I received an email this afternoon asking my advice on dealing with a dog who tended to be defensive around strangers. The dog, a Doberman pinscher, had jumped up and nipped a man who had approached too quickly. The sender of the email said that all of the resources she had consulted had recommended a dominance-based approach, and upon reading an article about me in today's paper, she had become curious about what I did differently. Here is my brief (brief for me, at least) response:
I guess I'll start by saying that I used to go for the alpha dog approach, and I found that a few things happened. First, the dogs were stressed, which made them defensive and more prone to fighting. Second, when a fight broke out between two dogs, a third dog would usually nail me when I was busy trying to break it up. Third, the dogs were confused about their roles with regard to me, and tended to treat me as a resource that needed to be protected, against each other and against other people. It basically made for an intense, volatile environment.
When I started working with more timid dogs, I began using a submissive approach, and found that when the dogs were at ease and didn't see me as a threat, they were less stressed. I began using the same techniques with my other dogs, and found that they fought with each other less, and I wasn't getting 'sneak attacked'. I changed my attitude as well, from 'I'm the boss' to 'I'm the guardian' -- my job is to protect the dogs, and I don't have to be a pack leader to do that. I'm not a dog, I'm a human, and my role is to protect. When that's my attitude, the dogs eventually pick up on it and begin to feel safe and secure. They also see me as an ally, not a rival. In contrast. the pack leader is the most vulnerable dog in the group, because there's always another dog looking to depose him/her. What's more, the pack dynamics that are preached with regard to dogs are wolf behaviors, not dog behaviors -- a healthy social group of dogs does not have a pack leader. Healthy dog packs are loosely organized, and dominant/submissive roles are traded back and forth. Genetically, dogs are wolves; behaviorally, they're not. When we try to force them into a wolf behavior paradigm, they become stressed and start acting like wild animals, because that's what wolves do. So ask yourself, do you want a wolf, which is a dangerous, wild animal, or do you want a dog, which is a faithful companion?
Dominance-based training uses positive punishment, which legitimate behaviorists agree is outmoded and dangerous. Unfortunately, the "Dog Whisperer" and his ilk have brought about a resurgence of these inappropriate conditioning techniques that, at best, use discomfort to control animals. Freedom from discomfort is a pillar of the western animal welfare philosophy; choking, physically dominating, and intimidating are wholly inappropriate. Instead, we need to reward the behavior we want to perpetuate, and ignore what we don't like.
Don't put yourself at risk of physical harm, but work on a couple of things: first, be the human guardian, not the pack leader. You can adopt submissive postures that tell the dog you're relaxed, not worried, and he shouldn't be worried either. Often, by lying on my back, performing play bows, and mimicking other submissive postures, I end up with the dog basically demanding that I take a more dominant role, for instance, trying to crawl under my body when I'm lying on the floor. Consider how much more powerful that role of protector is when the dog has asked you to take it on, as opposed to you demanding it. Second, in tense situations, use body language to communicate to the dog that everything's OK. The trainer Turid Rugaas is the pioneer here; she calls this body language "calming signals". For example, if I am dealing with a dog that sees me as a threat and wants to defend himself, I may turn away slightly and yawn -- this tells him I'm not interested in fighting and don't intend to challenge him. You can use calming signals directed at other people, dogs, etc., too, which will communicate to your dog that those 'scary monsters' don't have you concerned. Do a search for "Turid Rugaas" and "calming signals" for more examples of these techniques. They're great for catching shy strays, too.
Look at the dog's triggers -- what are his problem behaviors and what sets him off? 99% of the time, his problem behaviors come from him feeling threatened. Decide which triggers you can reasonably remove from his life, and which ones will have to be addressed. I am a proponent of behavior management first, behavior modification second. This means that what you're already doing, taking small steps, and not giving him more than he can handle is the most important thing. Sometimes merely the passage of time is what's needed for a dog to shrug off some of the old behaviors. For example, if you have a dog that's threatened by strangers, it's better to give him time to forget how much they scare him than to expose him to them day after day, which only further cements the defensive response into a habitual reaction. I have a small terrier here that used to go crazy when he heard children's voices; here, he doesn't hear them very often, and when he does, he has no reaction. He's forgotten how much he dislikes kids. Another example -- I have some resource guarders here that are as bad as you can imagine -- 'kill you for a bread crumb' kind of resource guarding. But by not challenging them, they get better over time; they'll probably always be resource guarders, but nowhere near the level that they used to be. Had I responded every time to that behavior and physically taken the food or toy away from them, they'd have only learned to guard even more fiercely.
Regarding the pinch collar, I'd ditch it, because it uses discomfort to control the dog. I have a very simple technique for leash training, that can be a bit tedious, but it is gentle and effective -- when the dog pulls, I simply walk in a different direction. It sometimes looks like I am walking in circles, or even like I've been drinking, but by changing my direction, varying my speed, and keeping the dog guessing, he has to pay attention to me and follow my lead. There's no choking, tugging, or punishing here -- just redirection. You can use treats to augment this if you like.
Remember to take small steps and keep your expectations realistic. If you want a dog that will play at the dog park and go into Home Depot with you, you may need to adjust your goals a bit, but if you want a dog that can go for walks when there aren't thousands of people around and isn't going to break his teeth on the car window every time a jogger runs by, your chances of success are pretty good. Remember also that his happiness, not your convenience, is what's at stake here. You're his guardian, which means your job is to protect him and do what's best for him. You belong to him, in that sense. Keep his interests at the heart of your decisions, and you should be fine.