Friday, October 14, 2011

Confronting Old School Trainers

Fozzie is "clearly" the Dominant Dog
When I was very active in a particular rescue group and attending a lot of adoption events, I suffered through many an event listening to adoption coordinators talk about how a dog playing roughly was just trying to be "dominant." 

I also watched invited trainers leash pop the daylights out of gentle, naturally curious dogs who weren't looking straight ahead as they walked on a leash, and heard coordinators with the rescue group tell me I needed to show my foster dog that I was the "alpha." 


At the time, it hadn't occurred to me yet how great it would be to blog about these frustrations. All alone, I longed for a community of enlightened trainers, handlers, fosters, and dog lovers who would help me figure out what in Dog's name you can say to these people? 

I used to think maybe you could try to educate with a bit of history, like "Actually, theories about dominance in dogs originated with some studies done on captive wolves in the 1940's, and have been fairly thoroughly discredited in the modern dog training community." 

That seemed to work about as well as an alpha roll for correcting unwanted behavior. 

Pam at Something Wagging This Way Comes had a brilliant post about one severely misguided dog owner and how she dealt with the situation by just blasting him with positivity. 

We DEFY smug old-school characterizations
I'm no longer working with that particular rescue group much, and I've found much more positive dog people to surround myself with. But the people who watch too much reality TV are everywhere--in fact, Florian's graduate dance department is suffused with postmodern dancers, of all people, who love Cesar Millan and can't be reasoned with. It seems there is no escaping.

How do you deal with it? Do you have a favorite pithy response to the Dominance dudes? An explanation that works wonders with the Alpha dog arguers? A life-changing demo for the Leash yank yo yos? Share so we can all come up with something better than helpless, enraged sputtering.


  1. We posted about our Alpha. In no way is Baily dominant, she just makes sure our house (the dogs at least) run according to her rules and most of the time she sleeps or lays back and watches the others roughhouse.


  2. If you figure out a good way to deal with this, let me know. i am at a loss but confront this all the time too!

  3. That second picture looks all too familiar!

  4. Hi Kirsten, we've been going to a training school here in Vancouver for the past 7 years, that fully embraces the training methods and techniques that you envision and likely has the same views that you have on the training methods of certain "TV personalities". The organization is called Dogsmart Hopefully there are similar organizations where you are for people to go to. But to answer your question about what to say to people who believe in the "alpha" dog scenario, leash yank, pinch collars, choke chains, shock collars, or anything else similar - all you can do is gently explain, cajole, urge a different point of view. In the end most people don't want to listen or believe. They want results now, not in time. They don't want to hear that it takes time, positive reinforcement and God only knows, repetition and time. Inappropriate behaviour is not rewarded and through gentle conditioning, the dog learns what is appropriate and what is not.

  5. That's great you have a place like that Sam. There are scads of really good trainers around here too, and even a nonprofit,, that offers free positive training and dog behavior advice and lots of reasonably priced classes. But you are right, when people are convinced of the old way they sure are stubborn! And I think you're right that its also a personality thing; people with a lot of anger and not much patience are not going to stick with the positive methods.

  6. I have no words. My dog says it for me.

    I sometimes get 'teased' a bit by my trainer because I have treats in my pocket and I ask Delilah for a 'down' and she just sits there panting, looking at me. I squat down and wait for her to down. I just ignore them, I am going to do what I am going to do and the heck with them.

    All dog training takes time! Even the old school ways, takes time. In time, they will see how great my dog is and then I need no words.

  7. My Lily wears the pants over here. But mom try's to put her in her place. We think there are a wide range of techniques. Different ideas work for different doggies
    Benny & Lily

  8. I agree, different things work for different dogs. There isn't a one size fits all method of dog training.

  9. My 2 friends who introduced me to Greyhounds are both heavily into the dominant, alpha thing. I'm not articulate or assertive enough to disagree. It would be a waste of my time directing them to web sites that debunk the theory. It really frustrates and amuses me the things they construe as being dominant.

  10. I also work with a rescue group that believes in the dominance theory. I lasted 2 classes where the trainer talked people into putting prong collars on their dogs. I now go to positive reinforcement clicker training. It is a lot more involved than the old way, but much more fun. I tell everyone I meet about it!

  11. I moonlight as an outspoken, assertive person, but in real life I'm not like that at all. I answer questions people have if they happen to ask, I tell them how I'd remedy a problem behavior versus how they think it should be done. That's about it.

    To the people who think that dogs learn differently from each other via different methods, I think they're right... when the methods are right. (So you may not choose to use a clicker, fine, but you can use R+ anyway, etc). When the methods are blatantly WRONG, INHUMANE and IGNORANT, their theories kind of fall flat. Dogs are beings, not machines.

  12. Interesting post.
    It upsets me too when rescue organizations make matters worse for dogs in their care, instead of better. I don't doubt that they mean well, but "dominating", pressuring and punishing a dog surrendered or dumped, who is insecure, anxious, fearful and has abandonment issues and expresses that in what we label problem behaviors, because he has no choice to express feelings in any other way, cause no one ever taught him, pisses me off.
    How I deal with it is repeating, repeating, repeating, being patient and pointing to scientific evidence coming from people who learned about behavior instead from someone who's propped up by Hollywood.
    If I can't get through, I walk away while sending mental apologies to the dogs in their "care".
    Fortunately, dealing with my clients is easier. They often hire me because the TV methods didn't work, so are much more open minded.

  13. It's so painful to see dogs missing out on a good relationship with their person because he's stuck in the dark ages. But I've never known anyone to be argued into changing their mind.

    Here's some hope: People who interpret their dogs behavior using dominance theory are trying to understand what their dogs are thinking and feeling. And that's a big improvement over the bad old days when dogs were just objects to be forced to bend to our wills.

    So I guess that's what I'd concentrate on. The person is trying to understand how his dog's mind works. And that's where we can reach them.

    Thanks for the kind shout out. And keep hoping.

  14. Sam sort of said it. People want results NOW, not in two months, especially if they have a large, aggressive dog they fear might hurt someone if not under perfect control.

    However, I don't agree that a person who believes in dominance theory or use its methods is necessarily "filled with anger." If you approach someone with that attitude, they may not be not angry when you start in on them, but they will be when you leave.

  15. You cannot reason with these people.

    It's much more fun to ridicule them.

    Jean Donaldson has some wonderful stuff on her blog:

    The dominance model is even bad science for wolves.

    So why on earth is it still used for domestic dogs, which have evolved some important cognitive adaptations that allow them to communicate with and cooperate with us?

  16. Retreiverman, that's fantastic from Jean Donaldson. She does have a wonderful sense of humor, and I think you're right that humor is the only way to deal with it!

    Voice4Dogs raises a great point...dogs whose behaviors seem the most intractable are often suffering from fear and anxiety, and dominance-based training will do nothing but make these emotions, and the behaviors that spring from them, worse.


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