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Who’s The Boss?

A disclaimer on the below  – this article was written in May 2012 and  I have since read a book called “In Defence of Dogs” by John Bradshaw which challenges the theories below about being able to understand our domestic dogs’ behaviour by observing the behaviour of  wolf packs.  I have since written another article called Man’s Closest Friend in March 2013 which summaries the theories in this book and is what I now believe to be the most appropriate method of understanding our dogs and how to work/live with them.

In many aspects of our life there are usually at least two, sometimes more, schools of thought or methodologies for achieving a desired outcome – think about parenting (sooo many experts on that one!), cooking, share trading,  blogging, etc etc

The art, or is it science, of dog training is no different.  Over the years you’ve probably heard all sorts of advice from all sorts of people who think they know what works. The advice usually revolves around variations of ‘show ‘em who’s boss!’ and everyone will have their view on how to ‘show ‘em who’s boss’. Some of these will be horrendous and cruel; others will be just plain silly.

The past few years have seen the proliferation of TV Dog Trainers, some more showy than others.  One of the populist presenters seems to specialise in aggressive dogs and shows how wonderfully they fit calmly into his pack once he’s ‘dealt’ with them.   His method revolves around being the pack leader based on fear, dominance and submission.

While the TV and stage shows may be glitzy, showy and ‘inspiring’, it is becoming increasingly acknowledged within the dog training world that this type of negative re-inforcement is outdated, and in the wrong hands, potentially dangerous.

For a dog, for whatever reason, who has an inherently aggressive trait, the aggression (or more likely fear) may be suppressed for a while, but it will undoubtedly re-appear with no predictability, essentially creating a ticking timebomb.

Let’s keep this discussion positive and turn to other more gentle and realistic training methods.

Jan Fennell is an English lady who has spent many years training, breeding and showing her own dogs. Through some self acknowledged mistakes and tragedies she stopped the way she was interacting with her ‘pack’ along the more traditional lines of discipline and obedience.

After a thought provoking demonstration of horsemanship by Monty Roberts “The Horse Whisperer” ,  Jan asked herself a simple question: Can these gentle methods of ‘asking’ for an animal’s co-operation be applied to dogs?

Over the course of the next few years, using her pack of 4-6 dogs as the teachers, Jan has developed a revolutionary insight into the canine world and its instinctive language.

As you know, dogs are pack animals and are a long distant relative of the wolf.  There is strong historical evidence that dogs and Homo sapiens were companions dating back over 100,000 years ago.  We lived side by side and enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship – hunting, warmth, protection.  Over the ensuing years we have gradually domesticated the dog and taken away their necessity to us for our survival, however their instincts remain strong.   We now treat them as pets and companions and wonder why we still see behaviours that are linked to their ancestry.

(An interesting aside – a species can only be considered truly ‘domesticated’ when it’s offspring are born tame ie. even a wolf that has been hand raised and lives in human company will have pups that  have all their wild instincts intact.)

What I like about Jan Fennell’s methodology, which will be briefly explained below, is that she is a realist and doesn’t claim to have found the miracle cure for all kinds of behaviour.  She starts her book “The Dog Listener” with the following caution:

“It is important to say here that my method cannot remove the aggressive tendencies of any dog. Certain breeds have been raised specifically for the purpose of fighting, and my methods will never be able to alter their potentially savage nature. What my method can do is allow people to manage their dogs so that this aggressive instinct is never called upon. Please exercise the greatest of caution when working with such dogs.

Jan’s methodology is called ‘Amichien Bonding, and is a gentle and instinctive way of establishing leadership of the pack.   Through observing her own pack and studying the wolf pack hierarchy with its clear boundaries and responsibilities, she has developed a non-aggressive way of demonstrating that you are the leader of the pack and interacting in a way that your dogs want to follow you as their leader, rather than you having to make them do what you request.

The key to why this method has a sound basis can be seen in the workings of a wolf pack –  the leaders, or Alpha pair does not command the respect and following of their pack through cruelty or violence but through a set of ritualised behaviours.  The Alpha pair control and direct life within the pack and the remainder of the pack accept that.  They are responsible for determining where, when and what food will be found; they have total responsibility for the welfare and safety of the pack.

(Another interesting aside: – many people believe that an ‘alpha’ dog is the aggressive one, however the Alpha Male or Female in a wolf pack is the strongest, healthiest, most intelligent and most experienced member of the pack.   The Beta wolf, or enforcer, is the one who is assigned the duties of maintaining order within the pack as well as warding off intruders and challengers and will show outward aggression when necessary).

We all love our pets so much and often think of them as ‘little people’ (yes, I’m guilty!), that we forget that our dogs still believe they are functioning members of a community operating according to principles directly descended from the wolf pack (a pack may be you and your dog or a large family of parents, kids and other animals).

The four foundations of Amichien Bonding correlate to specific times when the pack’s hierarchy is established and underlined.  On each occasion the dog is confronted with a question which we must answer on its behalf:

  • When the pack reunites after a separation, who is the boss now?
  • When the pack eats food, what order do they eat in?
  • When the pack is under attack or there is fear of danger, who is going to protect them?
  • When the pack goes on a hunt, who is going to lead them?

I will not go into detail of all these elements and how they can be applied to everyday life with your dog, but I hope a little insight into this gentle and respectful method of communicating with your pets will make you curious about doing a little more research into it.

Jan’s book and videos “The Dog Listener” are available from Harper Publishers (do some Googling – easy to find) and are very easy to read and watch.   She explains the background of how she developed her methods through the use of trial and error and with easy to understand anecdotes.

There is no claim of a silver bullet to ‘cure’ all undesirable behaviours (most of which our own society has created), but a way of developing a mutual understanding with your dog so that your relationship has clear boundaries and everyone has their role to play.

Further reading you might find interesting is the way in which Monty Roberts has challenged the ‘old way’ of breaking in a horse with his ‘joining up’ method – again all about gaining the trust of the animal to want to co-operate and work with you. “The Horse Whisperer” .

Also quite fascinating and a bit controversial, is the work Shaun Ellis has done with wolves – he lived with them in the wilds of America as a fully functioning pack member (he was the nanny as his hunting skills were not up to scratch!).  He also taught 3 orphaned wolf cubs how to be a wolf pack in his wildlife park in England, based on his learnings. His books and video demonstrate the importance to the survival and harmony within a pack by having a clearly understood hierarchy (which is not based on cruelty but on respect and survival).

I hope this information has whet your appetite for some further reading. Even if you have a perfectly balanced relationship with your pet (lucky you!) it is a very interesting field of developing animal behaviour that you might like to explore.

Pets are wonderful companions (and are good for our health, according to recent research) so anything we can do to enhance our relationship can only be beneficial to us all!

Ref: http://www.thewolfcentre.co.uk/  and http://www.janfennellthedoglistener.com/