Saturday, May 30, 2009

DVD Discusses Weakness in Dominance Theory of Training

Friend and dog trainer Elizabeth Stroter seems to read every book that comes out on the subject of dog training, and watches DVDs on the subject as well. Recently I asked her to recommend something on the philosophy of dog training. She sent the following about a DVD: “Fighting Dominance in a Dog Whispering World,” by Jean Donaldson and Ian Dunbar (DogTEC, November 2007) (retail generally around $39, available on, etc.). Liz is an APDT member, TDI evaluator, and AKC/CGC evaluator, and dog trainer in the mid-Hudson Valley. She refers to herself as a cross-over trainer, i.e., a trainer who’s been around long enough to have started using hierarchy-based methods, but who has moved on the other philosophies. Here’s what Liz tells us about the Donaldson and Dunbar DVD:

Six out of ten dogs in the USA will not live to see their second birthday but will be surrendered to a shelter and euthanized (per stats recently reported on National Public Radio). Why? “Behavior problems.” Translation: the dog is being a dog again, and we can’t have that. Training dogs to co-exist with us comfortably involves asking them to modify their instincts and behaviors so we can all live together under one roof. Dog trainers know there is a good chance a problem dog will not live a long life if the dog doesn't shape up in a six to eight week training session. That’s enough of a challenge. A 30 minute TV show, the Dog Whisperer, unfortunately makes it seem like whipping the dog into shape should happen in a few hours by giving the dog a strong dose of the master’s dominance. When it doesn’t work, the dog is taken to the pound, often, unfortunately, without any attempt to find a good local trainer. A trainer getting new dog owners that have no other background than this TV show inevitably feels the stress of facing a life-or-death challenge. Donaldson and Dunbar don’t want to see the dogs lose, or watch burnt-out trainers give up. They are particularly riled by the emphasis on DOMINANCE pushed on the Dog Whisperer and even by some old-school trainers. To behaviorists, dominance is a behavior trait to gain access to best resources, not to describe a relationship, and in any case, doesn’t work as well as a more positive approach.

Donaldson, in Part A of the DVD, describes dominance as a behavioral trait that helps an animal get the best food, best mates; essentially providing priority access to the best resources, thereby improving reproductive fitness. But how helpful or useful is it as a base concept in dog training? To be helpful it should at least do three things: (1) explain more observations with fewer assumptions than competing theories; (2) enable valid predictions, and (3) point to practical applications that work. Donaldson argues that dominance fails as a theory of dog training under these standards, and that it assumes that all dogs want the same thing and that to control them it is necessary to prove to them that without obedience to the dominant individual (the trainer) they will never get it (whatever it is that they all want). The fact is that different individuals want different things. Some need these things more than others, and those that don’t want them as much are not necessarily submissive. They may just not be interested in the specific objective. Donaldson says: “It’s the humans who love the status/dominance oriented ideas, so much so we can’t imagine any creature being anything else but like us.” Although dominance figures prominently in descriptions of wolf pack behavior, Donaldson notes that wolf pack interactions do not necessarily provide good analogies for dog training. Wolves tend to be nomadic, with packs which form and dissolve according to needs for hunting and protection of the young and pregnant females. Their environments are very different from those in which domesticated dogs live. Donaldson questions all hierarchy-based types of dog training theory, but acknowledges that, unfortunately, “scared dogs make some people feel good.”

Part B of the DVD is by Ian Dunbar, who seems like an old friend/guru to me. I have wondered all along why National Geographic didn’t make him the dog whisperer. He's charming and funny, has been getting great results for more than 20 years using positive training, and was a key figure in it's development. He doesn’t want to alienate the dog owner but entice him to listen. As to dominance, Dunbar notes that while adult male dogs tend to have first dibs on resources (saves a lot of fighting), this isn’t true of all interactions between dogs. In mating, for instance, dogs have social preferences, just as humans do. Often it is the bitches who decide on which suitor to accept. Puppyhood socializing also pre-decides much of later behavior in dogs. Desire for a resource may be fairly consistent in males, but varies from day to day in females who make many amendments to the male hierarchy structure and have less respect for it.

Dunbar recommends that trainers listen to dog owners and, when an owner insists that his dog is Alpha, he suggests not to argue with the owner even if the dog is obviously not of high influence in any group setting. The owner may want to make his dog out to be big and bad, but at least he is coming to class. He suggests using the dog owner’s dog for a quick demo, even slipping the dog a few treats even if they owner says he doesn’t use them. If the trainer quickly makes the owner and dog look and feel good, the trainer may be able to save the dog and hook the owner. The #1 thing is to make the relationship work, but there’s no need to waste time discussing training philosophy in class. The guy who came to class hanging the Rottie on a choke collar can be told that we used to do that 60 years ago but have found it takes too long to get the dog to be obedient. There’s a faster way. Telling the Rottie’s owner that hanging the dog is cruel will only make him angry. He leaves and the dog gets euthanized. The important thing is to keep the owner coming back by encouraging him or her and providing tips that can be used at home. Dunbar’s sees the trainer’s plight and is a great cheerleader for the trainers in the trenches. Trainers must know how to coach people as well as train dogs.

This DVD provides useful discussions of why dominance theory in dog training has become so popular without having nearly the solid theoretical basis that its proponents claim. The most important thing is to have a happy dog that you can happily live with, and these two trainers provide ample evidence that positive training is not only a desirable alternative to hierarchical training methods, but actually gets better results, and yields happier, long-lived dogs. Such dogs are willing to work and keep trying, rather than be scared or forced to comply.

1 comment:

  1. I have had experience with Elizabeth Stroter as a trainer and have discussed her thoughts on training in general. She introduced me to positive reinforcement as a formal training method. The proof of the pudding is that her two shelties are calm, well behaved and happily interact with people and other dogs.
    I have experienced trainers that are determined not to give up their belief in dominance training. When I first began training my dog, that was the method of the times. I was concerned about choke chains and the physical damage is could cause, as well as the methodology in general.
    I changed my approach several years ago, when I was introduced to positive reinforcement as a training method. My dog and I have a closer, more relaxed relationship. He is responsive without reserve. He is confident and is a thoughtful, happy, functioning member of my family. He does not perform out of fear he performs because he wants to.
    Having experienced the transition from dominance to positive training I am, and if my dog could speak out I suspect he too is, a strong advocate of positive training.
    Experience has shown me that dominance training methods damage what otherwise would be a truly respectful, successful and happy relationship with your dog.
    When looking for a trainer .. I woud advise everyone to seek out one who believes in and uses only positive reinforcement as the training method.