Fear, reactivity and dominance in pet dogs

I thought this time I would talk about two issues that came up recently that are both related and unfortunately very common amongst old style trainers.

Fear and reactivity in pet dogs.

I received an email from someone who wanted help with their dog, a small shy nervous dog. They attended puppy training, presumably at the suggestion of their vet. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that – but this is where the wheels began to fall off. The poor puppy was overwhelmed by all the dogs there. The trainer taking the class should have suggested to move the puppy away from the group so that it could settle down, unfortunately that didn’t occur so the poor puppy simply built an incredible fear of other dogs. Step 2, in an effort to try and help their dog, the owners called out a trainer to try and help their dog get over this fear of other dogs. This trainer using absolutely old style dominance training tried to ‘cure’ this problem by exposing the dog to the exact situation that terrified it and then throwing a chain at the dogs feet to startle and frighten it some more – like that’s going to work!

This owner has now called me to try and help this poor dog that must be suffering so much fear in its, so far, very short life.

Let’s look at the situation and use some psychology to analyse it.

Dogs go through several periods of intense development in their early lives. One of these developmental periods is the period of Socialisation. It is during this period that the dog learns how to behave around other dogs and humans, it learns how to interact with its environment and very importantly any negative experiences during this period can stay with the dog for a long period of time.

Fear is an emotional response to an event or situation – the response cannot be controlled. This is an extremely important point that many trainers simply ignore. Very often a dog trainer’s advice to a dog that (say) shows fear at thunder is to ignore the dog’s behaviour – or even worse take the dog out for a walk. Think about this for a moment, let’s say you are terrified of big furry spiders and one is sitting on your ceiling above your head – what is your reaction? Do you feel calm or do you want to get out of there as quickly as you can – you cannot control your emotion at that point in time. Now just say your partner (who is not terrified of spiders) just sits there and ignores the situation – or worse still, physically holds you down whilst telling you there is nothing to be frightened of – how do you feel now? Are you calmer or more terrified? This is exactly how your dog would feel if in the situation above you took them for a walk in the thunder.

Old style dominance trainers use a method called ‘flooding’ to ‘cure’ a dog of a fear. Say a dog is afraid of motorcycles an old style trainer will tie the dog to the motorcycle whilst the engine is running. The poor terrified dog cannot escape the noise so it ‘shuts down’, the term for this is ‘learned helplessness’ and means the dog has no escape so just gives in and as a result may become depressed and withdrawn. The trainer proudly exclaims he has cured to dog in a matter of minutes. John Bradshaw in his book ‘In defence of dogs’ suggests that quite the reverse happens and the dogs fear is likely to become even more deep-seated.

Since you cannot create an emotional response or reinforce one by reward, when your dog is frightened of something please comfort them. You will not be encouraging them to be afraid, as some trainers suggest, instead your dog will feel that you are protecting them and they will love you more for it.

By the way, in the case study above, due to the fear that this poor dog faces every time it goes for a walk, it now trembles uncontrollably when its lead is put on. Can you imagine the abject terror that this poor dog experiences brought about by the advice of a trainer using ‘old style’ techniques?


Dominance in pet dogs and the Alpha Dog myth.

The other issue that came up this week was the issue of dominance in dogs. A person had been told that their dog was trying to dominate them and had been given a whole set of things to do to establish dominance over their dog. (By the way research has shown that this menu of things to do has little or no effect in adjusting the underlying causes of the unwanted behaviour)

Let me preface what I am going to say by this statement – Dogs are not trying to dominate their human owners.

Repeat, Dogs are not trying to dominate their human owners.

This concept of dominance was originally conceived by studying a captive wolf pack in the 1940’s, there were however a number of flaws in the study. The wolves were not a related family group, in fact they had come from a number of different wolf parks and forced to live together as a pack. Needless to say in a confined area and with no ability to hunt for their own food, whenever food was present fights broke out to establish ownership of the food. This was the basis of the concept of a continuing aggressive struggle for dominance over other pack members and the ‘Alpha Wolf’ theory was born. In a huge leap this flawed research was then transferred to dogs – after all wolves are domestic dog ancestors – so they must behave the same. The scientists however put aside the fact the dogs and wolves have had over 30,000 years of divergent development.

In the 1960’s L David Mech published another paper following further study and this paper reaffirmed the dominance Alpha theory. However Mech further studied wolves in the wild – not in captive packs – and his latest work published in 1999 completely debunked the earlier held dominance Alpha theory. More and more research since then by animal behaviourists worldwide agree with Mech.

Wolves in the wild exist of a family group consisting of the mother wolf, the father wolf, several yearlings and mature wolves and a number of pups. In much the same way as a human family occasionally mum or dad exercise some authority but by and large they exist peacefully.

Observations in a sanctuary for dogs, whose behaviour was deemed to be too unpredictable to be rehomed, was undertaken. Whilst up to 20 dogs at a time were observed, at no time did the dogs organise themselves into a pack with a wolf like hierarchy (J Bradshaw In defence of dogs, 2012).

The domestic dog does not have a tendency to try to dominate humans and the concept of domestic dogs needing to be shown that the human is an Alpha is totally erroneous. In fact attempting to ‘Aplha Roll’ a dog onto its back to show your dominance can lead to (and has led to) very serious dog bites – by a dog that was in fear of its life. Under no circumstances should any dog be given the ‘Alpa Roll’.

Unfortunately many dog trainers still believe that since dogs are out to dominate their owners that it is necessary to ‘show them who is boss’. This thought leads to punishment based training and uses the Alpha Dog Theory as the reason why a dog uses aggression, seeks attention, destroys things and even when they fail to return on recall. We now know that the basis of these actions are not dominance or Alpha Dog based it is up to trainers and owners to ensure that they use techniques that are effective and that do not compromise the welfare of our pets.

Whilst dogs are not trying to dominate their human owners they certainly do try to control the environment around them. For example your dog is lying on the lounge and as you go to move him he growls at you. This is not an expression of dominance it is the dogs’ way of saying ‘I’m very comfortable here and I don’t want to move’. If your dog growls as you go to take a toy/bone etc. away from him, he is not trying to exert dominance he is saying ‘this is mine and I don’t want you to have it right now’. There are a number of techniques that can be used to overcome these problems and I strongly suggest that you talk to a trainer that uses positive methods to help you fix this type of problem before it becomes a major issue.

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