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No More Alpha Dog

November 26, 2016

There has been a quiet revolution in dog training. Previous methods relied upon dominating your dogs with the goal of establishing the human as the oft named “Alpha Dog”. With this goal in mind, it followed that abusive relations were tolerated if not actively encouraged. Much of the pervasiveness of these methods was grounded in the realization that to a great extent, they worked. A rambunctious, rowdy dog could be almost magically transformed into a docile creature that would joylessly and robotically follow commands. Yet, most trainers and dog owners found this trade-off unsatisfying. Ideally, the family dog should obey their owner without fear of physical punishment and from a desire to elicit praise. Accordingly, modern dog training should seek a balance between punishment and praise with the latter comprising the overwhelming majority of interactions.

To make my point, I will tread upon dangerous ground and make a rough analogy with child rearing. Of course dogs are not humans. Yet, recent research has discovered that many learning mechanisms are similar enough that similar principles of teaching can be employed to achieve similar results.

In raising a child, we have probably all experienced the youngster whom is lavished with praise and rarely disciplined. The outcome is distressing in that this is the formula for narcissism. Conversely, a child that is brutalized and rarely rewarded develops into a mean-spirited, little villain that will lash out or withdraw from society. However, with a proper balance of directed discipline and appropriate praise we will generally raise a balanced person.  This is the parallel with our family dogs.
Training your dog involves using the proper amount of discipline to make errand behaviors unrewarding. This does not involve harsh corporal punishment. Depending upon the size, strength and temperament of your dog, this can involve a mild snap of the leash attached to a soft collar or a forceful tug with a prong collar. The proper method is dependent on your dog’s unique temperament. Herein a skilled trainer can guide you as to what is neither too much nor too little but just the correct amount. Corrections serve as a means of creating unpleasantness but not fear.  

Where many owners and trainers fail, is in the application of praise both during the training and for many months after. Praise can take the form of treats, petting and verbal acknowledgement or a combination of all the above. What is important is that to train your dog to listen and obey your commands, it is imperative that he realizes good behavior consistently results in a highly pleasant outcome. Many owners praise their dogs excessively for kisses or cuddling and simply for being cute. This is often rewarding to the owner but does little for having a happy well mannered dog. Reserve your praise and most lavish affection for tasks that are important to having a well behaved dog.

You do not have to be an Alpha Dog to have a good dog. You do have to be a leader that your dog respects for their consistent application of a balanced dispersal of punishment and praise. In other words, keep it simple, be consistent and your dog will love and listen to you not from fear but from love.

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