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The Listen Dog Blog

Welcome to the Listen Dog Blog!

 

I'll be keeping it up-to-date with regular catch-ups on what I've been up to, plenty of original articles on obedience training and behavioural best practice, plus top tips and ideas you can work on at home with your own four-legged friend!

 

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By listendogtraining, Sep 5 2017 01:04PM

For decades, we as dog owners were taught that in order to achieve a harmonious home life with our canine companions, we must dominate our dogs, however modern theory is now turning old-school practise on its head – and here’s why...


The studies from which the old-school dominance theory were developed, were all based on Rudolph Schenkel’s 1947 studies on the behaviour of captive wolves. In 1999, L. D. Mech challenged these studies by highlighting the dramatic effects on wolf behaviour that were caused by captivity, stating that within a natural and free wolf-pack, dominance is not manifested as a pecking order, dominance contests are extremely rare, and the typical free wolf-pack functions more like a symbiotic family unit, sharing out the leadership, labour, and responsibilities to ensure survival. Whilst captive wolves make frequent challenges to their pack leader, free wolves do not.


We forget the many differences that captivity presents – manipulated by man, the captive pack consists of unacquainted wolves unnaturally brought together from different sources (think Big Brother House for wolves); they have a stable and predictable food supply, and there is little outside threat to their existence – no real risk of injury or death. In other words, all the reasons to work together and form a harmonious pack no longer exist in this artificial environment – there is no opportunity or encouragement for them to act naturally.


In stark contrast, free wolf packs have been observed to actually have a lot in common with our human family groups – a breeding pair and their cubs will co-operate together as a unit to ensure their survival, and rather than challenge the elders’ position, the young, once matured will often leave to find another lone wolf and form their own pack – something which isn’t possible in captivity. Ray Coppinger suggests that pack formation is not a genetic inevitability, but merely an efficient response to their environmental situation, stating ‘wolves live in packs primarily because adult pairs can then efficiently share with their offspring the surplus food resulting from the pair’s predation on large prey.’


Varying pack studies aside, there are now numerous studies available on free ranging and feral dogs (because we must remember that ultimately, dogs are not wolves) and most - if not all - of these studies reveal that many of these dogs in fact live independently, without ever forming social packs with dominance hierarchies. Thomas Daniels, who observed free ranging domestic dogs in New Jersey, noted that whilst the dogs were familiar with each other, they weren’t overly social or cohesive, they rarely fought, and there was no evidence of territorial behaviour – findings similar to those of Alan Beck who observed Philadelphia dogs, and Ian Dunbar who observed dogs in California. Now it could be argued that these dogs are not living in the wild, with a scarcity of food or any real threat of injury or death from serious predator so, like the captive wolves, perhaps their behaviour is affected by their environment – but then wouldn’t that support an argument against dominance theory and pack hierarchy once again? Certainly where its application to our domesticated pet dogs is concerned. After all, our pet dogs are living in a massively artificial environment with 100% security against predators, a surplus of regular and reliable food... there is no need to resort to the safety and security of pack structure when there is no real threat to their survival, if it is to be believed that packs are formed out of sensible necessity rather than as a result of genetic instinct.


We must also remember that domesticated dogs are neither wild dogs, nor are they wolves. So much human interference has taken place, with selective breeding to give us the medley of domesticated dog breeds that we have today, which has had a massive impact on dog appearance, behaviour and temperament across the breeds, that these dogs are so far from the wolves which have been studied, that there is plenty of room for myriad differences between them.


Coppinger’s research showed that even feral dogs – without restrictions on all the vital elements of survival, such as food, water, and shelter, were happy to live independently or harmoniously in small groups with a loose social structure, far from the cohesive family unit of the wolf-pack. Dogs are not wolves. Humans are not dogs. Humans and dogs co-habiting is so far from being a wolf-pack, it starts to become odd to insist that we behave like alpha wolves before our pugs, in order to ensure a successful home-life.


We do not need to assert ourselves as an ‘Alpha’ figure over our dogs, because modern studies show that neither free-roaming dogs nor free-roaming wolves actually behave in this way.


In fact attempting to dominate using punishment can have these detrimental effects:


Increase the dog’s fear or anxiety about the situation in which it is used. For example, if your dog barks every time he sees another dog, and so you hit him, yank his choke chain or give his electric collar a little zap to prevent the barking, you may end up with a dog that develops an extreme aggression problem around others of his own species. Why? Because you’ve taught him that every time a dog appears, he experiences pain! Good luck letting him off-lead at the park once he’s learnt that lesson. He may end up doing his best to keep those other dogs away – whatever that takes.


Decrease the dog’s ability to learn. Science has proven to us that the parts of a dog’s brain responsible for making associations and creating long-term memories function better when the dog is enjoying himself! If you’re doling out punishments for bad behaviour rather than rewards for good behaviour, your dog will end up miserable, and your training will be less efficient!


Inhibit behaviour – but leave the underlying emotional response unchanged, leading to bigger problems... Let’s take separation anxiety as an example. Every time you leave the house, your dog barks incessantly, and your neighbours are complaining. So you start ‘training’ him out of the behaviour by leaving the room, and promptly returning with a water bottle to spray your dog in the face every time he barks. The barking might eventually stop. But you have not dealt with your dog’s underlying anxiety about being left alone at all... if anything you’ve now given him cause to fear your return as well as your departure – so now he really has got a lot on his plate! Now that he is afraid to bark, his anxiety is likely to manifest itself in other ways, which could include house soiling, destructive chewing, and a whole host of other problem behaviours.


Damage Your Relationship. Why did you get a dog? I’m guessing because you wanted a companion, either for yourself or your family, for you to bond with and enjoy. Repeatedly doling out aversive, painful and scary punishments to your dog does nothing for his relationship with you, contrary to any old-fashioned rhetoric you may have been told about dominance and ‘alpha’ leadership.


Remember, your dog is not trying to take over the world; he’s just after a nice life... aren’t we all?!









By listendogtraining, Jan 2 2017 08:00AM

Old-school theory on pack structure is reliant upon two assumptions – the first is that dogs will adhere to the same social structure as wolves, and the second is that captive wolves will be entirely unaffected by their captivity, and will act socially exactly as they would in their natural environment and habitat… and we now know that both of these assumptions are entirely false!


Bruce Fogle describes the rigid wolf-pack hierarchy as being based upon a ‘dominance – subdominance – submission’ structure with a dominant wolf, subdominant tag-alongs, and the submissive pack members, who perform ritual passive behaviours, such as crawling, keeping their heads low, and licking the lips of the dominant wolf. It was a widely held belief that the alpha would defend his position with aggression if necessary, and quash any challenges to his position – an idea that many trainers of previous decades translated into modern dog-owning practice, suggesting that our dogs’ errant behaviours are caused by their misguided belief that they are the leader of the pack, and that we as owners must seek to educate them otherwise, and take that title for ourselves, in order that they might become submissive and therefore compliant.


However, in 1999 Mech highlighted the dramatic changes in wolf behaviour that were caused by their captivity, stating that within a natural and free wolf-pack, dominance is not manifested as a pecking order, dominance contests are extremely rare, and the typical free wolf-pack functions more like a symbiotic family unit, sharing out the leadership, labour, and responsibilities to ensure survival.


Whilst captive wolves make frequent challenges to their pack leader, free wolves do not. We forget the many differences that captivity presents – manipulated by man, the captive pack consists of unacquainted wolves unnaturally brought together from different sources; they have a stable and predictable food supply, and there is little outside threat to their existence – no real risk of injury or death. In other words, all the reasons to work together and form a harmonious pack no longer exist in this artificial environment – there is no opportunity or encouragement for them to act naturally.


In stark contrast, free wolf packs have been observed to actually have a lot in common with our human family groups – a breeding pair and their cubs will co-operate together as a unit to ensure their survival, and rather than challenge the elders’ position, the young (once matured) will often leave to find another lone wolf and form their own pack – something which isn’t possible in captivity. Coppinger suggests that pack formation is not a genetic inevitability, but merely an efficient response to their environmental situation, stating ‘wolves live in packs primarily because adult pairs can then efficiently share with their offspring the surplus food resulting from the pair’s predation on large prey.’


Varying pack studies aside, there are now numerous studies available on free ranging and feral dogs – because we must remember that ultimately, dogs are not wolves – most if not all of which reveal that many of these dogs in fact live independently, without ever forming social packs with dominance hierarchies. Thomas Daniels, who observed free ranging domestic dogs in New Jersey, noted that whilst the dogs were familiar with each other, they weren’t overly social or cohesive, they rarely fought, and there was no evidence of territorial behaviour – findings similar to those of Alan Beck who observed Philadelphia dogs, and Ian Dunbar who observed dogs in California.


Now it could be argued that these dogs are not living in the wild, with a scarcity of food or any real threat of injury or death from serious predator so, like the captive wolves, perhaps their behaviour is affected by their environment – but then wouldn’t that support an argument against dominance theory and pack hierarchy once again – certainly where its application to our domesticated pet dogs is concerned? After all, our pet dogs are living in a massively artificial environment with 100% security against predators, a surplus of regular and reliable food... there is no need to resort to the safety and security of pack structure when there is no real threat to their survival, if it is to be believed that packs are formed out of sensible necessity rather than as a result of genetic instinct.


We must also remember that domesticated dogs are neither wild dogs, nor are they wolves. So much human interference has taken place, with selective breeding to give us the selection of domesticated dog breeds that we have today, which has had a massive impact on dog appearance, behaviour and temperament across the breeds, that these dogs are so far from the wolves which have been studied, that there is plenty of room for myriad differences between them.


Coppinger’s research showed that even feral dogs – without restrictions on all the vital elements of survival, such as food, water, and shelter, were happy to live independently or harmoniously in small groups with a loose social structure, far from the cohesive family unit of the wolf-pack. Dogs are not wolves. Humans are not dogs. Humans and dogs co-habiting is so far from being a wolf-pack, it starts to become odd to insist that we behave like alpha wolves before our pugs, in order to ensure a successful home-life.


Old-school theory which argues that almost every negative behaviour is down to our dogs attempting to challenge our dominance, or climb up the pack hierarchy is unfortunate in that it allows us to blame something else for what could in fact just be put down to poor training. If you subscribe to this theory that we must create a hierarchical pack in order to stop our dogs pulling on the lead, then people resort to some unnecessary and absurd behaviours (such as eating a biscuit before feeding the dog, performing alpha rolls, etc.) when actually teaching a dog to heel well can be taught with positive training. Your dog is not pulling on the lead because he believes himself to be superior to you… he’s pulling on the lead because he’s excited to be out of the house, you’re walking too slowly, and you haven’t taught him not to!


So whilst I whole-heartedly believe that as owners, we should provide our dogs with guidance and a good education in order to make it clear what we expect from them, I have every faith that we can achieve this with positive training, not by seeking to construct and enforce a hierarchy, so that we can go on to consistently remind our dog that he is at the bottom with a series of fruitless and sometimes cruel engagements.




By listendogtraining, Nov 10 2016 10:40AM

Today’s dog exists in a wide and wonderful array of breeds. This diverse spectrum of shapes, sizes and colours is bursting with dogs which have been uniquely ‘designed’ to serve a purpose - or selection of purposes - befitting the requirements of man; from companion, to hunter, to protector, to herder, and so on.


As a result of the multiplicity of roles available today for man’s best friend to serve in, dogs are selectively bred to strongly possess any traits relevant to the selected task at hand, which would make them well-suited to the role.


A favourable trait for a hunting dog, for example would be a keen and strong nose; hounds are notoriously adept at picking up scent trails and locating prey based on this trait. A working dog like a sled-pulling Husky, on the other hand, has a completely different purpose, for which a keen sense of smell is not a priority; (in fact it would be detrimental to have a sledding dog stop the smell the roses every 5 yards!) in this case, a dog may be bred with increased strength, stamina and endurance in mind. And finally, if the dog’s purpose is to serve as a protector or guardian, (to provide security to a property or person) they may be bred to be moderately more aggressive, with increased alertness.


Always take a breed’s primary purpose into consideration when choosing a puppy – think about the effect owning an energetic working dog, for example, might have on your family, and ask yourself whether you are able to offer the dog all the appropriate outlets for all that energy and endurance on a regular basis, in order to prevent frustration, and problem behaviours manifesting.


Remember, all dogs display instinctual behaviours – things they are naturally driven to do, and things which some owners may find problematic, such as chasing small animals, or digging up the garden. Rather than trying to prevent these behaviours altogether, it is better to try and channel the dog’s focus and energy into another, more positive or ‘civilized’ activity, or the dog will become frustrated. One example of such an activity, designed to exercise both a dog’s mind and his body, as well as releasing any pent up energy, is agility.


A well-exercised and adequately mentally stimulated dog is less likely to become bored, or frustrated at home.


If a dog displays a strong prey drive, and is always chasing after cats and squirrels, then hunting or retrieving is an excellent activity to utilise and channel this behaviour into something positive. Flyball is another great form of exercise, for dogs who enjoy running, jumping and retrieving.


The key to keeping your dog content (on top of providing him with a safe home, a good diet, and adequate exercise) is to ensure that his natural drives and instincts are fulfilled in healthy ways. If in doubt, do not hesitate to get in touch!




By listendogtraining, Apr 1 2016 10:50AM

There is a great deal of genetic, behavioural and anatomic evidence to support the argument that the dogs we share our lives with today, are descendants of the wolf – or more precisely, a small sub-species of wolf. The wolf, for example has the same number of chromosomes as our domestic dog, whereas the number of chromosomes in other canids, like foxes and jackals is different; dogs and wolves both have 78 chromosomes, whilst the red fox has only 38, and the jackal has 74.


According to Stephen Budiansky, it was in fact the dog that chose to befriend us all those thousands of years ago; they loitered around the heat of the camp fire and begged for food, and thus the relationship between man and dog began. Anthropologist and Zooarchaeologist Susan Crockford believes it is likely that the domestication of dogs began when curious wolves began to investigate the camps of Stone Age people, who left butchered carcasses and edible remnants littering their camps . Human and wolf remains have, in fact, been found together dating as far back as 400,000 years ago. It is believed, however that a sub-population of wolves, that had developed to be less fearful and more submissive in order to sustain a relationship with humans would have gained themselves an evolutionary advantage over the original wolf.


In villages in South America, Africa and Asia, where free-ranging dogs still exist, the original relationship between humans and dogs that existed all those thousands of years ago can still be witnessed: the dogs loiter around the villages; foraging and living more or less directly off the waste of the villagers, and leaving the livestock untouched. They show no real fear of the people and will occasionally beg for food, or run away if directly threatened.


From here, the development of different breeds began simply – dogs were selected by the humans within the villages they lived symbiotically with, based on their behaviours, to serve certain purposes. For example, the dogs that barked more were selected to guard, and the dogs that could run faster were selected to hunt. Selective breeding of dogs with desired traits and capabilities caused basic divisions between hunters, herders and guard dogs; these divisions have developed on from then – quite considerably over the past 200 years – to include pointers, retrievers, lap dogs and more. Certain traits of the wolf have been improved upon in the dog (increased fertility and a longer period of socialisation, for example) in order to benefit our breeding and training of them.


This does not mean however, that we should treat the pet dogs we share our lives with today, as wolves. The idea that wolves dominate one and another and therefore we should ‘dominate’ our dogs in order to avoid anarchy in our homes has been long-since discredited, and with good reason (which I’ll explore in depth in a later blog post… link to follow!), however it’s interesting to delve into the ancestry of our quirky labradors, pugs and beagles, and learn that they all originated from the same melting pot of canine genetics, once upon a time!



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