This week has been a bit challenging. For whatever reason (maybe it's the weather change here in California!), I've had several clients seeking help for their pets, yet reticent to give up on their outdated, misinformed, or misguided views on just how to do that. Obviously, it's my job to be patient, kind, and firm, providing guidance, structure, and action plans to my clients based on the latest science as it relates to animal behavior, animal care, animal well-being, and animal cognition. I consider myself a scientist at heart; I study animals (and their humans) in an effort to better understand them and aid them in their quest for a harmonious relationship. It isn't that I'm looking to vent necessarily here, nor am I bashing these clients for their resistance. I know where all the misinformation comes from; the internet is not always your best source for accurate information. Anyway, just want to bring these issues to the forefront so we can, once and for all, move on and move forward.
Myth #1: You shouldn't be using treats to train dogs. This one has been around for years. The idea that somehow using treats to reward your dog for good behavior, to reinforce learning, or to increase the likelihood that they retain what they've learned, is a bad thing or doing so makes you a lazy trainer or one who isn't being shown respect by their dog. This is simply ridiculous. My response to anyone who tells me that they don't want to use treats to train their dog is, "Oh, okay. Just to clarify. You work for free as well? You feel that getting paid for your job is unnecessary?" This is when folks feel like I've suckered them in. Of course, you want to get paid for your job and receive raises, promotions and accolades for a job well-done, Well, so does your dog. There are several ways you can pay a dog for a job well-done. All involve giving the dog something she wants: food, toys, play time, affirmation, affection, etc. For some dogs, receiving affection or play time might be their reward of choice. For many, however, a snack is the reward they desire. A treat can be a motivator to keep your dog focused, and a well-timed treat can almost guarantee that they will exhibit that behavior again willingly. You notice I used the word "willingly." You could use force, intimidation, etc. to get your dog to begrudgingly do what you ask, but is that how you build a relationship based on respect? I think not. Trainers who discourage the use of treats or tell dog owners that using treats is just a "crutch," are doing dogs and their owners a disservice. I'll bet those trainers expect to get paid. Maybe they should have just gotten a "Right on! You're the coolest person I know!" instead of a paycheck. And of course I realize that there are some dogs for whom treats are just too distracting; they cannot focus on the training because they are too obsessed with the treats. For those dogs, working on treat delivery and frequency is helpful. And for the folks who tell me their dog isn't treat motivated, my response to that is "You just haven't found the right treat yet!"
Myth #2: Having a nice puppy is all about how you raise them. This one is quite pervasive as well. The idea that the only important variable in determining whether a puppy will succeed or not is the environment in which she is raised is utter nonsense. I usually hear an owner telling me this as a way to excuse their rescue dog's aggressive behavior. The dog is aggressive because the previous owner mistreated it. For some reason it is just so much easier for people to believe that other humans are horrible toward animals than it is to believe that some dogs are just wired wrong. Putting so much emphasis on how or where a dog is raised means you are discounting the role of genetics and heredity on behavior. Genetics and heredity matter a lot. We have selectively bred dogs for certain characteristics, both physical and behavioral. We've selected for herding drive in our Collies, retrieving skills in our Labradors, and guarding prowess in our Great Pyrenees. Yes, we breed for things like coat color and conformation, but we also breed for temperament. We have selectively bred dogs in an attempt to produce dogs who are best suited to the jobs we are breeding them for. This is why border collies rarely make good couch potato dogs for sedentary families, and often end up chasing lights, snapping at flies, and herding little kids. They are, by design, a working herding dog. Couch potato isn't in their job description. You can raise that border collie in a sedentary lifestyle and what you will end up with is a very unhappy, maladjusted dog. Nature plays as much of a role as nurture in shaping the dogs we share our lives with. Understanding what your dog breed of choice (or combination of breeds) was bred to do will help you decide if they are right for your home and if you are the person to best provide for their needs as well.
Myth #3: Dogs are pack animals and therefore you must be their alpha in order to gain their respect. I can't even begin to tell you how hard it is for me to keep my eyes from rolling up in my head when I hear this one. The implication is that you must dominate your dog (and not let them dominate you!) in order to establish and reinforce your control over them. Implying that a dog owner is weak or lacking in confidence because they let their dog jump up on them, share their bed, eat with them at the table, etc. means you are demeaning that dog owner and devaluing their choices. It is their choice, not yours. And to tell a dog owner to punish their dog for growling (because, obviously, a growl *must* mean your dog is trying to control you) is to set both that dog and owner up for failure. A growl is a dog's way of telling you that they are uncomfortable or anxious. Stepping away from that growling dog, both literally and figuratively, does not mean you are a weak owner or that you are letting your dog dominate and control you. It means you are acknowledging their discomfort and making an effort to diffuse the situation so it doesn't escalate. Your job then is to determine what triggered that growl in the first place and make adjustments so that your dog doesn't feel like they need to growl again or escalate beyond that warning; you understood their message the first time. It is certainly the case that when people use the "alpha mindset" or "dominance training" when working with their dogs that they are often relying on aversive methods to reinforce their agenda. This is the whole idea behind those old "alpha rollovers" that dog owners were taught to do in order to dominate their dogs and establish authority. These confrontational behaviors on our part often result in increased aggression toward us and toward other people, as well as obvious outward signs of excitability, stress, and mistrust on the part of our dogs. I'm not saying that it isn't important for dog owners to have control over their dogs, because obviously, I'm a firm believer in sharing my space with well-mannered canine companions. On the contrary, a dog can be better controlled and perceived as a more trustworthy companion through the use of rewards based training methods, rather than by trying to force behavioral change so that they fit into some archaic hierarchy. Being a "pack leader" is not about exerting your control over your dogs. It's about showing them how to behave in order to achieve the results that they (and you) want.
I feel better now that I've gotten these myths out in the open and debunked. I know that there are a lot of people out there who still believe these myths to be true, but I hope that they will be willing to listen with open hearts and minds to the science behind modern methods of dog training, which focus on the relationship between you and your dog. A relationship that should be fulfilling, satisfying, and safe for everyone involved.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.