How to Show Dominance Over Your Puppy (While Rocking a Pair of Leg Warmers)

It might make a lot of sense to ask the question, “How can I show dominance over my puppy?”

If it were 1983.

In 1983, dog owners, trainers and veterinarians based their understanding of dog behavior on wolf behavior. Problem was, back then scientists had access to information only about captive wolves. Captive wolves, we now know, do not act like normal, wild wolves. And this is important, because wild wolves thrive using cooperation, not competition. In other words, the model of a pack with a dominance hierarchy is much less relevant for understanding normal wolves than is the model of a family (think “mother” and “father” rather than “alpha”). The parents do not intimidate, physically dominate, threaten, bully or (literally and figuratively) need to stay on top of younger wolves to keep the family running smoothly. 

Sure, we all miss some familiar things that were popular in the 80’s. We may think back with nostalgia to leg warmers (like, totally) or Duran Duran. But not everything that made sense in 1983 has relevance any longer.

Now it is 2013. The updated science goes like this: yes, wolves are the ancestors of dogs. Wild wolves, that is, with wild wolf family structures and the behaviors that make those hum along. Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how dogs were domesticated, or if they domesticated themselves, or some other option. In any case, from scientific observation of stray dogs in a variety of countries and situations, we know that domestic dogs who live as strays without a human family may form temporary pairs or small groups, but they do not form packs with strict hierarchies. Further, dogs who do live with human families don’t relate to the people as two-legged dogs.

According to preeminent veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall, “By thoughtlessly using the word pack, we have assumed that humans must be the leaders of the pack. This assumption has caused us to behave badly toward animals. While we care for dogs, they know that we are not dogs, and their relationships with dogs and humans will differ. We can best understand the complex interdependent relationship between dogs and humans by letting go of the pack concept.”

(Read what other scientists have to say here,  here and here.) 

So, while it may have been logical based on what we thought we knew decades ago, it doesn’t make sense any longer to raise and train puppies or dogs using dominance as the model. Since that’s not how dogs operate, doing so would be unlikely to produce the training results you hope for and could even cause unintended problems, as I am sure you can imagine.

Instead, create boundaries, respect your dog’s needs, and cultivate a peaceful household using updated training techniques and information about how dogs communicate. To quote Karen Overall again from her article referenced above, “We can use this new scientific knowledge about dogs to help us address canine behaviors that we or the dog find problematic. Fixing problematic canine behavior is actually not about control, leadership or mastery of the dog—it’s about increasing the chance that you can signal clearly to the dog, that you have the dog’s undivided attention while signaling, and that you are actually rewarding the behaviors that you desire.”

This is the kind of communication and training, along with taking your dog’s natural needs and emotions into account, that you’ll find here at Very Fetching and in Puppy Savvy. You should accept nothing less from your veterinarian, groomer, dog walker, dog trainer or day care provider. They should know how to apply the new science. If not, seek out someone qualified who does.

Accepting the updated information means, among other things, the chance to appreciate things about dogs we didn’t notice before. Dogs have very complex relationships with each other and with humans. They have cognitive abilities we’ve not even scratched the surface of understanding, complex emotional lives, and abilities to do things only a dog can do. They are neither lemon-heads nor black boxes that we should train and control like robots, any more than they are captive wolves who need to be “dominated” in order to live in harmony with them.

As amazing as we already know dogs to be, we may be at just the beginning of our journey together. In 2013, let us be humble. Let us allow dogs to teach us something, about themselves and about us. Let us appreciate the complexity and the simplicity of what a successful relationship with a dog requires of us. Let us do our best to listen. Totally.

Puppy biting

Spring must be in the air because I have had several dog training appointments related to puppy biting.

By puppy biting, I mean the kind in which the pup is between about 2 and 4 months old, and they are trying to engage their person socially in the same way they would attempt to engage another dog. It’s something akin to humans playing tag-you’re it, as in, “Hey, I’m biting at you, don’t you want to bite at me, let’s play!” and so they sink their little piranha teeth into our hands or forearms. This is something that is usually perfectly normal and not in the category of problem aggression, but it is still not acceptable since a) humans don’t like to play biting games with dogs, and therefore it’s not a good habit to get the dog into and, b) it can be incredibly painful and annoying since the puppy teeth are needle sharp at that age. Fortunately it’s easy to resolve with the right (and consistent) approach. Some puppies get it in just a few repetitions if everyone in the family sticks to the plan (the record I’ve seen is three repetitions, but about a week is more typical). I enjoy helping people work through this and I customize the training to their pup’s personality for quickest results (the general approach involves teaching the pup that the consequence for play biting is instant loss of play opportunity, which, as you can imagine, really hits home with them. For detailed instructions see Puppy Savvy.).

What puzzles me is that my clients sometimes report they are still hearing outdated advice on what to do about puppy biting. Usually a well-meaning neighbor, veterinarian, family member or reality TV show advises them to physically punish the puppy while speaking to the pup in a stern voice (usually something like “no bite!”). While these techniques can be effective in the hands of experienced professionals in certain situations, I don’t recommend them to my clients for the following reasons:

  • Most of my clients have gotten a dog to bond with as a family companion, and hence people feel uncomfortable being physically rough with their puppies. Because they don’t want to ‘fight’ with their puppies, they don’t follow through with the harsher technique or do it as it was intended, thereby creating more problems than they solve.
  • Not everyone in the family can apply the punishment techniques equally well, so there is great inconsistency. This results in failure; regardless of technique, consistency is important to success in dog training. My clients typically involve their whole families in the training, which is a good thing, and means that the techniques need to be easily applied by children and adults alike.
  • Most of my clients don’t want to model physical punishment for their kids.puppybiting1
  • Puppies grow into dogs who will have human hands coming at their faces their whole lives. We now know enough about how dogs learn to know that it can be risky to teach them that hands coming toward them predicts feeling afraid or confrontational. It is more advantageous for most dogs to associate human hands coming at them with feeling at ease and calm.
  • Some puppies perceive physical punishment from their people as a threat to their safety and retaliate out of self-defense, anger, or fear. The phrase “aggression begets aggression” comes to mind. Aggression is fallout most dog owners want to avoid.
  • Just as in every professional field, there are advances in family dog training. Fortunately we now know what aspects of dominance theory are useful in training dogs, and when it is quicker, safer, more effective and kinder to rely on the principles of learning theory to control our puppies and teach them to behave the way we want. Dealing with puppy biting falls squarely in the latter category.

There will always be well-meaning, if not exactly current, advice offered to puppy owners when it comes to raising their pooches. But my hope is that those who are dealing with a little fluffy land shark find their way to the more modern methods. It’s a win-win for the whole family.