In the twenty plus years that I’ve been training dogs, the notion of leadership and its role in understanding dogs has drawn a lot of fire. And so have trainers like myself who still argue that leadership is key.
Let’s take a look at some of the arguments underlying what’s become the most divisive issue in dog training today.
In the last couple of decades a school of thought around training that bills itself as “purely positive” has sharply criticized what was generally called the “pack theory approach” to understanding dogs and dog training techniques.
Dog Training Techniques: The “Dog as Wolf” Model
For many decades most professional trainers argued that dogs inherited their essential social psychology from their wolf ancestors. They believed that wolves lived in rigidly hierarchical packs with an indisputable “alpha male” lording it over them.
They also argued that the rest of the pack was endlessly engaged in power struggles as they tried to climb the social ladder and grab the leadership spot for themselves.
Of course the iconic alpha male would have none of this. He pushed back and enforced his rigid hierarchy via Stalin-like displays of dominance and aggression.
This posture was said to trickle down through all layers of the pack, with everyone constantly busy protecting their own social status against others while ever on the lookout for opportunities to topple superiors and take their place.
By extension most trainers felt that dogs inherited and imported this Machiavellian attitude into their human homes. And this, of course, meant that they too had to be tightly ruled by an alpha male – now the human owner – often through regular displays of force and aggression.
“You gotta show ‘em who’s boss,” the old saying went. It’s a saying I still often hear from well-meaning dog owners today.
Of course such ideas dovetailed neatly with the most popular training approaches of the twentieth century, most of which were derived from the training of military dogs in the Second World War.
These involved routinely showing Rover who’s boss through a variety of harsh methodologies including lots of leash corrections and the infamous “alpha roll.”
A New Perspective on Leadership and Training
Well, lots has changed in the training world over the last twenty years. A number of studies of wolf behavior have popped up challenging the notion that such strict dominator hierarchies rule wolf behavior.
Not only that, because of generations of selective breeding, the critics argue, dogs have become so far removed genetically from their wolf ancestors that they wouldn’t share many of such dominating tendencies even if they did exist.
To make their case they point to studies of feral dogs around the world who, because they scavenge to survive rather than hunt, don’t organize themselves into tight knit packs. Instead, they form loose associations, coming and going from them at will.
In such contexts, they argue, tight social hierarchies play little to no role.
Armed with such arguments critics have vehemently contended that social structure and leadership play little or no role in managing dog behavior.
And if folks like myself should suggest otherwise, they insist, we are clearly unscientific, old-fashioned and holding out excuses for abusing dogs.
To replace such “outdated” notions, the critics contend that the only valid approach to dog training must be rooted in “operant conditioning” and purely positive reinforcement, usually in the form of a variety of desensitizing exercises and food rewards.
Throwing out the Baby with the Bathwater?
In this climate, which in the last fifteen years has grown into a form of political correctness, we are told that any training approach that is based on hierarchical notions of dog psychology or includes any form of “compulsion” or “aversives”—be it a squirt bottle or an electronic collar—is horribly ill-informed and definitely abusive.
Of course I see it differently. On the one hand it’s clear to me that the advocates of such thinking have leveled a number of legitimate critiques against so-called traditional training.
But at the same time there are whole host of flaws, limitations and active misinformation that underpin their arguments.
And these, while perhaps well intentioned, these assertions have a negative impact on the world of dog training. We’ll take a look at this impact upcoming blogs.
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