a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Brutalizing Your Dog Teaches Him the Wrong Lesson

Monday, June 15, 2009

Brutalizing Your Dog Teaches Him the Wrong Lesson

SUMMARY: Old dog-training methods are out. Dominance is out. Communication and learning are in.
In the 30 years since I took my first obedience class and read my first dog-training book, dog-training methods have changed dramatically--in many, but not all, places and for many, but not all, people. And it continues to change, year after year, as dogs have become more and more members of the family sharing people's homes rather than working animals snoozing in the barn or a doghouse. Because of these trends, more and more time and money has been devoted to understanding how dogs learn and socialize.

In my first class, we were told to never use treats because the dog was supposed to do the work for the reward of you paying attention to it. At home, I'd sneak my dog treats when training. If dogs didn't do what you wanted, you forced them to or you scolded them for it. If they were fearful, you dragged them into situations that frightened them and wouldn't let them go. The memory of a collie, terrified of other dogs, being hauled around the ring to every single dog, his tail between his legs, his ears back, struggling to get away, is my most indelible memory of evil dog trainers and a huge reason why I decided that I would do it on my own from then on. (Ten years after that, a fortunate referral to a trainer relieved me of the "all trainers are evil" belief.)

For years now, I've been reading about, and hearing about from trainers I respect, the idea that "dominance theory" of dog training is a bunch of hooey. Here's a new study from the University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences that confirms that this strategy has probably caused more damage than good: Article: Using 'Dominance' To Explain Dog Behavior Is Old Hat; Study abstract.

Among the assorted common dog-training nonsense that I get from The Person On The Street who engages me in a discussion about dogs is "it worked for my father/grandfather/first dog 50 years ago so it's good enough for me." An example of a thoroughly debunked ancient training strategy: when a puppy pees on the carpet, hit him with a rolled-up newspaper and rub his nose in it. Doesn't communicate the right thing to the dog--in fact may communicate entirely the wrong thing, may make the problem worse, probably takes longer to achieve the results you want.

Knowledge about, and strategies for, many things change through the years; don't know why some people think that dog training methods should be frozen in time when there's plenty of solid, more recent information about how dogs think, act, and learn.

Cesar Milan is a controversial figure in one large part because he uses dominance theory. Most trainers I know think he's singularly done more damage to the science of dog training than anyone else in recent history. I think he makes some good points; like: if your dog is getting enough exercise and mental exertion, he won't develop bad habits through boredom or pent-up energy. But there are a lot of things that he talks about in his book that raise my suspicions about what's really going on behind the scenes and after the cameras have left the building.

If you're here reading this blog, I'm probably preaching to the choir, so,OK, that's my soapbox for the day.

Here are additional links on the same topic:


  1. Don't even get me going on Cesar Milan.

    My first obedience class was through the local humane society and they used the old school methods. The instructor was a slip of a thing and tried to get my 107 lb Akita to lie down by sitting on top of him like she was riding a horse and forcing him into a down. She was not successful and thankfully he was a calm gentle soul and merely looked at her like, 'Yeah, nice try but I'm not budging' rather than freaking out. My husband and I had a good laugh at that sight and gave up on those classes after 3 or 4 lessons.

    Happily the same instructor ended up leading the switch to clicker training classes at the H.S. so some people do change.

  2. Thanks. I didn't point out that actually the 3rd article linked at the bottom also says essentially that sometimes you have to be physically dominant with your dog. It seems to contradict the other things, but (a) it's not looking at the same kinds of questions and (b) I'd like to believe that it's extrapolating from what it says earlier in the article that people are too nice to their dogs and let them get away with crap and then they become behavioral problems.

    Such a balancing act, training dogs!

  3. One of the things that I've found with "dominance theory" is that frequently it gets people to train behaviors they should train for reasons I don't necessarily believe in. For example - I don't think it matters who goes through a door first from a dominance perspective, but I do think it's important to have the human be able to decide who goes through the door first from an ease of living standpoint. I think that's part of why the belief in the theories continue to stick around so long... It gets people to train their dogs (for the right or wrong reasons using techniques I agree with or don't)

  4. I agree about going through the door first--or down the stairs--or whatever. I just know that someday one of my dogs is going to take me out, because I haven't been good about training that. Or, worse, take someone else out. I meant to nab the article I just read about how many people are injured falling over their pets every year. It was a phenomenal number. Where did I see that? Dang. Just in the last week or so, I'm sure.