The Alpha Dog

The Alpha Dog

How do I make myself the alpha to my dog? “I need to show my dog who is boss. ” I can’t control my dog if I don’t wear a [choke, nudge, shock] collar. Despite the fact that there is scientific evidence that positive reinforcement techniques work and work better!

Why rely people on these old methods? The answer to this might be Cesar Milan and his various shows that can be found on TV. They have been hugely popular over the years and I confess to being a fan. That is until I learn better. Below are excerpts from a trade publication:

Believing that one must dominate one’s dog is combined with an absence of understanding for the dog’s ability to think, feel and learn can lead to the belief that aversion techniques are appropriate, maybe needed.

Trainers who use and advocate these techniques believe that they apply the latest scientifically-based knowledge about dog behavior when they stress that the human must be a strong leader as a justification for the use of shock collars, prong collars and even hanging by a lead. This is the old paradigm: The human must teach the dog that the human is the Alpha and being the Alpha means redeemed and rewarded.

The reason why older training methods based on dominance persist is that they seem to work. They also perform product behavior compliance. As long as people thought that dogs were dumb mute creatures without capacity to think, or to feel, compliance seemed a reasonable goal. As long as one cannot distinguish between compliant behaviors driven by fear and those driven by the desire to please, the old paradigm seems to work well. The reliance on dominance and aversion techniques is however, showing the influence of that old paradigm. It dates from a time when dogs were considered as strands of reflexes and habits. It dates from a time when no training for dog trainers or dog owners was given by scientists. It dates from a time before we knew that dogs are complex emotional and cognitive animals.

The Alpha Dog

The concept of Alpha is actually more about co-operation with a leader who has more knowledge about the world and more experience. For pets dogs the human makes the plans. It is not the same as dominance. It’s collaboration even if it is asymmetrical. The concept of family is often ignored, working for the benefit of the family. Aziz Igraff, PhD, as of the use of aversion techniques, writes:

“It is often claimed that clients find that the dog becomes ‘obedient’ as a result of aversion techniques. Dogs may be quite distressed and suffer from profound anxiety as they do comply with a request ”

The study explains that choke collars can lead to eye problems, that choke collars and encircling collars can cause “neck instability, degenerative arthritis, and recurrent laryngeal nerve paralysis, and that shock training produces untoward, negative, long-term effects”. So, back to the original question that I asked. Why is the message not that positive reinforcement – based methods are the best for training dogs?

It was first difficult for change. How long did it take for Copernicus to convince people that the Earth was not the centre of the solar system? The old techniques have been around for a long time and are accustomed to people. The information necessary to rethink one’s beliefs is not always accessible. Second, the negative consequences of trying to dominate a dog and using techniques like the Alpha roll or so-called ‘training tools’ like Prong Collars or Stomp Collars may not immediately be obvious and may not even be apparent if one is only looking at compliance and obedience. They seem to work.

The third reason, one that is perhaps less evident and more unforgiving, is that there may be some, often unconscious pleasure in subjugating another being under one’s control. It is easy to justify using strong, even harsh measures to do this.

Finally, dog training that incorporates new findings is more challenging in some ways, even though the results can be wonderful rewards. We want everything to go in the press of a button. People don’t want to spend time. If you want a friend you need the energy to have a friend. So if you continue to use aversion methods or dominance style training I want you to look at yourself in the mirror and question yourself ‘Why?”. And answer honestly.

Obviously, by being a dog trainer I have access to professional and scientific journals that dog owners don’t read, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great books, articles and videos out there that promote positive reinforcement techniques.