The Dog Whisperer?

Over the last few years, many of my conversations with clients have turned to discussions of National Geographic channel’s popular series, The Dog Whisperer. These conversations are frequently very difficult for me, as the training practices featured on the television program do not fit with my personal philosophy of dog training. Realizing that I am not a fan of the show, many clients ask how I can possibly disagree with its basic premise—exercise, leadership, and affection. I don’t disagree with any of those things. In fact, I agree that all three are necessary for the health and behavioral well being of our pet dogs. I do disagree, however, with the manner in which the behavior problems of the dogs on the program are addressed.

Many of the dogs I work with would benefit greatly from the addition of proper exercise to their lives. Faced with an exuberant young retriever, few owners grasp how much exercise these high-energy dogs require—or how the lack of that exercise results in the destruction of their couches and drywall. The statement that a tired pet is a well-behaved pet has a lot of truth in it. Additional exercise may help calm and refocus your pet, leading to a decrease in problem behavior.

Appropriate levels of exercise depend upon the breed, age, and overall health of your dog. Before beginning any exercise program with your pet, ensure that your pet’s health is up to the challenge. Consult your vet to make sure you don’t over-do a good thing. Health conditions such as arthritis, hip dysplasia, heart issues, or obesity may change the duration or intensity of your planned workout. Young puppies should never be forced to walk or run long distances, or to jump high obstacles. Consider integrating activities such as fetch, Frisbee, agility, herding, earthdog activities, or even lure coursing for sight hounds into your dog’s exercise regimen. A few weekly visits to the dog park or doggie daycare may be appropriate ways for some dogs to burn extra energy as well.

While adequate exercise has a tremendously positive impact on a dog’s behavior, it is not a substitute for training. An exhausted dog may not feel like pestering the cat, jumping all over you, or destroying your house, but it doesn’t mean that he has learned not to do those things. The case studies presented on The Dog Whisperer often showcase the dog behaving beautifully after intensive exercise sessions, but rarely show any training meant to solve the problems caused by the original lack of physical activity. If the owner returns, even for a single day, to his original activity level, the dog will resume less than desirable behavior.

The program The Dog Whisperer next advocates leadership in its approach to problem dog behavior. I also strongly believe that leadership is an important part of our relationship with our pets. I don’t, however, believe that leadership includes dominating anyone or anything into submission. I’ve never met a truly domineering person who inspired me to follow him anywhere. Isn’t that desire to follow a necessary component of leadership? Do the significant people in your life inspire your hard work and devotion because you fear them? Or do you follow them out of trust and respect?

Unfortunately, many training philosophies, including those displayed on The Dog Whisperer, rely on outdated dominance theories in place of true leadership. Many decades ago, when dog training was first reaching the average pet owner, the only scientific basis we had for our training practices came from the observation of both captive and wild packs of wolves. From these observations, early behaviorists concluded that wolf packs had a strict dominance hierarchy. They also believed that the pack leader, or alpha, ruled with an iron paw, often threatening and rolling other pack members into submissive postures. In other words, fear kept the pack functioning. While we certainly respect the work of these early researchers, we have discovered that many of the theories that came from their work are incorrect or do not apply to companion animals. But why?

The first major problem with applying principles learned by studying wolves to domestic dog behavior is that our pet dogs are not wolves. True, they are scientifically classified in the same family, but dogs are no more wolves than you and I are apes. In dealing with human behavioral issues, we study human models, not chimps. To understand dog behavior, we must study dogs, Canis familiaris, not wolves, Canis lupus.

Research suggests that dogs may have been domesticated as early as 100,000 years ago. Years of selective breeding by humans have produced significant physiological and behavioral changes. For example, from a physiological standpoint, wolves tend to have a uniform appearance—longer nose, upright ears, long legs, double coat, standard size and weight. Dogs run a wide range of sizes and appearances, from the tiny Chihuahua, to the flop-eared Bassett Hound, to the giant Great Dane. Breeding seasons also provide a distinction between wild and domestic canids. Wolves breed only once per year, timed so that cubs arrive at a time that optimizes their survival rate. Dogs generally have two breeding seasons per year. While wolf litters tend to be small to ensure that all cubs produced can be adequately provided for by the pack, domestic dogs may have large litters of 8, 10, or more puppies.

Dog behavior has also diverged from wolf behavior a great deal. One major change in behavior involves how wolves and dogs vocalize. The most frequent vocalization of pet dogs is barking, an activity many of us wish they would engage in a little less frequently. Dogs may bark for many reasons—to warn off intruders, to relieve stress or boredom, etc. Wolves only rarely bark, but do howl as a form of communication with their packmates. In contrast, most domesticated breeds of dog rarely howl.

Another behavioral change that has occurred as a result of domestication is the loss of the ability to hunt to provide sustenance. Domesticated dogs have no need to hunt, as humans provide the food for them. Few dogs could adequately provide for themselves if necessary by hunting alone. Most would instead turn to more opportunistic behavior such as scrounging through human refuse or begging from humans. Years of selected breeding have, in fact, produced dogs that assist humans in their search for food, rather than hunting for themselves: scent hounds, sight hounds, retrievers, and spaniels all work to help humans provide food for themselves. Even herding breeds function in a similar capacity. Their herding instinct is actually predatory stalking behavior minus the final kill. Wolves, on the other hand, rely completely on hunting for their survival.

A final distinction between dogs and wolves is that dogs tend to be more aggressive than wolves. Certain breeds of domestic dogs have been selected for their ability to fight other dogs, other animals, guard homes, or protect livestock. Within these breeds, humans have specifically bred for increased aggression. While wolves will behave aggressively to protect their territory or cubs, they rarely fight amongst themselves because fighting is detrimental to the well being of the pack.

The next problem with applying wolf behavior principles to our canine companions is that many of the observations by early researchers led to incorrect conclusions. For example, wolf observation led to the mistaken belief that high-ranking wolves rolled low ranking pack members onto their backs to show dominance or to discipline them. This belief in turn led to the popular technique of “alpha rolling” dogs as a form of discipline. We now know that more submissive animals voluntarily expose their stomach and genitals. In the rare instance of one wolf rolling another, the intention is always serious bodily harm or death. Imagine the instinctive fear our companion dogs must feel when forcibly rolled and restrained by a human? Disciplinary methods such as scruff shakes and muzzle grabs also arose from similar incorrect conclusions.

The outdated and incorrect dominance theories espoused on The Dog Whisperer program truly became the cornerstone of dog training for many years. These theories conclude that almost any and all dog behavior problems could be tied to the dog’s desire to dominate humans and thereby secure higher status within the pack. Pulling on leash, intolerance of grooming or handling, and resource guarding a toy or bowl of food are all assumed to be attempts at dominance. In watching The Dog Whisperer, it is readily apparent that Mr. Millan’s approach to these and most other behavior problems rely on the belief that the problem pooch misbehaves in his effort to get the upper hand on his human caregiver. While I believe that dogs are highly intelligent and do depend on well-defined relationships, I don’t believe that they spend their day plotting my overthrow.

Let’s examine just one of the typical behaviors often labeled as attempted domination: Pulling on Leash. Dogs pull on leash for a variety of reasons, none of which carries the agenda of dominating their owners. Dogs possess a response to pressure called the opposition reflex. When pressure is applied against them, they reflexively pull against it. The pressure we exert through the leash on either the collar or harness of a dog elicits this reflex. In essence, the more we try to hold a dog back, the harder it will pull. In addition to the natural response of the opposition reflex, dogs may pull because of the novel stimulation they receive from the environment. In other words, your dog may be thinking, “Wow—look at that tree! I wonder who has marked there today? I need to get over there NOW!” Pulling rewards the dog because he gets to the tree faster. The reward of arriving at the tree generally trumps the punishment received through the jerks of the leash, the closing of the choke chain, or the yelling of the owner. Yet another reason a dog may pull on leash is lack of education—he just does not know that pulling is not proper behavior on leash. Walking properly on a loose leash is a learned behavior—pups are not born knowing how to do it. Additionally, loose leash walking must be practiced and reinforced until it is habit, which may take several months. None of these potential causes for pulling on leash relate in any way to a dog attempting to dominate its owner. Many other behaviors such as jumping up, puppy mouthing, urinating/defecating inside the home, etc. are often labeled as dominance seeking behavior, but are usually motivated by something else entirely.

Modern dog training has evolved just as our canine companions have. Dog trainers have been able to incorporate advances made in our understanding of learning into our daily training practices. With these advances, we have a greater understanding of why dogs engage in some of the behaviors we humans term “problem.” Remember, for the dog, no behavior is a problem—barking, digging, chewing, etc—each is a normal response to the dog’s environment or emotional state.

So, how do trainers who espouse the idea that dogs live to dominate humans retrain the animal’s “dominant” behavior? They often do so by attempting to physically dominate the dog. Remember the alpha rolls, muzzle grabs, and scruff shakes we discussed earlier? All are human attempts at physically dominating dogs in an effort to change unwanted behavior. But, have you ever asked yourself what happens if you meet the dog you can’t physically dominate?

I spent many years training and evaluating Great Danes for a regional Dane rescue. I can personally tell you that I cannot physically force a Great Dane to sit or lie down if it doesn’t want to do so. So, is this where dog training falls apart—when you meet a dog you’re not big enough or strong enough to coerce into position? Do you just call upon a bigger, stronger trainer? I’m sorry, folks—most pet owners and professional trainers are regular sized people. Further, the big tough guys I need to physically induce Dane to lay down against his will are most likely not employed as dog trainers—you’ll have to look for them in NFL locker rooms or maybe in some pro wrestling venue.

If not brawn, then what? What do the whale trainers do when Shamu misbehaves or won’t perform? I think we can all agree that not one human amongst us can physically coerce a killer whale to do anything it doesn’t want to do…

Whale and other large mammal trainers rely on their own brains to overcome training obstacles. They go back to the scientific principles that drive all learning across all species. Without delving too deeply into the science of classical or operant conditioning, it all boils down to this: all animals repeat behavior that gets them what they want and they rarely repeat behavior that fails to get them what they want. With whales, if they touch the ball suspended above their aquarium, they get a fish. With dogs, if they sit politely, they get a cookie, a gentle pat, and attention from their human. Find the reward the dog is willing to work for, its motivator, and the dog will comply with your request, provided it understands that which was requested. Within this scenario, no one has to outweigh or out-muscle the other to achieve the desired outcome.

My obligation to both the dogs I work with and to their owners is to present them with training techniques that are humane, effective, and possible for the average dog owner to perform. Many techniques displayed on television programs such as The Dog Whisperer are not suitable for the average dog owner to practice with their dog because they rely on either physical domination or handling skills that take trainers years to learn to perform correctly or consistently. So, if the professional dog trainer may have difficulty with a training technique, how will anyone else perform it? What if the dog owner is a petite woman, an elderly person, or a person with a physical disability? Does it mean that the dog can’t be trained? Switching to a methodology based more upon scientifically proven learning principles rather than brawn or intimidation allows nearly anyone to successfully train a dog in a wider range of behaviors than are possible by force alone. And if you still think anyone can perform the training techniques performed on shows such as The Dog Whisperer, please note the disclaimers featured before each episode…

Pet owners should also note that training techniques depicted on this program also occasionally rely upon technological aides, such as shock collars. Realize that humans have been successfully communicating with dogs and training them for thousands of years—without the need for remote controlled shock collars. Shock collars are actually banned in many countries, yet trainers in these countries produce happy, reliable working dogs in a variety of venues including obedience, schutzhund/protection, and hunting. They also successfully rehabilitate dogs with behavior and aggression issues that some shock collar trainers contend can only be retrained utilizing shock. And, once again, in the event that the use of a shock collar may indeed be warranted, it is yet another training tool not suitable for the average pet owner to utilize for training. The risk of behavioral fallout because of poorly timed shock collar corrections or training at too high stimulation levels is too high. Referring back to the original topic of leadership, I would hardly follow anyone anywhere who would shock me to get my compliance.

Affection is the final aspect of Dog Whisperer philosophy that needs to be addressed. One can hardly argue that affection between canines and humans is mutually satisfying. As with all else, balance between affection and discipline is necessary. Too little approval and affection can be a detriment to the human-canine bond. Too much can lead to an imbalance which may manifest itself in a dog’s behavior with issues such as separation anxiety. Love your dogs, lavish your affection upon them, but temper it with reasonable limitations and gentle, non-violent training and discipline.

One final note: I am always searching out new knowledge and information to help me understand my pet dogs, to enable me to communicate more clearly with them, and ultimately to be a better trainer. I am willing to learn from many sources, even those with which I have disagreement. I have training books in my library which detail techniques I would never use to train a dog, but reading them most likely enhanced my understanding of training is some way. Likewise, I have learned through the use of training tools such as chokes or prongs, which I have rarely used in the past several years. These tools and books are simply part of my learning process, my progression as a trainer, my progression as a human. The program The Dog Whisperer functions much the same way as those books and prong collars—just another source of information to take the good from and ignore the bad.

Remember, as you watch not only The Dog Whisperer, but other popular dog training shows as well, that they are just that…television shows. They are on the air primarily as a form of entertainment—not an educational tool. The programs can be refilmed multiple times, as well as cleverly edited, therefore not fully representing the training process. No training program produces permanent results in a half an hour—ever. 

If you have any questions after viewing a dog-training program, be sure to contact a qualified dog training professional in your area before attempting any training program with your own dog. If you are unsure how to find a reputable trainer, consider visiting our professional organizations such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, www.apdt.com, or the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers, www.ccpdt.org. APDT has an excellent article available on its website that includes questions to ask of a dog training professional before retaining their services. Another excellent resource for dog training books is Dogwise, www.dogwise.com, an internet bookstore devoted solely to dog training books which may be difficult to find in traditional book stores.