The Alpha Dog Myth
Why is the message not getting through?
"How do I make myself the alpha?" "I need to show my dog who's boss." "If I don't use a [choke, prong, shock] collar I can't control my dog." I hear things like this all the time, despite the fact that there is scientific evidence that says positive reinforcement-based techniques work, and work best! So why do people still rely on these outdated methods? Why is the message not getting through?
One answer is Cesar Milan and his various shows that can be found on television. They have been hugely popular over the years and, I admit, I used to be a fan. That is until I learned better.
Following are excerpts from a trade publication:
"Believing that one must dominate one's dog, combined with an absence of understanding for the dog's capacity to think, feel, and learn can lead to the belief that aversive techniques are appropriate, perhaps needed. Trainers who use and advocate these techniques believe that they are applying the latest scientifically based knowledge about dog behavior when they emphasize that the human needs to be a 'strong leader' as justification for the use of shock collars, prong collars, and even hanging by a lead. this is the old paradigm: The human must teach the dog that the human is the alpha, and being the alpha means meting out rewards and punishments."
"One reason that old training methods based on dominance persist is that they seem to work. They do product behavioral compliance. As long as people believed that dogs were dumb mute creatures with no capacity for awareness, thought, or feeling, compliance seemed a reasonable goal. As long as one cannot discriminate between compliant behaviors motivated by fear and those motivated by a desire to please, by the presence of a reciprocal relationship, the old paradigm seems to work well."
"But the reliance on dominance and aversive techniques shows the influence of that old paradigm. It dates from a time when dogs were seen as bundles of reflexes and habits. It dates from a time when there was no guidance for dog trainers or dog owners from scientists. It dates from a time before we knew that dogs are cognitively and emotionally complex animals."
"The alpha dog concept is actually more about cooperation, with a leader who has more knowledge about the world, and more experience. For pet dogs, the human makes the plans. It's not the same as dominance. It's collaboration, even if it's asymmetric. The concept of family is often disregarded - working together for the benefit of the family."
As for the use of aversive techniques, Dr. Karen Overall, VMD, PhD, of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, writes, "It is often claimed that clients find that the dog [as a result of aversive techniques] becomes 'obedient.' Obedient dogs can be quite distressed, and suffer from profound anxiety while complying with a request." Overall refers to studies that found that choke collars can lead to eye problems, that both choke and prong collars can cause "neck instability, degenerative arthritis, and recurrent laryngeal nerve paralysis," and that training with shock produces "untoward, negative, long-term effects."
So back to my original question. Why isn't the message that positive reinforcement-based methods are the best for training dogs?
"First, change is difficult. How long did it take Copernicus to convince people that the Earth was not at the center of the solar system? The old methods have been around a long time; people are used to them. The information needed to rethink one's beliefs is not always accessible.
Second, the negative consequences of trying to dominate one's dog and of using techniques like the alpha roll or so called 'training tools' like prong collars or shock collars may not be apparent right away, and may not be apparent at all if one is looking only at compliance and obedience. They seem to 'work.'
The third reason, one that is perhaps less obvious and more unfortunate, is that there may be some, often unconscious, pleasure in subjugating another being to one's control. It is easy to justify using strong, even harsh measures to do this.
Finally, dog training that incorporates new findings is in some ways more difficult, even though the results can be wonderfully rewarding. We want everything at the push of a button. People don't want to invest the time. If you want a friend, you have to invest the energy to have a friend."
So, if you are still using aversive methods or dominance style training I want you to look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself "why?" And answer honestly.
Obviously by being a dog trainer I have access to professional and scientific journals that dog owners don't read, but that doesn't mean there aren't great books, articles, and videos out there that promote positive reinforcement-based methods. I'd be happy to recommend some. Just ask!
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Jeff Dentler, CPDT-KA, IAABC-ADT, FFCP, CTDI