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Sunday 22 September 2019

Don't dominate your dog. Create boundaries.

The idea of dominating dogs is old fashioned and untrue
The idea of dominating dogs is old fashioned and untrue

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

As a vet in the media, I'm often asked to discuss animal behaviour. People are curious to know why their pet behaves in certain ways, and they also, understandably, want their pet to behave in ways that fit in well with the humans around them. So when a dog is barking all the time, or jumping up on visitors, or refusing to come back when called, their owners are keen to find a way of changing this behaviour.

My role is to try to guide them towards finding an effective, humane way of doing this.

It's rare for the answer to be simple: in most cases, the most effective response would be to recommend that people engage a trained, qualified, experienced behavioural specialist who would visit their home, witness for themselves the "badly behaved" animal, then make specific recommendations tailor-made to the situation. The behaviourist would then follow up days and weeks later, to ensure that the recommendations are working out well.

However, although I realise this is the best answer, it's not what people want to hear from the vet in the newspaper/ on the tv/ on the radio. They want to have a quick fix. So despite the fact that this is not ideal, that's what I try to offer. And it is true that there are some simple facts about pet behaviour that can certainly help to resolve complicated problems.

Perhaps the single biggest way that I can help is to dismiss some of the untrue myths about animal behaviour. Examples include "my dog knows that she is being bold" and "she's doing that to punish me". Animals minds do not work like human minds: they are far less calculating than we are.

Of all the myths, one of the most common and damaging ideas is the concept that dogs are continually fighting to be the "top dog", and that for humans to have a well-behaved animal, they need to dominate their pet at all times. This is completely untrue, and many dog-human relationships have been badly damaged in the name of this myth.

This idea started after studies of wolf packs in zoos in the 1960's. These packs were observed to have a "leader", and at the time, behaviourists extended this idea to dogs being part of the "human pack". But there was no good evidence for this at all, and over time, this has been shown to be false. Further studies of wolves in the wild have shown that wolf packs do not, in fact, operate like this, and it is wrong to try to instil dominance of dogs by humans.

One of the confusing aspects of this theory is that it is true that if humans dominate dogs, there are, indeed, some behaviours that may improve. But they don't improve because of the domination: they improve because the humans who are doing the dominating are also creating firm boundaries for the dogs. It is the boundaries that are effective, not the domination.

So, the old idea was that humans had to "dominate" dogs at all times. This is no longer thought to be true, no more than parents need to dominate their children. The new idea is that dogs should be taught boundaries, just as children have boundaries that they know they must respect.

There are some things that humans (or adults) should be allowed to do, but dogs (or children) should not. For example, most people don't want dogs (or children) opening cupboards and helping themselves to unlimited treats. When you create boundaries like this (i.e. things that dogs and children are not allowed to do), your household will run more smoothly. But you don't need to be mean and ruthlessly dominating to enforce those boundaries. You just need to be consistent.

It's up to you to decide what boundaries you want to have for your dog.  Every household is different. The overall aim is that you make it clear to the dog that some behaviours are encouraged, while other behaviours are not encouraged.

Another way to see boundaries is to call them "house rules". Common examples include no climbing onto tables to eat food, no chewing of furniture or shoes, no jumping up on people, no rushing to get through a doorway in front of you, no barking to get what the dog wants (such as food or attention), and the basic principle that when it's bedtime, it's time to be quiet and to go to sleep.

How do you enforce such house rules? You remember the basic two facts about dog behaviour:

Behaviour that is repeatedly rewarded tends to increase.

Behaviour that is consistently ignored (i.e. not rewarded) tends to decrease.

So if you allow your dog to continue on his normal walk if he pulls wildly on his leash, he will see this as a reward for his behaviour (because he is getting what he wants), and he will continue to do it. If you stop the walk when your dog pulls on the leash, he will not be rewarded for pulling, and he will be less likely to do it again.

To use another example, if you ignore your dog when he barks to get what he wants, then give him what he wants at a time when he is not barking, he is less likely to bark to get what he wants.

You need to find out what your dog sees as a reward: food treats, certain toys, or simple praise are the most common.

The winning combination for a well behaved dog: enforce boundaries, ignore bad behaviour and reward good behaviour:

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