Morgan: Alright Mike, I’ve got another great question for you today. Are you ready?
Mike: Oh, I’m ready.
Morgan: Alright, here we go. “I believe hierarchy is socially important for dogs. Number one, do you agree? And number two, do you think this is important in terms of preparing my dog for my child and, if so, what are the implications? How is that going to shape the preparation?”
Mike: Let’s start with the first one. The answer to both is: yes.
Is My Dog A Wolf? And What Does That Mean?
Now, it’s a controversial answer, because (and we’ve talked about this before) there’s been over the past 10 years people who’ve suggested that wolves don’t live according to the strict hierarchical social structures that we once thought, and that the basic observations that were initially made about wolves – that they were these strong, top-down, hierarchical, dominant structures – were wrong.
Those were studies done with captive wolves who operate, socially, very differently than wild wolves.
So people who are into purely positive training, or force-free training, have extrapolated that first of all wolves in the wild, in their natural habitats, don’t have these top-down, hierarchical structures.
The second thing they say, as an add-on to that, is that even if they did, it’s a stretch to say that dogs inherited their social structures from wolves. And then there’s been a couple of studies that have been done that, on the surface, lend credence to that.
The thing is, as you know, I’ve been working on a book for the last two and a half years that really goes into this – and they’re wrong.
These are ideologically motivated claims, and tons of studies recently in the last 7, 8, 9 years, affirm again, and again, and again that both dogs and wolves function according to dominance hierarchies.
What Is Appropriate Dominance?
That said, it has to be said that the typical understanding amongst lay dog people and amateur dog trainers – the “showing them who’s boss” – means just basically being harsh, and a bully.
You’ve got to show them who’s boss, right? And that’s really not what hierarchy means, and that’s not what leadership is. And that’s not necessarily what’s implied, although in the past other trainers have used that argument.
So that’s the bone of contention, right? People have used the idea of being a pack leader, or of the social hierarchy, as a justification for harsh training methods.
And then the counterpoint to that was: that’s all wrong, they don’t live according to hierarchies like that, and therefore there’s nothing to justify it. So both positions are wrong, OK?
So what data show is that wolves definitely function according to hierarchies, and sometimes are very harsh.
And how steep the hierarchy is, and how harshly it’s enforced, is determined by life conditions. So when resources are scarce, hierarchies tend to be steep and harsh. When resources are less scarce, they tend to be more relaxed.
Now, we can all relate to that – you don’t have to look far. If you’re in a military situation in combat somewhere, and resources are short, life is at stake, there’s no room for screw-ups.
There is a very clear, top-to-bottom, linear hierarchy, right? And there’s very severe punishments for infractions of those hierarchies, because it’s the military.
But if you’re getting together with a few friends to organize a party, and everybody has a role, there might be some hierarchy, but it’s going to be very loose, very diffuse, and not steep, and not a lot of consequences – because of the life conditions. Does that make sense?
Morgan: Totally makes sense.
Mike: So it’s the same thing with dogs and wolves. So with wolves in the summertime, there’s less evidence of hierarchical, heavy top-down dominance.
But when it shifts to the fall and winter, and resources become scarce, then often adolescent members are driven from the family pack. So that’s an assertion of dominance by the alpha male.
Breeding starts to be more controlled – so the female will often keep other females from breeding. So it just all depends.
So the relationship to training is that we have to have a sophisticated view of hierarchies. Yes, we have to establish leadership. Sometimes the contentious topic of physical correction is appropriate.
But understanding leadership as a way to just bully your dog around is definitely not appropriate. So you have to see the subtleties.
And it has to be said, many trainers – and even still today – they’ll use the whole alpha dog concept like a blunt object.
There’s some little 5-pound dog peeing on the carpet, and they’ll say: “You’ve got to show them who’s boss – put a choke chain on them, and yank the crap out of them until he’s a quivering mess.”
People still do that, and it’s completely inappropriate. There has to be subtlety.
The beautiful thing about the rank management program – and again, I’ve written a lot about this, in this manuscript that’s going to hopefully come out this year – is you can apply it very strictly, and intensely, or very loosely and less intensely, just depending on the circumstances you’re dealing with.
So it requires people getting out of their dug-in, ideological positions, and lightening up a little bit – and not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but also not necessarily interpreting things in the old-fashioned way. I could go on for an hour about this, but I think that makes sense.
Morgan: Yes, I think that’s clear. You’re saying: one, the question of hierarchies is very nuanced.
You’re saying there’s a context for the question around hierarchy that has these two camps, in simplest terms.
One that feels like, yes, hierarchy is real, and then others saying no, there’s some data suggesting that there isn’t really hierarchy between wolves.
But over the last 7 to 8 years, there’s a tremendous amount of research that’s come out that really shows that yes, there is. But it’s dynamic, and it’s related to resources – the steepness of the hierarchy that exists in wolves.
And we’re using that as a metaphor for dogs, and the social life of dogs, and how they incorporate into the family context as their pack. And then you’re saying it has to do with the availability of resources.
So there’s strong, strong evidence that shows that yes, hierarchy is real. So, when you’re communicating with a dog, it’s really important.
It’s calling on all of us to have a more nuanced and sophisticated view of how to have a relationship with our dogs, because of the complexity of the social order.
We need to be able to speak their language, so to speak. And if you’re really going to work with your dog, in terms of preparing it for the baby, you have to take this into account – you really can’t ignore it.
Mike: Correct. You hit the nail on the head.
Morgan: OK. I’m just parroting what you said – and we missed your bone of contention pun, you didn’t call that one out, but I heard it. You’ve got to acknowledge the puns, man.
Mike: Thank you. There’s a lot to say on this subject.
Morgan: Well, we’re short on time, so the second part of the question was: do you agree that it’s important? And you’ve said yes. That’s unequivocally clear from your answer. And then: how does that relate to preparing your dog for your child? Is it important, and how?
Establishing Your Family Pack
Mike: Well I mean, as we’ve said in all of these – especially in the last podcast – it’s about putting the dog in the frame of mind where they’re used to looking to you for direction when faced with things that are novel and unusual, like bringing a baby in.
You want the dog to have security and confidence in your leadership, and look to you for direction. That’s the habit you want to create, and that’s the habit that rank management programs create.
And again, contrary to the detractors of this, these rank management programs don’t call for harsh violence on the dog – they call for establishing structure, guidance and authority.
And then again, there’s different intensities with which that can be applied. But they’re very important.
You want the dog to have a solid social structure, with which then to help it to understand and relate to changes in that structure: a baby coming.
Whenever a new pack member throws the whole structure up for grabs, they’re a little wild. Because there’s a new member, so it just jars the system a little bit.
So that happens when there’s a baby around, too – or it can. And that’s why we want the dog to look to the owner for direction, leadership, authority.
And if you don’t do that, there’ll be some price to pay for that, at some point.
Morgan: That makes sense.
Pick Your Science Wisely
Mike: I could definitely go on. There’s a group of people who are out there to prove that dominance doesn’t exist. So they pre-set the studies up in a way that that’s what they’re going to find.
And there’s one, in particular, that’s very prominent, that’s been deconstructed by many other academics since then, and other studies. But in the purely positive training literature, the only study that’s ever mentioned is the debunked one.
They never mention the studies that did the actual debunking, because it doesn’t suit their ideology.
So when you hear positive-only trainers go on about how pack theory has been scientifically shown not to be valid, they are not telling you the truth.
And it’s either because they don’t know the truth, because they haven’t cared to get up on the latest, or it’s because they’re so heavily invested in making everybody else wrong in order to justify their own position.
That’s just their ideology. I have 350 pages more to say about it [laughter].
Morgan: So yes, everybody, this is a big trigger topic for Mike, because he’s just finishing up his second draft on the book. So obviously this is a tiny little scratch on the surface.
Mike: Yes, we’ll be doing a lot of podcasts on this topic in about a year from now.
Morgan: Excellent. Alright, so good – then basically (and this picks up on the theme from a previous podcast) the whole first section of your book, Good Dog, Happy Baby, is all based on the assertion that hierarchy is real in dogs, and setting up a rank management system based on that reality, to really help your dog start to look to you for the cues for how to relate to this new pack member.
So basically it’s establishing the basis, and the order, in the family unit that’s going to help the dog have the most seamless transition into becoming a close brother, sister, buddy, lifelong friend, to your baby. Is that right?
Mike: You said it. You’re correct [laughter].
Morgan: Constant transmission.
Mike: You were paying attention.
Morgan: Yes, A+, Morgan. And so, everyone, this is really something you should think about if you’ve got a baby on the way, or even if you’ve already delivered and you’re thinking about this.
If it’s before 8 months – before your baby reaches that critical point, where they start crawling and then impinge on your dog’s space, and really getting into the rough handling with the children. This is the moment for you to really start.
Ideally, as Mike always says, 8 months before the baby even comes is the best time to start, when you know you’re pregnant. But wherever you are on that spectrum, establishing and implementing that rank management system is really important.
And that’s all laid out, in detail, in Mike’s book, Good Dog, Happy Baby, which you can get on Amazon, or over at gooddoghappybaby.com.
Also, Mike, what about the course? The Good Dog, Happy Baby course, can you just say a little bit about that?
Mike: Well yes, it goes into some of the areas you just mentioned. I spent a year and a half putting those two modules together.
They’re about 90 minutes each, broken into about six or seven sub-segments. And the first one really deals with this thing about how to prepare dogs for childlike handling.
Because the dog not being able to handle the encroachment of the baby – the grabbing, the pulling, the crazy movements and so forth – that is one of the top reasons that people end up rehoming their dogs.
And that usually happens when the baby starts crawling. So that first video gives you very proactive things to do, at various stages in the development of the process of getting the dog ready.
And then the second one is about dogs that are just generally afraid of kids, and how to begin to desensitize the dog to children in general.
So I picked those two topics because I see so much tragedy and drama around failure in those areas, that I decided to do video courses, and that those would be the first two areas I would pick, because they’re the most common, and the most potentially destructive.