Written by Jan Casey
The partnership between human and canine is a wonderful thing. Dogs are the only creatures on earth who have evolved with us in a mutually beneficial way. They are our teammates in sports, give us protection, keep us entertained, and provide us with both mental and physical health benefits. We, in turn, provide shelter, food, health care, and activities. It sounds like a bipartisan answer to a political question, but as with all politics, sometimes the underlying issue of control smolders beneath the surface.
As a professional behavior consultant and trainer, I have learned it doesn’t matter why I have an owner seeking my help with his dog. Regardless of whether they are here for a puppy class or a sports class, whether we are addressing a problem of aggression or of separation anxiety, the basic issue revolves around control. The owner trains the dog to respond to cues so she will come rather than run into the busy road. The dog bites the hand which is pushing her into an alpha roll so she will be able to escape and live. It’s about the ability to control one’s environment which can mean the difference between life and death. It’s about survival.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow listed a hierarchy of human needs that, when fulfilled, contribute to a sense of control. The foundation consists of those requirements he refers to as physiological: the need for health, food, and sleep. The next level is the need for safety which includes shelter and the ability to distance one’s self from danger. Only after these needs are met can someone move on to the other tiers of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. I have observed that canines, too, must have their needs for food, shelter, and safety met in order to move to a more productive relationship with humans. Unfortunately, many owners are misguided as to how to answer these needs, leaving the dog with no sense of control over her environment and no choice but to react in a way the owner finds undesirable.
Perhaps the biggest blunder committed in dog training methodology over the past twenty years has been equating dominance with control. Trainers using antiquated methods coach others to “be the Alpha” or “command the space,” mistakenly implying that humans who follow this advice will be in total control of the dog. Yet it is the dog who exerts control by choosing how to respond so she can fulfill her need for safety. She may shut down, become robotic, and never offer a novel behavior on her own again. She may suppress the unwanted behavior, only to have it surface later in an even less acceptable form. Her final choice may be to fight to remove herself from danger, but which may ultimately result in her early demise. There is no guarantee which choice the dog will make or if the one she chooses will be her final option.
Exerting control over another being is not innately a bad thing. Just as a parent will hold a child’s hand to prevent him from wandering into the street, an owner will place a dog on a leash for the same purpose. Humans and canines will choose to relinquish control quite easily when they trust someone else to look out for their well-being. We trust public servants to protect us. A dog who trusts her handler to protect her will not struggle for control. As Leslie McDevitt points out in her DVD Pattern Games, a dog who feels safe becomes confident and empowered to move forward. She will no longer react and fight to take control of the surroundings in order to protect herself.
Do we loose control by allowing the other to have control at the same time? No! In fact, it is the secret to getting what you want. Two games we play in classes can illustrate how both dog and human jointly control the outcome. The first is doggie zen: when the dog controls her efforts to get the treat from the owner’s hand by pawing and mouthing, she is given a treat from the other hand. The owner is also in control by determining which behaviors meet the criteria. The second game is based on the Premack Principle – what most people recognize as “if you eat your green beans, you can have ice cream for dessert.” Buzz’s agility training provides a perfect example: if he will practice a tough sequence with me, then he can then go dive into the pool. It works when addressing problem behaviors as well. By giving the dog some control over her environment, we can create a structure that will help her understand she is safe and secure resulting in an increase in her confidence.
Total control of another being is simply an illusion. We can motivate another to comply with our wishes, but each being has control over her response. Using force creates a stalemate which is unproductive. Problems are best resolved through give and take. Give your dog the opportunity to have some control and she will trust you to take control in demanding situations. Vote for cooperation and everyone wins.