If there are many ways to skin a cat there are easily as many ways to train a dog. But which one is right?

These days that’s a loaded and emotionally charged question. And it’s a controversy I’ve been embroiled in for nearly as long as I’ve been training.

How Important Is Social Status To Your Dog?

In an earlier post I sketched a brief overview of one of the most divisive controversies in the training world today—the role that a dog’s social status plays in its training and overall fit into a human household.

Advocates of an approach called “purely positive training” take the position that social status plays little or no effective role in training and managing dogs.

I disagree. But before critiquing these claims let’s take a quick look at what the critics get right.

The Problems with “Pack Theory”

It’s true that with rare exceptions dogs are not out to climb the social ladder in your family. Nor do they aspire to displace you as the “alpha dog,” lording it over you as “pack leader.”

And it’s also true that using dated notions of dominance as a justification for “showing ‘em whose boss” through harsh leash corrections, “alpha rolls” and a hasty reach for an electronic collar is unfair, unnecessary and even abusive.

That said, we shouldn’t be so quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To say that dogs don’t function according to rigid dominator hierarchies and generally aren’t out to “lead your pack” doesn’t mean that issues of social status are irrelevant to their behavior.

Far from it.

Insights from a Primatologist

In fact, in a recent conversation with a long time client of mine, a world famous primatologist at Stanford University, I asked him, “would you say that all social mammals organize themselves into hierarchies?”

“Oh, absolutely,” he replied.

“Would you also agree,” I went on, “that without social hierarchies such animal societies, be they chimps or baboons or wolves, would be incapable of functioning in an organized and mutually supportive way?”

“Yes, definitely” he replied.

“And would you also agree that in all social arrangements like this there are always power plays at work. Is everyone acutely aware of their own status and that of others’ and monitoring it most of the time?”

“Of course,” he replied.

Leadership and Hierarchy are Natural

My point is that in any social context, including human ones, power dynamics are always at play. Check it out in yourself right now. Of course, their intensity is influenced by a variety of environmental factors.

For example, take a group of wolves whose survival depends on hunting large game and requires tight group coordination. That set of survival challenges is going to call for a much stricter hierarchical arrangement than, say, a loose affiliation of feral dogs scavenging around the outskirts of human settlements.

Similarly, military hierarchies are far more rigid than those found in other human organizations where lives are not at stake.

Social Flexibility

Like humans, dogs are socially flexible and easily adapt to a variety of arrangements along the spectrum between these two. And twenty plus years of training experience tells me that they definitely do.

Therefore, when asked how important is social status to your dog, to suggest that social status plays very little if any role in a dog’s relationship to its owners is simply wrong.

And as I have unfortunately seen too often, those who dogmatically insist otherwise (pardon the pun) deny themselves a host of effective training and management strategies.

This, of course, can quickly hamstring you when trying to prepare your dog for the arrival of a child.

No Need to be One-Dimensional

Don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t mean you have to call on simplistic notions of dominance and submission to manage your relationship with your dog. Far from it.

The challenge is to strike the right balance between a multitude of factors when structuring your dog’s social world.

In the next blog we’ll take a look at the best social model for understanding and managing a dog’s role in its human pack.

Want to learn more about preparing your dog for the arrival of your baby? Check out my book: Good Dog, Happy Baby




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