Monday, December 21, 2009

Letting go of dominance theory

Recently I took my dog Jack along on a visit to a friend who was dog sitting. My friend’s resident dog has always gotten along with Jack pretty well, but this guest dog, Ally, had the habit of rushing at Jack when he entered the room, barking at him and generally behaving in a manner that alarmed all the humans involved. Ally was also hesitant around strange humans, in this case myself and my boyfriend. She would come up to us only gingerly, and was easy to scare away with sudden movements or loud noises.

My friend theorized that Ally’s issue with Jack was that she wanted to be the alpha dog, because dogs see the world in terms of a pack structure, like wolves. He felt the way to fix the problem was to let Ally know who was really boss, so whenever Ally rushed at Jack he would yell at her. The idea that a problem in dog training can be solved by asserting dominance is known as dominance theory; use of dominance theory has been publicized recently by Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer. A recent article in the Boston Globe addresses the controversy about Millan’s approach, and has this quote from Karen Pryor, who popularized clicker training, which is a very different approach:

...while his critics dispute Millan’s claim that domestic dogs are pack animals and should be treated as such, Pryor proposes that Millan’s hard-line message speaks to the real pack animal in the room. “We’re the ones who care very deeply about who’s boss and we don’t want to stop believing that humans are superior,’’ Pryor says. “We’re primates that have gone strongly in the direction of hierarchies. Dogs? They don’t care about that at all.’’

This quote really tickled me, even though in my opinion it goes a little too far. No offense to Pryor; I think her book Don’t Shoot the Dog should be required reading for any pet owner. But I think saying dogs don’t care about hierarchies at all may be overstating the case. In my house, it’s clear which dog is in charge, though the other two don’t seem to much care who comes second and who comes third. When I sat in on sessions with a veterinary behaviorist last year, I saw dogs diagnosed with dominance aggression, and I agreed with the diagnosis.

However, I do object to the blanket application of dominance theory to all problems in dog training. Wild dogs don’t run in packs the way wolves do; even if they did, to say that dominance issues are the answer to every canine behavioral problem is silly. Dogs are more complicated than that. In Ally’s case, I don’t think she was trying to show Jack that she was in charge; I think she was scared of him, and trying to deal with the situation in the best way she could come up with.

And who developed the idea that yelling is what makes a good leader? Are managers who regularly yell at their subordinates considered good bosses? My favorite bosses were always people who helped me solve my problems, not people who got angry at me when I couldn’t find a solution on my own.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has a position statement on dominance theory, in which they provide a good framework for approaching its use in training. I do believe that overuse, or misuse, of dominance theory will gradually fade from the way we as a society manage our dogs, but for now, it seems to be hard for us as humans to let go of it.

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