I did a little more shadow handling with Kestrel today.  Just a little – only for about 5 minutes.  I also did some hand touches and “watch me” training.  I don’t want to do too much with her yet, just slowly put a foundation in while letting her be a dog as much as possible.

A lot of people do a tremendous amount of training in young – and not so young – puppies.  Some of this is necessary as you need to teach your puppy how to be a pleasure in your life, not a pain.  Basic manners are definitely key.  But I have come to rethink just how important it is to put a really extensive repertoire in your dog when it is very young.  I’ve done that before, but I’ve also worked with dogs like Kess, who learned nothing until they were older.  I really don’t think it makes that much of a difference from a training outcome.  What does matter is building confidence.  

When it comes to having a dog who is confident and outgoing, putting less pressure on them is better in my humble opinion.  I will no longer do any serious training with my dogs before they are at least 18 months (or older, depending on the dog’s maturity and confidence levels).  So just how much formal training do you have to do to put a foundation in over that length of time?  A few minutes a day (if you’re doing herding – none really for other sports) is all it takes.  Everything else should be just play while you slowly shape them into the dogs you eventually want them to be.  By this I mean training games, not just letting them run wild all the time.  But even then, I don’t do much.  In a 45 minute walk, I’ll spend fewer than 15 minutes on training, broken up in 5 minute segments of fetching, tugging, etc. with downs and sits and the like peppered about such that the dog learns without even realizing it.   

If you do exclusively positive training (and very few people actually do), then you avoid a lot of the pressures that compulsion methods can impose on a dog.  Still, there’s a lot to be said for just letting them be dogs.  This morning I took Kess out with Mira and left all toys behind.  They ran and chased each other and had a really good time.  Mira is great for that – she loves to run and chase and be chased and she’s pretty good at getting other dogs to join in.  Kess was beat by the end of our walk and slept well all afternoon.  Letting a dog really run its heart out does wonders for them.  

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I still provide a lot of structure for my puppies.  They are not allowed to run around willy nilly and get into trouble.  Positive is not the same as permissive.  I restrict their actions so that they are not in a position to make wrong decisions, and let them just have fun in environments where they are safe.  

I have almost finished Pam Dennison’s book How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong.  It is indeed a very good book. I was already familiar with most of what is in it, but it helps consolidate to go over it again.  One thing she addresses is the idea of the “alpha” dog.  Being “alpha” is a concept that we have come up with to explain dog interaction, but I agree with Pam that it is much more complicated that we make it out to be.  Unfortunately a lot of people have just boiled it down to a simple concept of being dominant over your dog, and acting accordingly.  Trainers such as Cesar Milan use this approach, and this is a reason I really dislike the way he trains.   (If you want to really learn how to be a dog whisperer, read Paul Owen’s book of that title.  Also, check out this entry by Susan Garrett on why positive reinforcement  training is so effective).

Now, many people will argue that Cesar’s training methods “work.”  And, according to the TV show, they do.  But what is he doing?  Is he really being the dominant, “alpha”?  Or is he an unknown person the dog has decided to heed for now?  Most dogs will behave better for a stranger, especially one who knows what they are doing.  I’ve seen that with my dogs, and I’ve done it with other people’s dogs.  And what is he suppressing?  Suppression is never good, in health or behaviour.  The problem will always come out elsewhere.  

The one thing he does that might help people is project leadership.  This is different from being “alpha.”  If you can offer your dog(s) strong leadership so that they feel confident that things are under control, they will more likely behave the way you want them to.  This is accomplished not by ‘dominating,’ however, but by making expectations and consequences clear and consistent so the dog knows exactly what outcome its behaviour will elicit.  

As Pam Dennison points out in her book, in many homes, there is no true “alpha” dog.  This can lead to dogs feeling insecure under stress, and so we need to step up to the plate to fix that.  But not by yelling or hitting or rolling our dogs.  Especially not “alpha” rolling (Pam explains that the only reason one dog would forcibly roll another would be to kill it, so imagine what your dog would think should you do that to him or her!).  

Interestingly, Pam’s top 10 training tools for dogs with aggression issues are all the same basic training stuff I do with any dog.  i.e. hand touches, sits and stays, loose leash walking, eye contact and so on.  This makes perfect sense, of course, because a dog who is trained to do these things has alternative options to aggressing.  When stressed, instead of lunging and growling, they can resort to familiar behaviours such as those just listed.  Ross has a very solid foundation in these fundamental behaviours and I disocovered that I could stand with Ross next to an agility ring at a trial, surrounded by strange dogs, as long as I kept him focused on going through his repertoire.  He didn’t even look at the other dogs.  In fact, I’ve never seen him work so well!  Clearly he wanted something to do other than defend himself, so he nose touched and weaved through my legs and sat and downed  and shook a paw and so on.  (I didn’t stay long, by the way – no point overloading his capacity to manage)

I’ve mentioned many times that I have a clear hierarchy in my house, with Ross being on top of the canine pile.  Pam has a different perspective on his behaviour, and suggests (in her book) that dogs like Ross are not really leaders, but rather bullies.  Yes, Ross is definitely a bully, I’ll give him that.  She suggests treating bullies differently, and not according them with the privileges of an “alpha” dog.  For example, bullies don’t get fed first.  They need to learn to wait their turn.  And so on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this and about how to manage Ross.  Ross’s dog aggression issues – which are in part bullying, but are also deeply stemmed in fear – were handled with a lot of compulsion prior to coming to me.  As a result, I have never, ever used compulsion with him.  It took me a long time to win his trust, and I clearly saw how compulsion escalated his behaviour instead of subdued it.  It made him much more defensive and likely to act out.  I’ve always felt that Ross is extremely insecure around other dogs unless he knows they will not challenge him.  He puts this to the test regularly and if the other dog backs off, he’s fine.  No dog can live in my home that will stand up to Ross as otherwise I have constant problems on my hands.  This is what happened in Ross’s last few homes.

So, Ross is an insecure bully (are there any other types?) who needs to be managed in a way that reduces his insecurity.  Since he panics around being fed, I have always fed him first.  But I have also taught him a lot of self-control around food, and he can wait his turn when I ask him to.  He no longer stresses around food because he knows he’ll get his share (and then some), provided he behaves.  

I have also supported him in an “alpha” position in order to lessen the likelihood of one of the other dogs challenging him.  Is this a mistake?  I’m not sure.  Certainly his aggression has diminished 100 fold at least since I adopted him.  But maybe it would diminish further if I treated him differently.  I do think I permit him to misbehave more than he should, and I need to think about how I’m going to deal with it.  

I absolutely don’t allow him to bully dogs outside of the house, and as a result, he no longer tries.  Perhaps its time for me to put an end to his bullying inside.  But how?  If he perceives punishment, he gets worse.  So it needs to be exclusively positive reinforcement for good behaviour while preventing the bad.  The preventing part is what is tough, unless I start crating him and keeping him separate.  Hmmm…. well, I’ll have to put more thought into how I’d do this.