Your Relationship with your Dog

June 17, 2011

Biologists, breeders and trainers, and champion sled dog racers, Raymond and Lorna Coppinger have more than four decades of experience with literally thousands of dogs.  They are co-authors of the book DOGS: A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF CANINE ORIGIN, BEHAVIOR, AND EVOLUTION and in a discucssion about the relevance of the alpha-dog/dominance theory in training dogs they were asked how they thought people should think about their relationship with their dog?

Their reply was:

It is through social play behavior that animals learn from one another. Further, it is fun to play with our dogs even if none of us learn anything. It will certainly make more sense to the dog than to be tumbled onto its back and growled at by a human.

Colin Allen and Marc Bekoff have recently drawn attention to a category of behaviors they call intentional icons. Dogs have signals they use when they want to play — the play bow. The play bow is a signal that all the following behaviors like growls and snarls are all in fun. Consider what might happen if you gave the “dominant male” intentional icon, indicating everything that happens from now on is about the driver being the dominant dog. The sled dogs, if they were reacting as submissive wolves, would then lie on their backs and pee in the air instead of running as a team.

Instead of threatening our dogs every time we want to train them, we need to perfect the human play bow which tells the dog the games are about to begin. Remember that games have rules, and what the dog and the humans learn during play is what the rules of the game are. That makes sense in teaching or training, whether it is dogs or students. The intent of dominance display is to exclude the subordinate from some activity, like breeding. The alpha wolf isn’t trying to teach the subordinate anything.”

Next time you are training your dog ask yourself whether both of you are enjoying yourselves…  Look at your dog’s body language as well as your own.  Are you sending out the right signals for your dog to be able to learn, or are you being confrontational?  Do your games have rules, and does your dog know the rules?   Try to stop thinking about your dog as an adversary or subordinate, and rather start thinking of him as a team member.  And next time you hear anything about the “wolf-pack” or dominance and submission, heed wolf expert David Mech’s words –  “Hopefully it will take fewer than 20 years for the media and the public to fully adopt the correct terminology and thus to once and for all end the outmoded view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack.”

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