Some Thoughts on A Few Popular Dog Training Buzzwords

I was talking with a woman who would become a future client, and she was discussing her issues with the three Chihuahuas with whom she shares her residence. In so many words, she admitted that she was part of the problem (applause all around), but something else she mentioned after that made me furrow my brow.

Her words: “I’m not a good disciplinarian.”

I explained to her that, honestly, you don’t have to be. In order to successfully teach a dog appropriate manners and behavior, you just need the capability to set a rule and stick to it. It’s that simple.

The real problem comes when you need to communicate the rules: how exactly do you tell a dog that he can’t jump on the couch or mark your dinner table? It seems so simple, and I see people at the park communicating to their dogs all the time. Lucky for the dog, they’re keeping it simple, to a point: “Leave that alone,” “No, this way,” “Come here!” “Stop it and be good.”

It’s not about the dog being “dominant.”

The real problem is that the dog has never been taught the communication necessary that not only gives its owner’s vocal cords a rest from the constant babbling, but also gives direction, praise, motivation and negative connotations (mostly in the form of the word “No”).

To insinuate that one needs to be a disciplinarian in order to achieve clear communication is a bit backwards. I have said time and again that headcollars and the constant resistance against them shown by most dogs is the exact opposite to the clear communication necessary to teach a concept and properly reinforce it. I find it’s an apt analogy.

Being a disciplinarian and dominant personality has little to do with dog training. It’s more about the personal satisfaction of “showing the dog who’s boss,” rather than simply sticking to your guns and saying “I won’t allow this.” By showing that you aren’t budging on your morals when it comes to what’s allowed and what’s not, your dog will start showing respect for you. Even when this involves the use of a training collar, it need not be confrontational—and as long as the person on the end of the leash stays calm, firm and confident, often the only one making a scene out of it is the one who is so used to having its way that it throws the temper tantrum!

Dominance isn’t a set of actions meant to coerce or subdue another being. It’s a state of mind.

Submission is not the act of rolling over and exposing one’s figurative underside. It’s a state of mind.

Humans achieve it with each other, and even objects, all the time without giving it much thought.

Someone goes to the doctor and says “I’m in pain, it’s coming from my leg.” The patient is submissive to the doctor’s expertise and knowledge of tests used to diagnose the cause of the pain and the methods used to treat it.

In another case, a dog owner might take her cat to the veterinarian and participate in a dominant/submissive business relationship, but she would challenge this by questioning the vet’s judgment on certain topics. “Certainly, the model of yearly vaccinations is not necessary,” she says. “He is fed food that is best for him, which is not the brands you recommend.” The vet can listen, accept her words and the reasons behind it, and become submissive to the owner on these topics, while still remaining the dominant figure in regards to the medical care of that dog.

A teenager manages to land a job for the first time in his life, and finds himself answering to a manager pretty close to his own age. He must learn how to be submissive to someone who doesn’t look like he deserves respect.

A driver stops at a stop sign or a traffic light at a busy intersection. While the sign itself is not “dominant,” the idea that one must obey the signal is there, lest there be bodily harm, death, or discipline in the form of an even more dominant policeman as a result of not stopping.

Something goes wonky with my computer and I take it to my local tech support. As I explain the problem and see if I can cause it to happen again, I am cognizant of the fact that my local tech support is the dominant person here in terms of why I am visiting him. I may know more than he when it comes to some topics, but as to this, I am next to useless.

My dog indeed knows more than me in some ways. I can read a dog pretty well in terms of body language and how they relate to others, but I am no match to her ability to read another dog or quickly teach another dog basic manners about personal space. When she is taken to work as a therapy dog, she has the ability to read people, smell them, and know just who needs a little bit of extra attention. There have been a few memorable therapy visits, especially with Zeke, in which the handler is merely a silent observer as the dog works to ease peoples’ pain, fear and frustration of being in the hospital, whether as a patient or a concerned family member. The dog is the dominant being here. Zeke even gently pulled his handler to a patient’s room one day, the exact patient that he had been called in to visit. He knew.

Yet, when I ask Mallory to recall, or walk at heel next to my side, she becomes submissive and obeys. She doesn’t flip onto her back, urinate, scream or flail wildly in response to my dominance over her actions. She simply accepts them and assumes the submissive mindset of the follower. There are days when she grumbles under her breath and shuffles along like the belligerent adolescent dragged to 8AM Sunday services, but in the end, she still responds and is praised for it.

Back in the day when she had learned what a command meant and decided to blatantly ignore me rather than obey, she had to re-learn that communication transcends the leash. I was in no way a disciplinarian, but I did have to make her understand that she may not want to do that command, she may not like doing that command, but she needs to do it. Oftentimes it looked mean, my slogging through the yard in the morning to enforce a recall, but no one was the worse for wear: my dog learned that she can’t get out of doing a command that might one day save her life. (I, however, learned to put on something other than a pair of sandals to tramp through fresh snow.)

There is no need to domineer a dog, especially one that is learning. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t set and enforce boundaries, literally or otherwise. The fence is there for a reason: to physically restrain the dog in the yard and prevent it from running at large. Training is the mental fence that we build to show that certain behaviors are acceptable or inappropriate. It creates a calm mindset in the dog, instills in it a sense of confidence that can’t be gained from constant reassuring or feeding of treats, and is a solid example of the true form of dominance and submission, as well as respect and trust.