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On Leaders, Babies and Bathwater, Part Two

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!

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