05 August 2016

BEHAVIOUR - Alternatives to Dominance-Based Dog Training

In 2009, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine conducted a year-long study on the results of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in pet dogs.

The researchers found that dogs responded more positively to non-aversion, non-confrontational, reward-based training methods. And owners were much more likely to be injured if they used Alpha Rolls or yelled “no” as a correction method.

Confrontational training methods often go hand-in-hand with a focus on dominance in the dog-human relationship. Training methods designed to establish owners as “the alpha” tend to be confrontational, and the more physical of these methods are the most likely to result in injury to the owner.

Not only are confrontational training methods more likely to result in injury to the owner and fearful behaviour in dogs, they are being shown to be less effective than reward-based, positive-reinforcement training.

What is the appeal of dominance-based training, since academics and many professionals believe it isn’t effective?

(Jean Donaldson)
Jean Donaldson, founder of the Academy for Dog Trainers, says, “I don’t know. My hunch is that we are big projectors.”

Humans are animals with a strong tendency towards social hierarchies, and Donaldson told InfoStream, “It’s hard for us to imagine that a species that lives so close to us could possibly not be motivated by this, how could they not be interested in who’s the top dog in the room?”

A more useful and effective model for training dogs is one that allows dogs to be dogs, and humans to be humans. It’s a lot of work trying to mimic wolves or dogs, or trying to enforce social hierarchies that may actually be more about projecting human tendencies onto interpretations of dog behaviour (what a murky mess!).

Working with dogs’ natural tendencies and creating a more positive, mutually enjoyable arrangement may better serve the human-dog relationship.

Every dog is unique, but they all want access to food, water, and social enrichment in the form of toys, attention, and activities. Owners also have unique desires for their relationship with their pets, but they want dogs who are safe, social, and respect the boundaries that are important to the owner.

Donaldson notes, “Dogs do come with some ‘installed software’ – the tendency to bark, the tendency to bury things, and so on. Human society tends to consider all of these behaviours to be problematic. It’s not okay to just train all of these behaviours out of existence, because now there’s the idea of behavioural wellness and enrichment. There need to be spaces where they can be dogs.”

Positive-reinforcement training, or training that rewards the behaviour humans want more of, allows more space for letting dogs be dogs while still allowing owners to have the type of relationship they’re looking for. Using playing, running, digging, and barking as rewards for good behaviour is one way to keep those behaviours under control while still allowing the dog space to just be a dog.

Rather than approaching behaviour from the view that every interaction is about social dominance – a view that can lead to confrontational and exhausting training protocols and that often tries to force dogs to behave too much like humans and humans to behave too much like dogs – the new wave of trainers believe it is safer, more effective, and more enjoyable to approach the relationship more collaboratively.

By Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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