(LIFE WITH PETS) There are many different dog training techniques. Some trainers encourage positive reinforcement, while others use punishment or dominance tactics. Dog trainer Cesar Millan faced much controversy after video footage was released showing him kicking his canine subjects. Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna, author of Raising Kids Who Love Animals, discusses some of the pros and cons of the alpha-dominance method and how it can affect your family pet. — Global Animal
By Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D.
Cesar Millan, the self-proclaimed dog whisperer, has been criticized recently for kicking dogs to make them obey. His training methods are based on alpha-dominance theories, which are now thought by most animal behaviorists to be outdated, ineffective, and possibly dangerous. At the beginning of his television shows, we see this dire warning: “Don’t try this at home!”
While I’m not a professional dog trainer, during the years that I participated in flyball and agility with my wonderful little Sheltie, Echo, I met handlers who used many different training techniques. I noticed that the most successful ones were those who used positive reinforcement, making every moment of the games a thrilling experience for their dogs. In fact, seeing the elated expression on Echo’s face at the end of every run is what made me want to keep playing.
I’ve seen how Millan kicks dogs on his program, and forces others to tolerate uncomfortable situations. These animals look distressed, holding their heads down and turning away to avoid eye contact. It’s quite evident that he sees nothing wrong with using methods which make dogs miserable, as long as he gets the desired results.
Alpha theories say that handlers should establish themselves as pack leaders, by doing things such as walking in front of their dogs at all times and eating first at meal times. While it’s a good idea to be the leader of one’s household, as opposed to letting one’s dog run the show, there are better ways to achieve this than forcing a dog to follow rigid and arbitrary rules.
In the field of pediatric psychiatry, we make a distinction between “authoritative” and “authoritarian” parenting styles. The key difference is that authoritative parents consider their children’s preferences in determining what their expectations of them will be, while authoritarian parents make these decisions without any input from their kids. Children whose moms and dads show flexibility grow up being more confident and well-adjusted than those whose parents rule with an iron fist.
With both children and dogs, good leadership isn’t established by telling them that they must blindly follow orders or else. The best guardians are those who intuitively understand the true nature of kids and canines. They figure out what motivates them to perform, rather than focusing on what intimidates them.
They can also be trusted to provide for their family members’ needs. If a dog displays aggression because she feels uncomfortable in a given situation, and she gets physically punished as a result, her leader has failed one of his primary duties, which is to make his ward feel safe. Using tactics such as kicking is more akin to bullying someone into submission than being an effective leader.
Monty Roberts, the original horse whisperer, understands this concept well. Rather than forcing a horse to obey, he allows the animal to approach him first. Once he has earned the horse’s trust, the two of them can work together as a team.
When I learned to ride as a young girl, some of my instructors were more like horse yellers than whisperers. I had the words, “Show ‘em who’s boss!” shouted at me more than a few times. I soon learned, the hard way, that a thousand-pound horse is always the “boss” of an eighty-pound girl. Forgetting about human domination and trying to see things from the horse’s point of view was the only way that I was ever able to become an accomplished rider.
Likewise, kids should never try to show their dogs who’s boss. If the dog decides that he’s the boss, and refuses to accept a harsh correction, a child can get seriously hurt. Another problem is that alpha-dominance methods teach children that forcing others to do what you want, even if it results in their discomfort, is acceptable behavior. In an age when childhood bullying has become such a prevalent and serious problem, that’s the last message that we want to send them.
Fortunately, there are many dog trainers out there who use only rewards and never punishments in their classes. People who care about having happy and healthy canines, and not just submissive ones, can turn off the television, forget about trying to be the “alpha,” find a trainer who uses positive teaching methods, and have fun with their dogs.