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On Leaders, Babies and Bathwater, Part Three

Posted on July 28, 2014 at 1:44 PM Comments comments (19)
In Part 2, I asserted that if we really want to understand how Leading works, we might do better to look at it from the extremely important but often over-looked other side of the coin: Following.  And it turns out that Following—the nature of Following and why we follow—is pretty darned fascinating
If we judge by media attention paid—to celebrities, movies stars, gold medal winners in you name it—clearly being the “Alpha” is the best position, the Apex of power and appeal, and of course all dogs and us would want to be Top Dogs.  Except… not really, certainly not always.  In fact, if we look at the nature of Following, it turns out that—given the right conditions—many of us would prefer to defer.
Consider this story.  Years ago, we got a flurry of calls at the shelter from deeply concerned drivers about a panicked dog running loose on the freeway nearby.  Although we’re not animal control, the situation sounded so dire that we scrambled the shelter staff, jumped into two vans and headed out.   By the time we got there, a CHP officer—bless him, he was a dog lover and incredibly expert in his handling of the situation—had positioned his patrol car behind the running dog, slowing the fortunately light traffic and gently herding the dog toward an off-ramp.  He got the dog, still running in a blind panic, heading up the off-ramp and onto an overpass as we reached the scene.  Since I was in my unmarked van, I held my dog catch pole out the window and hollered, “Humane Society!” as best I could.  The officer saw my pole, saw the marked shelter van behind me, and did something extraordinary.
He pulled aside and let us pass, then followed us.  Now, if ever there are men and women accustomed to taking the Lead in our society, it is Law Enforcement folks.  That’s their job—to provide Alpha-type authority in some of the most difficult situations, and they don’t generally defer to civilians.  But in this particular situation, the CHP officer sized things up and made a judicious call to step back and follow
Was it because he was overwhelmed by my calm assertive energy and dominant personality?  Heck, no.  It was because he judged that we had better equipment—and likely the expertise--to tackle the job at hand.  We had catch poles and dog crates; he didn’t.  Even with that, we didn’t take the lead.  He allowed us to take the lead.  His decision to follow was voluntary, and that’s huge.   (We did catch the dog safely; she recovered from her ordeal and later was successfully adopted.) 
As I said in Part 2, both dogs and us have core desires to 1) be safe, 2) avoid unpleasant, distressing or scary things and 3) gain access to the resources that we find most pleasurable.   Given that, whether a creature strives to Lead or opts to Follow is going to depend on—exactly that.  To the degree that Leading or Following keeps us safe, allows us to avoid nasty stuff and gets us access to what we want, we’ll do it.  But we’ll only do it if it works.  If it stops working, we’ll start looking for a new strategy.  
If we look at it closely, it seems that there are at least three common kinds of Following, and they’re really quite different.  There’s what I’m going to call Juvenile Following, Strategic Following and Forced Following, and they arise from different conditions and have very different flavors.
The simplest and most common example of Juvenile Following is found in that most universal and common of animal relationships:  Mom and offspring.  Whether baby ducks, tiger cubs, baby monkeys or us, we follow our parents (or cling to them like glue) because we’re tiny, we’re helpless, we can’t find food or stay warm or avoid getting eaten without them.  So you bet we follow.  If we didn’t, we’d die.  Mom doesn’t have to be a particularly Alpha personality either.  She’s there, the most intimately familiar figure in our universe from Day One—the source of all things both needed and pleasurable.  She is safety, she keeps the scary things away and provides our resources.  What’s not to follow?
And here I have to say, this always makes me howl when it comes to Pop Culture notions of dog training:  somehow, we should discipline our puppies the “Natural Way” by modeling ourselves after Ms. Mama Alpha Wolf, but heaven forbid we should use food to train.  Dogs should obey because they recognize our Alpha status, not because we “bribe” them with treats.
Seriously?!  The most important thing Ms. Mama Wolf does—practically her full-time job--is give her offspring, yup, you guessed it--food.  From the moment the helpless pups are born, they find her nipples for milk.   Later, she and Dad regurgitate yummy meat, bring back carcasses and teach the growing youngsters how to hunt.  The relationship is all about food.   In domestic village dogs, once the pups are weaned—once Mom stops feeding them—the relationship is pretty much over.  And I suspect that many older, more independent pups only accept parental “discipline” because 1) they grew up with it, they’re used to it and it’s become a habit, 2) they have extremely powerful pleasurable associations from being nurtured by their parents in the past to offset a few unpleasant experiences, and 3) they still need assistance in the feeding department.  When juvenile predators reach adulthood and are able to fend for themselves, Juvenile Following starts getting old (for that matter, so does Parental Leading.) 
And it should get old, since the End Game—sexual maturity and reproductive success for the next generation of the genome—is at hand.  But how long a young predator stays under parental “domination” may depend more on the food supply and Mum’s willingness to keep sharing her dinner than on personality traits.  If the parents live in a resource-rich area, continue to pay the rent and set the table—and their “discipline” isn’t too annoying—slacking works pretty well.   In general, though, the cost/benefit has to play out: if the parents are easy to be around and there’s enough for everyone, we may linger even if the digs aren’t that great.  On the other hand, if the parents are tyrants, the chow better be super and the digs top notch.  If the pickings are slim, we’re out looking for our own apartments—if the parents don’t boot us out first.  Juvenile Following isn’t supposed to last forever.
What does this mean for our pet dogs?  Well, one of the oft-told characteristics of domestication is the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood:  in simple words, our pet dogs have been selected over thousands of years to stay puppy-ish even in maturity.   They are bred to be dependent, to look to us for what amounts to parental care:  food, warmth, shelter and protection.  They were selected precisely for their willingness to Follow—their biddability.  They were also selectively bred to be highly tolerant, low in aggression and willing to accept our nonsense because we raised them, they need us and if you bite the hand that feeds you, you get tossed out in the cold. 
It’s important to remember, though, that we also bred dogs for functional jobs that required more independence of thought and action, and that across all dogs “biddable” is a sliding-scale trait.  It’s also vital to remember that there’s a huge amount of Learning in the process:  a puppy that isn’t taught a habit pattern of looking to humans for pleasure and deference to their wishes isn’t going to leap out of the back yard at the age of two and bow to us as Pack Leaders just cuz.  Smart puppy owners take advantage of the Juvenile Following period to establish those good habit patterns—to teach the pup what they want and how fun it is to “please” while the pup is at his most spongy and biddable age.  Smart puppy owners also build lots and lots of joy and social connection into the relationship the pup has not just with them, but with all people, so that on those rare occasions when unpleasant or scary things occur, Puppy has lots of healthy happy padding to act as a buffer.  A well-padded dog, like a true friend, can handle the occasional rainy day or stormy moment in a relationship. 
But while piggy-backing training on the Juvenile Following tendencies is one of the most effective ways we have to train, it is also relationship and often age dependent.  It’s amazing to me how many people struggle to wrap their minds around this.  A young puppy might tolerant something mildly unpleasant or scary from any human; an adult dog from a human they know well.  A mature adult dog may not take the same guff from a complete stranger.   And yet, many is the time I’ve brought out a dog to go for a walk with potential adopters at the shelter—an adult, fully mature dog—and seen these lovely, well-meaning people immediately start leash correcting the dog.  Often, weirdly, these folks have some previous training experience, consider themselves “good with” dogs and when I ask them, say something like they’re trying to establish Leadership.  Alas, it’s the wrong kind of Leadership right out of the gate.
You and I would really, really prefer it if complete strangers didn’t go from “Hi, how are you,” to “By the way, you need to lose weight,” or for that matter, wildly French kissing us.  Only at the Oscars can Adrian Brody lay one on poor Halle Berry, and only because she was too astonished to smack him in the kisser (though if she had, who could have blamed her?)  Between strange adults, it just isn’t done—when it is done, we have an assortment of bad names and criminal chargers to go with it.  As a trainer, I don’t correct adult dogs I don’t know—or hug adult dogs I don’t know—anymore than I would spank a random child misbehaving in the super market or pinch a stranger’s behind, no matter how cute.  Although I am old enough to be most people’s Mother, I am not their mother.  If I want to take advantage of the Juvenile Following tendency in a dog, I have to first establish a relationship.  Only after we have arrived at a mutual agreement that gives me the necessary permissions will I hug the dog, let alone consider a correction. 
Establishing such a relationship doesn’t have to take a lot of time—it can be done very quickly if we’re skilled.  If I am skilled, a dog finds out in short order—and this should sound familiar—three amazing Things About Me:  1) I’m safe, 2) I’m not going to do or make the dog do anything unpleasant, distressing or scary and 3) I can and will give them access to the resources that they find most pleasurable—in return for certain favors.    (This assumes that the dog is socially-savvy and not burdened by baggage of fear or mistrust; if they are, it’s a longer, sometimes much longer, process.)  A dog reasonably well-versed and comfortable in the ways of humans can read me in a heartbeat, and we can build a good working relationship in a very short amount of time. 
Does the dog now view me as his new Pack Leader aka Mommy Figure?  I doubt it.  More likely the dog is pre-disposed by thousands of selective breeding to readily accept a social relationship with a human being and has experience practicing various Juvenile Following strategies successfully in the past.  This may incline the dog to give Juvenile Following a whirl, but it’s up to me to sell it by reinforcing the crud out of it.  Unlike Mom, or the owner, I don’t have weeks, months or years of—hopefully—pleasurable associations in the bank to draw on.  So I have a rule:  never ask the dog to give me more behavior than we have relationship.  If I’m going to ask a dog to do something difficult or slightly scary or unpleasant, it’s going to be after I’ve deposited enough funds (that would be food and fun, yes) in the training account to cover it and still be ahead.  Since I hate spending “relationship money” when I don’t have to, my first choice is always going to be—can I make this simpler, more pleasant, less scary?  Sometimes I can’t—if a shelter dog must have a vaccination or has to be taken somewhere they find stressful--I may not have good options.  In those cases, I’ll make a note to revisit that scenario later, to repair it and improve it for the future.
The key point here is—intimacy grants permission.   If intimacy is absent or violated, permission can be revoked.  We all have met people who, after three minutes of small talk and one dinner date, start hitting us up for favors or money or unload long-winded and tedious complaints about life.  The behaviors they express might be appropriate in other relationships, but they exceed the intimacy bank account they’ve established with us.  Some of us are more tolerant than others, but we’re rarely comfortable with it and we usually dump them at our earliest opportunity.
Dogs, alas, can’t always avoid the impositions of strangers, and they can’t—physically, at least—dump their owners.  They do dump us mentally and emotionally if it gets bad enough.  When we become in their eyes untrustworthy, unsafe or scary, when we pile on demands that the dogs experience as unpleasant, when we fail to provide access to the things they find pleasurable and important, Juvenile Following tendencies do what all behaviors do: start to extinguish for lack of reinforcement. 
Coming in the next Part:  Strategic Following

On Leaders, Babies and Bathwater, Part Two

Posted on July 24, 2014 at 7:56 PM Comments comments (84)
In this part, I said I was going to explore the other kind of leading—the kind that we really do want to use to reach success with our dogs—and… well, whoops, I lied.  That’ll be in Part 3.. or maybe Part 4.  Because before I go there, there’s some of that murky bathwater that I’d like to clear up first.  It saturates Pop Culture notions of dog behavior and dog training to the point that it’s like trying to swim in soggy, heavy clothes—it just drags us (and our dogs) down.  

Here’s the sound bite version:  Dogs descended from wolves.  Wolves form packs.  Ergo, dogs form packs.  Ergo, the “natural” way to train a dog is to model ourselves after wolves.  

Oh dear oh dear oh dear.  Yes, and the earth is flat, if I sail far enough, I will fall off the edge, unless a dragon eats me first.  Shockingly, nothing about the sound bite version turns out to be accurate, correct or true according to the best science we currently have available.  

Dogs and wolves—wolves specifically meaning the Gray Wolf, Canis lupus—are indeed closely related--they can and do interbreed and produce fertile offspring.  But according to the latest in genome studies, domestic dogs didn’t “descend” from any modern Gray Wolf subspecies alive on the planet today.  What it looks like now is that our living Gray Wolves (roughly 35 subspecies) and our domestic dogs shared a common ancestor somewhere around 10-15,000 years ago.  The ancestor of both our modern dogs and our modern wolves hasn’t been precisely identified and is probably now extinct.  But it looks like, statistically and genetically, our modern dogs are no more closely related to any modern wolf than they are to modern coyotes or jackals.  So from a strictly genetic standpoint, we could just as well claim that the “natural” way to train a dog is to model ourselves after coyotes—not nearly as glamourous, but just as close in the family tree of canids.  

As a group, canids are flexible opportunists that can adapt very quickly and very strongly to different environments, and if ever there was a canine champ in the adaptation game, it’s been domestic dogs.  The process of domestication has been thousands of years long with some very powerful selection pressures applied.  In modern times, the pressures of the Dog Fancy have given rise to what we typically think of when we hear the word “dog”—our beloved pure-bred dogs like Labradors, Poodles, Border collies and Cocker Spaniels or mixes of them.  But in truth, most dogs never funneled through a Fancy stage, and the vast majority of domestic dogs on the planet today aren’t even family pet dogs.  Something like 80% of the planet’s billions of dogs are only loosely associated or controlled by us—they’re street, village or pariah dogs, living on the fringes of our settlements and scavenging off our various forms of garbage.  These free-roaming dogs, more than modern wolves, are probably the best models we have of how “natural” domestic dogs behave.  And it’s nothing at all like wolves.  

The core of wolf society isn’t The Pack.  The core stable unit in wolf social relationships is a monogamous pair that mate, typically, for life.  Calling them the Alpha Male and the Alpha Female has fallen out of favor amongst some ethologists, who simply prefer Breeding Male and Breeding Female.  But the clearest and most direct term for them is probably Mom and Dad.  As predators that hunt large game, wolf pups take time, maturity and practice to become big enough and skilled enough to thrive as hunters.  Full maturity is usually reached around 2-3 years of age.  So, a wolf pack in the wild is typically Mom, Dad, the sub-adults born 2-3 years ago, the adolescents born 1 year ago and the current litter of pups.  Otherwise known as a Family.  And there would be no point for Junior to battle Dad for the Alpha status or Sissy to over-throw her Mum, because if they won, whom would they have to mate with?  Their own siblings?  Nope.  When Junior and Sissy reach sexual and social maturity around 2-3 years of age, they disperse to find their own (unrelated) mates and start their own families.  In wild wolves, all healthy normal animals that reach adult age go on to become Moms and Dads, or Alphas, or Leaders of the Pack, or whatever we want to call them.  It has nothing to do with personality and everything to do with staying alive long enough to reproduce. 

In contrast, the social life of free-living domestic dogs is missing virtually all of these characteristics.  Far from mating for life, Mum and Pop have fleeting “ties” with various reproductive partners, depending on their preferences and opportunities.  Dad is usually out of the picture well before the pups are even born and contributes little or nothing to the care of his offspring.  Since these dogs are essentially scavengers (very little hunting is reported), there’s no need for the pups to stay with Mom for years of life-skills schooling:  puppies of free-living street dogs typically disperse not long after weaning—as soon as they can scavenge on their own.   Sexual maturity can be reached as early as 6-9 months.  And far from forming packs, free-living dogs tend to congregate around food resources but don’t organize or form lasting bonds—for good reasons.  If you’re a wolf trying to drag down a prey animal larger than you, you want and need help from the family and you have plenty of meat to share in return for it.  If you’re a street dog trying to score a few crumbs, you don’t want or need help and sharing is the last thing on your mind.  The selection pressure of large-game hunting is gone, the need for long-term care of pups is gone, the monogamous pair bond is gone, and with it goes the “pack” of pups, juveniles and sub-adult offspring orbiting the stable suns of their bonded Mom and Dad.  

What does all of this mean when it comes to our beloved pet dogs?  Probably not very much.  What wolves would do or even what street dogs would do may be entirely irrelevant:  our pet dogs, like street dogs, or coyotes or jackals or wolves, are bright-minded, flexible creatures that adapt their behaviors to get the maximum benefits out of the environments they find themselves in.  When it comes to our pets, a core feature of their environment is dependency on us.  And, dare I say it, a form of captivity.  We, to a greater or lesser extent, restrict their choices.  We confine them in our homes, in fenced yards, on leashes, for their own safety and with nothing but love and kind intentions—and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.  It’s just, from a biological/ethological standpoint, putting a group of animals together in the fenced yard and then waxing poetic about their innate social sensibilities is, well, weird.  If the dogs can’t escape, avoid or get away from each other, their behavior is just as likely to be an artifact of circumstances (confinement) as Nature.     

Of course intelligent social animals can find ways to make just about anything work—dogs are amazing at reaching all kinds of accommodations.  But we’ll never know how many individuals would have chosen to form lasting bonds of true friendship, enjoy fleeting superficial ties or avoid each other entirely if they weren’t stuck in the same no-escape scenario together.  Given a human-arranged confinement situation or a centrally-located food supply, dogs certainly will hang out together, and they may even form social hierarchies to smooth the sting of forced proximity.  The trouble is, so does that other amazing domestic species:  domestic cats in similar situations are simply stellar at sorting themselves into colonies with complex and sophisticated social nuances.  Still, no one’s accusing cats of being “pack” animals.   

Change is always hard, and changing the Pop Culture established view of dog social systems has proven to be dreadfully hard.   After all, if we retire the old and inaccurate notion of the Pack, what model are we left with?  

Here I’m going to suggest that, once again, Science is our friend.  What’s most exciting to me in animal studies these days are the new advances in understanding the neurobiology of emotions.  To put it simply, Science is now coming around to what most of us pet owners always deeply suspected: our animal companions have feelings.  And those feelings have considerable influence on behavior.  So where once being “anthropomorphic”—projecting human feelings onto non-human creatures—was considered a serious fault, our best researchers are now allowing for more shades of gray.  To wit, there’s good anthropomorphic (which can give us insight and empathy into an animal’s world point-of-view) and there’s bad anthropomorphic (where we project human qualities that animals don’t possess on our poor pets, typically to their detriment and at our convenience.)  

So let’s be anthropomorphic and imagine: taking your dog to the local dog park is like us going to the obligatory yearly office party.  

When we go to our party, every individual person entering the room will likely have an agenda—but we won’t all have the same agenda.  Mostly, our personal goals will revolve around—please do laugh, it’s true—personal safety and comfort, food, sex, friendship and fun.  When we enter the party, we will, in no particular order, set out on the following missions.  

First, we’ll want to know who else is there:  who do we know, is there anyone there we’ve fought with recently or dislike that we should avoid, is there anyone there we especially enjoy and should seek out, does anyone look really weird, dangerous or drunk, and who there has something we dearly want, like the power to give us a raise, a needed recommendation or the library book we loaned them five weeks ago.  The individuals we don’t know or know only slightly may draw our fascinated attention or be summarily dismissed into a “stereotype” depending on our agendas.  Swinging singles may scope out the Young and the Beautiful for potential hot dates—or rivals for those hot dates—and ignore everyone else.  Children will gravitate toward each other but give only token notice to the old fuddy-duddies who offer no chance of fun.  Folks who come from certain cultures or learning histories may show great deference to the party’s Elders; the sulky teenagers who got dragged to the (for them) dull party, on the other hand, may not even notice anyone with gray hair.  Shy people may head for quiet corners and avoid overly boisterous individuals, while two guys wearing the same rock concert T-shirt may approach each other with friendly curiosity.   In short, we’ll sort each other out according to Known and Unknown, do a fast triage of stereotyping the Unknowns by age, gender and other appearance clues, and then start making social behavior choices to seek more information, approach, avoid or dismiss as uninteresting.  

Second and often simultaneously, we’ll start evaluating the resources available for our party pleasure or pain.  How is the food spread?  White or red wine?  Is there dancing, a karaoke machine, a swimming pool?  What is there for us to do—things we enjoy or things we hate?  As we’re sorting out the people, we’re also sorting out who’s controlling what resources—putting out the food, serving the liquor, selecting the music, etc.  Here, a new layer of complexity might be added—the elderly Grandma our teen-age football star might socially dismiss may acquire great interest in his eyes if she controls access to the food table.  The grungy bearded guy who’s Not Our Type may become our best buddy if he runs the DJ equipment and we love to dance.  The icy and elegant lady who would normally intimidate us may become worth the risk of approaching if she pulls out a deck of cards and starts a round of a game we deeply enjoy, and the office co-worker we don’t really care for may suddenly seem worthwhile when we find out that the handsome hunk we’ve been watching across the room all night is his brother.  

This benign and civilized party experience assumes that we are competent socially, on our own cultural turf and reasonably practiced with the setting and contexts.  If we’re not—if we were under-socialized as puppies or trying to navigate in a foreign country, it could be far more fraught.  If we don’t speak the language very well, not everyone likes our nationality, we’re worried about someone stealing our wallet and we’re afraid if we offend someone we’ll get arrested or beaten up, the social stress load edges a lot higher.   

What’s key in all this is that every one of us going to the party has at the core of our agendas desires to 1) be safe, 2) avoid unpleasant, distressing or scary things and 3) gain access to the resources that we find most pleasurable, be it social connections, sexual partners, yummy food or activities that we enjoy like dancing or intelligent conversation.  How we go about it, how subtly or grossly, how directly or how hard will depend on a myriad of factors, but we’ll all be in pursuit of our own happiness in some fashion.  

This is pretty much our dogs at a dog park “party.”  Every dog entering the dog park will have his or her own personal agenda depending on his or her preferences, history, age, etc.  Puppy and adolescent dogs will eagerly scope out the place for known friends or potential play partners, shy dogs will head for quiet corners and hope like heck no one bullies them, grumpy old dogs might warn the youngsters off and look for a stick to chew in peace.  Flash the ball addict will ignore everyone in his quest to find a tennis ball, like a drunkard heading for the bar; the intact males will check out all the girls and each other in case sex is a possibility.  Some overly-boisterous out-of-control adolescent will skid in like Jack Black in a frat movie yelling, “Parteeeee!” and cause a minor uproar.  Like us, all these doggy characters have core desires to 1) be safe, 2) avoid unpleasant, distressing or scary things and 3) gain access to the resources that they find most pleasurable, be it a game of chase-me, a tennis ball, the cute Dalmatian close to coming into season or not getting bullied by the bigger dogs.   

Does Pack Leadership come into this complex and quirky assemblage of individuals and individual agendas?  If so, how and what does it look like?  And here, I will assert that if we really want to understand how Leading works, we might do better to look at it from the extremely important but often over-looked other side of the coin: Following.  

Part 3 coming soon!

On Leaders, Babies and Bathwater, Part One

Posted on July 6, 2014 at 11:23 PM Comments comments (18)
Though I myself think that living in the Social Media/Information Age has its benefits, there are also some downsides.  For one thing, the danged buttons seem to be getting smaller the older I get.  For another, some deeply philosophical and complex topics—y’know, stuff like science, art, politics—are now discussed in snappy sound bites, slogans and one-minute news segments.  These days, it seems that an idea that can be sold in a line of text on an itty-bitty cell phone is going to get more “air time” than the truth, the facts or reality—the bits that are a little too complicated for a quick read.  Short-hand keeps getting shorter and buzz-words rule.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if we all understand and agree on what the short-hand and buzz words refer to.  The trouble comes when everyone adopts the buzz words without a really firm grasp of the concepts, contexts and references they point to.
In the world of dog training, there are some humdinger buzz words—words that can reduce professional trainers to biting each other and wails of despair.  I have learned not to hold my breath until I turn blue when I hear them—breathe, Em, breathe—but they do make me cry sometimes in a peculiar kind of panic.  So rather than hyperventilating, I thought I’d tackle a couple of them here.
If you have a dog and your dog needs a few more swipes of polish to become the Lassie everyone is hoping for, I’ll bet some well-intended person has suggested that you need to become your dog’s Leader.  As in, Leader of the Pack.  Or, in the other buzz word, that you need to be more Alpha.  The notion being that, if you can position yourself as the family Top Dog, your bouncing Rowdy will eagerly transform into Lassie out of sheer respect.  Be Your Dog’s Leader—the magic bullet to fix all dog behavior woes.
Alas… it’s a bit like saying I could solve all my financial woes if I had more money, so the solution is—ta-da!—Be a Millionaire.  That’s it, I’ll become a Millionaire!  Wow, that’s a simple answer, isn’t it?  Phew, I’m so relieved.
Of course I’m being silly, but that’s the trouble with sound bite solutions.  They offer a really good meal but they leave out the recipe, the ingredients and all the time and work it takes to actually cook the dish.  So here’s another of what some of my clients have taken to calling “Emily-isms”:  If the solution to your dog’s behavior is that you or your dog be or become something, look deeper.  The real solution will depend on you or your dog doing something.
Or, more simply, there’s difference between Be the Leader and leading.  One is a catchy feel-good concept.  The other is about concrete, specific actions.  And if we want to train our dogs successfully, we need to act.
Sadly, the whole notion of Leadership in dog training has taken a hit in recent years, because if we look at the actions of some of the proponents of the Be the Pack Leader school of talk, we often see a lot of scary and mean stuff:  pinning the dog to the ground, kicking them in the gut if they move ahead on leash, hissing at them like snakes or angry cats, choking or jerking or shocking at the end of various devices advertised to give you the pet owner “more control” when what they really do is give the dog more discomfort or pain.   Can these methods work?  Of course.  Punishment decreases behavior.  I can certainly get someone to follow me if I point a gun at them or make them so afraid of me that saying “no” is not an option.  I don’t know if I’d have the chutzpah to call it Leadership, though.  Or claim that they “respected” me, or call them my Best Friend after aiming a weapon at them.
I meet many fine pet owners who confess to me, with real shame and guilt, that they probably aren’t being good Leaders for their dogs, that they aren’t “Alpha” enough.  What they really mean is that they don’t or don’t want to do scary and mean things to their beloved pets, and they simply don’t know what other actions to take to achieve behavior success with their dogs.   Like me, they’d like to be a dog training Millionaire—who wouldn’t?  But they’re too nice to get that million by holding their dog at gunpoint and they’re starting to realize that playing the behavior lotto and hoping for the best probably isn’t going to pan out.   
Hence my peculiar panic and the virtual hyperventilation when I hear suggested some variation of, “Oh, dogs just need you to Be the Leader…” or “You need to be the Alpha” as a solution to a dog’s behavior problems.  I’ve been a professional dog trainer for over 12 years now, and I simply have no clue what on earth the person speaking means.   Or intends to mean.  Often the words come from some eager dog-lover trying earnestly to sound “in the know,” or connect by using pro dog trainerly type jargon that I’ll surely understand or be impressed by.  Little do they know that it just makes me feel confused and sometimes just plain stupid, because I don’t know and can only guess at what they might possibly mean by a phrase that never had much scientific basis in the first place and that’s now been turned to meaningless slush in the blender of Pop Culture.
I’d like to be a Leader, you bet, just like I’d be happy to be a millionaire.  If only someone tells me what I’m supposed to do.
Dogs are trained by operations, a series of concrete, specific actions laid out in particular and sometimes fussy order.  Leader and “Alpha” are concepts, human intellectual constructs.  And as concepts, they can be attached to whatever actions, exercises or training recipes a dog trainer likes and uses to change behavior, from eating a cracker before giving a dog his meal to using the highest setting on a shock collar.  So if I teach my dog to Sit before I open a door, I can call it Option 1:  I’m being a Leader and the dog is learning to obey my wishes because of my superior Alpha status… or I can call it Option 2:  the dog is learning to Sit when asked at the door.  Which looks exactly like Option 1 without the conceptual baggage.  It is a neat exercise that, if properly executed, results in a dog that Sits politely at the door when asked and waits for a release cue before exiting--a lovely behavior to have and likely chock full of healthy impulse control benefits, like an orange is full of vitamin C.   
The question is, does adding terms like Leader or Alpha contribute anything to the mechanics of the operation—the what-we-do-with-the-dog—or the end product, a dog that Sits politely at doors?  Which is the baby and which is the bathwater?  Establishing Alpha Leadership or teaching good behavior? 
A simple trick for deciding which is baby and which is bathwater is “divide and conquer.”  Simply, try Being a Leader as hard as you can, but don’t do any specific training operations that teach the dog the behavior.  Then, forget about Being a Leader and effectively execute the operations.  It becomes clear very quickly that our Baby is healthy, bouncing operations that result in healthy, bouncing behaviors.  Being a Leader is bathwater, and pretty murky bathwater at that.
Yank on a prong collar or choke chain?  Kick the dog?  Speak in a stern tone of voice?  All are frequently justified in terms of Being a Leader when really, they’re just training operations on the punishment end of the spectrum, no more.   The Leader waters have become so murky and mucky that I rarely give it much thought—I focus on producing clean healthy behavior babies with clean healthy operations and care not a whit about whether I’m a “Leader” or not.   The trouble is, we as people are really good at falling for catchy concepts, at becoming enamored with bathwater that sounds appealing.  The result is that people continue to look for training success in “Leadership” when that’s not what’s needed at all.
Somewhere in that murky mucky tub, there might still be a Leader baby or two worth saving.  But they’re nothing like the kind of Alpha bathwater that Pop Culture pours on.  There’s a different kind of leading that has very much to do with good, healthy training operations, and if we can save the word from drowning, we might have something useful.  In Part Two, I’m going to explore the other kind of leading—the kind that we really do want to use to reach success with our dogs.

The Absolute Real Truth About Dogs & Dog Behavior, Part 2 of 2

Posted on June 9, 2014 at 3:32 AM Comments comments (99)

In this first part of this blog, I talked a little about animal trainers vs. strictly dog trainers.  Now I’m going to turn to the academics: the people with formal academic backgrounds in science—the Ph.D.s, vet behaviorists and others officially and rigorously qualified to call themselves behaviorists by virtue of membership in a formal behavior society.  As with the animal trainers, I want to make clear—there are fools, braggarts and nutters that manage to insert themselves into high places, advanced degrees and all; anyone who has been to college has encountered at least one professor whose only apparent virtue was tenure.  The History of Science is filled with colorful, often famously arrogant characters whose main claim to fame was that they got something entirely and completely wrong.  Again, those aren’t the people we want to look to for dog training wisdom:  a Ph.D. alone does not a great behaviorist make. Thankfully, the people we’re talking about are real experts who have a lot more than just the fancy degree to offer us.  

And that’s the second “disclaimer” I need to insert, just because I encounter it occasionally on the kinds of dog training lists and Facebook debates I try to avoid:  Joe or Jane the Trainer making some snarky and ill-informed comment to the effect that the Esteemed Vet Behaviorist they don’t agree with is an Ivory-tower elitist who has never actually held a leash before, certainly not the leash of A Real Dog, a dog with serious issues or bigger than a Cocker Spaniel.  This is, can’t put it too bluntly, utter garbage.  Most vet behaviorists (around 50 or 60 in the U.S.) and the Ph.D.s who are applied animal behaviorists have hands-on practices that consist almost entirely of the toughest problems: serious aggression, fear/anxiety and phobias.  Many of them also compete at very high levels in various dog sports, run behavior departments at large shelters and handle more difficult dogs in one animal hoarding case or dog-fight bust than Joe or Jane see in a year.  And they have something that many of us mere dog trainers haven’t got: the advantages of a formal education.     

And there are real advantages.  As a dog trainer, I like to think I’m pretty well-informed.  I’ve done my best to follow the science, stay current and critical and glean the best information from the best possible sources.  I like to read, I’ve been a lifelong amateur naturalist and outdoor enthusiast.  The trouble is, except for my AA in Biology in junior college (hardly an advanced degree and very long ago) I’m largely self-taught.  And the catch of being self-taught, of not having that formal education, is that I tend to cherry-pick the bits that arrest my attention and interest (evolutionary biology, genetics and ethology) and throw up my hands at the bits that seem too difficult or that don’t strike my fancy (statistics, biochemistry and the twistier aspects of neuroscience.)   In my bird watching days, I got pretty good at shore birds and raptors, but never did get the itty-bitty warblers sorted out.  As someone who grew up in drought-ridden So. Cal, I’m infinitely more knowledgeable about desert ecology and marine life than I am about forest ecology and fresh water systems.  

So although I have acquired a pretty hefty heap of eclectic and delightful information, I also have gaps in my knowledge that you could drive a truck through.  Some of those gaps are probably more important than I realize; some of them I may not even be aware of.  Without a stern but kindly professor or a dissertation committee looming over my shoulder, there was no one to make me buckle down and get through the second chapter of the text on statistics (which left me in tears of frustration and searching for dark chocolate) or persuade me to pay more attention to those pesky Little Brown Birds.  None of this makes me a bad dog trainer or a bad bird-watcher.  It does mean, when it comes to breadth, scope and discipline of knowledge, I’m simply not on the same level as a Ph.D. behaviorist or an ornithologist.    

Which is why, since I don’t have a Ph.D. of my very own, I’m going to listen very closely to what the highly qualified academic experts in my field have to say.  We are fortunate to have some extraordinary people who have both the talent and generosity to share their knowledge with the regular dog training “troops” like me and the pet owning public, and they are very much worth listening to.   They are, or should be, the first people we turn to with our questions about dogs and dog behavior.  Not the ones we finally discover after taking the dreadful and counter-productive advice of the “dog expert” on every corner—the neighbor who criticizes everything your dog does, the lady who breeds Cockapoos in her basement, the hunting guy who trained a Lab to listen to him sometimes and someone on your Facebook page who has “been around dogs all their lives.”  These folks could, possibly and accidentally, be correct and brilliant.  But why take the risk, especially if you don’t have the knowledge base and expertise to evaluate the information you get?  Easier, and safer, for you and your dog:  if you’re seeking high quality information, head straight for the top.   

At the top is another very real and important difference between our truly academically science educated behavior folks and even very good, well-intentioned, best-selling popular “dog experts.”  The difference is a paradigm, a ground of being and relationship with one word itself:  knowledge.    

What do most of us—including “dog experts”—mean when we say we know something?  For most of us, unless we’re dealing with strict facts—the address of our favorite pizza place, the Capitol of our state or how many inches are in a foot—what most of us mean is something like:  I have personal experience in the matter, it works for me, I like it, I agree with it, I have a very strong feeling or opinion about it and I feel certain and justified in the rightness of what I’m saying.  Like, I know.  

When someone with a formal academic background in science says they know something, they don’t mean anything like the above at all.  When a Ph.D. applied animal behaviorist says, we know, what he or she means is something like: there’s been four decades of research, it’s been peer-reviewed, there’s a stack of papers and data that could fill a two-car garage, the statement has been tested and replicated forwards, backwards, upside-down and sideways and it is accurately predictive of the phenomenon in question to a very high degree of certainty under all normal tested circumstances.

These are, obviously, two extremely different uses of the term know. 

The strict usage of the Scientific Know can be both maddening and adorable; I myself also find it very telling.  Unless they’re talking about gravity, evolution or the Laws of Learning, some of my favorite behaviorists won’t admit to knowing much of anything.  And rarely will you catch them swinging out on the limb of opinion without oodles of qualifications, “We haven’t done enough research, the little bit of data that we do have suggests that maybe this might be going on possibly but we can’t really say, I have a hunch if there’s a graduate student out there who needs a research project…”  

Thundering proclamations about “I’ve been around dogs all my life, I’ve handled thousands of dogs, I know everything about that problem, I know dogs do this-or-that because of this-or-that,” are refreshingly absent.  Present with genuine humility are soft-spoken utterances like, “I don’t know,” or the charming and gracious mantra of Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.:  “It depends.”  Claims based on personal experience, passionate feelings and strong opinions are not excluded from consideration.  But they’re not regarded as having the anything like the weight of true scientific knowledge.  

This is so not how most of us operate, it’s hard for us to imagine.  So let’s try:  pretend that you live in a world where you’re not allowed to say anything about your dog, your spouse or someone in politics unless you have tested it, you have the evidence that it’s true, a dozen other people can easily replicate your tests and get the same objectively measurable results and nobody cares in the least how passionately you feel about it all.  Oh dear, we’ve all gotten rather quiet, haven’t we?   

And this leads me to one more major difference between the real academics and your garden-variety dog trainer, however good—including me.  The Ph.D.s and DVMs and certified applied animal behaviorist are accountable to a variety of people in ways that I’m just not.  They didn’t decide they were “dog trainers” and print up business cards:  they had to take and pass tests.  Somebody or bodies reviewed their academic work, their research has to meet the standards of peer review, and many of them are associated with universities, vet schools, zoos, aquariums or other institutions.  They are members of academic and professional behavior societies that have real standards in both knowledge and performance.  They have peers in the field that aren’t going to be fooled by flimflam and good marketing, and they can’t get up at a conference or in a lecture hall and talk trash about dogs and dog behavior without some very sharp people calling them out on it.  I, on the other hand, as a “mere” dog trainer, am free to say whatever ridiculous things about dogs pop into my lil ole head—no one, literally no one, is peer-reviewing me.   

And that’s why, in my humble opinion, there’s that important difference in quality of knowledge, sometimes subtle but still tangible:  our wonderful, academically trained experts in dog training and behavior are more completely educated, hold themselves to a more rigorous standard of knowledge and have been professionally vetted by others in the field, in school, in peer review and in the professional positions they hold.     

I want you as a pet owner and advocate for your own dog to have access to the best and most accurate information out there.  With books, DVDs, websites and social media all readily available, you can.  You don’t have to rely on what the guy with the love beads and the fuzzy Malamute mix has to say about wolf behavior—you can check out what L. David Mech, the senior research biologist who literally wrote the book on the subject, has to say.  You don’t have to take your groomer’s word for it that all Toy breed dogs try to bite when their nails are trimmed, you can visit the website of Sophia Yin, DVM for her thoughts and tips on the subject.  And you certainly don’t have to take the golden wisdom of me, or Joe or Jane or any other dog trainer, however experienced, passionate and sincere we seem to be, without comparing what we say and do to the advice of the most credentialed experts in the field.   We can’t be them—we’re not behaviorists or vets—but we should be playing in the same ballpark by the same rules.  If we’re not, something’s wrong.  

Do all of the experts always agree with each other?  No, of course not, not about everything.  But you aren’t likely to go wrong following their broad consensus:  if these folks pretty much all agree that something is a good practice, I’d heed their advice and give it a try.  If the consensus is that something is a bad, dangerous or unnecessary practice, I’d avoid it and move on. 

And if anyone comes at you proclaiming that they know the Absolute Real Truth About Dogs & Dog Behavior, I’d run-run-run with my dog and my wallet as far away as possible.  Expertise and wisdom are humble things, never afraid to say, “I don’t know,” without shouting or fanfare.  

This list is by no means exhaustive or all-inclusive—only a small sampling of academics, researchers and animal trainers whose offerings of knowledge are easy to access in books, DVDs or online.  There are many, many more terrifically talented trainers, researchers and seminar presenters out there, were there space to list them all.  I invite you to Google them, visit their websites, enjoy their blogs or curl up with one of their most excellent books at your leisure.  Enjoy.   
Bob Bailey, Animal Behavior Enterprises
Ian Dunbar, MRCVS, PhD, CAAB
Jean Donaldson, Academy for Dog Trainers
Karen Overall, MA, VMD, Ph.D., DACVB, CAAB
Karen Pryor, Karen Pryor Clicker Training
Kathy Sdao, MA, ACAAB
Ken Ramirez, Shedd Aquarium
L. David Mech, Ph.D., Senior research scientist, US Geological Survey
Pamela Reid, Ph.D.
Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., CAAB
Ray Coppinger, Ph.D.
Roger Abrantes, Ph.D.
Sophia Yin, DVM, MS.
Susan G. Friedman, Ph.D.

The Absolute Real Truth About Dogs & Dog Behavior, Part 1 of 2

Posted on June 7, 2014 at 3:17 PM Comments comments (83)

I’m joking, of course, but you might not know it if you don’t know me.  Those of you who do know me know that I’m kind of a geek—I like science, I like research, I like to study and I spend a fairly ridiculous amount of time on continuing education and professional development.  One of the greatest resources we dog trainerly types have is a little company called Tawzer Dog Videos.  The fine folks at Tawzer travel all over the country videotaping seminars on dog training and behavior.  These seminars—and some of them are several days and many hours long—are presented by the top experts in the field talking about everything from dog sports to sheltering issues, aggression or the cutting edge of research cognition and genetics.  Tawzer Dog Videos has a rental program rather like Netflix that allows me to partake of all these goods without breaking my budget.   Without having to spend a fortune on travel and hotel bills, I can sit in the comfort of my own home and broaden my horizons with the best of the best.
Now, almost all of the presenters in these videos are first rate—outstanding trainers, top competitors in their sports, deeply experienced and knowledgeable in their specialties.  And that being said, there’s still a difference in the quality of the information they present.
The truth is, the people with formal academic backgrounds in science—the Ph.D.s in biology, zoology, psychology, etc., the veterinary behaviorists (a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with a specialty in behavior) and the Masters of Science holders—really are on a different level.   Approaching them closely are people with long backgrounds and experience in animal training.  Not dog training, animal training—people who’ve worked across multiple species like marine mammals, exotics and wild animals in zoos and aquariums (though they often also have an academic degree as well.)  And these folks tend to come to the dog training table with a rather different approach than the stereotypical Pop Culture dog training experts, because they tend to come equipped with a couple of different paradigms.
In this first part of the blog, I’m going to talk about animal trainers, and I want to be clear—I’m talking about good animal trainers—the ones following best practices.  Yes, there are idiots out there in every field, but we don’t want to use them as our models.  That’s the whole point:  if you want to get the best information about how to train your dog, you want to know what the best people are saying and doing.  You and your dog deserve it.
On that note, it’s not unusual for a “dog expert”—whether a trainer, a groomer, a committed rescuer, a dog sports competitor or the person who’s “been around dogs all my life”--to have gotten into their avocation because they deeply, passionately love dogs.  Dogs are their heart, their chosen calling.  And they may or may not know a blessed thing about animals in general, or animal behavior, or any of the broader principles of science about learning or evolution or genetics that influence how all animals behave.  This narrowness of focus and lack of context can result, frankly, in all kinds of silliness based on a notion that dogs are special.   Dogs aren’t like other animals—they learn because they want to please us, there are no “bad dogs” and we have only to project enough Alpha leadership energy and they’ll figure out how to behave the way we want them to.  Of course, no one in their right mind would try this with my cat, but dogs are regularly twisted into Pop Culture shapes that no animal on the planet could conform to. 
The trouble with this is that if your only point of reference is a passion for dogs, it’s hard to see the mistakes.   A trainer who teaches puppy classes may spout utter nonsense about wolf behavior without knowing the same behavior can be seen in, oh, ostriches and lizards, a top sports competitor may have a case full of trophies and know nothing whatsoever about treating separation anxiety or noise phobias, a 20 year veteran of animal control may believe things about a “breed” that are simply impossible according to the rules of genetics and the heart-on-the-sleeve rescuer may be so convinced that there are “no bad dogs” that he completely misses signs that a dog is flat-out abnormal due to untreated medical conditions, genetic glitches or birth defects.  The result is a veritable zoo of misinformation, fallacy and goofiness that pet owners have to wade through at their peril.
So the first thing animal trainers have is a context:  animals are animals, and it doesn’t shock them or upset them when dogs (animals) behave like dogs (animals) instead of fantasy wolves, little furry people or heavily edited canine movie stars.  They also tend not to get sidetracked by irrelevancies—they don’t worry about whether the rhinoceros wants to please them or if the sea lion is being spiteful because she was left alone at lunchtime.  They do tend to be far more sensitive to how their students feel—when you’re working with critters that will scratch, bite, kick, gore or otherwise hurt you when it moves them, it tends to engender respect for their emotional states—you pay very close attention to their level of stress, fearfulness and all attendant body language signals.   It pays royally to learn the ethogram of the species you’re working with—that catalog of observable behaviors and body language postures that tells you the difference between an animal that loves your reinforcers and is happily working and an animal that is freaking out and contemplating a go at your throat.  Animal behavior is complicated, not all animals are easy to read and mistakes do happen.  But no animal trainer worth their salt steps into a pen with a potentially dangerous critter—or one that could hurt itself if it panics--without having done their homework and learned what to pay close attention to. 
This is in contrast, alas, to the uncounted numbers of “experienced pet owners” and self-appointed dog experts who don’t know, can’t read or simply ignore the most basic signs of stress in our beloved pet dogs—displacement sniffing, look-aways, lip licks and paw raises being a few commonly missed items on the dog ethogram.  The saddest of these are the parents who ignore the growls of the family dog because Fido doesn’t actually bite the child—until the day he finally does.  A growl means, “I don’t like this, I’m getting really stressed, frightened or angry, please stop.”  Not something a good animal trainer would ever ignore, and certainly the bite would come as no surprise to them if they did.
To the folks with solid backgrounds in animal training, a lot of popular dog training practices look simply ridiculous.  Common failings include using poor reinforcers, poor delivery, bad timing, working too fast or too slow, being inconsistent, unclear, stressing the dog out (which blocks learning) and expecting brilliant behavior after three repetitions in the kitchen instead of the thousands of reps in multiple locations and contexts it takes to craft a truly reliable response.   This isn’t to say that little Fifi can’t be housetrained and learn to come when called unless you’ve spent years training seals or lemurs—of course she can.  Thanks to domestication and centuries of genetic selection, dogs are probably the easiest animal on the planet to train, which is why we get away with so much nonsense.  Little Fifi is one sharp cookie and likely to figure out what you want eventually—or how to get around you if she can’t.  But bad information and bad practices make it slower and harder on her, and you, than it needs to be.
Of course, most dog trainers don’t have experience with exotics or marine mammals—I certainly don’t.  Curiously, we can have an advantage in one respect:  there are a lot more dogs than grizzly bears to train, they’re readily accessible and I can rack up hands-on experience with hundreds and thousands of dogs in far less time than it would take me to find that many sea lions.  There are also a lot more dog trainers working and researching and developing their art and science.  What’s cool about this is that a healthy cross-flow is underway:  dog trainers and animal trainers are talking to each other now, sharing ideas and learning from each other’s best practices.  Once the notion that dogs are somehow different from other animals is driven to the wasteland where it belongs, the walls come tumbling down, and a technique that works fabulously in zoos with a cranky hippo that doesn’t like to pick up his feet may be just the ticket for a cranky Rottweiler with nail-trimming issues—or visa versa.
Learning more and understanding more about animals and animal behavior in general is a wonderful and I think necessary foundation for learning about and understanding dogs and their behavior.  Trainers who have a background in or who have taken the time and effort to educate themselves about animals in general are less likely to give you outdated, inaccurate information about wolf behavior, make broad sweeping statements about breeds or suggest that your cat isn’t marvelously trainable.  They’re also less likely to give you sound-bite, cookie cutter answers to complex behavior questions, attribute every problem to one-size-fits-all answers like “dominance” or ignore how your dog feels during a training session. 
Most of all, as we’ll see in the next section, they won’t say stuff or do stuff that flies in the face of what the best of the best are saying or doing—stuff that just isn’t true to the science of animal behavior and in keeping with the best knowledge and best practices we’ve currently got.
Coming in Part 2:  Academia and why it matters.