Acorn Dog Training

Acorn Dog Training

Is your dog dominant? Is it really all down to pack leadership?

Good Citizen Awards

A great deal has been written and said, in popular books, magazines and on television about how dogs are genetically linked to the wolf. Out of this knowledge, a popular ideology has emerged where it is believed that dogs live together in a manner which mimics that of their wolf ancestors, i.e. a clearly defined hierarchy consisting of a TOP DOG who is the "Alpha" leader of the pack, followed by a middle ranking dog, and then down to the underdog. According to many, this system is fixed and inflexible, and if you are not careful your dog will already be hatching its plan to take over your household and rule you with an iron set of teeth!

If you follow the advice of some of these so-called "behaviourists" you will need to abide by a certain set of rules:

1. Do not allow your dog to eat its meal until you (the top dog) have eaten first.
2. Do not allow your dog to leave the house (den) before you (top dog) have passed through the doorway first.
3. Do not allow your dog to climb onto the sofa or bed (only top dogs are allowed to rest in the cosiest places).
4. Do not allow your dog to climb your stairs, or to peer at you from the top of the staircase.
5. Do not allow your dog to peer into your eyes.
6. Do not cuddle your dog
7. Do not stroke your dog
8. Do not interact with your dog unless you are involved in some kind of training
9. Do not greet your dog when you come home from work, or from the shops etc.
10. Do not greet your dog first thing in the morning; it should be the one to greet you (top dog).

These Ten Commandments, they say, are to protect you from sending the dog the wrong message, thereby protecting you, and your family, from this potential control freak of an animal who only has one thing on its mind, and that is to "CONTROL YOU!"

I often wonder how dogs have managed to survive alongside humans for so many years without all these rules and regulations! It is this type of nonsense that has given behaviour specialists a bad name in many quarters. What's more, most of this advice is quite unnecessary, and with some dogs, has actually been the cause of behaviour problems, e.g., by crushing their individuality and creating power struggles where none previously existed.

To understand where these beliefs stem from, you only have to open up a few old philosophy books to see a clear school of thought emerging: animals are different from us, they do not think, feel, show emotion, have personality, reveal creativity, show individuality, and they are totally incapable of working things out. They are merely biological stimulus/response mechanisms that are at the mercy of the environment in which they live.

So there you have it folks, any illusion you were under that your dog loves you is completely wrong! How do we know this? The scientists say so. But whose science are we looking at here? In my opinion, I think it makes a few people feel better about some of the cruelty they inflict upon dogs during training. I also believe that it brings some comfort to the researchers who carry out cruel experiments on animals. After all it doesn't matter what you do if the animal cannot show any feelings and emotion!

However, there are other scientists who have a totally different view. I count myself amongst those who believe that dogs are sentient beings, capable of making decisions, reviewing situations and learning for themselves. So bearing all this in mind, if you happen to hear someone repeating draconian rules on popular canine television programmes, or read about them in doggy magazines, it does not make their opinions valid. Unfortunately most television researchers do not check out the qualifications of their contributors and many of these "behaviourists" are in fact veterinary surgeons, nurses, or dogs lovers who are merely regurgitating what they have read in popular dog psychology books, most of which have been written by people who are themselves book taught. Believe it or not, I know for a fact that some of these people have never even lived with a dog!

If I were to ask you to describe a dominant dog, the chances are that you would describe the following: "aggressive, assertive and extremely disobedient". This is a very common misperception. In reality a dominant dog (if this is what it must be labelled) is very cool, calm and confident in just about every situation. This is why they are 'leaders'. Those who fight and bicker among themselves are far too preoccupied with their own petty power struggles and anxieties, to be able to lead anybody anywhere. Over the years the word 'dominant' has taken on negative connotations and is quite often used as a cop-out to describe dogs who are merely running riot, lack sufficient training, under socialized (therefore under confident), or extremely fearful, perhaps from being physically/mentally abused. Some are aggressive and fearful because of medical conditions that have gone undiagnosed.

Therefore to suggest that humans take on the role of "Top Wolf" is a rather upside down, and potentially dangerous way of viewing the canine/human relationship. It also puts a subconscious message into your mind that any unacceptable behaviour should be met by confrontation. This places adults and children at great risk of entering into an escalating power struggle with the dog, where all kinds of emotional responses may erupt leaving adults and children vulnerable to being attacked by a dog who merely believes it is defending itself from a very stressful situation.

Over the years I have heard far too many stories from owners who have followed the "dominance reduction schedule" after taking advice from trainers/behaviourists, only to become very disappointed. Once it has become established that the dog has failed to respond to the regime, the owners became more and more aggressive in their attitude, in the belief that they were "asserting their alpha position over the dog". Eventually the dog bit them "unprovoked". For many this resulted in the dogs demise, whilst others were thrown into the local rescue kennels. A small minority found their way to me, and via a simple method of re-framing the relationship went on to become very well behaved and very much loved family pets.

When an owner reports to me that their dog has become "dominant", I start by asking them to describe precisely what they mean by "dominant". Most of the time the answer consists of aggression towards other dogs and/or people. The other complaint is that the dog is cocking a deaf ear to the owner's wishes whilst out on a walk. In any situation regarding aggression, I begin by questioning the dog's medical background and its current position. If the dog hasn't already received a thorough veterinary examination, I ask that this is carried out, as around 60% of all aggression cases have some kind of underlying medical condition, of which the owners were previously unaware. One of my recent dog to human aggression cases consisted of a golden retriever bitch that was suffering from anaemia, once this condition was diagnosed and treated, the dog returned to her normal sweet natured self. Many trainers/behaviourists would have immediately diagnosed this dog as "dominant", and would have suggested the previously described Dominance Reduction Schedule (DRS). Of course, this wouldn't have worked and the owners would have taken the blame for non-compliance leaving them feeling complete and utter failures. Worse still, the owners may well have been advised to meet the dog's aggression with aggression. Just think of the emotional pressure this would have placed upon a dog that was merely trying to communicate "I don't feel well, please go away and leave me alone".

For the dog that is 'cloth-eared' whilst out on a walk, I question several things: Does the dog truly have a hearing problem? What is its hormonal status? …. an intact hyper-sexed male is hormonally driven and calling this type of dog away from an interesting bitch trail can be next to impossible. Quite often the food the dog is fed can drastically alter its behaviour, and can be a large contributor in aggression cases too. If the dog is not deaf, hyper-sexed, fed an inappropriate diet and is merely saying "get stuffed, I'm having a good time out here" then there is a much more effective method for creating a good rapport between dog and human than the confrontational DRS, and that is by treating the dog as a thinking, sentient being, who's cognitive abilities are very similar to that of a young child.

Having said this, I have come to realize that many people already believe they treat their dogs like children - but do they? If their kids constantly demand attention, constantly receive whatever they ask for, whenever they demand, and instantly receive, the chances are they will have real awful brats on their hands, who are constantly rapping on, having little regard for the thoughts and feelings of others. In other words, there is no relationship, merely a one-way chain of demands.

The same also applies to dogs. So much so, that some really do become obnoxious little brats, and I will be the first to admit to seriously disliking their attitude. For some, the word "arrogance" really doesn't truly describe the contempt these animals have towards humanity "how dare you look at me, speak to me, block my view whilst there is something FAR more interesting going on over there". One dog even snatched a tit-bit from my hand, swirled it around in his mouth, spat it out at me, and then ran off. He is a Springer Spaniel, and a gorgeous and loving dog he now is after his owner worked extremely hard to turn him around. Would his owners go back to how this dog was when they first met me? Not on your life. The dog is far more relaxed, highly attuned to his human family, and even enjoys his weekly leap around the agility course. This dog has discovered how to be happy with his humans, as well as being happy within himself. Was this achieved by asserting "pack leadership" or "Alpha Status" over his behaviour? Not at all! This dog had his life changed after his owners followed a very simple programme, which consisted of the dog having his needs fully met, but not as and when he demanded, thus placing the dog in a position where he had to think and work out for himself how he was getting his rewards and needs met via his human companions.

In the case of Herbie the spaniel, I suggested that his owners cut all fuss and attention down to an absolute minimum for a few days, and then to start communicating to him that his demanding actions would be met by the barest acknowledgement e.g. "not now Herbie, we are busy." Herbie's constant demands were his way training his owners: "oi you, massage me, oi you, be my waiter, oi you be my playmate". Dogs are far more intelligent than most (if not all) humans give them credit for. They will train us to their beck and call in no time at all.

Under these circumstances I asked Herbie's humans to completely ignore him and even walk away. However, they were to keep in mind Herbie's genuine request for attention, and later on - much later on, once Herbie had given up and gone off to do something different, they were to call him to them and then say something like "what was it you wanted Herbie, a game? Then let's get your toy out and play". If it was a fuss Herbie required, then a big fuss was given. After this, they were to go back to ignoring Herbie, and to only acknowledge him once he was being really good.By ignoring Herbie I mean not stroking him every time he walked by, or came and sat down next to them. Not touching him every few moments, just because he happened to be there. Not looking down at him and talking/shouting at him to go away, or whatever. Believe it or not, many dogs become sick of us humans keeping on at them, and not allowing them to just be, so when they get outside, and off the leash, away they go - freedom… freedom to be away from us, and our ever reaching hands and our ever chattering voices. You'll be surprised at the number of calls I get from people complaining: "my dog has just bitten me, and all I was doing was stroking it". How long had they been stroking it? The answer could be anything up to several hours!!! Poor dog. Just ask yourself how you would feel if every time you wanted to chill out and relax, somebody came up and started pulling you around, stroking you and twiddling with your hair for long periods of time. How long would it be before you said: "for heavens sake, just leave me alone?" Yes, dogs have needs too, and dogs prefer to have their own personal space, just as we do. They really do not want us on at them all of the time, and they have many different ways of communicating this to us, but many people miss it, until they are on the receiving end of the dogs teeth.

After just a few days Herbie started to look towards his people to meet his needs. Bit by bit his demanding behaviour subsided. He became far more relaxed, and started to wait for his owners to fulfil their side of the bargain. After a few weeks, Herbie was so cued in to his male owner, that teaching him to come when called, fetch and play with a ball, sit, lie down and stay, became so easy that it was difficult to believe this dog hadn't undergone a brain transplant. As Herbie started understand and respond to his owner's words, a real two-way relationship, based upon trust and communication developed. Without doubt, they had established a real and lasting friendship. Herbie's owners are now asked on a regular basis how they got him to become so well behaved.

Over the years, I have heard quite a few people comment "oh, I believe in treating my dog just like a child, but it is so cruel to suggest not to giving the dog everything he wants whenever he demands", and yet they are the first to turn around and say to their children "no, you can't have that right now because I am busy". So do they really believe in treating their dogs the same way as children? Often the answer comes back "well, the dog looks at me with big sad eyes when he doesn't get what he wants". Of course he does. Dogs are far from stupid, they very quickly work out that they are able to train their humans with facial expressions, playful behaviour, or even whimpers. One of my dogs knows precisely how to get me collapsing into a heap of laughter. She is a born comedienne.

Dogs are also allowed to follow humans all over the house at the slightest sign of movement. If a child were to do this, you would soon become fed up and start worrying that the child may be suffering from some a separation anxiety problem, especially if it started following you into to the bathroom! However, this behaviour appears acceptable for the dog. But it is not. A clingy dog, more often than not, becomes the type who trashes the house, or barks/howls in despair every time its humans disappear from the house. This is a relationship based upon dependency, a form of addiction, as opposed to the dog loving you so much that it has got to be with at all costs. It is emotionally very unhealthy for the dog not to be taught to become an independent being, a person in its own right. Notice I have deliberately used the word "taught" here. Teach the dog to separate itself from you, by rewarding it for lying down and then staying, whilst you gradually start moving away, until eventually you reach the level where you can briefly disappear out of sight. Reward the dog for getting it right, so that it starts to understand the rules of the game. There is no point in yelling at the dog to "stay" when it hasn't a clue as to what the word "stay" means. Note: whilst I am typing this, I am upstairs on the computer. My dogs are both lying chilled out and happy downstairs. This is not because they are not allowed upstairs, but because they are safe and secure within themselves to be separate from me, and thus able to make their own decisions as to where they choose to be. They are relaxed and happy dogs. This is what it is all about.

So please try to ensure that you do treat your dogs like children. Make yourself less available to your dog's demands and attempts to train you. I am not saying that you shouldn't show love and affection to your dog, or play with it on a regular basis, just that you might consider showing your affections when your dog isn't training you. This is not being cruel. Dogs are just as capable of learning to handle disappointments from time to time, as we are. In other words DON'T LET YOUR DOG WALK ALL OVER YOU - the consequences being that it will become like a spoilt brat - a nightmare, both inside, but mainly outside the home. The dog could even start becoming aggressive towards you if it doesn't get its own way, and yes, many spoilt dogs have tantrums!!! This type of behaviour is not dominance or vying for alpha position, it is just the dog running riot!

Once you start to treat your dog like a thinking, feeling, intelligent being, who is quite capable of working out what works and what doesn't, providing you are not sending the message that it can walk all over you whenever it chooses, the dog should become your best friend ever. Most of the people who have applied this psychology to their "cloth-eared" dogs have reported back that their dogs end up giving them back a million times more than they could ever have wished for. From my own personal experience this is a very fair comment. One of my own dogs came to me having been severely beaten by her previous owners who believed that they were asserting their position over her. I have never laid a hand on her in the way of punishment, but because we are friends who respect and communicate with each other, she gives so much of herself, in ways I could never have imagined. She is an absolute joy to have around, as is my other dog, who has been brought up in this teaching and communicating environment.

If you would like further help and advice concerning your dog and its behaviour, please visit my website at

Fran, BSc. (Hons.) Psyche, member of the UK Registry of Canine Behaviourists 2003

Communicate don't dominate


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