Sunday, May 10, 2009

Who's The Boss?

Three years ago I was offered the chance to do a presentation at a symposium called "Dog Sense". My friend Ann Corvin was organizing it as well as being a presenter. She'd invited Dr. Ruth Colwill, Associate Professor of Psychology at Brown University and Dr. Dan Simpson, from West Bay Animal Hospital and host of "Pet Care with Dr. Dan Simpson" on WPRO to present as well. "Me? Really? I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy!" I wasn't sure I could use the word "symposium" correctly in a sentence much less be a presenter at one.

I spent the next few days kicking around a lot of topics before settling on the role training plays in defining the human/canine social hierarchy. I've always thought it was an interesting and evolving idea in the training world and hey, what a snappy title for my power point presentation, "The Role of Training in Defining the Human/Canine Social Hierarchy" (The alternate title was "Snooze-Yawn-Zzzzzzzzz....")

The Dog Sense symposium came and went; I managed not to embarrass myself too badly in front Ann, Ruth and Dan (At least they didn't let on that I had.)it even seemed fun in hindsight. Since then though I've come across a number of articles that raise interesting questions concerning parallels in wild canine behavior and domestic dogs. Chief among them is the idea of a pack leader. Friend and fellow trainer Sue Parker sent one such article titled "The Myth of the Pack Leader" by Lee Charles Kelly ( It points to recent work by wildlife research biologists L. David Mech( who has stopped using the word "alpha" (I'd assume by extension that means no beta or omega either) because, "It falsely implies a hierarchical system in which a wolf assumes a place in a linear pecking order." That's just a brief passage from a much larger body of work but it encapsulates a significant shift in the way we look at canine behavior. If research is revealing new information about the social dynamics of wild canids then it's reasonable to say that any previously accepted parallels with domestic dogs should be reevaluated as well. That means some editing the next time I have a chance to make my presentation but it also means some major tuning in the way I'm presenting ideas about how dogs think and process information to my clients.

Dominant behavior remains a relevant talking point for me when I'm working with dog owners. Anyone who's experienced the rare pleasure of having their leg humped will appreciate that dogs make use of dominant overtures to define the dynamic. In Bruce Fogle's excellent book "The Dog's Mind", canine body language, dominant, submissive, etc. is illustrated and outlined. Humping is the one everyone's familiar with but there are a number of others that dogs turn to articulate their sense of where they slot in a particular situation. Years ago I brought one of my dogs, Reno, to a park in Hingham, MA where dog owners frequently let their dogs run unleashed. With the book's illustrations fresh in my mind I watched Reno assess various situations as they unfolded, exercising a different dominance option nearly every time. Most dominant overtures involve position; think, Greco-Roman wrestling. With the two Malinois he chose posturing (tail up, pilo-erection, "I look bigger than you.") followed by climbing over their withers. Before the humans became too rattled, I said "Reno out." He called off the encounter and came to me. What happened next has left me puzzled ever since. Every subsequent encounter would quickly begin with a dominant display, but never the same one twice. T-blocking (Walking across the tangent path of a dog perceived to be subordinate.) Head over the withers, and humping. Reno was clearly preoccupied with articulating his sense of dominance in these scenarios but it also appeared he was choosing one means of communicating dominance over another. Why was it important for him to establish his dominance in those situations and why too was he picking one approach over another? Finally, why would he respond subordinately to me each time while in the throws of establishing some measure of dominance? Pack dynamics don't appear to be a good fit for these encounters. In truth I don't know why Reno behaved the way he did that day. Often in lessons I'll say "It'd be great if I could ask him." Of course we cannot. Instead we turn to research; which seems to suggest (my interpretation only) that dominant behavior is intended to be ephemeral not a means to establish a permanent position of status (e.g. The Pope or The Supreme Court) For me that puts a lot of things in perspective. If nothing else I am a diligent observer of canine behavior. I believe I am both objective and subjective in that respect. I have observed my dogs interactions among themselves, with me, my wife Sue and my 7 year old son Keir. The issue of status in these various and sometimes nuanced situations is as common as salt and pepper at the dinner table. Jockeying for attention, getting the best view of the neighbor walking their dog etc. In that respect I'm inclined to wax dog-like (At least my best interpretation of that idea)and assert dominance; correcting behaviors from barking to climbing on people and furniture. I've got an old brood of dogs ranging in ages from eight to thirteen. If I've spent all the years we've lived with each other establishing myself as "pack leader", then why would I have to keep reminding them of my status within our "pack"? It explains why so many dog owners have become frustrated with training their dogs. At what point does the training "stick"?

In an article titled "Dominance, The Dirty Word" from the May 2005 issue of the APDT newsletter, Lore I. Haug, DVM writes:

"Dominance describes a relationship between two individuals based on the outcome of an agnostic encounter (Lindsay, 2001; Shepherd, 2002). Dominant-subordinate relationships permitted the evolution of social hierarchies to allow for more harmonious group living."

The operative word is "relationship". In this context the suggestion is long term. Canine relationships are not monolithic, they are complex, they are the culmination of many things including harmony and conflict, dominance and subordination. When dog owners become preoccupied with concepts like "Alpha" and "Pack Leader" we are trying too hard to simplify. We are looking through the same lens that gives us the Iron Rule of Oligarchy. Yet there is no evidence that I'm aware of which suggests that dogs, wild or otherwise, are interested in bureaucracy. So is it time to retire these terms? I have. In training there are "terms of art". Phrases that may not hold up to scientific scrutiny but may make it easier to understand what's going on. Consider Caesar Milan's frequent references to what type of "energy you're projecting". Everyone understands this isn't intended to be taken literally but figuratively; it's intended to put the dog owner in the right frame of mind. Just the same, trainers are often the first and sometimes the only means of education a dog owner may get about their dogs. The expression "Pack Leader" becomes problematic in that respect because it suggests a relationship on auto-pilot instead of a fluid changing one. Fluid relationships require effort, consideration and a sense of pragmatism.

UPDATE (10/10/12): Dominance is rarely brought up in addressing behavioral problems. I think it's reasonable to assume the possibility that dominance in specific contexts may be relevant but as a go to subtext to every behavioral problem under the sun, including humping, it applies with decreasing frequency.