Dogs and humans have lived together for thousands of years, proximity that’s yielded a great deal of understanding – on the part of the dogs. Dogs as young as six weeks old can read a person’s body language, sense their mood, and identify what object they’re looking or pointing at. Dogs are excellent at reading humans. Humans, in return, know more about the finalists on American Idol than about the dogs who share their lives.
I blame it on equal parts laziness and bad advice, but how we got here is less important than where it’s led us. Sheba, in the photo above, represents millions of dogs who bear the consequences of our ignorance. Her story is so common I could have told it even before I talked to her family, but talking to them confirmed she’s one of the countless statistics. They got her as a puppy and brought her in the house and adored her. But when she got to be somewhere between nine months and a year old they decided she was uncontrollable. Hyper. Jumps on people. Destroys things. Just not a good dog. They chained her up in the back yard, where they probably expected her to spend the rest of her natural life.
Fortunately, Sheba isn’t on a chain anymore. But she is alone in the back yard. It’s a disgraceful epidemic: millions of dogs go to new homes with people who haven’t the slightest clue how to raise them. When the dogs become challenging, they’re banished to lonely back yards, chains, kennels. Millions end up in shelters. Dogs die because people don’t understand how to teach them.
Even when people have learned a bit about dog training, it’s often based on bad advice. In fact, all of the good dog books published in the last couple of years will tell you the ugly truth about some of the fundamental theories behind traditional dog training: they’re based on bogus research. Much of the initial behavioral studies were on capitive wolves. The animals fought because they were forced to live with unfamiliar wolves, but scientists concluded wolves are violent animals who spend their lives fighting for dominance. More modern, better designed research has shown that wild wolves rarely fight with each other and their family structures are generally cooperative, not ruled by a fierce alpha dog as we’ve all been led to believe.
So, what we’ve thought about wolves is all wrong. But, as behaviorist and author John Bradshaw says, dogs aren’t wolves. Nor are they humans with fur.
Bradshaw’s new book, Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, debunks centuries of bad training advice. The debunking starts with the dominance myth. Dogs aren’t fighting for dominance over us, and it’s both inhumane and unnecessary for humans to try to prove their dominance over dogs.
The idea that we should never let a dog walk in front of us through a door: bunk. The dog is rushing through the door because he’s excited, not because he wants to be the master of the universe.
The idea that destructive dogs are trying to punish us or retaliate for something they don’t like: nonsense. They’re either fearful or bored out of their minds.
Bradshaw’s book could save countless lives. At the very least, his interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross should be required listening for everyone who wants to have a dog.
Another well-known trainer, Victoria Stilwell, has taken aim at the dominance myth as well. When I met her at a talk she gave, she said mainstream trainers would have us believe dogs are positioning themselves for total world domination. The idea that humans must rule or be ruled has led to inhumane training, frightened dogs, and overflowing shelters.
If humans would simply get over the dominance myth, they’d probably save countless dogs from misery or death. But myths die hard. I still know trainers who pin dogs to the ground as a form of dominance and punishment.
Fortunately, I know even more trainers who are embracing positive training. I know one top-tier trainer who wants to start a nonprofit organization that does outreach work with at-risk families. If people learned the basics of good dog managmeent before they ruined their dogs, fewer of them would be surrendered or spend their lives in solitary confinement in a far corner of the yard. I’ve even talked to a trainer who simply wants people to learn to teach their dog to walk well on a leash. A dog who’s easy to walk is a dog who will get to spend more time with his family.
Time with humans, as Bradshaw and Stilwell have both said, is a dog’s most precious resource. In fact, Bradshaw says most domestic dogs actually prefer human attention over the attention of other dogs. So imagine the suffering of the lonely dogs like Sheba, chained in a forgotten muddy corner of the yard, isolated from family except for the two minutes a day it takes for someone to refill the food and water buckets.
Human thinking may start to evolve, thanks to conscientious trainers. But getting humans to change their behavior is always a tall order. In the end, it will come down to one basic realization: training isn’t about forcing the dog to do what you want, but about learning how to communicate with your dog. In truth, good dog trainers are actually educators; they teach people.
As Bradshaw told Terry Gross, “You have to train people to understand dogs. We have to take the responsibility. Dogs are very smart, but it’s the humans who are the smart ones in the relationship, and we need to take responsibility for that.”