Why Dogs Need Guidance, Not Dominance

Last night, I had a pretty cool experience. In my brochures I was handing out about Faithfully Yours, a man read the section that said I was studying Psychology. He asked me where I was studying and what plans I had after that. I told him I would be continuing on for my Animal Behavior degree in a year or so. He said, “WOW! They have an animal psychology degree now!?”

He then told me this amazing story about his older dog he had trained to sit at intersections on their walks and wait for him to point in the direction they were going, before the dog would continue walking.

He then added, “I used my psychology degree to teach him all that stuff, come to think of it.”

You see, it is very easy to learn and remember the steps to training each and every cue you wish for your dog to do. It is very easy to buy a product, which promises to do the training for you. It is very easy to find a quick fix to behaviors we as humans may find annoying.

However, as a professional dog trainer, I cannot do that. I have to be able to understand how to get the behavior without any tools sometimes. I have to understand how to affect the dog’s behavior with as little consequence as possible. I cannot rely on tools to get the job done for me or quick fixes that could leave another problem in their wake.

What if my client cannot afford to buy all these anti-pull/anti-bark/anti-whatever devices? What if my client refuses to use them? What if I happen to not have treats with me? What if the dog is not food or toy motivated at all? My job is always – what if.

I recently went into a pet store with a German Shepherd I had just rescued. This dog was scared. She hadn’t left her backyard since her old family bought her as a puppy. The family she knew was gone. She had never been taught to walk on a leash. I went into the pet store and was greeted by another trainer who worked there.

The other trainer only saw her pulling on the leash – not the panting, the avoidance behavior, or the other stress signals she was displaying. I knew in this situation, it was better to let her explore and adjust because under this much stress, she couldn’t process any information and therefore, wouldn’t be able to learn very much from any training.

The other trainer said to me, “Don’t you wish you had the right kind of collar to correct her?” My face must have looked horrified and I could only let out a muffled, uncomfortable chuckle and move away.

This was a situation where the “what if” came into play. No tool would have made her stop pulling any faster in this situation because we were dealing the stress of that moment already. She was adjusting to her brand new surroundings. She was taking in new dogs, new environment, and new people for the first time in a year. I also want to add – in my eyes, she was doing an amazing job.

The leash pulling was my last concern at that moment because we had bigger fish to fry. I only knew that by understanding how animals learn and behave. Otherwise, I probably would have been in the pet store trying to train this poor, scared dog to walk on a leash.

I have to think on my feet and clients will throw me curve balls all the time. I even have clients who take great pleasure in trying to throw me off my game. (I love you, guys. =P)

Understanding your dog and how they learn is the most important thing. If you have that, you can teach them anything without crutches or quick fixes.

This man was able to train his dog without any direct dog training knowledge because he understood basic learning theory. He had a desire to teach his dog this behavior, he practiced, he applied the science behind learning, and it turned into a pretty fancy behavior.

It was pure and simple.

Dogs aren’t complex creatures needing a firm hand because they are plotting to undermine us every second of the day. They are just being dogs. Dogs bark, dogs dig, dogs pee, dogs chew… because they are dogs, not because the dog is looking to take over the household.

The word you are looking for when you say the dog needs an “alpha” or a “dominant” owner is guidance. Your dog needs guidance and the ability to understand what you want from it.

You just need to understand how to show them that, which is why someone with no dog training experience and a psychology degree can train a dog. They understand how we – and in return, other mammals, learn.

I think we need to go back to the basics and peel back the layers. We need to get rid of the crutches, go back to good ole fashion practice, and get down on the dog’s level.

Picture by https://www.flickr.com/photos/magnusbrath/