Dog on the Couch

HI Susan, I am confused about the changeover from dominant training to reward-based. The dog whisperer and others have advised never to let the dog go through the door first because that will make us a lower rank in the dog’s eyes. This makes more sense to me than constantly pandering to the dog and giving a reward for his every move. Thanks.


Hi Kathy,

A wise professor once said that learning is best done by challenging the old mythologies. The ill-informed dominant training methods based on a rank-reduction system make dogs subservient. These stifling methods are not only based on false premises which have negative and potentially dangerous consequences. They also breed unhealthy dictatorial relationships devoid of real trust, respect and love. Nobody likes a bully, not even man’s best friend. This kind of training destroys something essential to the dog’s spirit. The same principle applies to human relationships. People with autocratic partners or parents will know exactly what I mean. But we now know beyond doubt that other animals also have emotional needs. This is not an exclusive human preserve. How many of us could happily be our true selves if bullied into a slave-like role, constantly at the beck and call of a master?

People demanding this kind of subservience are not only breaking a spirit. They are leaving no safety valve for the pent-up frustration engendered. They are preparing the ground for something dangerous to grow that their victim may not indefinitely be able to contain. Of course there have to be basic rules governing any relationship, as for the functioning of any civilised society, but they need to be reasonable and fair, not selfish and dictatorial. These positive tenets apply equally well to good training.

We need to leave behind the dark ages and recognise that dog training has evolved in the light of our vastly increased scientific knowledge and understanding of animals. Never before has there been such an explosion of new discoveries concerning emotion and intelligence in animals and in the similarities between theirs and our brains. It is horrifying to remember that not very long ago Descartes propagated the notion that animals were mere automatons, incapable of feeling physical or emotional pain. Now it has been proved beyond doubt what perceptive, empathetic people have known all along - Descartes was wrong, blinkered and cruel.

The old dominant methods of training are now very widely recognized to be based on false premises, badly flawed and at least potentially dangerous. Dogs are not wolves and it is not true that wolves live in a linear hierarchy, with a constant battle for an alpha role and dominance over the rest of the pack; wolves have been shown to live harmoniously with special friendships and allegiances.

Further, dogs have been domesticated for far too long to be treated as wolves. Dogs are consequently far less fearful of us. Naturally they understand human body language and are more easily socialized than wolves.

Of course boundaries are important for each family member. This is how we maintain relationships and try to avoid ruptures.

When one forces another, either a relationship or someone’s individuality is harmed. Dogs have certain behaviours such as digging, rolling in smelly things and eating rubbish which may not be the habits an ideal house-mate. Here is where sensible training, compromises and relationship-building come in. If you do not want dog hair and grit in your bed then the dog can be taught to accept an alternative sleeping area. If you enjoy snuggling up to a furry water bottle then that is all right. It may be your home, but we and the dogs are individuals. Sleeping on the bed, sitting on the couch, playing tug of war and pulling on the leash are not indications that your dog is “being dominant”.

That’s another ridiculous fallacy. If you need your dog to wait at the door before you let her out, train for this but, whatever you train, always do so in a way that harmonises rather than harms. Equally there is no problem letting your dog through the door ahead of you. Perhaps you prefer it. It’s not a sign of “dominance” – just different manners and norms which are not necessarily set in stone.

It is said to take 20 years to change an average human mindset. That’s the only explanation I can give for the prevalence of dominant training in some quarters, unfortunately reinforced internationally on popular television and does not have the respect of eminent scholars and practitioners in his field.

It’s worse than the piano teaching harpies of old who for decades drummed in their archaic methodology by rapping their unfortunate pupils’ knuckles. Unless they were very strong, those aspiring musicians lost the spirit.

The Board of Directors of the British Columbia SPCA this month approved a statement of which the following is an extract: “The BC SPCA is opposed to training methods which employ coercion and force. Aversive, punishment-based techniques may alter behaviour, but the methods fail to address the underlying cause and, in the case of unwanted behaviour, can lead to undue anxiety, fear, distress, pain or injury.”

They also made reference to authoritative research such as I’ve referred to, which indicates that “over the long-term, dogs trained through punishment may develop a fear response to the handler, less bonding with the guardian, less playful behaviour, less inclination to engage positively with strangers and show an increase in fear-associated behaviours, including aggression. Humane dog training is an inherently safer methodology for both animals and people.”

- Susan Henderson© (accredited animal­ behaviour consultant) info@dog boxtrain

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
When a Covid-19 vaccine for under 16's becomes available, will you be taking your children to get it?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, immediately!
37% - 2453 votes
I'll wait to see how others respond
26% - 1751 votes
No, I don't think they need it
37% - 2439 votes
Brent Crude
All Share
Top 40
Financial 15
Industrial 25
Resource 10
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes morningstar logo