My dog is trying to do what?

By Karin Landsberg (DipCABT (OCN) COAPE, CAPBT Practitioner)

I’ve been listening to the general outcry about the television show “The Dog Whisperer” and feel compelled to add my voice to those who are objecting to the methods advocated so blatantly on this program.  Now yes, I’ve heard all the arguments about “at least he’s showing people that something can be done” and “those dogs were going to be killed if he didn’t save them”, and my answer remains the same – what utter nonsense…  If we’re going to follow that train of thought, does it then mean it’s acceptable to beat a drug addict until he can’t walk, on the basis that he can then never go out and buy drugs again?As far as I am concerned, there is never any acceptable justification for choking a dog until he passes out, lose control of his bladder or turns blue – no matter what anyone says.  Ten good deeds do not excuse one horrible one, especially when it’s presented as the holy truth to a public who accept it as such because it’s on TV.  And the sad part is that the majority of pet loving owners realise that it is just not OK to do horrible things like that to their beloved pet. I hear it in consultations on a daily basis… “I was watching that TV program….and… is it really what you should do to get your dog to listen?” What I’m actually being asked is “do I really have to abuse my dog? Is that what you’re going to tell me to do?”

The short answer is no. Truth be told, there’s a very good reason why proper science makes for bad television. It’s not glitzy, it’s not all teeth and tan, and it certainly is not a recipe that can be applied to every situation that vaguely looks like it resembles what’s being shown on TV.

Think about it. Take a simple straightforward human problem like losing your temper in traffic. You may have just screamed out the window and threatened to do ghastly things to someone who offended you, but your reason for doing so could depend on a million things. Does that mean that the guy screaming at someone else in traffic is experiencing exactly the same situation as you? Of course not.  You could be angry because you’ve had a horrible day at the office and your new boss is on your case about something trivial. You could be upset because you’re going through a traumatic time, or because you’re just the kind of person who enjoys acting like a nut in traffic. It could even be the taxi driver who just cut you off that ends up being the last straw on the camel’s back on top of a splitting headache, tired muscles, sore back and the knowledge that when you get home, you are going to have to deal with the neighbour who’s pedantic about your dog that barks when you’re not at home.

There are so many reasons why behaviours manifest and whilst they may all present similar ‘signs’, the underlying reason is vastly different!  If you have a dog that chases motorcycles, he could be doing it because it’s fun. Or because he’s frightened of them, or because he’s a herding breed and the movement triggers the “run after it” behaviour pattern.

Any behaviourist or trainer who has had any kind of education in this (science based) industry will tell you that there is no one ‘cure’ for a problem.

And, while we’re at it, let’s chat about the whole pack leader and alpha argument.  Come on fellas… this stuff is old, out-dated, and it has been disproven so often that it’s a bit embarrassing to have anyone who represents the industry in the media  spouting off about this and making it sound like it’s the newest thing since sliced bread. It’s not – really. Read up on David Mech. This is the man who literally wrote the book on pack theory in wolves – the original and the revised theory.

I am not saying hierarchy (or a form of it) doesn’t exist in wolves. I’m saying it doesn’t apply in exactly the same way with dogs just because they share genes.  The original wolf pack theory was formulated by a behaviourist called Rudolph Schenkel, where he described how wolves interact with each other in a rigid competitive ‘pecking order’ or hierarchy where dominance was fought for and the strongest ruled with an iron fist.  Mech admits that a lot of the information from his book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species” (published late 1960) came from Schenkel’s research, and that The Wolf’s popularity as a book contributed to spreading the misinformation about alpha wolves.  Mech later had the opportunity (in 1990) to live with a wild wolf pack and to witness their interactions for himself.  He then published the article “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs” in the Canadian Journal of Zoology formally correcting the misinformation in the scientific literature.

The main problem is that the observations that formed the basis to these theories were done on a group of captive unrelated wolves… making it as unnatural a setting to observe natural wolf behaviour as a maximum security prison for violent criminals would be for observing natural human behaviour. These findings were transcribed directly onto the pet dog, and when Mech published his later work to argue the understanding of pack theory, nobody bothered to change the religion that had evolved around treating pet dogs like wild wolves living in a pack.

Hierarchy just does not apply to the relationships between dogs and humans. Now can we please stop telling the pet owning public that they have to be the dominant pack leader? Dogs are not wolves. We’re not even sure that wolves are the ancestors of dogs.  Professor Coppinger has a very interesting theory which is a far more plausible explanation – wolves and dogs share common ancestors, but dogs are not, and have not been wolves (or part wolf) for a very long time. They’re dogs. With altered motor patterns to determine their functions, and a completely different social structure as well.  The closest thing you’ll find to “proto-dog” is the village dog, and boy is there much to learn from those canids. They don’t even live in packs – they have a loosely assembled social structure but hey let’s face it…. You don’t need a pack to hunt down garbage.  Dogs are scavengers. Go to any informal settlement or dump and watch these dogs.  In nature, hierarchy comes into play in predominantly two situations: who gets to breed and “let’s all take down that moose together so we can eat it and survive”.

If hierarchy existed in dogs, you wouldn’t have breeding kennels where more than one bitch or male is used for breeding.  In a wolf family, the alpha bitch actually produces an oestrogen suppressing hormone to stop the other bitches from even going into season. Yet breeders will often have several litters at the same time.  And the squabbling you see in wolf families? It’s not a beta male trying to oust the alpha to then take over the pack. In the wild wolves live in extended families.  It’s mom, dad, aunties, uncles, last year’s pups and this year’s babies. The squabbling happens seasonally – and usually during breeding season.

The boys mock fight with each other and even occasionally with dad, but not so they can kill him and mate with mom.  From a genetic point of view that would be rather counter-productive.  You just don’t mate with mom because at some point, you’ll end up with ten ears and one leg. Nature doesn’t work like that.  No, the boys ‘fight’ to practice their competitive strategies so they can survive out there in the big world and actually find a mate (who is unrelated) with whom to start their own family.

And here’s another crucial factor to keep in mind: NOWHERE in nature is dominance transferred across species. In societies where it does apply, it just doesn’t happen.  Lions do not try to dominate cheetahs, zebras or elephants. So why on earth would dogs want to dominate humans?  Yes, you get pushy dogs. But they aren’t trying to be pack leader. Good grief, dogs probably don’t even have the ability to grasp the concept of pack and pack leader when it comes to their relationships with us humans.  So if someone is going to appear on TV and give people advice, at least make sure the facts are up to date and accurate.  It’s embarrassing for the rest of us professionals to have to constantly explain that ‘no sorry, that’s actually so old it shouldn’t even be mentioned anymore.”  If someone is going to go on TV to help people with problems, surely it should be their priority and responsibility to make sure that the information they’re putting out there is accurate?

These days there are so many different positive and motivational ways to address individual dogs and cats’ behaviour problems that we do not need to rely on old, abusive methods any more.  And no, it doesn’t mean that you must let your dog get away with murder and let him do whatever he pleases.  Dogs, like children, thrive when they are living in predictable environments where there are boundaries and consistency from owners.

And, of course they also need a sound education to equip them for living with humans.  Training is not just about teaching your dog to sit on cue – it’s a way for owners to learn how to communicate with their dogs in a manner that is understood by both sides.  If you, as a new pet owner, decide that you don’t want your adult Golden Retriever jumping up on people, make sure you teach your dog to say hello with all 4 feet on the floor from the day he arrives. But if you let him jump up because he’s cute and 10 weeks old, and then later change your mind when he’s 6 months old, you’re confusing the daylights out of the dog. If you don’t want him stealing food off the table, manage the situation so he never has the opportunity to learn to do it. Same thing applies with pulling on the lead. The first time he tries it, stop and stand still. When the leash is loose, carry on with walking. What he’ll learn is “oh, dead end. It doesn’t work”.  But if you’re inconsistent and you occasionally let him practice inappropriate problems, you’re teaching him “keep trying, this time it may or may not work.”

So in conclusion – just because it’s on TV, doesn’t make it accurate or true.  There is no such thing as an instant cure for a behaviour problem. (Unless of course it’s a medical problem that caused it and it can still be treated.)

Behaviour modification is like therapy. It takes time and must take all the factors into consideration and whatever program is designed to resolve the issue, it must take both ends of the leash into consideration.  And if the owners cannot do it, it’s pointless.  Sure, as a behaviourist I could get your dog to do amazing things when I ask him to, but that’s because your dog doesn’t know me from a bar of soap. There is no history between us, and, because I’m consistent in how I reward and what I pay attention to right from the word go, you will see a change in how your dog reacts to me.  Does that mean he’ll automatically transfer what he’s learnt with me to his relationship with you? The relationship that he’s had for years, with a reinforcement history that’s as long as his life? Of course not! So don’t be fooled into buying a ‘miracle cure’ that someone else will come and apply for you – the reality is that it is going to take work on your side to fix the problem.  Too many clients fall into the “instant results guaranteed in an hour with no work done by you” trap and spend hard earned money on quick fixes and whispering “experts”  who end up doing nothing but harm.

Remember…Behaviourism is an established, actual profession based on science…. And it should be as unacceptable for someone to call themselves a professional in this field based on ‘being good with dogs or watching national geographic and learning from the school of life’ as it for someone to practice as a psychologist (and charging a fortune for it) simply because they’re good listeners! If you need help with your pet’s behaviour problem, don’t ever be shy to ask the person you’re thinking of consulting for proof of an independently accredited qualification in animal behaviour (not just in training – its two different things).  And if someone tells you to be pack leader, run away!


Eaton B. “Dominance, fact or Fiction” (2008) Greenford Printing.

Coppinger R. & Coppinger L. (2001) “Dogs, a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution”.  Scribner.

Mech L.D. (1999) “Alpha, status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs.” Canadian journal of Zoology and (2000) “Leadership in Wolf, Canis Lupus, Packs”

O’Heare J (2008) “Dominance Theory and Dogs.” 2nd Edition. BehaveTech Publishing. 

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