Over the last few months, I have received a large number of calls from owners of very nervous, anxious or aggressive dogs who have decided that enough is enough and feel it’s time to resolve their best friend’s problematic behaviour.
It is fantastic to meet some amazing people who are prepared to work hard to improve the lives of their anxious dogs.
There are many reasons for animals to exhibit aggressive behaviour and many factors that contribute to fear or anxiety.
That said, there is often a common theme within many of the owner-pet relationships which revolves around outdated and harmful “pack leader” theory. At puppy or dog training class, these poor owners have been told that their dogs are trying to dominate them, challenge their authority and be the leader of their household. Many have been told to walk through doors first, eat first and never allow their exuberant puppies to initiate play; those behaviours are the gift of the pack leader which must always be the human. I’m hearing various accounts of owners being told to punish barking by holding closed their puppy’s muzzle or spraying them with water; I’m even hearing reports of an entire puppy class who each got issued with a water bottle on the first day and had to bring it with them each week! Some owners have been told to eat from their dogs bowl whilst others have been told that their best friend is pulling them on the lead because they are trying to be the boss.
There are many dangers associated with punitive treatment of animals, not least making the animal even more anxious and fearful. Similar to human relationships, treating an animal badly is likely to impair the owner-pet bond. Whilst there are normally many different reasons and contributory factors, it is not uncommon to find punitively treated animals with behavioural problems. But worse than that, when you believe that your dog is trying to be the leader of the pack, dominate you and/or take over the world, you will find that you very quickly begin to compete with them and consider that every behaviour they exhibit is a challenge to your authority; for many people this can significantly weaken their relationship with their dog.
Your dog doesn’t pull on the lead to be the leader of the pack, he pulls on the lead because:
a) he is excited and wants to get to where he is going.
b) he is desperate to get away from traffic or other scary things.
c) he simply hasn’t been taught how to walk nicely beside you.
Every time your dog does pull on the lead, he is likely to be reinforced and therefore will be more likely to pull again in the future.
Dogs either exhibit innate behaviours, which are species specific survival type behaviours, or those that they have learnt through experience and have become personally advantageous. When your dog initiates play, it’s because he wants to play with you. Consider it a compliment and play with him occasionally. Yes, it is important not to play every time your dog wishes too because it may result in them continually seeking play and attention, but occasionally is fine and is good for your relationship. When you open the door and your dog bursts through, it’s because they want to go outside; teach them to wait to improve self-control and stop them rushing out to potential danger, but don’t consider it a challenge on your authority!
There are many studies which have shown that punishing dogs in the presence of other dogs is likely to lead to dog-dog aggression; but we don’t need science to tell us this. Spraying your puppy in the face with water when he is barking at another puppy isn’t going to make him like other puppies or dogs! Whilst the fallout of a specific punitive treatment is often very difficult to measure, it is likely to contribute to fear and/or anxiety and be associated to whatever was in the environment when it happened.
Give your puppy or dog the best start in life and do not be scared to challenge your trainer or the pack leader rubbish you hear online, in books or on tv. If you are advised to do something punitive or harsh, ask if there is another way? Ask why you are punishing or trying to stop behaviour instead of teaching something incompatible? Ask what effect this could have on your relationship and/or your dog’s well-being.
Dogs are not trying to take over the world, or even your world; they are simply doing what is personally advantageous for them. If you find your best friend’s behaviour inappropriate, then teach him what you would prefer him to do instead.
Forget the pack leader rubbish and much of your frustration will go!