Dog on the Couch

2016-04-28 06:00

Hi Susan, I have just bought a Boerboel puppy and have been advised by a friend who has always had large dogs that it is important to “dominate” the puppy from the start of the relationship if you want a well-behaved dog. I personally dislike the thought of using harsh training methods but I have to agree that my friend’s dogs are very obedient. What type of training should I try with my puppy who will quickly grow into a large dog?


It is a harsh reality that what are known as “force” or “dominant” training methods have been popular and around for more than 200 years. The term “breaking in” has been widely used in the context of training both horses and dogs. A lot of outdated literature advocated that dogs had to be dominated and subdued. Very regrettably, in more recent times, a much-hyped and much-emulated TV programme has perpetrated this aggressive old idea and insisted on the need to dominate and take on the role of pack-leader in order to prevent the new canine family member from assuming the much sought-after ‘Alpha’ position.

Another outdated and potentially disastrous idea was that training shouldn’t begin until the dog was six months of age. This would be equivalent to waiting for the teenage years before ensuring that a human begins to learn manners and boundaries, whereas in fact rewiring for the adult brain is underway at this late stage. It is obviously far more sensible to teach good behaviour and manners from the outset rather than to allow bad habits to become set in, and then to try to erase and replace them with the proper behavioural patterns.

Owners talk about being the “alpha” or say their dog is “dominant”, but few truly understand the theory, which has been authoritatively discredited by wolf biologists for more than twenty years. There is not only one, but two leaders in a wolf pack hierarchy, namely the male and female breeding pair. Emphatically, dogs are not wolves any more than humans are chimpanzees. Yet some trainers and owners persist with this archaic idea, insisting, for instance, on eating before the dog does in the mistaken belief that the alpha always eats first, whereas in fact it is the very young wolves that are privileged at meal times. Another myth is that we should not allow our dogs to go through doorways first. The truth is that the alpha does not always lead. It is the wolf that is best suited to a particular situation or task at hand that will lead. In a hunting situation the younger inexperienced wolves lead the pack and will tire the prey in preparation for the experienced adult wolves to take down the prey with dangerous and difficult skills.

I could go on arguing against these old discredited views but this is not the place. What I would advise is to remain calm in all situations. Dog are alarmed, agitated and confused by hysterical shouting. They will pick up even minute signs of stress. Also, realise that your dog speaks a different language and may not understand your intentions. Behaviour that is rewarded will be repeated and become learnt, so do not reward bad behaviour, such as jumping against people, that would not be acceptable when your puppy is fully grown. Never use physical violence or harsh training tools. These may provide quick results, but without an understanding of the cause of the problem the behaviour will return. As a behaviourist I am shocked by the frequency with which I am asked to attend to dogs that have become aggressive and uncontrollable, and this is usually traced back to earlier or current use of the dominant, harsh training methods or to no training at all. “Where knowledge ends, violence begins” is a truism worth keeping in mind when training or choosing a trainer.

Lastly, dogs are inherently loyal. But I cannot stress enough how important it is to clearly define boundaries from the start and to begin training early (a week after he or she has had first puppy vaccinations is ideal) and to be consistent. Good, informed guidance and clearly defined boundaries when training will be rewarded not only with an obedient dog but a happy, well-mannered co-operative dog.

Susan Henderson© (accredited animal behaviourist)


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