I knew what I was doing. I’d read the books. I’d watched The Dog Whisperer. My dog would know who was boss. I would do everything I could, short of urinating on the boundaries of my territory. I’d make that funny tsch noise that Cesar Millan did- seemingly the abracadabra of the dog training world, so concerned was I to prevent my 7 week old bundle of fur from chewing my face off while I slept.
After a fairly long search for a dog that would fit best with my life - I got a Labrador. I called him Red. Because he’s red. He was 7 weeks old when we brought him home. He was the size of a guinea pig. He had needle sharp teeth. He liked to use them. Images of dog carnage horror flashed into my head- the slavering St. Bernard in Cujo - the twins in the corridor- the toddler on a tricycle- the violin stabs in Psycho*.
I needed a trainer.
Having recently had surgery for a freak trampoline/ alien/ cosmonaut/ music video related knee injury- I couldn’t walk enough to take Red to puppy classes. So I got someone in. Winkie Spiers. I liked her name. It sounded like she was one of a range of Spears dolls, another one of which was famed for her British knees.
Winkie was very friendly and told me not to worry about training yet. And I thought , “Oh. But. Look! He can sit already” (I’d been reading BOOKS, remember), “I want him to be able to walk down the road without a lead and wait for me outside the grocers and bring- no- BUY me the papers and find the remote- and guide me away from danger and towards triumph and sit in the back of a pickup truck (I don’t have a pick up truck) and do heroic slo-mo leaps through fire and be kind to other animals and take on the world and be my Diefenbaker and bark at gas leaks and …and..”
“Too early” she said, “just let him settle in” and she showed me ways to make him feel comfortable being left for short periods, and to stop him gnawing my hands off and other invaluable things- but at the time, I just thought: BOOOORING!!! I followed her advice as it seemed to make a lot of sense, and I’m sure doing so made things a lot easier than they could otherwise have been.
I had a problem with him pulling on the lead. I couldn’t have him pulling on the lead. Not with my recently operated knee. It might snap off.
I wanted to nip his lead pulling in the bud, before he grew to rabbit, cat, and finally horse size and strength (one of those miniature ones. Y’know- The ones the same size as dogs). He was also a very nervous puppy- I still don’t know why but I remember when it started. Nothing in particular seemed to have instigated this nervousness. He was wary of strangers- men in particular, and he’d sometimes bark at them in the street if they approached him too quickly. They backed away- tutting and shaking their heads in a ‘don’t you watch The Dog Whisperer?’ way.
So I became even more addicted to The Dog Whisperer and began to adopt more of his methods. They seemed to work so well on the telly. And his gleaming TEETH!! Those must surely be teeth of TRUTH! And while he’s jerking their necks he’s smiling calmly and telling us it’s fine so you think, “ooh smiley man say it fine….mmmm it fine”
Cesar Millan, his teeth, and a narked-off dog.
Thing is, adopting his methods made me quite stressed. To the point where, if Red tried to go through the door in front of me I felt like I’d failed and that I was, despite my best efforts- in the process of creating a monster. My dog had to be Cary Grant where doors were concerned, this much had been made clear. His methods also seemed to exacerbate Red’s nervousness.
Cesar Millan and other dominance enthusiasts often encourage owners to take the dog’s food away while he’s eating ‘to show who’s boss’. I did this a couple of times, but my dog looked slightly mift the first time and then a bit humph-y the second time. I could sympathise. I put my self in his.. um… shoes and thought that if somebody kept taking my food away mid-meal, I’d quickly lose my sense of humour. But often people who do persevere with this end up with a dog who growls when you go near their food. And rather than realising that that might be because you keep nicking it- they often think ‘just imagine how bad he’d have been if I hadn’t been doing the dominance food takey-away thing.’ and they carry on.
And Red wasn’t happy either. We eyed each other with suspicion- me always sure to stay higher so that there was no mistaking my dominance. He hadn’t read ANY of the books or watched the Dog Whisperer. I felt let down. And he… well, I swear I heard him mumbling, ” who in fresh hell IS this humanoid and what does it want?!”
It was odd because he immediately learnt anything I trained him to do; sit, lie down, stay, wait, come (as in ‘here’) high five, close the door, open the door, leave it, fetch, find it - and I didn’t need any dog whisperer for that. It was just common sense. Give him a reason to want to do it. And the reason was always food. It’s kind of the reason for life as far as he’s concerned. Yet he’d still sometimes try to go through doors first, and he still pulled a bit on the lead and he was still nervous.
So I met again with the original lady, and over the course of a few long long discussions I began to get what she’d been saying in the first place. A dog is not a robot. And training them is not a mathematical formula. The key thing is the relationship and understanding one another. “Oooh.” I thought. “Sounds a bit….wafty. Sounds a bit like someone’s been on a yoga retreat”.
“But what about the dominance thing and the alpha thing and him chewing my face off while I sleep or him saying to visitors, ‘who’s the daddy?’ “
She explained that the guy who first came up with the whole thing about dogs and wolves and dominance did so in the 70s in a study which he has since said was completely flawed. The guy in question is David Mech. The study was of a group of wolves. But rather than studying them in the wild (difficult- them got four legs. Them fast. ), the team captured wolves from different packs and put them together in an enclosure and then studied them. They fought. They moped. Their actions were noted and the term ‘alpha’ was coined (in relation to canine behaviour) as they battled for scraps of food.
But since then- David Mech has studied wolves in the wild. It turns out that wolf packs consist of a mating pair (previously called the alpha pair) and any number of subordinate wolves. BUT. The ones that mate are actually the parents of the others. So of course they get sole mating rights. Anything else would be a bit ‘Jeremy Kyle goes to Norfolk’.
When one litter of wolf puppies becomes adolescent, they either leave to start their own pack/family (tends to happen more when food is plentiful) or they stay and help raise the next litter of pups. So it turns out it’s kind of the same as humans. The ‘packs’ are actually family groups.
So the whole dominance thing is a misnomer. In fact, punishing your dog and acting aggressively with it is more likely to result in your dog reacting in kind. Just as you and I might eventually, if someone kept shoving us in the chest. The bullied often becomes the bully. David Mech’s book ‘The Wolf’ was one of tiny number of publications on the subject at the time and so had a massive influence on dog training worldwide. It continues to do so despite the fact that he’s since debunked it as being of no use as a study whatsoever.
It’s like judging human behaviour by dragging people from their homes and putting them in a cage (albeit a big one), throwing them the odd bit of food and watching them fight over it.
Actually. That sounds like a great new twist for Big Brother. Make it involuntary- with housemates harvested at random from the general populous. At no point let them know what’s going on or what they’re expected to do.
Intrigued by this I then decided to study dog behaviour. I signed up to a course with Sheila Harper and I learnt a lot about their body language and realised why my dog was wary of strangers approaching head on quickly ( that would be an aggressive approach in the dog world). Amongst many other things. I can no longer watch The Dog Whisperer as I can see the dogs are often very stressed and only appear to the untrained eye to be well behaved because they’re keeping a low profile- as might I if introduced to a maniac. ( I’m not saying Cesar Milan is a maniac- in fact I think he is very well intentioned but he has drawn his own conclusions about dogs and they aren’t always right.) If he came into my house, teeth gleaming- poking me and saying tshch a lot- I might think it politic to keep my head down til the nasty bully man went away. Or I might bite him….. Cesar Millan gets bitten quite a lot.
I relaxed totally about the whole dominance thing and me and my dog now get each other. We’re both a lot happier. He still pulls on the lead a bit sometimes but he still hasn’t eaten my face off in my sleep. Nor I, his.
We both still have faces
*some of these do not contain dogs
Whatever happened to the Term, ‘Alpha Wolf’..David Mech: http://www.4pawsu.com/alphawolf.pdf
The Other End of the Leash Patricia B. McConnell
Calming signals. Turid Rugaas
How to handle Living With Your Dog. Winkie Spiers (http://amzn.to/n74bDZ )
It’s Me or the Dog. Victoria Stilwell (Just useful for the training bit)
Good trainers/ behaviourists