How should you treat your dog?

It is fascinating that over the years the dog training industry has learned, acknowledged, and moved forward. The unfortunate part of it is that some trainers want to turn a blind eye to more recent studies and stick with outdated and backwards theories. And some, like modern day parents have gone to the complete opposite side of the scale. Which is probably just as bad.

I guess anyone can deduce their own theories from what they have observed, but we can’t truly know until dogs learn to speak and tell us what the best way of training is. I know we all tend to anthropomorphise our dogs much more than we should, but it’s hard not to see more intelligence in a dog’s eye than they have been given credit for. For example, my male Belgian Malinois is a fantastic dog and is very well socialised but sometimes I swear he just grumbles at people to make them jump. Anyway, here is my theory on pack structure and dominance and how we should treat our dogs.

According to the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour, Darwin believed that dogs had the mental capacity to have emotions like love, fear, shame, rage and even dream. Darwin also wrote that dogs had the ability to imitate and reason. These theories although corrected by modern research, are understandable and many dog owners would tell you the same theory that their dogs have human like emotions.

Some of Darwin’s theories have also been proven and reinforced by modern theories. Such as dogs imitating behaviour. Some believe that confident dogs display submissive behaviour, imitating submission to diffuse a tense meeting. This kind of intelligence isn’t a surprise for dog owners but may seem far fetched by others.

I certainly believe that dogs have a higher emotional intelligence. After being associated with humans for so many thousands of years, it wouldn’t be far fetched to think that dogs also may have just learned behaviours which imitate emotions and us humans interpret as emotions but are just simply learned behaviours. For example, dogs coming to cuddle and show some love and affection, the dog may not necessarily be feeling affection towards its human, it has simply learned that cuddling up to its owner will get its ear scratched. According to a sociological study in the early nineties, dog owners come to regard their dogs as unique individuals and that they consciously behave to achieve certain goals in the human-dog relationship. This is hard to argue with and is most likely still the general opinion of dog owners. Does this give the dog dominance over its human counterpart? People working towards pleasing their dogs, it may seem like the human is controlling the dog but who is actually in control?

In terms of the pack structure and dominance theory.

Dr. Frank Beach performed a 30-year study on dogs at Yale and UC Berkeley. Nineteen years of the study was devoted to social behaviour of a dog pack, not a wolf pack. Some of his findings are below:

Male dogs have a rigid hierarchy.

Female dogs have a hierarchy, but it’s more variable.

When you mix the sexes, the rules get mixed up. Males try to follow their constitution, but the females have “amendments.”

Young puppies have what’s called “puppy license.” Basically, that license to do most anything. Bitches are more tolerant of puppy license than males are.

The puppy license is revoked at approximately four months of age. At that time, the older middle-ranked dogs literally give the puppy hell – psychologically torturing it until it offers all of the appropriate appeasement behaviours and takes its place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The top-ranked dogs ignore the whole thing.

There is NO physical domination. Everything is accomplished through psychological harassment. It’s all ritualistic.

A small minority of “alpha” dogs assumed their position by bullying and force. Those that did were quickly deposed. No one likes a dictator.

The vast majority of alpha dogs rule benevolently. They are confident in their position. They do not stoop to squabbling to prove their point. To do so would lower their status.

Middle-ranked animals squabble. They are insecure in their positions and want to advance over other middle-ranked animals.

Low-ranked animals do not squabble. They know they would lose. They know their position, and they accept it.

“Alpha” does not mean physically dominant. It means “in control of resources.” Many, many alpha dogs are too small or too physically frail to physically dominate. But they have earned the right to control the valued resources. An individual dog determines which resources he considers important. Thus an alpha dog may give up a prime sleeping place because he simply couldn’t care less.

I tend to er on the side of Dr Beach’s observations. I think if dogs are left alone to their own devises and even in a human family you will find dogs establishing hierarchies. There will always be a dog that eats first, takes control of the water bowl or stands at the door in everyone’s way. I fully agree with the definition of Alpha as ‘in control of resources’, we have all see small little dogs controlling resources from other bigger dogs. The old school linear hierarchy structure is obviously flawed, this most of us can agree with, but when it comes to a family environment with multiple humans and multiple dogs there is surely some sort of ‘pecking order’ or ‘pack structure’ which dogs and humans abide by. The lines of communication for me is the biggest issue. If the humans aren’t understanding the body language of the dogs, there is bound to be issues. The dogs may not completely understand their position and probably get mixed signals, the humans don’t understand the dogs and so don’t communicate correctly and so we get issues like aggression, poor obedience and so on.

So, how do I think that dogs should be treated in the home, what is the pack structure?

The human-dog relationship is one that is complex and not easily conveyed and even demonstrated. There will always be new and unique interactions that may or may not be dealt with correctly. For the large part though, I feel that humans should interact with dogs much the same as they interact with each other. Thus, humans should make a concerted effort to understand canine body language and communication.

The human should take the role as ‘alpha’ in terms of controlling resources, and not necessarily handing out physical dominance. Dogs are smart enough to not ‘bite the hand that feeds them’ and so by controlling resources, the need for positive punishment is negligible. The dog should feel comfortable, safe, and loved in a home. Access to resources in largely controlled by the human, but if the dog takes control by itself then it is corrected. Correction in the form of negative punishment. A certain level of respect is then gain by the ‘alpha’ figure, the rest of the pack is structured as observed by Dr Beach.

For example, taking food off the kitchen counter will land the dog outside with no access to the inside resources like humans, the couch and affection. For an emotionally intelligent dog this should be punishment enough.

As soon as dogs are allowed to control their own access to resources, they will start trying to take the ‘alpha’ role. Which is purely natural as every animal on earth strives to better its future. This is where conflict happens, and aggression and issues arise. According to Benz-Schwartzburg et al (2020), it can be cautiously assumed that dogs have acquired special sensitivity to human gestures, speech, and behaviour. It is only fair and correct that we as humans become more acutely aware of canine communication. Throughout history the best results have formed from clear and two-way communication, why shouldn’t we take the same approach with dogs.

Although there is allot of anthropomorphising of dogs, I think we should be putting much more effort into educating people to understand their dogs better and actually be more like their dogs rather than trying to make the dogs more human.

In conclusion it is extremely hard to come up with a definite and clear explanation of what the actual pack structure and interactions are. The dominance theory is one which has been twisted so much over the years that everyone understands it differently. I feel that there is certainly dominance and a sort of pack structure when it comes to dogs and just how humans fit into that is extremely subjective. As stated previously if humans actually put more effort into communicating with their dogs and understanding the canine body language, we would have much less issues. It is my understanding that if humans take a less physically dominating role and more of a resource dominant role, where good behaviour is positively reinforced and bad behaviour is negatively punished, we would have a smoother and ultimately happier ‘pack structure’ with our dogs.