So for those of us who watched Tony Danza in the show “Who’s the Boss”, this article has nothing at all to do with that.
Now with that out of the way, I want to talk about a common ideal that often exists within dog owners households. I meet a lot of people that tell me that their dog knows that they are the boss, top dog, pack leader, Alpha etc.
When I look at the dog, he or she does not seem to know what this means but the owners seem to feel an obligation to fill this role and make sure their dog knows who is boss.
Who’s the boss? What does that even mean?
Now in an old school mentality it meant that you would act like you were in charge, were the more dominant in the relationship and often the dog feared you.
I have even heard trainers suggest that a good dog to human relationship is where the dog is always a little scared of the human.
Is this true?
Well in our modern world, regardless of the role you play, applying reinforcement and punishment will subsequently strengthen or weaken behaviours, that I do know;
But do you have to puff your chest out and strut around barking orders to train your dog effectively?
Do you have to hiss or Bah at your dog? Poke him or her in the ribs or give threatening eye contact?
When I give a dog a cue or command, these are opportunities for the dog to access a reward. Now depending on the dog I am training it may be through positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement but the opportunity is there.
My social standing to the dog is gained by the dogs experiences around me, not by myself appointed rank, or how I think it should be.
When a dog is dominant and meets another dog, he may stand over the other dogs back to assert himself or herself over the other dog. Does this always prove to establish a working relationship?
Not in my experience, very often it produces some level of conflict, aggression, suppression or fear between the two dogs.
This is not how I choose to relate to dogs and I feel that with a little more work, I can develop a relationship that has both respect and admiration for each other.
The most common dog I work with in our Boarding and Rehab packages are the very human aggressive dogs. I don’t feel exposing my staff trainers to these high risk dogs (at least at the start) is the best move as an employer, so I get to work with them.
In almost all cases within 2 days, these highly aggressive dogs and I are good friends. We share affection, trust and they benefit from my guidance to help them make good choices.
I meet a lot of clients that tell me that their dog “knows who is boss“. Many times these dogs will ignore obedience commands given by the boss, display aggression to other people or animals and generally do as they please.
If this is what being the boss means, I don’t want to be “The Boss”.
There also often is some confusion over what discipline means in dog training, and maybe in life as well.
If someone chooses to get out of bed early, regardless of the weather or how much sleep they have had and train their dog/s, I would call this person a person who is practicing self discipline.
He or she will sacrifice the short term reward of staying in bed for the longer term reward of achieving something with their dog/s.
Dogs can learn self discipline too, dogs that I train may heel past a reward that they really want in order to meet the handlers direction. This should certainly end in reward for the dog too, but perhaps not as instant as the dog would like it.
Dogs can learn to focus on a task when they would normally be distracted also. This again requires the dog to self regulate, control his or her impulses, make better choices perhaps not focussed on instant gains.
The “Boss” in my training is the person who gives the dog advice which helps the dog make choices that attract rewards.
There is little need then to raise your voice, threaten, intimidate or dominate your dog.
I like dogs that are willing to explore options when learning, dogs that have been overly dominated and or suppressed can often be reluctant to throw out an idea due to them being suppressed previously, which of course delays learning.
Sometimes though, dogs that have been successful at dominating people previously may need to see you stand up and push back to rebalance the relationship.
This is why there are almost no “wrong” or completely “unnecessary” elements in behaviour modification as many dogs will come with a history that is not conducive to your training or behaviour goals.
Just as much as I feel that trying to remain in the Force Free regiment is very limiting, I also feel that coming at the dog with the mindset of “you must bow to me” is also very limiting.
Here is an example of how training a dog with an undesirable history may be a no win situation for the dog.
The dog in question has a high value for other dogs, to me this means he or she wants to get to the other dog for a reason. It doesn’t matter for our example here what the reason is right now, but suffice to say you have a dog on your leash that really, REALLY wants to get to the other dog.
The dog will not listen to your directions and you do not want your dog to access the other as this would reward the behaviour.
So, you use your leash to restrict your dog so he or she cannot access the other dog. This will cause dogs to become highly frustrated which raises the arousal level.
It causes the dog to initiate the instinct of Opposition Reflex which causes the dog to pull against your pulling force.
Now your actions of trying to prevent your dog from accessing the other dog have only served to make your dog want to access the dog more.
So now you offer food for your dog to come, does your dog lose the reward of accessing the dog (negative punishment) or does he or she lose the reward of accessing food? (negative punishment).
Do you give a leash correction (positive punishment) so your dog chooses to leave the other dog (negative punishment).
So in fact, no matter what you do, there will be elements of punishment in your actions. This is a no win situation for the dog here simply because he or she failed to learn the correct social values of other dogs (Socialisation what is it exactly), failed to learn how to regulate his or her emotions and failed to develop impulse control around certain triggers.
Now as we cannot reverse time we will need to run one or a number of the strategies above (yes the no win situations) to develop a change in behaviour.
This means, sometimes, from where you start, there may not be a perfect way forward and that’s ok. Forward is forward in fact so sometimes the road may not be as smooth as you had hoped.
So perhaps you might need to redefine what “The Boss” is in your mind.
How about the person who
- Has the best advice the dog can get
- Rewards often and generously when the behaviour is good
- Has a minimum standard and doesn’t accept bad behaviour, ever
- Is consistent in their approach
- Controls his or her emotions better than the dog
- Is rational when assessing their dogs behaviour and well being
- Is firm but fair
So perhaps Boss means Leader, Advisor, Advocate, True Friend, Support Partner, Teacher, Therapist and Playmate all in measured amounts at appropriate times.
It can be a bit of work to own a dog and be a team with your dog, but the rewards are better than you will imagine when it is right.
If this article rings a few bells for you, take a look at the points above and see how many you check off.