Author Topic: What is wrong with the old approach of ‘dominance reduction’  (Read 2541 times)

Offline Bunter

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What is wrong with the old approach of ‘dominance reduction’ for treating dogs that are behaving badly with their families? Why are NILF (Nothing in Life is Free) and ‘Learn to Earn’ programmes being targeted by this campaign? Why does COAPE include these long established techniques alongside the list of pain inducing and frightening equipment that you are asking owners to 'Ask Why and Say No' to?

We have received many e-mails concerning our stance on ‘devices & dominance’ in our Ask Why Say No campaign statement and petition. Our point is not about methods and technique per se, but about the underlying principles behind them and, most crucially, about how the owner understands and then applies these concepts and techniques, often without appreciating the psychological effect they can have on their dog and his relationship with them.

Learning: focusing on the mechanisms, not the equipment
At COAPE we ask that you don't think in terms of 'this method' compared to 'that method' in training a dog (or any animal for that matter) because that (mis-) leads one to focus on questions regarding the nature of the actual equipment or technique and away from the real questions about the neural mechanisms that facilitate learning.

For example, the problem with 'dominance theory' as applied to dogs is that it is now widely accepted to be wrong. You will no longer find the term used in modern text books on behaviour theory to explain a dog's behaviour.

There is an excellent little review booklet by Barry Eaton, ‘Dominance : Fact or Fiction?’, that encapsulates what we now understand about dogs and which explains where the old ideas about dominance came from, and why they are no longer sustainable. You can order this directly from his website, (

For anyone really wanting to understand what dogs 'are' in terms of their ethology, evolution and development, a seminal work by Prof. Ray and Lorna Coppinger,’ Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour, and Evolution’, also available on Amazon, is absolutely essential reading as it will broaden and change the way you think about dogs for ever.

How TV shows are made
Most people appreciate that many of the TV shows on dog behaviour are designed specifically as 45min ‘nuggets’ of entertainment. Behaviour work with dogs or cats in real life is rarely as quick and simple as some of these programmes lead us to believe, just as the final sequences on most nature progammes don’t just appear live on the day in front of the camera crew…they follow hours of filming and editing to produce a finished, watchable show. Canine aggression cases in particular are often the most difficult and long-winded to respond to treatment in real life, taking months, even years in some cases to improve. Unfortunately many serious aggression cases are actually made worse by owners being advised that the simple singular root of the problem is that their dog is ‘dominant’ and needs his wolf-like perception of where he fits in some human family version of a lupine hierarchy ‘reducing’!

The Appliance of Science
At COAPE we approach all behaviour cases with a constantly evolving but fundamental understanding of what a 'pet dog' is and what a 'wolf' is both genetically and behaviourally, and the Coppingers' book will give you some initial leads here. Then we apply our understanding of the emotionality and neural mechanisms of learning – an application of the most up to date knowledge about the thought processes that go on inside a dog's brain. This is a complex area that has expanded enormously over the last decade or so and one where new information is coming to light in the scientific press all the time. We incorporate this information into our programmes of teaching and behaviour practice on an ongoing basis so as to better understand why dogs do what they do and how they learn to behave, so that we can treat them better when problems arise.

The Nastiness of NILF progammes
In terms of methodology, what does this mean if you're standing in front of a dog with a behaviour problem, such a food guarding? Let’s take one 'technique' that is often used by dominance theory behaviour practitioners and trainers – a Nothing in Life is Free (NILF) programme. What does this entail? You, the owner/’boss’ or alpha of your dog’s pack, must take control and teach him that you are in charge of all the resources available to him - 'make the dog work for a living' the owner is told.
Whatever the good intent of the behaviourist, and however well they explain what they are trying to achieve, most dog owners only pick up on the control aspect inherent in the principles behind it (dominance) and apply it badly.

This is not the owner’s fault; they are not the experts. They're just doing what they are advised to do. The problem with this is that it's very easy to get carried away by the principle (NILF in this example) and completely forget about how dogs learn. A dog’s primary source of information about what's going on in his human household is feedback via predictable signals from the family - either directly to the dog, or equally importantly, just through observing their everyday routines. It isn’t from some prewired, genetically based perception of their ‘social position’ in that family or from any set of seemingly plausible, but nonsensical rules that is supposed to be associated with all of their social relationships.

In fact it can be highly stressful both for the dog and the owners alike if the family suddenly change their dog’s access to valued resources, including denying or strictly conditioning his approaches to them for affection, play etc. This is because the dog loses all predictability and routine in his life, and loses all control of access to all of the rewarding elements of his life. The owners then often see their frustrated dog battle against this, and the specific behaviour problem in our example of food guarding worsen as he tries harder to get what he wants and needs. Finding that their dog becomes far harder to manage as a result, many owners rightly then give up fairly quickly with this type of programme. This is in spite of the fact that the behaviourist may insist that the changes in the dog’s behaviour are for the better and are part of the ‘cure’ for the food guarding. ‘Things must get worse before they get better?’ is what the owners are often told…or ‘he doesn’t like being shown who’s boss, but he’ll get used to it eventually and stop feeling that he has the social right to guard food’.

Even worse is that, as a result of such unpredictable widespread changes and loss of control to valued resources, a naturally more introverted dog may simply become resigned to all the changes and restrictions. Rather than try harder to keep his access open to the things he values, he may become utterly depressed in response to a NILF programme. And while the behaviourist may again try to infer that this too is a good sign of the dog being ‘demoted in the hierarchy’, it is in fact, a clear demonstration of psychological pain and abuse, and highly distressing both for the dog to endure and for the owners to watch. Fortunately, the owners usually abandon the NILF programme fairly quickly in this situation too and seek alternative help for the food guarding. This has invariably persisted anyway throughout the NILF programme, and irrespective of any overall impact on the dog’s general behaviour.

Sadly, some owners do continue with the NILF programme regardless because they have been told this is what they must do to ‘cure’ the dog’s behaviour, and even may be told by the behaviourist that the dog still guards his food because they aren’t applying the programme properly or hard enough to convince him of his ‘low status in the pack’ yet!

Owners who walk away from such advice and seek alternative help may then simply be branded as ‘failures’ by the NILF behaviourist, or arrogantly marked down as ‘successes’ because they never heard from them again and assumed that the NILF programme worked!

So, a NILF programme is not just ineffectual as an approach to the treating the behaviour problem in hand, but is likely actually to be counter-productive.

What needs addressing specifically in our example of course, is the food guarding, not the dog’s entire lifestyle and social relationship with his family on the presumption that solely altering his lifestyle will alter his particular motivations or his success at guarding his food.

The Three Terrors of Torture
We're all well aware of prison and internment camps around the world established in response to various conflicts, and with the debates about what's been going on in such places, but we often fail to realise that there is a science behind torture. Effective torture entails 3 elements:

1.The obvious one,:  something aversive/painful and this is what we usually think of as 'torture'. But there are 2 other crucial elements involved as well:
2.Control: in that the victim has no control over his situation.
3.Predictability: in that the victim does not know what's going to happen next and when.

By far the most damaging and stressful long term, both emotionally and physically (via the ongoing release of stress hormones and their impact on the victim’s neurophysiology and immune system) is predictability. But what has this got to do with our food-guarding dog? The answer is ‘lots’ in terms of owner feedback to the dog when applying a behaviour modification technique in such an emotionally charged situation. If you get this wrong then problems like aggression can soon be exacerbated. This is why, at COAPE and CAPBT, we start with assessing the science behind the emotional physiological mechanisms that reinforce the undesirable behaviour. The behaviour of food guarding, of itself tells us nothing.

Tackling behaviour problems appropriately
In treatment of this type of problem, it's likely that a CAPBT behaviour practitioner will engage the owner with some measured, rather than blanket control over the dog's food resources, for example by temporarily feeding the dog by hand, first on a continuous schedule of delivery followed by a steady introduction of an occasional schedule of delivery.
This is to help the dog learn to endure frustration better and stay relaxed and unthreatened by people around his food, but it’s done in a manner where the dog maintains a degree of control over the process. This technique describes but one approach, and doesn’t apply to all cases of food guarding, but it comes from a very different proactive perspective from the dog's (and owner's) point of view, not a reactive one involving confrontation, or some blanket standard denial or control of all the other things that the dog values in his life and which he isn’t defensive or possessive about.

However, this type of focussed approach on a specific problem often cannot begin before thoroughly investigating the overall emotional needs of the dog and assessing whether or not they are being met for each dogs’ individual type/breed/gender/age/personality. Dogs need to have control over certain aspects of their lives (as well as predictability as mentioned above), and appropriately designed general mood state improvement programmes must often first be developed and instigated before any specific treatment that the behaviourist teaches the owner to apply to treat the actual problem. But this is not always the case.

Sometimes the dog’s emotional needs are being well addressed when the owners seek help about the one particular behaviour problem, such as food guarding. In this case, having verified that position, a CAPBT practitioner will tackle the problem specifically, and not with a massively impacting generalised NILF or ‘dominance reduction programme’ that risks punishing the dog in so many obviously unrelated areas of his life and damaging his social relationship with his owners.

The CAPBT/COAPE approach to problem assessment and treatment is clearly VERY different to a standardised, ‘one size suits all’ total campaign of conditioning or denying everything of value to the dog and closing off all avenues of control and predictability with his family. Done to the extreme, we argue that this is simply to apply the second and third ‘rules’ of torture, and, given that emotional and physical pain are processed by the same neural systems in the brain, is the same as applying the first ‘rule’ of torture of beating or abusing the dog physically.

« Last Edit: November 13, 2009, 13:29:35 PM by Bunter »