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A Bone of Contention in the World of Dog Training

Updated on March 5, 2015
Does your dog have an inner wolf?
Does your dog have an inner wolf? | Source

The Canine Outlook

There's an old joke about the differences between the canine and feline perspectives on humanity.

Here's how a dog thinks: My human feeds me, and loves me, and takes care of me. He must be a god!

Here's how a cat thinks: My human feeds me, and loves me, and takes care of me. I must be a god!

There's a kernel of truth in that. Some dog owners feel obligated to live up to a certain image.

The human must always be the boss. The alpha issue has led to conflict between old-school dog trainers and those who strongly emphasize positive reinforcement.

That difference of opinion came up in a question that I raised about eye contact between dogs and the owners who are attempting to train their dogs. I appreciate the knowledgeable answers that I received.

I did notice some raised hackles on that Q&A session. I'm glad that nobody earned the prestigious Godwin Award!

Most dog owners are somewhere between the two opposite poles of dog training: coercive training vs. positive reinforcement. They read a book, watch a few videos, or talk with friends who are knowledgeable on the subject. Then they muddle their way through the human-canine relationship. If they find an approach that works for them and their dogs, they're happy with it.

The relationship between you and your dog is not egalitarian. When you go out for neighborhood walks with your canine friend, you'll probably put him on leash. Even if he's a super-smart Border Collie, there's no way for you to explain that chasing cars is extremely dangerous. And you don't want him to learn that lesson the hard way. On the other hand, you probably don't want to have a robo-dog, who regards you as a lunatic, and whose unwavering obedience is based upon fear. If you think of your dog as a friend, you may want to think of yourself as first among equals.

I'm not current on the major dog training studies, but it's more sporting to weigh in as a unbiased outsider.

What is an alpha, anyway?

In the wild, wolf packs are usually family units. From the perspective of a young fully-grown wolf, following the lead of one's parents makes good sense. The parents have more experience. They know the best hunting and foraging areas. They know what's safe to eat. They also know which prey animals are safest to attack.

The parents have breeding rights, and their grown offspring are supposed to practice abstinence until one of the parents dies (or becomes infirm). I'm not sure what happens at that point. Inbreeding seems unlikely. Do the individual pack members go their own ways, to seek out mates and vacant territories?

I remember seeing a documentary about the wolves that had been reintroduced to Yellowstone. One interesting detail was that a grown female wolf had killed her littermate sister. Apparently there is some alpha-seeking behavior in wild wolves.

On the other hand, Nature documentaries are notorious for staged footage. Example: the lemmings 'jumping' off cliffs in Disney's 1958 White Wilderness.

Alpha-seeking behavior is more pronounced in captive populations of dogs. The alpha male has fought his way to the top of the heap. He claims exclusive breeding rights, and insists on having first crack at the food when it is served.

If there are clashes in the wild, a wolf is free to leave the pack. In captivity, that is not an option. Hence there are more power struggles when multiple dogs or wolves live together in captivity.

What would it mean for a human to be alpha to his dog?

For dogs and wolves in captivity, alpha status is mostly about food and breeding rights. Let's see. If you're a dog owner, you're automatically in charge of the food.

If you aspire to be alpha in your relationship with your beloved pet, does that mean that you, as a human, are claiming exclusive mating rights with your dog? I don't think so. What people say is not always what they mean.

Are dogs pack animals?

Dogs are definitely social animals. However some dogs, who are weaned and separated from their mothers too early, miss an important part of their mental and emotional development. (Yes, dogs have emotions.) Although they may bond with their adoptive humans later on, they don't understand that they are dogs! They may not get along with other dogs for that reason.

This is the exception that proves the rule. Dogs do have strong social needs. In some cases, it's for the company of other dogs. In other cases, it's for human companionship. And often it's for both.

The claim that dogs and wolves are pack animals, and not merely social animals, implies that they need to have a firm understanding of who is the head honcho. And if clear leadership is missing, the dog will attempt to take charge. Some individual dogs are like that, just as some people are. But it's not fair to paint all dogs with the same broad brush.

Cesar Millan
Cesar Millan | Source
Monty Roberts
Monty Roberts | Source
Dalmatian | Source

Render unto Cesar

An alpha-oriented label on a dog training method can be a euphemism for a coercive, harsh, punishment-based approach. Most dog owners use a mixture of affection, positive reinforcement, and coercion. Cesar Millan falls into that in-between category.

He feels that it's important for a dog owner to be dominant. He also punches dogs. See video at bottom. Thanks, Adrienne!

A second aspect of dominance is what Cesar calls "calm-assertive energy" (CAE). Dogs can sense our emotional states from observing our body language, from listening to our breathing, and from taking note of the way that we smell at the moment.

I have CAE, although not to the extent that Cesar does. Almost always, I know where I stand with big dogs. And they almost always know that I mean no harm. On hikes, off-leash dogs either ignore me or act in a friendly manner. I think that this also reflects favorably on the quality of socialization that most hikers provide for their dogs.

I agree with Cesar that CAE on the part of a dog owner is a quality that 's beneficial for the canine-human relationship. I disagree with Cesar about the extent to which CAE can be cultivated. It sounds too much like: Fake it 'til you make it.

I'm slightly miffed that Cesar is billed as a 'dog whisperer'.

Although Cesar is very talented, he's essentially a synthesizer, rather than an innovator. And Cesar Millan is no Monty Roberts.

Monty's nonviolent training methods are based on his detailed observations of horse behavior, and on his extraordinary ability to empathize with horses. For example, the body language of horses, which Monty calls Equus, plays a central role in his approach to taming wild horses.

Shortly after Monty's first book, The Man Who Listens to Horses, came out, I remember thinking: There are thousands of unacknowledged Horse Whisperers out there. If you want to join that exclusive club, all that you need do is to smoke cigarettes for 20 years!

Just kidding. Bad pun. I have great respect and admiration for Monty Roberts.

Anyway, some dog owners who achieve a good living arrangement with their dogs, describe their training style as being alpha-oriented. However that is not necessarily an accurate description. In practice, most dog owners use both approaches.

Cesar also emphasizes the importance of giving your dog the right amount of exercise. A moderately tired dog is a happy dog. And some breeds of dogs need more exercise than other breeds. For example, Dalmatians were bred for running long distances with horse-drawn carriages. A daily 20-minute stroll does not even come close to cutting the mustard with this naturally athletic dog breed.

Gurr and Larry on the Iowa Hill hike
Gurr and Larry on the Iowa Hill hike | Source

Go hiking with your dog

Obviously, the right amount of hiking can be fun and healthful Quality Time for you and your dog to share. It's also an opportunity for your dog to learn that new people are mostly friendly. More to the point: Your dog will see you in a new light.

Fido will take note of the scent-markings of Coyotes, Black Bear, and other animals. He'll be very impressed with the fact that you don't care whose territory you trample upon while you're hiking up the trail together. What chutzpah! Ironically, your underdeveloped human olfactory sense will inspire his confidence in your ability as a protector. And that will be a good thing for your relationship.

Positive reinforcement is TQM for dogs and their owners

Management By Objectives is an old-school philosophy of business administration. MBO is very top-down. It assumes that workers are inherently lazy, and that it's necessary to ride herd on them, in order to maintain productivity. Unfortunately that philosophy tends to create an atmosphere of fear.

Yes, fear can be a powerful motivator. But sometimes the motivation is to cut corners, to CYA, and to pin blame on others, rather than being productive.

On the other hand, Total Quality Management, championed by W. Edwards Deming and A.V. Feigenbaum, seeks continuous improvement, to build long-term customer satisfaction, to empower workers, and to minimize fear. Other things being equal, a company that embraces TQM will have a small competitive advantage over a traditional MBO company.

Traditional dog training is similar to MBO. Yes, you can get a dog to do what you want. But harsh training methods can take its toll on your relationship with the typical family dog, who truly wants to be your best friend. Most dogs are hard-wired for what Monty Roberts calls Join-up.

Yes, some adopted dogs have endured years of abuse at the hands of their previous owners. These particular dogs need extra TLC, not boot camp.

Dog training that emphasizes positive reinforcement, like marker training, is more like TQM. You can accomplish your training goals, without straining the relationship. Yes, it may take a bit more homework, time, and planning. But reward-based training, unlike coercion-based training, is Quality Time. And that's something that you both want in the first place, isn't it?

Dog training survey

Which approach to dog training do you favor?

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Submit a Comment

  • Larry Fields profile image

    Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

    Hi Angela. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Angela Brummer profile image

    Angela Brummer 6 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

    Really amazing I love how easy this is to read and all the great points!

  • Larry Fields profile image

    Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

    "a fast running feline?" Yes, that's what they say on their website. Most 'working' cats are mousers. But this 'test cat' can give valuable information for people who are interested in adopting some particular dog. I don't think that Whippet rescue people would feel as comfortable using a test cat. :-)

    "We don't have dog catchers here." My general impression is that dog owners in England are more conscientious about training and other aspects of dog care than their American counterparts.

    When I feel the need for a long evening walk, sometimes the route will go past a house with a high fence and two snarling Rottweilers, who would eat me for supper if given half a chance. This is fairly common in Suburbia and in the country here.

    On the other hand, an elderly hiking acquaintance lived in England for a short time. On his country walks, he did not see any stray dogs. And the dogs in people's yards did not bark at him. Quite a contrast, eh?

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 6 years ago from England

    Hi Larry, really? a fast running feline? Wow! lol! I would like to see that! We don't have dog catchers over here, it just doesn't seem a problem, but saying that of course there are always loads of dogs that have been put in Battersea dogs home, and want new owners, I can't understand how people can treat animals badly, I would adopt all of them if I could!

  • Larry Fields profile image

    Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

    Hi Nell. Good to hear from you, as always.

    England has a reputation for being a nation of animal lovers. Unfortunately that's less true for the US.

    The flip side is that we may have more options for dog adoption. In addition to Animal Control at the county level, and to the privately-funded SPCA, we have breed rescue groups run by volunteers.

    In the Sacramento metro area, there's a truly outstanding Golden Retriever rescue. I've met some of the dogs and volunteers on Sierra hikes. They take in owner surrenders, as well as Goldens, Golden mixes, and the odd Flatcoat, from the Pound and from the SPCA.

    At their facility, they test incoming Goldens for cat-chasing tendencies, with a very fast-running resident feline, and they make certain that the dogs are current on veterinary work. Then their charges go out to foster homes, until forever homes can be found.

    If you adopt a Golden from them, they can tell you almost everything you need to know about activity level, house-training, health, and other stuff about that particular dog.

    For prospective owners who don't want to go through the high-maintenance puppy stage, a breed rescue group is a great option. On the other hand, a dog from the SPCA, or from the underfunded Pound, is more of a pig in a poke, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 6 years ago from England

    Hi, I always remember seeing a tv program that says if you want to get a dog from the dogs home or pound, always get the one that stays hidden at the back. If you pick the one that comes towards you, then he is already an alpha male and will make your home a nightmare as he is the boss! lol! great hub, cheers nell

  • Larry Fields profile image

    Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

    Hi DrMark1961. Hubpages encourages us to write about topics that interest us. And that's exactly what I'm doing. Guess what? It's not possible for me to be the world's foremost authority on some of the topics that I write about. If you have a problem with Hubpages policy, why don't you complain to Management, rather than acting like a troll?

  • DrMark1961 profile image

    Dr Mark 6 years ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

    Are you serious? You don't even have a dog? Anyone can give advice if they only spend a few minutes of "quality time.' Try living with a dog.

  • Suhail and my dog profile image

    Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 6 years ago from Mississauga, ON


    "It's said that this breed is most suitable for experienced dog owners."

    I would agree only because of their large size and independent thinking to protect their charges in the absance of human companions.

  • Suhail and my dog profile image

    Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 6 years ago from Mississauga, ON

    Hi tlmc,

    I am sorry to hear about your loss. We had lost our Husky in mid 90s and have not been able to overcome the grief yet. So I can relate.

    By the way, did you ever think that your dog had part cattle herder ancestry like that of a Corgi or Blue Heeler in her? I have seen that playful snapping in those breeds.

  • Larry Fields profile image

    Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

    Tlmcgaa70, you mentioned the fun of the hunt. Border Collies are like that. A part of their wolf heritage is to bottle up a small group of prey animals, using the Evil Eye technique. But BCs have lost the killing part of the wolf hunting instinct.

  • tlmcgaa70 profile image

    tlmcgaa70 6 years ago from south dakota, usa

    Larry, her mother was half coyote and half GSD, we never knew what the father was as the mother came to us already pregnant. my dog, Delta, was a terrific dog around other animals. i could take her into the chicken coop and she would lay down and let baby chicks hop all over her. she liked to play with rabbits and would not harm them. she loved to "hunt" but never caught was the fun of the hunt she liked. i often had her chasing the horses away from the yard and despite getting kicked a few times (once breaking her nose) she always had the courage to keep working with them, she just learned to move faster. we even helped neighbors round up loose cattle together. she never learned to "bring them in" tho, but i was content. i agree that coyotes are highly intelligent. did you know that the german shepherd dog was originally bred from sheep dogs mixed with wolves? my sister gave me a german shepherd dog, but i got rid of her when she tried to take my pony out. Delta never harmed another animal. she never picked fights, but never ran from them. and always came out the winner.

    as for wolves being a risk, i think any animal will attack if provoked or not handled properly and with respect. where i live pit bulls can be shot on sight, as can rottweilers and doberman pincers. i rescued a dog that looks like a pit bull. he is the sweetest dog anyone could hope to have. he adores other dogs and people. wolves cannot be struck as punishment, the way many people will turn them into a coward or provoke them to attack. if what they have done is very bad, you take them by the scruff of the neck and push down and give a shake and say NO! in a very gutteral voice. it rarely needs repeating. both coy dogs and wolf mixes are very clean animals. they do not like to go potty out in the open, and will try to find a bush to go behind and it is rare for one to potty on the floor, or any concrete surface. Delta would not go except on grass or dirt. but if you think about it, any dog breed can and has attacked humans at one point or another. those who are more prone to it never should be owned by ignorant people who just want to own a tough dog but have no respect for it. i think coy dogs could be bred to be awesome working dogs, if done by knowledgeable people and done responsibly.

  • Larry Fields profile image

    Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

    Hi tlmcgaa70. Thanks for your comment. I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your dog.

    Wolf hybrids have been in the news. Apparently they are at risk for attacking people. And there's a scientific controversy about the Red Wolf in Eastern North America. Some say that it's really a Coyote-Wolf hybrid, rather than a separate canid species.

    However I haven't heard much about Coy-dogs, like yours. And I enjoyed reading your accounts of her playtime activities.

    Coyotes are extremely intelligent, and their total population has been increasing, despite the efforts of sheep ranchers to kill them. Do you think that Coy-dogs could be bred into some kind of working line?

  • Larry Fields profile image

    Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

    Hi Suhail and my dog. Thanks for stopping by.

    I've seen pictures, but haven't had the pleasure of meeting a Kuvasz. It's said that this breed is most suitable for experienced dog owners.

  • Larry Fields profile image

    Larry Fields 6 years ago from Northern California

    Hi brackenb. Thanks for your comment.

  • tlmcgaa70 profile image

    tlmcgaa70 6 years ago from south dakota, usa

    as i said in my hub, alpha does not mean abusive. if people who prefer the alpha method are using force and fear to teach their dog then they have no understanding of what it means to be alpha to your dog. alpha means first, and in the case of dogs, it means leader. a good leader and dog trainer first seeks to understand their dog, then trains it accordingly. they understand they have a responsibility to provide food, shelter, guidance and protection to that dog. that is the responsibility of any leader human or canine. a dog usually wants to please its owner, so there is no reason to use force, fear or harsh methods. if you do then you have no business either owning a dog or attempting to train it.

    @Suhail...i recently lost my dog of ten years. she was part coyote, and she also did not fetch. in fact she never played with toys, even as a puppy. her favorite toys were my hands (we would lay on the bed together at night and she would ask to play, and i would make attempts to grab her mouth or nose and she would make attempts to pin my hand down) and her favorite game was mock attacking my feet while we were walking somewhere. she would growl ferociously at my feet, pounce on them, then take off running in a huge circle which ended up back at my feet where she would mock attack them again, and it heightened her joy in the game if i would stomp the feet and growl loudly while she was mock attacking.

  • Suhail and my dog profile image

    Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 6 years ago from Mississauga, ON

    This was very informative Larry. I liked your creative way of writing.

    I have a Kuvasz boy, who is very friendly when he goes out (a tough guard dog when on the home turf though). He is a favorite of all neighbourhood kids. But I know some people have Kuvaszok from aggressive lines and they suggest asking the kids to feed their puppies a treat on your behalf in order to socialize them well. There is one account where the owner takes his Kuvasz puppy to the school bus stop in his neighbourhood and introduces it to the kids there. I did not have any such problems at all, probably because of the breeder he comes from.

    My Kuvasz boy does not fetch anything for me, unless he has something in it for him. he would pick a ball once and if you throw it for the second time, he will have that look on his face asking, "why did you do that? Afterall I brought it back for you once". But it seems this fetching game could be a winner for me with your dog.

  • brackenb profile image

    brackenb 6 years ago

    Perceptive and interesting hub. I agree with you about Monty Roberts - I think it probably applies in dogs too. I'm not fond of the "whisperer" term - so much can be achieved with common sense and empathy with their animals.


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