Friday, 24 August 2012

Choices: For Dogs and For Kids

Before starting anything new I like to research it carefully and plan extensively. That's why my house is so filthy all the time... I am still researching the best ways to motivate myself to clean. Ahem. So, anyway... I've been doing a lot of reading about parenting lately. With everything up in the air I don't know if I am preparing for a baby, a toddler or even a child already in school. So I am reading everything. I thought I had read everything about shiba before Hayate joined the family, and I really hadn't read any of the stuff that ended up being important. So I am making extra sure in my pre-child reading. Several blogs I read recently linked to a book called Duct Tape Parenting: A Less Is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible, and Resilient Kids . I haven't bought the book yet, but the article about it really caught my attention. The blogger writes
Every time I argue and cajole, my kids' attention becomes focused on changing my behavior instead of theirs. When I trust them to make their own decisions, and then support them whatever the outcome, they learn, adjust and take responsibility.
Exactly. Except for me, this is how I have ended up training my dogs. In fact, the training technique below is actually called "It's your choice" (also called "Doggie Zen").

Dog training that is punitive and/or based on the fallacious notion of dominance (skip to the bottom if you want to read more about that) teaches dogs to fear powerful humans. Positive training equips them to make their own decisions about how to behave well in unfamiliar situations.

It wasn't easy raising Hayate without violence (for my brother's benefit, violence means hitting but also, crucially, it means intimidating, yelling at, scaring or traumatising). I definitely wanted to hit him. It would have been easier, and probably quicker. But the joy I have now, watching him make his own decisions about how to be a "good boy" is so worth the wait. He makes really good choices, most of the time. Since we moved his separation anxiety has flared up again. After a few days of him lying in front of the door whimpering and begging me not to go to work, he decided by himself that the stress of seeing me leave was too much. Now he goes to the top of the stairs when he sees me pick up my bag, and he waits there until he hears the door lock. We showed him the technique of removing himself from a stressful situation (he runs into his crate for a little nap when he gets over-excited all by himself now), and he generalised that skill and applied it to a new situation to help himself cope. In contrast, if I yelled at him to "shut up and move" when he was blocking the door?  Maybe the behaviour would stop but he would experience even more stress, more rejection and still have no solution for his pain. Or it would have no effect at all, as Allie points out ;)

Dog is barking, human is yelling... fun for everyone!

A lot of parents try to give their children the skills to make their own choices rather than controlling them. Some do it consciously through systems like Montessori and belief systems like Free-Thought Parenting. Others do it as the opposite from their own childhood experience. Some do it instinctively without putting much thought into it.
But others continue to use the human equivalent of canine "dominance" theories to raise children with fear and violence. Parents like the Pearls who require immediate and unquestioning obedience above all else. In this post Libby Anne talks about "blanket training":
What they do is place a baby on a blanket and tell the baby not to get off. If the baby crawls off, he or she is spanked on the leg, told “no,” and placed back on the blanket. If you do this for long enough, the baby will learn to stay on the blanket, and then you can safely leave the baby there while you cook lunch or school the older ones. This all seems counter to the nature of a naturally curious baby.Authoritarian discipline shuts off questions and leaves little room for children to explore. The emphasis on obedience overrides anything else, and as I’ve written before, this can be highly problematic.
I'm not trying to equate children and dogs here. I was just struck by the similarities of the arguments for and against domination based parenting and domination based dog training.

Dominance and Dogs

The Alpha Mythology

The quotes below have been compiled and annotated by one of the owners of, an on-line community that has been a life-saver in our journey with Hayate and Kuri. You can see the rest of the thread here, but you may have to join the forum to see it, I am not sure.
The current, and most accepted, idea in the behavioral community is that domestic dogs do not form a rigid dominance-based social hierarchy.

Also, the most recent studies of wild wolves have lead most wolf researches to stop using the terms "alpha" and "dominance" when referring to the wolves social structure and behavior - this is primarily because they have found that a wolf "pack" is actually made up of a "mom & dad" (a "nuclear family unit") and their progeny (aka a family). Only the "mom & dad" breed, the offspring stay around until they are old enough to look for a mate - then they leave the current pack to join another pack or create their own pack. Some adults never leave - just like some people never find a spouse.

So, the issue with using the terms "alpha" and "dominance", or imply domestic dogs live in a "pack", when referring to dog behavior and canine social interaction is that it implies dogs adhere to a rigid social structure - which, per the latest ideas (by latest I mean since the 1980s), is incorrect and misleading.

Here is a study on domestic canine social structure:

There are some really good articles out there on this subject too...

David Mech, who was one of the main contributors to the early alpha/dominance concepts, which were born in the 1940s, now admits that the use of "Alpha" and "Dominance", when describing how wild wolves fight within a pack to gain "dominance" is "outmoded" (to use his exact term)...

"Schenkel’s Classic Wolf Behavior Study Available in English

Below you can download a pdf version of Schenkel’s 1947 “Expressions Studies on Wolves.” This is the study that gave rise to the now outmoded notion of alpha wolves. That concept was based on the old idea that wolves fight within a pack to gain dominance and that the winner is the “alpha” wolf. Today we understand that most wolf packs consist of a pair of adults called “parents” or “breeders,” (not “alphas”), and their offspring."


Here is Mech's recent ideas on "Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs"...

"Labeling a high-ranking wolf alpha emphasizes its rank in a dominance hierarchy. However, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none.

Thus, calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so "alpha" adds no information. Why not refer to an alpha female as the female parent, the breeding female, the matriarch, or simply the mother? Such a designation emphasizes not the animal's dominant status, which is trivial information, but its role as pack progenitor, which is critical information."


But Mech is talking about wolves, we are talking about domestic canine (which are very different from each other) and in domestic canine, and their interaction with each other (and humans), the idea of a dominance hierarchy has been debunked by most of the modern day behaviorist (see links above).

So, in summary, the use of the term "dominance" when applied (or referring) to any part of domestic canine interaction is incorrect - no matter how it is used (as a descriptor or to imply social structure). "Let's Just Be Humans Training Dogs" -by Dr. Ian Dunbar

"Dogs are not wolves and dog behavior is not the same as wolf behavior. In fact, the most striking difference between dog and wolf behavior is their interaction with people. Wolves have been naturally selected to grow up to be wary of people, whereas dogs have been artificially selected for their ease of socialization towards people. Consequently, it is hardly sound to use wolf behavior as a template for dog training."

"To cavalierly and simplistically summarize considerably complicated canid social behavior as “a dominance hierarchy with an alpha dog dictator”, is an insult to both dogs and wolves, and, advertises a complete misunderstanding of their most sophisticated social structure. Whereas misunderstandings are understandable and excusable, we have to stop at people imposing the weirdness of their misunderstandings upon others. To extrapolate a misunderstanding of wolf and dog behavior to dog training by citing slippery, phantom concepts of “dominance” and “alpha” as excuses to physically bully dogs is both unfounded and quite distasteful."

"The Macho Myth" -Dr. Ian Dunbar

"The social structure of domestic dogs is often simplistically described in terms of a linear dominance hierarchy, in which the topdog, or “alpha animal”, is dominant over all lower ranking animals, the second ranking dog is subordinate to the topdog but dominant over all others, and so on down to the lowest dog on the totem pole. Moreover, it is popularly believed that rank is established and maintained by physical strength and dominant behavior, that the more dominant (i.e., higher ranking) dogs are more aggressive and that the most dominant dog is the most aggressive. Hence, dogs that frequently threaten, growl, fight and bite are often assumed to be “alpha” animals. The majority of the above assumptions are quite awry. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Such a simplistic view of a most sophisticated social structure is an utter insult to dogs but more disturbing, when cavalierly extrapolated to dog training and the dog-human relationship, such bizarre notions are ineffective, counterproductive, potentially dangerous and quite inhumane."
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