is a lack of ground rules and the dog can get away with bad behavior, then just like a naughty child he will do. For example, if a dog is used to barging first through doors because he’s never been taught not to, then he will. This is nothing more complex than plain old bad manners.
How Dogs Behave
If you’re still quietly nursing a hankering after the wolf pack dominance theory, let’s put it finally to bed. Instead of looking at what dogs aren’t, let’s look at what they are.
Firstly, the closest model we have to groups of dogs living together in a natural way are the feral dogs of West Bengal. They are the closest canine thing to wolf packs, and yet still they behave like dogs not wolves. These dogs naturally live in small communities of between 5 – 10 dogs who share a territory. When it’s time to breed they pair off, and when the pups are born the male helps the female to provide for their offspring. The pairs tolerate their near neighbors, their society is largely co-operative, and there is absolutely no evidence of dominance hierarchy.
Secondly, closer to home, canine behaviorists decided to study how a large group of shelter dogs behaved when they were allowed to exercise together on a regular basis in a large paddock. What would be your guess as to what happened? Would the dogs fight or learn to get along?
As it happened something interesting occurred. The dogs avoided conflict at all costs, and either kept to themselves or one-third of their number befriended a buddy and paired up. There was no fighting and no one showed the slightest interest in becoming king of the paddock, it just wasn’t important to them and the dogs remained largely friendly and playful. It seems domination was the last thing on their mind.
Dogs are Individuals
Of course dogs are individuals: some are laid back characters that are happy to be dressed in a bonnet and pushed around in a buggy, others are hyper and don’t know how to stay still, others are highly strung and frightened of their own shadow.
Dogs are also individual about what gets their attention and makes them tick. Breed and genetics has a big influence on this, for example a beagle is never happier than nose down following a scent (except perhaps nose down in a food bowl) whilst a retriever loves nothing better than to holds things in his mouth…a toy, your socks, a duck…
The ace dog trainer assesses his dog as an individual, identifies what excites them and uses that to build the dog’s confidence for the things they find scary or as his motivation for reward-based training.
What we can Learn from Dominance Training
We’re going to move on and leave dominance theory where it belongs, in the past. But before we look forward not back, there is something dominance training can teach us.
Remember those well-behaved dogs that hang back to let their owner go through the door first. Or the dog that obediently jumps out of the armchair on command. Aren’t these examples of how harsher training methods do work?
Yes and no.
Some dogs do respond to old-fashioned methods, but not for the reason you might think. Rather than respecting their place in the pack, what they’re doing is enjoying living within a firm set of rules.
Dogs love leadership. They love to know what they can and can’t do, and yes, that’s one thing that dominance training does do – it lays firm ground rules – which is one reason why it’s survived for so long.
However, as you learn about reward-based training, you’ll see there are other, gentler, kinder ways to teach the dog the ropes, and then it’s a matter of training yourself and your family to enforce those rules consistently. This path leads to true training happiness.
1.3 Brain Power
Would you expect a three-year old child to solve a crossword puzzle?
A complex word puzzle is far too advanced for a young child. Give them a newspaper and pen and a young child is more likely to scribble all over it than solve the cryptic crossword puzzle or be a whiz of the Sudoku. It’s all about giving the kid an appropriate challenge that’s a match for their brain power.
So does it help manage your expectations to learn that a dog has a similar mental and emotional development as a two to three-year old child?
Dogs develop similar emotions to children, but in fast forward. By the time a dog is six months old they are equipped with a range of emotions including anger, fear, disgust, and love as that experienced by a two to three-year old child. Dogs also have very human feelings such as optimism, envy and grief, as proven by studying brain activity using an MRI scanner.
So again, if you want to teach a dog, speak to him in a way he understands so that he stands a chance of obeying. Don’t make the task too complicated (TOP TIP: break it down into smaller tasks so the dog can learn a big task in baby steps).
Whilst we’re on the subject of dogs and children, did you know that most people experience a rush of the love-hormone oxytocin when they look at their dog? Oxytocin is the hormone that bonds a mother to her baby and it seems it’s also a potent force linking man to dog (and vice versa, as dogs also experience an oxytocin rush when they look at their owner.) Kind of puts us in a position of great responsibility, doesn’t it?
1.4 What Every Dog Secretly Craves
Rather than your dog being out to dominate you, dogs have a child-like intellect and respond to you on an emotional level in the same way as a child to a parent. In addition, they obey the Law of Family, which is:
Those who raise you are most likely to cherish you.
So to turn things on their head, how can you best cherish your canine companion?
A happy, contented dog is also a pet that wants to please, so by cherishing your dog you are empowering them to do their best. A win-win situation.
Loving too Much
However, loving too much or loving in an unstructured way, is an all too easy mistake to make. Take a look at these two scenarios and decide which you think best represents be a loving owner:
#1: Your dog is a not allowed to touch food or plates put on the coffee table. However, once a year on his birthday he gets his own cake and as a special treat he can eat it off the table.
#2: Just as in #1 the dog isn’t allowed to eat off the table, only on this chap’s birthday he gets a special cake which he eats in his usual place in the kitchen.
Perhaps the answer may not be obvious, but the correct answer is #2. This is because dogs crave consistency. The dog who is invited to eat off the table once a year, is going to be mighty confused and even feel conflicted inside on his birthday. He has no idea why he gets told off for approaching the table on 364 days, and then bizarrely he’s encouraged to for just one day in the year. The dog in #2 who gets the treat but in a way that doesn’t cause him internal conflict is a much more contented dog.
Insecurity and Frustration
In a dog’s world, confusion leads to unpleasant sensations such as insecurity and frustration. Inconsistency leads to feelings that life is unpredictable and his world is no longer safe and secure. This affects each dog differently.
One dog may feel anxious and insecure, whilst another may test the waters and misbehave, in an attempt to see how far you can be pushed. You better be ready as an owner with the correct response, or this is where things can start to go wrong and those bad habits that get labelled as dominance creep in.
So what is the magic answer, to giving a dog what he craves?
A dog needs:
A dog finds securitywith a strong leader (That’s you!)
Now don’t mistake strong leadership for being a bully. A gentle, quietly spoken person can command as much, if not more, attention from a dog than someone who shouts– after all, dogs have excellent hearing so there really is no need to shout.
In a dog’s world leadership is all about guidance, love, and security, and it doesn’t bear saying too many times that it’s a sense of security born out of consistency. Your leadership is about setting a daily routine, about letting the dog know what the rules are, telling him he did well when he did what you wanted and letting him know when and where he went wrong.
To do this, you have to know the rules yourself and stick to them. You also need to decide on a set of command cues and abide by them. Do you spot a theme here? Consistency!
Dogs want to obey, but first they have to understand where the boundaries lie and what you want him to do. If one day it’s OK to jump on the sofa, and then next day it’s not – you guessed it – those feelings of confusion, tension, and frustration come bubbling through. By knowing what’s acceptable and what’s not, the dog can relax into the business at hand – pleasing you by doing what you want.
Perhaps it comes down to the way dogs learn (an action that’s rewarded is more likely to be repeated) but dogs love predictability. They love to know that action X leads to outcome Y. It how their mind works. The dog needs to know that a certain action (jumping on the sofa) is always met with the same response (being told to get off.) You may love to be wildly impulsive, but remember it will stress your dog out if it shakes up his world too much.
When training a dog it helps to know they are largely glass ‘half-full’ creatures, rather than half-empty. In practical terms this means if they are behaving badly it’s not good telling them to stop, and leaving it at that, you need to give them an alternative behavior to do in order to channel their energy.
For example, if your dog runs to greet visitors and jumps up at them, telling the dog to stop is only half the job. The dog will learn much more quickly if you offer then an alternative action to channel that excitement. For example, you could train the dog to go and fetch their favorite toy and present it to the guest, rather than jumping up their legs.
Remember dogs are officially like children? Build their trust with your actions, which should be fair at all times and appropriate to what’s going on. If your dog makes a bad decision, perhaps you’re teaching “down stay” and the dog keeps getting up, you will build their trust by reacting appropriately. In this case, a simple “Uh oh” said in a disapproving tone of voice as the dog gets up, is sufficient to guide them as to where they went wrong. This builds their confidence and trust in you as a teacher and leader.
Everyone needs to let their hair down from time to time, and in the same way all dogs need to play. It is a healthy thing for all dogs to play and exercise. Again, if you expect a child to concentrate for long periods of time they start to become disruptive, so will a dog’s concentration wander and he’ll seem disobedient. In all probability he’s not, he just needs to get out there and play.
Don’t forget the best way to stop your dog behaving badly is to give him ample chance to express himself. If your dog loves to dig, then give him a sandbox to dig in. If he loves to chase things, then make sure to spend lots of time on games of chase. By giving those natural behaviors an outlet, your dog won’t be so likely to get in to mischief.
This course will give you the confidence to train your dog using rewards, to think through where things are going wrong, and to correct the problem with kindness.
Sometimes things do go wrong, but often this is because we haven’t communicated clearly with the dog. The commonest causes of conflict include:
- The dog doesn’t understand what we want them to do: In other words, we have failed to make our instructions clear.
- Inconsistent rules: We kept moving the goalposts, and the dog had no hope of working out what’s allowed and what isn’t allowed.
- Unpredictable outcomes: The dog wants a simple life. He wants action X to lead to outcome Y. If you give the command “Down” and you expect him to lie down, but another time you say “Drop”, he’s going to get confused…which leads to anxiety and frustration.
So before we move onto the next module and how dogs learn and the principles of training, first get your act in order. Decide on your command cues and decide on the house rules – and stick to the m. All the training in the world isn’t going to work unless you are clear and consistent with what you are asking the dog to do.