Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Obtaining Status, Rather Than Enforcing Dominance Over Dogs: A Positive Program

A positive program for controlling canine fear and aggression

My previous, blog, "Canine Dominance: Is the Concept of the Alpha Dog Valid?" seems to have aroused much interest and discussion. For example Lee Charles Kelly wrote a blog in response called "Coren's Turnaround: How the Pack Leader Model of Dog Training Is Flawed." I don't know why a "turnaround" is all that bad. We scientists are always reevaluating our theories in the light of new data. To slavishly cling to our old views when new scientific findings suggest that they are wrong would be nonprofessional and virtually a breach of our duty to advance understanding. After all, wasn't it wolf researcher David Mech's reconsideration of the concept of the alpha wolf which triggered this latest advance in our understanding of canine behavior?

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Other people have worried about how one might deal with an aggressive dog if you did not physically enforce dominance with punitive and forceful behaviors, such as forcing a dog onto its back (which, contrary to Mr. Kelly's claim I did not advocate in my 2006 book, The Intelligence of Dogs) or using choke collars. These and other means of forcefully established dominance are at the heart of many dog training and behavior modification programs such as that of Cesar Millan.

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My suggestion is based on a more positive program.If you manage and dispense important resources, the dog will respond to you out of self interest. So this approach has the same effect as forcefully imposed dominance in controlling the dog's behavior. However, instead of dominance based on physical power and threats it is more similar to establishing status. One can agree to respond to controls imposed by someone of higher status, but this is done, not out of fear, but out of respect and in anticipation of the rewards that one can expect by doing so.


I call the method the Work for a Living Program. This is a process of shaping the dog's mind so that he recognizes you as having higher status, and therefore looks to you for instruction, obeys your commands and draws reassurance from your presence. You do this by controlling the dog's most important resource, namely his food.


hand feeding dog, work for a living, aggression, fear positive training
The heart of this program is hand-feeding. For the next 4 or 5 weeks you are going to have to hand-feed the dog. This means that food must no longer appear like manna from heaven, but must be provided only directly from your hand one kibble at a time. The trick is that the dog has to earn each piece of kibble by responding to a command. If all that dog knows is "come," "sit," and "down," that's fine. Just mix them up. The whole process should only take a total of around 5 to 10 minutes (depending on the number and size of the bits of kibble), but don't do this training all at once. If the dog doesn't respond at once, or appears not to be motivated by the food, don't worry. Just take a break and come back later to try again. Sooner or later he will get hungry enough to play the game, and after a while he will become quite happy to do so.


Make the dog work for one half of his ration in the morning, and the other half in the evening. Even better is to divide his ration into thirds, doing one part in the morning and one in the evening and the remaining portion spread out at random intervals during the day as you move around the house, or take the dog on a walk.


Do not simply reward the dog with the kibble for his response. As you give him the kibble give a word of praise (I use "Good dog") and reach out with your other hand and touch the dog's collar. If you are living with a spouse, partner, or kids, they can share the distribution of food--but only after the dog has done something to earn it. They must also give the verbal praise and the touch. As you give him the kibble say "Good."


Once the dog is responding for kibble, you should extend the Work for a Living philosophy to everything else that the dog wants out of life. That includes petting, toys, play, walks and so forth. All are rationed out in the same way, with the dog only getting what he wants after he obeys a command. Remember that the dog automatically also earns that touch and the bit of verbal praise for responding to you.
What you are doing by this process is changing the way your dog thinks. First, he comes to understand that you are higher in status since you control and distribute all of the resources upon which his life and happiness depend. If this is done systematically it solves many problems associated with aggressive and fear-based behaviors.


The aggression level between the dog and its care takers immediately begins to drop. The thought patterns are much the same that might run through your mind if you were introduced to your president or prime minister. You might not like his political program, but you still speak to him respectfully and of course, you don't try to bite him. This is also one reason why all of the family members, including the children, should get in on the process. We want the dog to learn that, in his pack (family), all two-footed dogs are higher in status than all four-footed dogs.


Surprisingly, the same acceptance of you as pack leader also helps to control anxiety and fearfulness. This is because canines look to those with higher status to decide when a situation, visitor, or occurrence is a threat or challenge. If the higher status individual is not showing fear or concern, then there is no reason for the dog to worry. In canine societies not every wolf or dog wants to be leader of the pack, but it is important to know that someone is in charge and making decisions. A dog's anxiety often arises when the he gets everything it wants without any responsibility for earning it. Since it is only the highest status individuals that have full access to all of the pack's resources, this kind of treatment the dog leads him to feel that he must be in charge. With that comes the responsibility to make all of the decisions-even when the dog is uncertain as to what to do or what is actually happening. This uncertainty, combined with the fact that there is no one else who seems willing to accept the leadership role and evaluate the situation is bound to lead to fear and anxiety. Thus when you try to reassure him because he is acting frightened, he simply doesn't believe you since you haven't really demonstrated that you are higher in status than he is. That means that you don't have the prerogative to make such decisions for the rest of the pack-including him. Instituting the hand feeding program, where the dog must work for each kibble by obeying a command, clearly establishes you as higher ranking pack member who can interpret what is going on. This relieves the dog of the anxieties associating with making every decision and evaluating every situation.


Notice that there is no physical force or domination in this program. Ultimately the dog responds to you because it is in his self-interest to do so. Aggression does not further the dog's self-interest now. The side gain is that knowing that a high status individual is in charge lowers the dog's fear and anxiety when the situation is uncertain or seems possibly threatening.


This positively based Work for a Living program is effective, low cost, easily implemented and perfectly safe.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome


Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

 

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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