The Wolf, Alpha, and Owning a Dog

wolf2When pet owners, friends, strangers, and even doctors find out that I am a dog trainer, they begin sharing with me about their dogs. Nine times out of ten I hear these people say that they are not the pack leader even though they’ve tried, or they proudly share what they are doing to maintain the alpha position in their pack.

When I first started working with dogs as a hobby, I had the same thoughts myself about being alpha because of the information that my trainer and other popular TV shows discussed. In order to maintain the alpha position I was encouraged to “alpha role” my dogs (role them on their backs and hold them down), use the prong collar, and never allow them to walk through the door first or walk in front of me when leashed.

This training concept comes from the idea that wolves have a strict dominance structure where the wolves compete for the dominance and then are held in check with the alpha male or female. People have assumed that because dogs evolved from wolves, that their hierarchy structure is the same.

When I started getting into the science of dog training I was relieved to find out that the term “alpha,” coined by Dr. L. David Mech was misunderstood by the public.

In his book, The Wolf, Dr Mech specifically states in reference to the term “alpha,”

Hopefully it will take fewer than 20 years for the media and the public to fully adopt the correct terminology and thus to once and for all end the outmoded view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack.

We have discovered from research that dogs and wolves do not have the same hierarchy structure.

The problem from a scientific perspective with the “dog in wolf’s clothing” approach is that it assumes that the social system of dogs is the same as wolves’. However, domestication has changed the social system of dogs. A comparison of feral dogs and wolves reveals a number of important differences in their social structure…Leaders in a feral dog packs are not the most physically dominant individual. Instead, dogs with the strongest affiliative bonds or friendships in the group are the most likely to be the leaders.[Hare and Woods, The Genius of Dogs, 236-237]

Holding the concept of being alpha was stressful for me as a pet owner. Am I doing this right? My dogs aren’t even paying attention to me; do they understand I’m alpha? So I was very relieved to find out that I didn’t have to worry about my pack position any more. However, I knew that just letting my dogs run amok wasn’t going to serve me either. In the past 10 years I have discovered that I still needed to be a leader. The leadership style that has worked well for me and my clients hasn’t involve alpha roles or dominating the dogs, but mutual respect and consistency.

“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head-
that’s assault, not leadership.”
Dwight D Eisenhower

So what does leadership look like?
Being a leader with your dog doesn’t involve domination, any more than it would with raising children. If you’ve ever worked with children, you will find out quickly that dominating them isn’t a route that will bring about the results you desire and more than likely will have a negative affect.

I have found with my own dogs, fosters, and rescues that a mutual respect has to be developed. This would not be allowed with domination, but only with trust, time, and consistency.

houserulesRules
Yes, rules are needed. If we don’t have rules there is chaos. Your dog will be spoiled and not only will you not enjoy being around him, neither will anyone else. We’ve all been around children where the parents never say “no.” Please don’t spoil your dog! It surprises me what little thought has gone into the rules of the household for dogs. For instance, are my dogs allowed on the couch? If so, is there an invitation required? How are my dogs to behave before I leash them for a walk? Are they allowed in all areas of the house?

Following through
One of the sports that I played as a child was softball. We all know that to be a good hitter, it’s important to make contact with the ball and follow through with the swing of the bat. If you don’t follow through you are cheating yourself out of a good hit. When you’ve created a rule with your dog like not getting up on the couch, it’s important for you to follow through consistently with this rule.

swingingbat

A good example of following through is if you tell your dog to “get down” off the couch and he looks at you. Rather than repeating yourself, you walk over to your dog and encourage him to get down by using the movement of your body (like patting the side of your leg).

Consistency
When you create a rule everyone in the house must be consistent.

Let’s say, for example, your rule is “dogs aren’t allowed on the bed.” The first night your partner allows him to sleep on the bed, then the next night you say, “no,” and a week later you notice your dog napping on the bed, but you ignore the behavior. Being inconsistent will lead to confusion and will not work towards the results that you hope to achieve.

It’s important to consistently follow through with your rule. So in this particular example, you will tell your dog to get down every time he gets on the bed, prepare the environment in a way that will set him up for success, and ensure that everyone in the household understands the rule.

 “Leadership is the art of getting someone
else to do something you want done
because he wants to do it.”
Dwight D Eisenhower

Being the Leader
We can finally stop stressing over whether we are “alpha” in our pack and just enjoy our dog’s friendship through mutual respect and communication. Being a leader with our dog is much different than taking a dominant alpha approach. Growing mutual respect through rules, following through, and being consistent will allow for the great relationship with your dog that you’ve always wanted.

Blog written by Michelle Huntting
www.michellehuntting.com

Treats, Money, and Motivation

I will often hear trainers proudly say, “I don’t use treats because I train in the REAL world.”

In the real world we go to work every day. One of my dad’s favorite lines is from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life and it’s about money. George says to the angel Clarence, “It [money] comes in pretty handy down here, Bub.”

clarence
Photo from It’s a Wonderful Life

It’s true. We need money for food so we can feed our kids, ourselves, and our dogs. We need money for gas in our car to even get to work or to get to the grocery store. We need money to pay for homes that we live in. Money comes in pretty handy. We live in the real world.

What if your boss says to you, “I decided that you should come to work every day for me and in return I am going to tell you at the end of the week, ‘Atta, boy!'” You would more than likely not return to work.

Money is a motivation and reinforcement for humans. We will do many things for money.

Dogs are living, breathing beings that have their own emotions, thoughts, dreams, and will. It is an unrealistic expectation that they will work just for their owner. You may really enjoy your boss. Heck, your boss may even be your friend, but you will need more than friendship or an “Atta boy” at the end of the week to show up to work every day.

Dog’s need motivation and reinforcement as well.

dogtreat

When training dogs, there are so many different kinds of reinforcement, but at the top of the list is food.

Are we still living in the real world if food is a motivation for dogs? Yes, because the issue isn’t the treats or food. Bottom line, to get dogs to listen without any food we must first train with food

What I often hear pet owners say is, “I don’t want to use treats with my dog because I want him to listen to me.” Because that’s what I want for you too, I have listed a few tips on using food to reinforce and establish behaviors.

Timing Matters
The timing of treat delivery matters. Let’s say you cue your dog to “come” and start shaking the treat bag and he comes running inside. This is a great example of what not to do:

Cue behavior “come” –> Shake treat bag –> dog comes –> deliver treat

It’s important to deliver treats at the correct time because if the treats are shown or delivered as listed above, then you will be using treats as a bribe not as a reinforcer. If this is your pattern in training you will ALWAYS be stuck in this rut. If you want to always pull out a treat to get your dog to come or in a sit then continue this pattern. Don’t get stuck in a rut. This pattern will not take you down to the road called “he listens without food.”

Here is the pattern that will take you down the path of focus and reliable behavior:

Cue behavior “sit” –> Dog performs sit –> Deliver treat


Reinforce, Reinforce, Reinforce

If you have ever done weight training, you know that doing many reps will help build muscle. If you lift a weight one time and call it a day, it seems silly to even waste your time. You will never tone or build a muscle using one rep. You must condition your muscle with continuous repetitive motion.

If you give your dog one treat for a behavior that you liked, that is like doing one rep to build a muscle. Imagine though, that just like you might hit the gym hard for a month working on a specific area of your body, you decided to do this with your dog.

musclemanblog

For example, you are tired of your dog jumping on guests, so you decide that you are going to reinforce the behavior of sit. So twice a day you do three minute formal sessions. During these formal sessions you cue your dog to “sit” and once he does you deliver a treat. Outside of that time you notice every time he sits (without being cued), and you give him a treat.

For an entire month, you conditioned your dog with reinforcement of a particular behavior. At the end of the month, your dog will be sitting like a little statue. Reinforcement doesn’t happen with one repetition. You must build behaviors, just like you do your muscles.

Fading the Treats
When I first start teaching a desired behavior, chicken is falling out of the sky! But as we progress in the training process and “muscles” are built, I will simply maintain those “muscles” with random reinforcement (radon reinforcement is explained below).

It’s important to note that I wait until after a behavior is strongly established before I begin to decrease the amount of treats used in training.

Once a behavior is strongly established (the dog offers behavior all the time) then you can start the process of fading treats.

Random Reinforcement
I am not much of a gambler, but if you have ever been to a casino you know that the slot machines use random reinforcement. It’s brilliant, really. Humans, just like dogs, work for random reinforcement. The hope for the big win will keep people playing the game.

After establishing a strong behavior, it’s important that you randomly reinforce.

A great example of this, in my household, is the cue come. I incorporate training into my everyday life with my dogs, so sometimes I will give them a piece of steak or chicken when they come inside. Sometimes I will say, “Good Boy.” They never know when they will win big. With random reinforcement I keep them guessing as well as motivated.

Bottom Line
In the real world food isn’t the culprit;  it’s your friend. Use food wisely in training and you will be well on your way to having an engaged, well-behaved dog whether food is present or not.

Blog written by Michelle Huntting
www.michellehuntting.com