Ceasar Milan and his TV programmes are as controversial as ever!
Ceasar Milan and his TV programmes tend to cause a lot of controversy within the dog world. For some people he can do no wrong, they almost worship him and they read his books and follow his programmes with avid interest. For others the opposite applies and he has been called many different things by many different people! However whatever your opinion the fact is that he is partly responsible for the on-going discussion about reward and punishments and especially dominance and dominance theory or the pack rules (see John Fischer).
I do not intend to shy away from this subject in any of my future articles and I urge you to join in the discussion, which is far from over!
Dominance as seen in wolves and dogs
A great deal of undesirable behaviour is explained away as dominance. Many dog owners appear to believe that their dog wants to control them and that they must at all costs nip this in the bud. Each and every form of “resistance” is treated with punishment and violence. But dominance is NOT the cause of undesirable behaviour!
The traditional dominance theory comes from a study of captive wolves led by Rudolph Schenkel in the years 1934 – 1942. This group studied individual wolves that were brought together at random. Regardless of the species if one places different individuals together there will be a struggle for power. This will be even more evident when the animals are kept in a relatively small area, the smaller the area, the greater the possibility of aggressive behaviour, because individuals are not able to avoid each other.
The traditional dog training methods were based on these studies. It was assumed that if dogs descended from wolves they would follow the same behavioural patterns within their human family, which they considered to be their ‘pack.’ A human would have to take on the role of pack leader. However new scientific studies of wolves in the wild and feral stray dogs have considerably changed our understanding of these animals. The biologist Dr. L. David Mech has spent 13 summers (1986-1998) studying wolves in the wild. The wolves he studied lived in areas far from the presence of people and were therefore more easily approached. The wolf packs were found to consist of parents and in general their offspring of various ages. The parents were not at all the dominant alpha pair that we had previously presumed them to be. They were mainly concerned with the care and protection of their offspring. If something happened within the pack which was not acceptable, then that was corrected through mimicry or a growl (dominant acts) and not by administering pain.
In other articles I will continue to write about the wolf and the domestic dog.
Explaining ‘dominant’, ‘domination’ and ‘hierarchy’
- If something or someone has more influence or power than others. An inherited dominant trait ‘Brown eyes are dominant.’
- The dominant person in erotic SM in the one who has the power, or at least has more power than the other and who can command the other (the submissive).
- A genetic predisposition, growing more vigorously than other parts of the same embryo
- Of an allele: predominating over a contrasting allele
- Predominant; each gene consists of two alleles, one from the father and one from the mother, when only one is expressed that allele is dominant over the other (opposite of recessive)
- Dominant / predominant, paramount, preponderant, sovereign
- 1) Controlling, 2) Overbearing, 3) Authoritative, 4) Predominant, 5) Main Tone – musical term, 6) Dominator, 7) Dominant inherited trait, 18) The fifth note of a musical scale of eight notes, 9) Commanding
- Dominance; the fact of being more powerful, more important or more noticeable than other people or things e.g. Military dominance
- A natural ability to influence others and be accepted as an authority.
- The prevalence of a special inherited feature.
- The hierarchy; organizational structure in which people have authority and control over others
- A series of objects, elements or values in a graduated series
Sources: Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English and Webster’s Third International Dictionary
Often hierarchy and dominance are confused, I consider them to be two different things … Dominance emerges very soon in any relationship, with one party organising the division of tasks.
What about fear and aggression?
This is something we need to look at more closely.
I am a behavioural therapist and often I get people on the phone saying: “My dog is dominant. He is sitting on the sofa and if I try to get hold of him to make him get off he growls. What they really mean is that their dog exhibits threatening behaviour or aggression.
In our society anxiety is better tolerated than aggression, although this is dependent on the size of the dog and the owner. Often the signs of fear shown by a dog are not recognized. Due to insufficient knowledge of the signals the dog is giving the owner misinterprets the dog’s behaviour or intentions.
Aggression in dogs is rarely tolerated although aggression is a normal, natural behaviour necessary for survival. A dog can show verbal aggression such as barking to defend his territory. In addition, the dog can use non- verbal aggression, biting to kill its prey or in a fight to the death with another dog or would you prefer that your dog allows itself to be killed? Aggression is a natural part of life in our society, think of the times you had an argument or a fight with a brother or sister, some people shout, others will give someone a quick slap in the face. Many forms of aggression come from frustration or fear.
Using physical punishment
Often under the guise of “hierarchy and domination” training methods are deployed such as putting the dog onto its back, fixing it with a hard stare, pushing the dog to the ground, grabbing the dog by the throat, grabbing the dog by the neck and shaking it …
However a study in the United States has just shown that in 25% of cases this sort of treatment (physical punishment and repression) actually increases the chances of aggression.
According to these researchers anxiety levels increase to a degree that may lead to owner oriented aggression.
Physically hurting a dog to show him who is boss, to make him listen and obey will have precisely the opposite effect and lead to more frustration and (re directed) aggression.
Disadvantages of punishment and correction were identified:
– Punishment can lead to aggressive behaviour
– Punishment can lead to an increase in fear and anxiety
– Stimuli associated with punishment become conditioned stimuli
– Punishment will lead to new replacement behaviour that only suppresses previous behaviour
– Punishments can be addictive for the owner (a dog will stop the unwanted behaviour) and the owner forgets to reward
– Often punishment is inappropriate (too much or too little)
– Often the timing is wrong
– Often the punishment is ethologically wrong, for example, punishing a young dog that will pee when greeting someone
– Often the punishment is given by the same person at the same place
– Punishment leads to a deterioration of the bond between the human and the dog
– Dogs remember the punishment, but often not the reason why they were punished
– Dogs anticipate punishment
Dr Rachel Casey, senior researcher at the University of Bristol, tells us that dogs are social animals. Their relationship to other members of their family is vitally important to them. Dogs expend much time and energy in learning how to engage and maintain relationships. They learn from experience and have excellent communication skills.
So when we punish in such a domineering fashion the welfare of the dog at risk, as is the relationship with the owner!
Misconceptions and facts about ‘the pack rules’
- The dog is not by nature a pack animal. A lone dog can scavenge for food from rubbish or catch a mouse or a rat and will not willingly share a tasty snack. However a pack is needed to catch larger prey. In India and Brazil I have seen dogs working together as a group, with one dog acting as leader, to hunt or to defend a territory. Dogs will protect ‘resources’ by showing aggressive behaviour.
I look at the lives of wild dogs in depth in another article.
- Some behaviour can be common to the dog and the wolf and this varies according to the breed of dog. In general however a dog cannot be compared to an adult wolf, a dog never really becomes fully adult in the way a wolf does.
- A dog that carries its tail in the air, is not DOMINANT, he has a dominant, positive and confident attitude.
- Previously studies were made on wolves in captivity. The captive animals frequently used signs of submission and/or aggression to communicate. A true wolf pack is a family group and the term alpha refers only to reproduction, everything else is based on division of labour. Dogs are domesticated animals, not animals in captivity. A dog is a dog with his own motivations.
- David L Mech has determined that if there is enough food available both the ‘alpha’ and the ‘beta'(a younger sister or daughter) will breed.
- Dominance is another word for self-confidence and has nothing to do with aggression, bossiness or domination. It often refers to a high (or dominant) position. Dominance is a given variable.
- Aggression is not related to ‘dominance’ but comes from stress, confusion and the need to protect important resources such as food.
- Submissive acts such reconciliation gestures and calming signals are important to dogs. We should perhaps talk about ‘a hierarchy of submission’.
- The alpha does not necessarily eat first. Puppies eat first and if the prey is large enough, they eat together. The animal that finds the food will eat first and everyone has the right to defend their prey. Just observing which animal eats first does not give a clear indication of the individual roles of the animals within a pack.
- Rules and education bring calm and peace, tyranny often creates stress and frustration and therefore undesirable behaviour. Owners should try to find a good balance between ‘drilling’ the dog and a permissive ‘flower power’ attitude in order to educate the dog and to give him a safe place in the family. When bringing up a dog, elicit and reward desired behaviour and ignore unwanted behaviour as much as possible and do not reward it.
- Wolves in the wild form a family, just like humans, with parents and children. There is therefore a form of hierarchy (previously thought to be more authoritarian), because the parents are older and wiser and the children are of various different ages.
- When wolves in captivity were studied, researchers could find no real linear hierarchy. It was in fact a variable characteristic dependant on individuals and environment and could therefore change depending on the physical condition of the animal and the social environment in which the animals were kept.
- Lying down and remaining motionless is not an act of “submission” but a severe stress reaction of an animal that does not have the option to flee or to defend themselves.
- Dominant aggression is often the reaction of a dog, wanting to defend itself from a perceived aggressive attack by his owner/handler.
- Fear of loss of control by the owner, leaves no room for more spontaneous and open minded behaviour.
Resource Holding Potential Model (Parker)
To survive or to make life more pleasant, a human or animal has a number of requirements such as food and fresh water. These “resources” are very important. The degree of importance depends on the individual, the availability, the surroundings and the moment. If for example I have just eaten, I will be more willing to share what is left of my food. The availability of these ‘resources’ may cause competition. I studied this behaviour in feral dogs (see my article).
Whether or not a conflict is actually incurred depends on several factors. For example, how much energy will it cost, what is the probability that you become injured, hormonal fluctuations at the time…?
It also has to do with the value attached to the resource (the larger the value, the stronger the emotions) and previous learning experiences. The absence of conflict does not have to do with who is ‘boss’, but is a more about living in harmony with each other and with the environment.
Rules and relationships
Along with other behavioural specialists and biologists I have talked about the pack and the hierarchy within the pack in all of my previous books and publications. I have sometimes referred to the pack rules mentioned by John Fischer for use in the education and training of dogs but tended to take these rules with a grain of salt. I have often discussed the pros and cons in my ethology course long before the current discussion arose. I saw it as a limited guide to the customer in terms of obedience training, enabling an owner to become a responsible ‘parent’ rather than a ‘tyrant’. It was more about safety than about the hierarchy. There are rules (written and unwritten) everywhere in society, school regulations, traffic regulations, acceptable polite behaviour… These rules are always a point of discussion. Not all rules are appropriate for everyone; they may be in conflict with personal development, boundaries…
In addition, people in therapy need to be given rules as they may have difficulty doing this themselves, this is common practice when therapeutic guidance is given.
In order to educate your dog you need to interact with him freely and with an open mind, set yourself clear boundaries in your relationship and decide what is and is not acceptable. Education and a correct upbringing is the key to a good relationship rather than just drilling your dog to accept you as the ‘boss’.
I still believe in rules regarding education, but rules that arise from common sense and mutual respect. We could make a comparison with the way in which within a family the parents are responsible for the safety and education of their child(ren). Our dog is a dog and not a child but I think the comparison makes my meaning clear.
In education a teacher is not a figure of authority but rather a facilitator, a counsellor, a coach. We also see shifts in family lifestyles. Previously a family would wait until the father came home from work before they sat down to eat. In many families this is no longer the case, society has moved on as have our methods of educating our children. So it is not surprising that there is also a lot going on in the dog world with regard to their education and our relationship with them.
In my opinion when we coach or mentor our dogs, even when we try to communicate on their level, we still tend to take a ‘dominant’ position because we are stronger and more adaptable, although of course dogs are very adaptable (opportunism).
Your relationship with your dog is so important! When you have a good relationship then training, respect and obedience follow automatically. You do not need to physically punish or hurt someone in order to gain their respect; you have to build up a relationship.
Dogs are social creatures and their relationship with humans (having attention, care, food…) is crucial to them. They depend on us! So it is very important to learn to communicate with our dogs and to achieve a better understanding of this relationship we have with them.
Once again, as I have so often said in the past; our dog is like a foreigner with his own language and customs! It is up to us to learn ‘canine’!
Don’t dominate, do communicate
Puppies get constant feedback on their behaviour. This feedback fuels the learning process and the puppy will adapt his behaviour. Anything that brings success or gets the owners attention or is self -rewarding will be repeated. This will condition future (social) behaviour along with context and the physical and emotional state of the animal at that moment.
Later in life, in every encounter, the dog will repeat its conditioned behaviour and the dog it meets will react according to its previous experience. This can be: fight, flight, freeze or an offer to play or flirt. Fights only occur when there is no other option. The interaction between dogs in our homes should be based on learning, respect, adapting to each other (eg. food and toys) and “polite” behaviour. React in time to the start of any undesirable behaviour, set boundaries and prevent the development of annoying behaviour before it becomes conditioned.
Until recently disobedient and aggressive dogs were all too often ‘broken’, like horses. Thankfully these days, in general, this is a thing of the past (sadly not everywhere!). However the other extreme, a sort of permissive ‘flower power’ attitude, without rules and clarity, is not the answer. Although I am clearly in favour of a positive method and a positive approach to training I do not believe in extremes. The world is not only about the positive. There is no black without white and no white without black and a grey balance is more than necessary.
The question is what impact will this have on education, training and solving problem behaviour for our household pets in the long term?
New training models or concepts should be developed that take into account such complex social behaviour, the emotions of these beautiful animals and where the emphasis is on the relationship and mutual respect!
The difference between training (conditioned behaviour) and the education of the dog should be recognised and taken into account, because they are two different things…
This will be an on-going discussion and I’m curious as to what will happen in the future…
- This is the Dog by John Bradshaw
- The wisdom of dogs by Brain Hair and Vanessa Woods
- Dogs by Raymond and Lorna Copperinger
- Dominance Theory and Dogs by James O’Heare
- Dominance in Dogs by Barry Eaton
- Wolves by L. David Mech
- Dominance in domestic dogs by Bradshaw
- Whatever happened to the term alpha wolf? By L. D. mech
Questions that I feel should be discussed:
- Do wolves in captivity show more similarities in behaviour with our dogs than the wolves in the wild?
- Are wild dogs “more” wolf than our pet dogs?
- What does ethology teach us about precedence…?
- What do you think is the difference between training and behaviour?
- How do you deal with problem behaviour in the relationship between man and dog?
- If you want someone to listen out of respect, you have to build a relationship and that you can only attain when you have sufficient empathy and not when you are ‘addicted’, e.g. a dog that only listens for the sake of the reward on offer. However much empathy we achieve we can never be completely ‘dog’, we still expect a certain adjustment on the part of our dog, sometimes he is not allowed to be a ‘dog’, for example a dog that defends its food is punished.
- What do you think of the concepts of hierarchy and domination?
- What is your opinion on this topic?