Oh boy. In the last part, I talked about the two flavors of Strategic Following: Following because someone has greater expertise, and Following because someone has control of desired resources. And I sort of left us in a pickle: taking advantage of Juvenile Following can be time sensitive and often requires a relationship; getting mileage out of the first flavor of Strategic Following typically requires that the interests be mutual or compatible and that we actually have some expertise to offer. In dog training, this can take some finesse that a lot of perfectly wonderful pet owners don’t have and aren’t interested in acquiring.
When folks say they want to or think they should Be the Alpha or the Pack Leader, what they seem to mean when I get down to it is something very simple: they want their dogs to listen to them and do what they say. Preferably all the time, every time, and especially in situations where the dog is excited, distracted or otherwise ill-behaved. And many people seem to believe that dogs do this naturally, or should do this naturally—all that wanting to please us and so on .A dog that doesn’t naturally want to please us is somehow bad—a bad dog. And it’s okay, maybe even right, to punish bad people and bad dogs. Or “correct” them so that they’ll learn to be good. All of this leads to what I’m calling Forced Following—which the more I think about it, the more inclined I am to consider an oxymoron if ever there was one.
There’s a quick distinction to make here, because it’s super helpful: most dogs are inclined to be naturally social. I myself was not inclined to be naturally social when I was young, but I seem to have acquired a taste for it in maturity: I like people. I like you. I want you to like me. I am delighted if I can brighten someone’s day, get a smile out of them, leave them feeling better than they did before. I also prefer to avoid conflict when I can, to play, to laugh, to have good time in my encounters with other creatures.
That does not, however, mean that I want or am willing to take out your trash, wax your car or lend you money. Or do anything or everything you say. Cheerful, friendly, inclined to avoid conflict and reasonably tolerant doesn’t equal obedient, “submissive” or any shape of doormat. I mean you no harm. If I can please you in some small or large way without sacrificing my own best interests or well-being, I probably will. I will likely be true to the nice little social conventions: hold the door if someone is carrying groceries, give up my seat to an elder, say please and thank you. I also have boundaries. And limits.
When it comes to dogs, I think we confuse this all the time: we mistake their willingness to be friendly, to tolerate us, to play, to greet us effusively, to mean us no harm, for a burning desire to take out our trash and ignore squirrels at our bidding. But sociable (seeks out and enjoys friendly contact) and biddable (easily accepting of another’s direction) are not the same traits. Most biddable dogs are highly social, but plenty of highly social dogs aren’t particularly biddable. I have one. Heck, I am one.
The second layer of confusion in the Wants to Please premise is in some ways harder to detect, since it tends to swing in a more agreeable direction: mistaking our old friend compatibility for obedience or biddability. I see this all the time—owners and dogs fitting each other to a tee. They get along famously, the relationship works, they adore each other. And it’s not because the dog is especially well-behaved by any objective measure of behavior—often, the dog “listens” not one bit, has no training to speak of and has plenty of behaviors that would drive another person mad. But the owner thinks—and more importantly, feels—that the dog is perfect. The best dog ever.
But well-matched isn’t the same as obedient, biddable or recognizing the owner as Pack Leader. If we both want to the same things, what’s to bid, obey or lead? When dog and owner share mutual interests, no one is conceding their will to another. My darling Corgi Fox was a dreamboat around squirrels and always responded to my, “Fox, leave it.” Of course he did—he didn’t want to chase them in the first place. It made me look good but confusing it with obedience or biddability is falling for an illusion. If I tell the dog to do what he wants or to not do what he doesn’t want to do anyway, I’ll get amazing “obedience”—as long as we don’t pay attention to the funny little man behind the curtain. If we do, the Great and Powerful Obedience Oz isn’t quite what he seems. There’s no place like Compatibility, truly.
When someone comes to me seeking help for a dog, it’s always for one of three reasons. 1) The dog is losing sociability in certain situations or with certain creatures—becoming fearful or aggressive, lunging at other dogs, trying to bite the mail carrier, cowering from men. 2) The dog and owner are having compatibility breakdowns, usually expressed as the dog being “too” something—too hyper, too noisy, too rough. 3) The owner wants the dog to learn how to perform a behavior the dog doesn’t know how to do—which might be anything from walking nicely on a leash to cute tricks to becoming competitive in agility.
So if you ask me as an animal sheltering professional what works in pet dogs living with people, it’s 1) sociability (being friendly to people and other animals) 2) compatibility (having similar energy levels, mutual interests, shared pleasures) and lastly 3) performance (specific behaviors the owner likes, if any). If a dog is friendly, affectionate and responsive, we’ll be far more tolerant of little bumps in compatibility. If the dog is in the compatibility ball-park, there won’t be too much energy or too many annoying behaviors (present or absent) to sweat over, and the behaviors we do want or don’t want will be easy to train. Performance is for many pet owners a take-it-or-leave-it affair: given friendliness and compatibility, nice household manners, a useful Sit and a cute shake-a-paw have been the sum total of many a beloved pet’s training to no ill-effect at all.
The point is, the whole notion of Leadership rarely even comes up until there’s an issue in one or all of the above. With most pet owners, the problem is usually the appearance of aggression or fearfulness in older (post-adolescent) dogs and the various compatibility shipwrecks of adolescence, when they realize the dog has become “too” something for their lifestyle. Only a small percentage of dog owners who use their dogs for work (hunting, herding, search and rescue, service, etc.) or sport (agility, obedience, show, etc.) consider “performance” itself to be a real problem or even that interesting. Really, most of us regular pet owning janes and joes don’t rush out to seminars or break into a cold sweat if our dogs forget to step in the yellow part of the agility obstacle or sit with their little rumps cocked to one side.
Which takes us to the probably oxymoronic notion of Forced Following: making someone do what we want them to do, whether they want to or not. Typically not, obviously—if we want to do something, we usually don’t have to be forced. What I'm calling Forced Following here means using pain, fear or the threats of pain and fear to make an animal do something or stop doing something: the dog must obey or else. And here it gets kind of odd.
Forced Following is promoted all the time under the Be the Pack Leader banner: all manner of physical or emotional coercion employed in the name of “training,” from electric shock to collars designed to cause discomfort to screaming, hitting, kicking, poking, shaking, rolling, etc. These tactics are often justified as being the only way to build sure-fire, guaranteed reliability and performance in working or competition dogs. In fact, a lot of the Be the Alpha stuff seems to trickle down from certain professional dog trainers or high-end amateur competitors in dog sports—people who, by all rights, the regular pet owner has every reason to believe know what they’re talking about. The dogs must do what we want, they say, or else—if we don’t enforce, something worse might happen. We’ll lose our Leader status, the dog will no longer “respect” us, no longer perform for us, and we’ll be bad, over-indulgent pet parents failing to provide our (secretly) eager to please dogs with the Alpha figurehead they need and crave.
These folks have titles, decades of experience, surely they must know what they’re talking about. Except… a little critical thinking goes a long way here.
First, working and competition people don’t have our dogs. They don’t have pet dogs. Folks that seriously need dogs for serious jobs start with dogs that are purpose-bred for the destined task. Guide Dogs for the Blind doesn’t visit my shelter and grab any old litter of whatever/ Labrador mixes to train up—they carefully breed their own lines. The world’s greatest Agility or Schutzhund or Obedience competitors don’t select their next world champion prospect from a box in front of Wal-Mart. They pick their pups from purpose-bred champion lines specifically for the traits they want: biddability, toy drive, conformation, energy, ability to tolerate pressure, etc. They start, in short, with dogs that are already highly compatible with the expected work or competition.
Second, even with those purpose-bred dogs, even with World Class trainers—behavior is never 100%. Performance is never 100%. If it were, they would score perfectly every time they walked into a ring. Every dog they put to the task would be brilliant every time. Instead, even the best of the best lose more often than they win: it wouldn’t be a competition if they didn’t. Plenty of the dogs end up not thriving in the rarefied air and wash out, despite being careful bred or chosen. And it’s not because the dogs and the trainers aren’t magnificent: it’s because what they’re being asked to do isn’t easy. Every dog and every handler has skills they’re good at and skills where they could use more work; every dog and handler has strengths and weaknesses, limitations and bad hair days. Everyone makes mistakes, in competition and in life. Consider, say, college football coaches, many of whom could be poster men for Alphadom. Being a fabulous Leader of the Pack isn’t enough if the opposing team has a better quarterback and an all-star offensive line.
Behavioral expression—which is to say, performance—is always a stew of more than one ingredient: how the dog feels, how motivated they and then that last pesky detail—how skilled. One of my favorite analogies illustrates this: if I go to take Tap Dancing lessons, it takes me no time at all to figure out who’s in charge of the class—the Instructor, duh. He or she may be a larger than life personality, domineering, a wonderful Leader, etc.—and I’ll bet it won’t take me long at all to recognize the Instructor’s experience level, motivational style and various glowing virtues or flaws. At the end of that 30 seconds, I will still have utterly no clue where to put my feet. I may be bowing to the great and glorious guru of Tap, but I’ll still need to learn how to dance.
In terms of skill in performance itself, Leadership turns out to be pretty irrelevant compared to, say, practice, repetition and experience. Where “Leadership” may count is getting through all that practice and repetition—the other two behavior ingredients: how the dog feels and how motivated they are. It’s here that Forced Following is a curious can of worms.
Of course, force can certainly work as a motivator. Most of us will obey, or try to obey, if someone puts a gun to our heads and we have no other choice. But this presumes that we already have the required performance skill: if I really don’t know the code to the safe or how to speak Esperanto, screaming at me and waving the gun won’t help. All too often, dogs end up being yelled at in a language they don’t understand for doing behaviors that are entirely natural to them and not doing behaviors that they haven’t been taught. The equivalent of me telling you, @&^#$ &**#%! %^@! and expecting you to get it right—or else. You and your dog may eventually figure it out—if only by doing nothing or avoiding me when I sound like that. But there will be a toll.
When pet owners get seduced by the Dark Side of Forced Following, it’s almost always because they’re at the end of their tethers with behavior issues stemming from—you guessed it—breakdowns in sociability, compatibility and performance. Desperate for relief, they hear some palatable version of the Be the Leader story and believe that they need to become more forceful, Alpha, leaderly, etc. in the Do What I Say half of the equation. That if we stand taller, deliver our cues with greater conviction or thunder them more loudly, the dog will recognize our authority and get with our program. Since many dogs are sensitive to our body language and tone, that can certainly, in certain situations, arrest their attention and get us some better behavior.
But for other dogs or dogs where the behavior stakes are higher—Tinker with a raccoon on the fence—the Do What I Say part isn’t likely to make much difference, and it’s not the part trainers themselves really rely on. The part that counts is the second half of the equation, the timely and firm application of the Else in Or Else. Simply, the dog is punished in some fashion. That’s the part that does the job: the yelling (causing fear), the choking (discomfort, fear or pain) or the electric shock (discomfort, fear or pain.) And using punishment well turns out to be incredibly difficult—playing with discomfort, fear and pain in an animal’s brain without causing damage or setting off a cascade of icky side effects takes a very high level of skill. The obvious problem is that these Elses aren’t friendly or likely to nourish friendliness, do nothing to foster mutual interests or compatibility, and if a dog doesn’t understand #$&^#! or know how to do #$&^#!, do #$&^#! or Else contributes little or nothing to his learning or performance. We might get a few behaviors—or more likely the suppression of a few behaviors—here and there, but we might also make the dog worse in ways that matter more deeply. The Do What I Say or Else of Forced Following is hard to use, likely to backfire and can utterly trash our relationships with our dogs if our timing, our choice of punishment or our technical skills are just a little bit off.
Are there people who can probably pull it off? Sure, just like there are people who can carve elaborate ice sculptures with chain saws. Their fails—and oh boy are there fails as well as successes--involve blood, teeth marks and bad things happening to the offending dog.
Which brings me back to the various dog training gurus who are either seeking or promising the training Holy Grail--instant, 100% guaranteed performance from the dogs. It doesn’t exist, of course. We can get 100% perfection from some dogs with some behaviors some of the time, and roughly 80-90% from most dogs with many behaviors most of the time, but we can’t get 100% from all dogs in all behaviors all of the time. What we can get from the vast majority of our pets is improvement in the specific behaviors that matter most to us—and the start of that improvement begins with our own skill as teachers.
In the next section, I’m going to talk about specific, concrete things we can do to improve our skills as teachers of our dogs. We can call it being better Leaders, though I’m not sure the term helps. What I am sure of, though, is that there are giant piles of improvements that we can make long before we consider turning to the Elses of Forced Following. We can take on a practice of simple, kindly things that are easy to execute, offer little danger of icky side effects and can make huge differences in your life with your dog.
Part 6 coming soon!