Monday, May 9, 2011

What a Load of Bollocks!

Okay, I say that A LOT on the internet. But never have I come across a site that consolidates all the bullshit into a single page like this one does. And let me tell you, there is a TON of bullshit on this page. In most cases, when I run across a site with less-than-factual information, I just roll my eyes and move on, because if I posted about every single one of them, I'd do nothing but write blogs about all the things that are wrong on the internet. This one merits extra special attention.

Here's the site in question:

I'll give you a few minutes to read through all that (and have a good laugh, if you've done any research into ACTUAL dog behavior). Done? Good, then I'll get started.

I've already discussed at length why I hate the term 'Alpha Dog' a few posts back, which covers most of why the first paragraph is completely untrue. It's also completely ridiculous to link separation anxiety to a dog that 'doesn't know its place'. Separation anxiety, as its name suggests, is anxiety related to being separated from humans (or in some cases, another animal). Dogs with separation anxiety cannot bear to be away from their people, and show signs of great stress when they are left home alone or are otherwise parted from the family. It's not because they're insecure of their 'status', and the destruction caused by a dog with separation anxiety is largely due to the dog trying to get to where they think their humans are. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety are not likely to rip apart the sofa cushions (that sort of destruction is most often due to boredom and too much energy), but they ARE likely to dig at baseboards, walls, windowsills, or doors- things they see as obstacles between them and their humans. Separation anxiety is often over-diagnosed among people looking for an explanation as to why Fluffy destroyed an antique Persian rug, but to a dog that TRULY has anxiety issues, playing "alpha dog" could be disastrous to that dog's mental state.

1. Walking IS a good means of exercise and bonding with your dog, and walking politely beside the walker is just good manners- but the rest of this point is pretty far off the mark. If the author had read anything at all out there about the way wolf packs or feral dog groups work, they would realize that no one individual leads ALL the time. Even among animals who DO have a strict hierarchy, the leaders rarely actually lead. Why? Because the safest place in any group formation is in the middle. I don't even know where the 'instinct to migrate' comes from. Even wolves have a home range, which can be large in areas where food and competition is scarce, but they don't often just up and move for no good reason.

2. Eating before your dogs might make you feel better, but it doesn't really mean anything to the dog. Again, in studies of wolves and feral dogs, leaders don't ALWAYS eat first. With wolf packs, while the parents (remember, that's all that "alpha" means these days- the breeding pair, or parents) are teaching their offspring to hunt, the pups are often allowed to eat their own kills without having to offer it to mom and dad first. Feral dogs are scavengers, and usually follow "Finders Keepers" rules. If there are two hungry dogs, and only one old hamburger, there may be a scuffle, and one dog will lose- but he sure isn't going to sit around and hope the winner tosses him a scrap. He's going to go sniffing in some other rubbish bin for something else to eat.

3. Table scraps shouldn't be fed to dogs because they can contribute to obesity, not world domination.

4. Schedules are also good, as some dogs are chow hounds who will gorge themselves if left an unlimited amount of food. That's not good for the dog, or for the owner's pet food budget. If a dog can self-regulate, though, there's nothing wrong with free feeding. Neither feral dogs nor wolves eat on a schedule either, if this author insists on comparing the two with pet dogs.

5. See the point above regarding where the leaders actually travel when in a group. Teaching a dog to wait at doors is not a bad thing- many a child or elderly person has been bowled over by a rambunctious large dog bolting through an open door, and many a dog has gotten lost or hurt because of the same lack of manners. But letting the dog go inside first doesn't give them any delusions of grandeur.

6. Some dogs will just as happily ignore YOU when you enter or leave a room. I'm not exactly sure what they think will happen if you scratch your dog on the head within 30 seconds of returning from the toilet, but I will assume it is BAD.

7. Again, these are just good manners. "Nothing In Life is Free" is a pretty popular training philosophy, and there's certainly nothing wrong with making your dog 'work' for treats. However, giving him a pat on the head without making him do every trick he knows first isn't going to send your dog on a spiral of delinquent behavior.

8. I'm pretty sure most people who have spent time around dogs have, at some point, witnessed a little dog tell a big dog to get lost. Some of the bossiest dogs I've met have been terriers and chihuahuas. If height determined 'who was boss', Great Danes and Wolfhounds would rule the world (either one standing on their hind legs is taller than the average human). Unless you have a rowdy dog who enjoys jumping all over you, there's certainly nothing wrong with laying on the floor together.

9. Another good manners habit a dog should have. Most guests don't appreciate being accosted by the dog the second they walk through the door. If the dog offers them hors-d'oeuvres before you can, though, you might want to worry about your role as host.

10. Gosh I hope none of the people following this advice have arthritic dogs or dogs who are prone to startle response. If I'm walking my dog in the park, encounter a fallen tree, and I go around it, does that mean I'm lower in the pack than the tree too?

11. Dogs thrive on contact, and yeah, some do get pretty excited at receiving hugs. Some don't like hugs very much, because they feel too restrained or restricted. It has nothing to do with being challenged and everything to do with the dog feeling smothered. Generally, grabbing a dog around the neck is a very threatening thing to the dog (remember that hugging is a human gesture, not a dog one), and THAT'S why some react negatively. Always a good idea to take it slow when attempting to give an unfamiliar dog a hug for the first time.

12. Eye contact is not always a bad thing. Soft eye contact, as one would expect from a dog focused on an owner in a training exercise, is actually a good thing. An obedience trainer WANTS a dog that will look at them, so they can more easily give hand signals or catch the dog's attention in a distracting environment. That's why "Look" is one of the first commands most trainers urge owners to teach their dogs. And there's just no good reason to attempt to stare a dog down. With a reactive dog, it's a good way to provoke a bite. Giving a calming signal (looking away) is not saying "walk all over me", but it is saying "I have no reason to fight with you"- and as the more evolved species, that's the message we should be offering our dogs.

13. You only have to worry if the dog starts protecting the bed/sofa/chair as his own territory, and trying to keep you off of it. A bed/sofa/chair-possessive dog is not a good thing (teaching the 'Off' command early on generally prevents this from happening), but if your dog is happy sleeping in the bed, and you're fine with that, by all means, let the dog drool all over your pillow.

14. Of course they shouldn't! Not because it makes them think they're 'boss', but because dog teeth hurt and no one likes to be mouthed/nipped/bitten. Bite inhibition is a VERY important thing for a dog to learn, and if owners are consistent with taking away play or attention whenever teeth touch skin, dogs will learn very quickly not to mouth during play.

15. Dogs seek human attention for a variety of reasons, none of which include plotting a forceful takeover of the household. Dogs as a species are very tactile- watch two friendly dogs together and you'll see a lot of physical contact from BOTH of them. They're not trying to 'one up' each other, they're just being friends. Same thing with a dog that comes over and leans on your legs or noses your hand. Giving in all the time may make a dog more demanding of attention (after all, dogs repeat behaviors that are beneficial to them, and attention, like a food treat, is a reward), but won't make you less of a leader by doing it every once in a while.

16. Same as above, no one likes a demanding dog. Play has very little to do with social hierarchy (even if social hierarchy DID determine a dog's interactions with people- it doesn't), so tossing Fluffy a tennis ball when she brings you one won't make her think you're a doormat. It might make her think you're an automated tennis ball dispenser, though.

17. This was pretty much addressed already with the bed issue. Of course territorial aggression isn't something that should be tolerated, and if you don't want your dogs on the furniture, train them to stay off it. Rigidly controlling the sofa isn't necessary, though, especially not for dogs who show no signs of territoriality over the furniture. Your dog's probably getting on the furniture without an invite while you're not at home anyway.

18. Tug is good exercise for dogs. If your dog understands the 'Leave It' command, it's perfectly safe to engage in a good game of tug without the risk of giving your dog a superiority complex. I'm definitely a supporter of having rules during tug, as some dogs do get over-aroused and take the game too far- kind of like that one guy who always had to turn gym class flag football into a tackle game. But don't worry if you give up and decide to stop pulling- your dog won't give you a wedgie when you're least expecting it just because he 'won' the game.

19. Yeah, dogs SHOULD be taught 'Leave It'. That's Basic Puppy Commands 101. But the reason behind it is for your dog's safety (in the event of picking up something dangerous, like chicken bones or rat poison) or the safety of your belongings (if Fido gets hold of an expensive shoe, for example).

20. This is pretty much the same as point 19. Guarding behavior SHOULD be addressed through desensitization training for the safety of people in the household. Guarding has nothing to do with social status, though- any dog can develop possession aggression, and the more an owner just walks up and takes something away, the more justification the dog has to hold on to whatever it has.

21. Teaching a dog to loose-leash walk is, again, a manners issue. Of course it's dangerous to let a dog drag you around, or let a dog go running up to strange dogs, or let a dog take off after a squirrel. I don't know how many times I've seen the word 'dominant' attached to a dog that just doesn't have any leash manners. Dogs aren't born knowing how to walk politely- they have to be taught. As long as the owner isn't getting dragged, though, it really doesn't matter if the dog is behind, in step, or a few paces ahead of the owner. As long as the dog is under control, there's no problem with letting the dog walk ahead. Can you imagine a foxhunt where the dogs run BEHIND the horses? Or a hunting dog pack that FOLLOWED the hunter? Yeah, pretty useless.

22. Another manners issue. Teaching a dog to sit politely for his food is certainly better than the alternative of being jumped on. It's also true that dogs are MASTERS at reading body language- they're far better at reading us than we are them, but they're NOT always looking for signs of 'weakness' or opportunities for advancement up the social ladder. Some dogs never do settle when food is in the picture, and I would hope this 'advice' isn't supporting the idea of withholding food indefinitely if the dog doesn't sit. Unmannered does not mean 'preparing a hostile takeover', it just means the owner hasn't worked with food bowl etiquette.

23. I think I've driven 'well mannered' into the ground by this point. I'm certainly getting tired of talking about it. Same with creating a demanding (demanding does not equal 'dominant') dog.

24. This is simply common sense. There are all sorts of ways a dog can hurt a child, even accidentally. Since 'maintaining leadership' has very little to do with who is biggest or strongest, children are capable of teaching dogs to respond to them WITH SUPERVISION, just as well as adults are. With humane, non-confrontational methods of training, dogs are far less likely to respond aggressively, so there's no reason at all that a child couldn't work with the family dog when teaching basic obedience (in fact, children old enough to understand what to do should be involved, since consistency is key).

25. Dogs have the cognitive capabilities of a 2-year-old child. When's the last time you successfully got a toddler to stay in one place for a full half hour? A dog who has been trained to Sit-Stay, or Down-Stay, can indeed do so reliably until it's released from the position, be it 30 seconds or 30 minutes...but what's the point? The answer is, there isn't a point. It's a useless exercise that creates unneeded stress when the dog inevitably fails.

26. In fact, it might be easier for you dog owners out there to become robots. This will prevent you from accidentally feeling anything where your dog might see. Robots are also harder to take control of, in the event that you mess up even one time and do something on this list, allowing your dog to enact the nefarious plan he's been concocting from the day he was born. If this sounds ridiculous to you, it should.

The long and short of it is, dogs are NOT out to rule the world. Or the household. If you spend every waking moment with your dog stressing about how you might appear to him and putting rules on your interaction and worrying that you might screw up, you don't have much of a relationship. I can't imagine having that sort of relationship with my dogs. They follow my commands because I teach them that there's a reward in doing so. I teach them manners not because I'm worried about them taking over but because, as with a child, manners are good to have. I give them affection and attention because we both enjoy it.

I'm a human, and with my gift of opposable thumbs, I control the resources (food, water, affection, and play). That makes me the default leader, and I see no reason to elevate a dog to human level (or more accurately, lower a human to dog level) because I have something to prove. I have to believe that these owners out there obsessing over these meaningless rituals, trying to imitate dogs, look pretty silly to their pets. It must be similar to dressing a chimp in human clothes- no one would mistake that chimp for another human, even if he's doing a fair imitation.

If people spent half as much time training their dogs as they do worrying about BEING a dog, the world would have a lot fewer behaviorally screwed up dogs.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Common Puppy Problems (And How to Fix Them)

A couple friends of mine have recently added new puppies to the family, so this post is for them. Just some of the most common roadblocks new puppy owners encounter, and how to get past them in a positive way.

House Training

Probably THE number one question when it comes to new puppy ownership: "How do I convince my puppy to potty outside?" You'd think a lot of it was common sense, right? Not necessarily. There are a few approaches I usually offer, because not every puppy is going to be comfortable learning the same way.

Scheduling: Pretty self explanatory here. Set your puppy up on a potty schedule, and stick to it. At first, you're going to be making trips outside every hour. With young (2-5 months), or small-breed puppies, their bladders just aren't big enough to hold much at one time, and so potty trips need to be made frequently. There are also certain times when accidents are more likely: shortly after eating and drinking, after hard play, and as soon as a puppy wakes up from a nap. Be sure to take your puppy out at these times, as well as immediately before bed, immediately when you wake up in the morning, and immediately upon returning home after being out. It's a lot easier to prevent an accident than it is to clean one up (and getting the puppy out as often as possible sets him or her up for success).

Crate Training: This can be used as a house training tool if done correctly. Dogs don't enjoy standing around in their messes any more than we humans would, and whenever possible avoid toileting in their sleeping areas. When crate training, size is an important factor. A puppy should have only enough room to stand up, turn all the way around, and lay down comfortably. If the crate is too big, puppy can be tempted to turn one corner into a potty and sleep comfortably at the other end. If the crate is too small, obviously it will be an unpleasant place to spend very much time. Crates are best used in conjunction with scheduling- in the event that your puppy doesn't potty on one of your scheduled trips, you can crate him or her for 10-15 minutes, and then try another trip outside. This will prevent the common complaint of "But I just had her outside! And then I brought her back in and she peed on the floor!".

Tethering: Some puppy owners who are having trouble sending the message using the other methods can try this one. Put a leash on your puppy and then attach the other end of the leash to your belt loop (or some other convenient part of your body or clothing). This will ensure that puppy is at your side all the time (and not finding a place to potty in another room). It will also make it more likely that you'll see the imminent signs of needing to go out- whimpering, circling a small space, and "half-sits" for example. And if you do miss these signs, you'll be able to quickly pick the puppy up and take her outside after catching her "in the act".

The thing to remember when using ANY house training method is to reward the good and ignore the bad. When puppy does what you ask, and goes to potty outside, act like he or she just cured cancer. Tons of praise, treats, and attention. When an accident happens, clean it up and move on. Never punish a puppy for having an accident (yeah, some people still think hitting them with newspaper or rubbing their noses in the mess is an appropriate reaction...). They won't understand what they did was wrong, and you may end up making your puppy afraid to potty in front of you (even outdoors).

*A note on paper training. I don't like it. It's very confusing to the dog, who has no idea why sometimes he's allowed to potty inside and sometimes he's not. It can also be confusing as to why some paper is okay, but peeing on the copy of your thesis you left on the sofa isn't alright. In the beginning, a puppy has no concept of "inside" or "outside", and all paper training does is send mixed signals and change rules in the middle of the game.


If house training is the biggest "how to" question, chewing is the biggest complaint. Puppies explore with their mouths, and just about anything is fair game in their minds. If it's within reach, it'll probably get tooth marks in it sooner or later. But there are some things owners can do to save their favourite pair of expensive pumps from the wrath of puppy teeth.

The two most common causes of inappropriate household destruction are boredom and lack of exercise (okay, this is probably the ONLY thing Cesar and I are going to agree on). Lack of exercise is the easy fix- give the puppy more. If one walk around the block isn't making your puppy tired enough, you've got to up the amount. Make it two, and throw in an hour of fetch in the yard. A tired puppy is a good puppy, and a sleeping puppy isn't going to be able to rip the sofa cushion to shreds. If possible, take your dog for a walk before you leave it alone for any period of time.

Boredom can be the tricky one to take care of. Have options. Just like a child, a puppy is going to get bored of playing with the same toys eventually. The more appropriate things puppy has to play with and chew on, the less likely it will be for him or her to find something inappropriate. And make the toys he or she DOES have super awesome. Toys filled with food are both rewarding and stimulating- puppy has to use brain power to figure out how to get the food out of the toy, and is rewarded for chewing something appropriate. Eventually, though, the food is going to run out, or the puppy will get frustrated with trying and seek out something else to do.

This is where management comes in. Part of puppy-proofing a home (or area where the puppy is allowed) involves removing anything that might make a tempting chew toy. Granted, that's difficult with things like chair legs or sofa cushions or cords that are impossible or really darn inconvenient to remove from an area. They do make products, like Bitter Apple, that you can spray onto furniture to make it less appealing to puppy mouths.

And this is another situation where crate training comes in handy. A puppy in a crate can't reach the new slippers to chew on them, and will otherwise be kept out of trouble when the owners aren't at home (or are for whatever reason unable to supervise their puppy's play).


This is probably the most misunderstood aspect of puppy ownership. I hear pretty often "Why is my puppy biting me!?". But there's a major difference between mouthing and biting. Mouthing is totally normal puppy behavior. Remember how I said that puppies explore everything with their mouths? This extends to people too (and other puppies, and momma dog, and the cat, and so on). Mouthing is an important behavior, because it teaches puppies something called "bite inhibition". That is, a puppy learns to control the strength of her bite through mouthing.

If you've ever seen a group of puppies playing, there's usually a lot of rough and tumble, and a lot of nipping at each other's ears, tails, necks, and legs. Well, when puppies are taken away from the litter, and move into a house with humans, this play behavior continues- after all, it's the only way puppy has learned how to play with another living being so far. Owners often find themselves subjected to puppy mouthing- and sometimes those sharp little needle teeth hurt!

Rather than stop the puppy from mouthing altogether, it's important to continue the education he or she got in the litter, and teach them instead what's okay, and what's too hard. Stopping the mouthing completely will only lead to a grown-up dog with absolutely NO idea how much strength it has in its jaws (and that's a lot, by the way). A dog that has been allowed to mouth, but has been taught that it hurts is far less likely to do major damage if it ever does bite in the future.

To teach a dog that mouthing hurts, an owner needs to react as another puppy would. That is, yelp whenever teeth touch skin. A short, loud, high-pitched sound is usually enough to get the message across that what puppy is doing hurts (it's also advised that you offer something different to chew on). Some puppies respond perfectly well to this vocal sound alone, are happy to redirect their mouthing to a toy, and are more careful with your fingers the next time around. Other puppies think that noise was JUST like their squeaky hot dog and try to make you do it again.

If you've got a persistent nipper who just doesn't seem to get the "Ouch" message, the next step is to take away your attention. If puppy is on your lap, immediately place him on the floor and ignore him (if he's already on the floor, just ignore him). Stand up and cross your arms (so he's not tempted to jump back into your lap). Don't speak to him, don't make eye contact, and don't touch him- any of those things, even in a negative sense (like saying "No" or pushing him away), still give him the attention he's after. Wait for a couple of minutes, and if the puppy is acting appropriately (standing or sitting calmly), praise him and resume play, petting, brushing, whatever it was you were doing. For puppies that REALLY don't get the message, and start to mouth your pants legs, ankles, or feet instead, you may need to "ignore harder". Walk away, go into another room, and shut the door. Wait 5-10 minutes, and then come back out. Puppy will soon realize that mouthing means the end of the game and the end of your attention, and is far more likely to treat your fingers with more respect as long as you're consistent.

Jumping Up

Another common problem, and another one that arises because of the language barrier between puppy and human. When puppies great their mother, they jump up on her in an attempt to lick her lower jaw. This display is called an appeasement gesture- a puppy's way of saying "Hi mom! I'm not interested in being rough or playing, just saying hello!". So when puppy comes home to his or her human family, this is the sort of greeting he or she believes is totally normal. But most humans don't WANT to be jumped all over and have their faces licked, so it's up to us to teach puppy a different way of saying "hello".

Teaching an appropriate greeting is a lot like teaching puppy not to mouth too hard. If puppy jumps up, ignore him. A lot of owners are tempted to try and push the puppy off, but A) this is still a form of attention and B) puppy might jump even MORE as he or she tries to apologize for doing something wrong (not knowing that it was jumping in the first place that was wrong). The better method is to simply "be a tree". Just like with mouthing, stand still with your arms crossed, not even looking at the puppy.

But here's where timing is important. The SECOND the puppy stops jumping up, and has all four feet on the floor, praise him for doing the right thing. Once you begin to associate keeping feet on the ground with praise, you can increase the time between when puppy stops jumping and when you give him attention, and even start to alter the behavior to something more specific (for example, only offering attention when he sits, and not offering attention for standing, even if the feet stay on the ground).

Jumping can be tricky, just because new people probably won't realize your rules. It's pretty tempting to pet a puppy that jumps up, especially when they're small and cute. Be sure to talk to any approaching person and tell them not to pet the puppy until he or she is calm, so that they can offer the same sort of consistency while training. In no time, puppy will be sitting politely and waiting to be petted instead of jumping all over everyone.

Remember that puppies are only babies. They don't speak English, and they can't choose "right" from "wrong". Dogs understand "Do" far better than they understand "Don't", so always show your puppy what you DO want, instead of yelling or punishing for something you DON'T want. Set your puppy up for success and take failures in stride, and you'll both be happier for it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Things I Hate, Part 1

This installment: The Term "Alpha Dog"

Once upon a time, way back in the day, there was a zoo that had a wolf pack. "I will use this pack to study wolf behavior!" said a man*. And so he watched them, and after watching them went on his way and wrote a book about what he saw and how they acted. And then some other folks came along and said "Hey...dogs are a lot like wolves, aren't they? Let's just assume this wolf behavior study will translate to dogs. I'll bet there's a lot of good stuff in there."*

Okay, so what's wrong with that? Some guy wants to study wolves, and he does, big deal. And domestic dogs DID descend from wolves, right? Well, there are a few problems. One, and most glaringly, is that this is not a natural grouping of wolves. Back in the day, it was common practice to capture wild animals and stick them in zoos, and that's what happened with the wolf pack. Only they didn't capture an entire wild pack- they caught individuals, and stuck them into a small enclosed space together. Ever watch The Real World? Know what happens when a bunch of unrelated animals gets stuck together and none of them are allowed to leave? Yeah...something like that.

So what was observed in this captive group of unrelated individuals was a sort of pecking order, with constant conflict and a lot of aggression. And thus the idea that a wolf pack is led by the strongest individual, or Alpha, who then has to fight to keep his position as the head honcho was born. And then it was adopted into the dog training world because people thought they were pretty much the same thing.

Wanna know what really happens?

Wolf packs are a lot more like nuclear human families than hierarchical dictatorships. A male and a female come together, mate, and produce offspring. The juveniles stay with their parents for between two and three years, and then go off to find mates of their own (and thus begin their own packs, usually on adjoining territory). At any one time, a wolf pack is usually comprised of two to three litters of pups, each learning from mom and dad how to survive. Submission is offered willingly, and violence towards packmates is seldom seen. Interestingly, these new observations were made by the same person who had written the first captive wolf study. Nice to know that some people can still admit they were totally wrong.

The term Alpha, as it applies to wolves, means "the pair that mate"...when it's used at all. It doesn't mean "the strongest". It doesn't mean "the most aggressive". It doesn't mean "the one who eats and goes through doors first". Modern wolf researchers have tried to stop using the term because of all the misconception surrounding it. Unfortunately, dog trainers and the general public are a little slow to get the memo.

There was a time, about 30 years ago, when this Alpha Dog theory was all the rage. It was THE way to train. People were using Alpha Rolls (flipping the dog onto its back and pinning it until it stops struggling) left and right, jerking dogs around with choke chains, and explaining this, that, and the other thing as the dog trying to be Dominant- to usurp the human's position as the head of the household and make himself (or herself) the Alpha. There are some trainers out there who took those theories and methods, ran with them, and never looked back (or forward, for that matter).

Since that time, a lot of time and effort has gone into studying the domestic dog, its social behavior, and its learning style. And what has come out of all that research is that this whole Dominance Alpha theory is pretty misguided. There are a few reasons for that.

One, dogs aren't wolves. They might look similar in some cases, but hundreds of years of selective breeding and evolution separate dogs from wolves. Dogs are about as similar to wolves, socially speaking, as humans are to chimpanzees. That is to say- not very. As trainer Ian Dunbar once said, "Looking to wolves for dog training guidance is like looking to chimpanzees for child-rearing advice."

Two, we humans aren't dogs. I know, pretty obvious, right? Despite being animals, dogs are pretty smart. They're fully aware that we're not a big, two-legged Mexican Hairless. Most dog communication is non-verbal, through posture and position of the ears and tail. Well, a human might be able to mimic a posture to some extent, but we're lacking in the ears and tail department. So right off the bat, our ability to "communicate like a dog" is very limited. A dog will never perceive a human as another dog no matter how much "acting like a dog" one does. And the thing about dominance is that it doesn't translate between species. A dog isn't out to dominate a human any more than it is to dominate a squirrel or bird that happened to wander into its yard.

Three, as mentioned previously, in wolves (and dogs), there is MUCH more emphasis on submission than on "dominance". The adults in a wolf pack rarely use force because there's no reason to. Like human parents, they are secure in their knowledge that their offspring are not out to overthrow them. They don't need to bully their young into submission- respect for the parent and teacher is there naturally. In a wolf pack, where teamwork and cooperation are vital to hunting and therefore survival, a constant struggle for who's in charge would waste valuable time and energy. Instead, there is an emphasis on peace-keeping through submission. If there's only one deer leg and two wolves want it, the more submissive wolf (generally younger) will willingly give it up without a fight. It's worth noting that there has never been a documented case of a wolf forcefully Alpha Rolling another wolf- when a wolf (or dog) shows its belly, it's a willing gesture of submission.

Four (and connected to the last point), aggressive displays are reserved for individuals who are insecure in their position. Using the wolf pack example again (I know, I'm using that a lot after saying that dogs aren't wolves), wolves in the middle do occasionally squabble over a particular resource or to assert themselves over a sibling. The leaders, though, don't need to get involved with the squabbling because they're confident in their place as the leaders (also worth noting that the youngest generation don't quarrel with their elders either). So what does it say when an owner feels the need to physically assert themselves over their dogs? That they're not confident in their position as a leader, and that they see the dog as A) an equal and B) a threat to them.

Which leads to reason five: By trying to establish themselves as "Alpha", owners begin a cycle of conflict that is completely unnecessary. By giving the message that they're insecure in their leadership, they miscommunicate that there IS no leader- and so the dog begins to act accordingly, ignoring commands and engaging in other behaviors some trainers are quick to label "Dominance". That, of course, leads the human owner to go to harsher extremes to "be the Alpha", and the cycle continues. A leader secure in his or her leadership doesn't NEED to constantly reaffirm it.

Six, dogs really aren't out to usurp our position as head of the household. What on earth would they do when they got there? Their lack of thumbs alone would surely be a detriment to getting their own food. Humans control all of the vital resources of the house- food, water, and attention- and therefore are ALREADY the leaders. It's just that in many cases, the owners don't know that, or don't know how to use those resources to their advantage. See point five.

Seven (and I think maybe this is the last one...for now) is that most behaviors that some trainers want to label "Dominance" have other causes. They have absolutely NOTHING to do with the dog trying to "gain status" over the owner. A puppy doesn't jump up because he wants to be your boss- it's vying for your attention. A dog doesn't pull on the leash because he has dreams of subjugating you- he just hasn't been taught to walk nicely. Just about everything has been explained by "Dominance" by some trainer or another- from housetraining troubles to a dog barking at a lightbulb. Yes that's right. A certain famous television "trainer" once said that a dog was barking at the bulb because he wanted to "dominate the light". If that doesn't sound utterly ridiculous to you, it really should.

The truth is, aggression begets aggression. In a recent study, 1/3 of all dogs responded to physical punishment (being hit, kicked, grabbed, or rolled) with an aggressive response (growl, snap, bite). Compare that with more positive training methods, which resulted in aggressive response in less than 1 in 200 dogs. By getting physical with a dog, the owner sends the message that such displays are completely acceptable. Which can be a problem when dealing with children or elderly individuals, who are unable to use physical force to "dominate" the dog.

So if we aren't dogs, and dogs aren't wolves, and wolves don't use force to communicate anyway...why do some people still insist on being the "Alpha"? Seeing as it's true meaning is "one of the breeding pair", I think I'd consider using a different word.

And that's why I hate the term Alpha Dog.



Thursday, May 6, 2010

Welcome to My Madness

Hello and welcome to my insane ramblings!

I thought I might start with a little bit of an introduction. Who I am, what I do, why I'm making a blog, what you readers can expect to find here, that sort of thing. I think I should start by saying that I'm not a professional writer of any sort. Which explains why sometimes I start sentences with "And" or "But", and why some sentences are just thought fragments that wandered away from me as I was typing.

As the title may suggest, this is a pet-related blog. I have a lot to say on that subject, and this seemed to be the best outlet for it. I'm going to try and touch on a little bit of everything, from training tips to care advice and everywhere in between. I'll warn you all ahead of time, I'm quite opinionated and not afraid to say (bluntly) why I feel the way I do on certain subjects. I do try to make an informed opinion, though. Most of the hands-on experience I have comes from a year and a half of work in an animal shelter. I wasn't there long in the overall scheme of things, but I got to work with a HUGE variety of dogs, cats, and rabbits. All sorts of breeds, temperaments, and behavioral issues, plus on-site vet and behavioral departments gave me a lot of experience in a short amount of time. I've also done a lot of reading into things like canine behavior, training methods, pet care, and some common medical issues (*Disclaimer* I am also not a vet, and so the writings here should not be used to make any diagnoses!)

Alright, so we've established already that I'm not a writer and I'm not a vet (or tech). What I am is a passionate pet owner, an aspiring dog trainer, and a rescue supporter who sometimes gets tired of seeing so much misinformation and misconception about pets and pet ownership. I'm sure anyone with a job in the pet industry knows what I'm talking about. For every amazing, awesome, informed, knowledgeable owner out there, there's another who has no business owning an animal. Ever. Seriously, it seems like some people aren't even *trying*.

So much of that is just not knowing any better. Believing what they see in the media, or on television, or doing things "how they've always done them", or trusting without question things a "professional" tells them. Don't believe everything you see on TV, kids! So while there will inevitably be a lot of ranting going on here, I'll try to make it *informative* ranting as often as possible, and maybe change some minds in the process. At the very least, I hope to provide some food for thought. If I can make life better for even one animal out there, I'll consider it a victory.

Finally, a little bit (more) about me. Right now, I manage a stable of 12 horses, and I'm laying the foundations for getting my certification in pet dog training through the CCPDT. I discovered my interest in animal behavior while working at the previously mentioned shelter, and my ideal job would be working with "problem" dogs who have trouble finding forever homes because of their issues. At home, I have a menagerie of my own. The current count is two mixed breed dogs, eight 'mutt' cats, two degus (think over-sized gerbils), and a horse (who doesn't live at my house).

Thanks for stopping by! Tune in next time for the first installment of my top Pet Peeves.