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USA Dog Behavior Blog

My Infant Grandson was “Alpha” and “Dominant” Recently - We Took Care of That Promptly

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

It is my utmost hope that everyone reading this article understands that the title of this article is tongue-in-cheek. Let me explain what inspired me to title an article this way.

I recently spent a number of days with my 10-month-old grandson. Anyone who has spent time around 10-month-olds knows they can certainly be cranky from time to time. They expect their needs to be met 100% of the time - or else! We might even (foolishly) compare this primal need of very young children to dogs being “alpha” or “dominant”.

“Very young children and dogs have a lot in common. Their needs are quite primal…”

“Alpha” and “dominant” are terms applied to dog training and dog behavior that date back almost 50 years to research that was flawed. The basic concept from 1970 was that your family dog was trying to take over your household by wanting to unseat the humans for power and control. Doesn’t this concept seem silly in 2018 when you read it or say it out loud? To read more about the original author of this research and how he recanted his findings, see 3 Words I Wish Dog Owners and Dog Trainers Wouldn’t Use.

As I was dealing with my grandson’s grumpiness during my recent time with him it made me reflect on how we handle dogs that are incorrectly titled “alpha” or “dominant”. This comparison is legitimate because very young children and dogs have a lot in common. Their needs are quite primal (e.g., food, water, sleep, human interaction) and the cognitive capabilities of 2-year-old children are roughly equivalent to the average adult dog.

Imagine if a very young child (around 2 years old for example) was treated in the same way that some people approach their dogs that are being “alpha” or “dominant” in order to gain “control”. For example:

  • A very young child inappropriately reaching for food would be punished by hitting the child instead of just moving the food away and teaching the child impulse control around food using a caring and proper approach.

  • If a very young child demanded a lot of attention from adults, he or she would be punished with constant removal from the family gathering instead of rewarding the child with positive feedback when appropriate interactions were being attempted by the child.

  • Imagine a very young child that didn’t want to be held being forced to endure this even though he or she was becoming panicky and was too young to understand why someone was doing this to him or her. Instead of forcing the child to comply, a better way would be to slowly introduce the child to the concept of being held while making it a positive experience for the child.

Do you see a common thread? Whether it is young children or dogs, teaching the appropriate behavior with positive rewards is infinitely more effective and less damaging psychologically than using punishment. Punishment can feel good to the punisher sometimes, but research has shown over and over that it provides very short term results with frequent long term, and serious, problems.

I am constantly amazed how many people think it is almost heroic to physically punish a dog…or even a human child for that matter. Hitting dogs and children takes no skill or intelligence and isn’t effective in the long run.

This is not an article about teaching children. It’s an article about the absurdity of hitting and manhandling dogs that are doing nothing more than being dogs. Just like skilled and capable human parents, the best dog owners use intellect, knowledge and positive reinforcement in shaping their dog’s behaviors - thus avoiding longer-term problems. What are some of those longer-term problems?

Fear of the owner
Lack of confidence
Fear of people in general

Neither your dogs, nor your young children, are trying to take over your household. They just need to be taught appropriate behaviors in a way that doesn’t scare or hurt them.

For further reading, see Don’t do to Your Dog What Some People do to Their Children.

You Can’t Force a Dog to be Unafraid (Ditto for Humans)

© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

In your mind’s eye, I want you to imagine that you are sitting next to a passenger on an airplane who is really afraid of flying (known as aviophobia - maybe this is you). I’m talking sweating, trembling, fast breathing, death grip on the armrest, etc. If you’re a relaxed flier, sitting next to someone like this can really be annoying. You try to tell the person that you’ve been flying for 28 years and nothing bad has ever happened to you. You tell this extremely fearful flier that flying is the safest form of transportation on earth.

However, you notice this person is absolutely not listening to you. In fact, this individual hasn’t heard a word you’ve said. Why doesn’t this person listen to your calm and informed voice? Maybe you should just smack this Nervous Nellie really hard and force this individual to get under control - but, of course, you know you can’t make someone relax.

What should we do when our dog reacts aggressively or chooses to avoid something that he or she really fears?

What’s going on with this flier is a fear reaction and is known as an anxiety attack. A sense of overwhelming fear and dread. This poor character’s body is filling with the hormone epinephrine (i.e., adrenaline) because his or her amygdala (i.e., survival center of the brain) is in overdrive. This person is absolutely not having a fun time at this moment and doesn’t want to have this reaction. There is not much this flier can do about these physical manifestations once this level of anxiety begins.

Dogs are no different in how they react to things they really fear.

When a dog is considerably afraid of something (e.g., moving cars, visitors at the front door, loud sounds, thunderstorms, etc.) he or she is experiencing the same kind of anxiety that the human fearful flier is going through.

What confuses a lot of people is, in the majority of cases, dogs use aggression to scare away the things they fear. For example, a dog “greets” a visitor to a home with, shall we say, unfriendly and intense barking that doesn’t stop. This dog is not protecting anyone; he or she is afraid of the visitor and wants that person to leave or at least get further away. This dog has learned to be afraid of visitors for a number of possible reasons and is essentially experiencing an anxiety attack complete with a rush of adrenaline, the same adrenaline response that humans experience.

Dogs can also react with avoidance to things they fear. Instead of using aggression in an attempt to move scary things away from themselves, dogs will choose to move away from the thing they fear in order to create distance and feel safer.

Seeing a fearful dog’s barking at something it fears as disobedience and punishing those behaviors is exactly the same as seeing the fearful flier’s irritating nervous behaviors as simply bad manners. Neither species wants to feel this anxiety and can’t help themselves at that moment.

Here are the realities of high levels of anxiety for both humans and dogs:

  • Focus is solely on the scary event - awareness of other stimulus is virtually gone

  • Punishing the behaviors associated with high levels of anxiety only increases the anxiety

  • The experience is extremely uncomfortable

  • Once the anxiety attack begins, it escalates quickly and control of body responses is lost

  • It takes a period of time for the chemicals associated with anxiety (e.g., adrenaline) to wash out of the body once the scary event is over

What should we do when our dog reacts aggressively or chooses to avoid something that he or she really fears? To begin with, don’t punish the behaviors because that only increases the anxiety and don’t soothe the dog as it may reinforce or encourage fear behaviors.

Next, realize that what you are seeing are symptoms of the problem. The problem is the fear of something; it’s this fear that needs to be addressed. When the fear is addressed, the symptoms are normally eliminated. This is done by reintroducing the dog, in the proper way, to the thing that is feared. Simply treating the fear behaviors can be worse than doing nothing at all.

If your dog has things he or she is afraid of, seek the help of a qualified and properly certified dog behavior consultant. With patience, realistic expectations and consistency, these behaviors can be humanely addressed and improved.

Dog Breed Information, Not Always Reliable


© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

I was looking through an expansive dog breed reference recently and found some things that bothered me - and should bother you too. The information I’m referring to is found on a smartphone app that documents over 500 breeds; there are many of these types of apps. I never take the information in encyclopedic dog breed references too seriously for three reasons:

  1. They are frequently written by breeders who have a vested interest in making the breed look as favorable as possible.

  2. While breeds certainly have discernible physical attributes, temperaments of breeds are much less quantifiable. Even within the same breed, dogs vary tremendously in their personalities.

  3. There is so much bad and misleading information about dogs on the internet, in books and in magazines that it’s almost an epidemic. It makes me uncomfortable to think how much of this erroneous information might be found in a really large reference on dog breeds.

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For example, if you look up German Shepherd Dogs in the reference mentioned above, you will find the pictured graphic that addresses the major attributes of this breed. I’m okay (for the most part) with the categories that are listed except for the last one, “Protection”. There are so many things wrong with this that it hurts my head.

When will the general public and the media learn that pet dogs don’t really protect their owners? Pet dogs don’t protect their owners; they are simply trying to scare away things the dog fears. The other behavior that looks like “protection” is when they resource guard their owners (which is very different from “protecting”). A dog breed reference should know better than this, especially one that addresses behavior attributes of breeds. For more information on this subject see: Do Dogs Instinctively Protect Their Owners?

And what does the continuum between “timid” and “assertive” mean? Dogs that may be viewed as “assertive” (or aggressive) are frequently actually just fearful and use aggression to keep things they fear at a distance. Conversely, dogs that are supremely confident can appear to be “timid”; they have no need to use aggression because not much bothers them. And sometimes dogs that are “timid” can actually be fearful and use avoidance to get away from things that scare them. The way it is depicted is erroneous and oversimplified.

German Shepherd Dogs do have some temperamental attributes that can be found in the breed. The “protection” issue as it applies to German Shepherd dogs in particular can be summed up in this article if you’d like to know more: German Shepherds are the Second Most Popular Dog in America. Why do you Rarely See Them in Public?

Be careful when you look for information about dog breeds. Always consider the source. For more information see: Fake Dog News, It’s Everywhere.

I’ve found that breed-specific rescue organizations can be one of the best sources of information about specific breeds. They aren’t breeding or selling dogs to make a profit and they see all the different life-stages of these dogs.

This Dog Owner’s Comments Raise All Kinds of Red Flags

© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

I recently received the following email from a lady asking about my dog behavior consultant services.

“I have an energetic 1 year-old male Mini Australian shepherd. Overall he is an okay puppy, but he is aggressive toward other dogs. He is aggressive toward me only when he knows he is in trouble. He has bitten me on a few occasions leaving marks. He is VERY friendly toward others including strangers, but he is extremely stubborn and doesn't want to listen. He listens only when he wants.”

“…her dog is now using aggression in an attempt to keep her away from him.“

If you are a long-time dog owner, you most likely already see the red flags in her email. Let me briefly break down my concerns sentence by sentence.

“I have an energetic 1 year-old male Mini Australian shepherd. Overall he is an okay puppy, but he is aggressive toward other dogs.”

Her first sentence is the least concerning to me. Her dog has dog-fear-aggression which is caused by his fear of unfamiliar dogs and his desire to keep them a safe distance away from him by using aggression. This is a common behavior problem in pet dogs that can be addressed with proper behavior treatment.

The first red flag raises its head with this statement, “Overall he is an okay puppy…” No one I know who truly cares for their dog would ever describe their dog as an “okay puppy”.  Frankly, it seems somewhat cold to me.

“He is aggressive toward me only when he knows he is in trouble. He has bitten me on a few occasions leaving marks. He is VERY friendly toward others including strangers…”

The dog owner is saying so much with these particular words.

Her dog does not know “he is in trouble”. However, her dog does know that the owner is acting really scary and threatening around him and he is showing stress behaviors because he doesn’t understand whatsoever why she is acting like this. Dogs don’t show guilt; they show fear – and in this case – fear of the owner.

“He has bitten me on a few occasions leaving marks.” Now things are becoming very apparent, especially when she follows with, “He is VERY friendly toward others including strangers…” The owner is probably punishing the dog inappropriately for his misdeeds and her dog is now using aggression in an attempt to keep her away from him. The fact that her dog is fine with everyone else should be an important indicator to the owner that her relationship and actions toward her dog are improper and the cause of these problems.

“…but he is extremely stubborn and doesn't want to listen. He listens only when he wants.”

Allow me to translate what is happening with her dog in her last statement. She has not properly trained her dog in the things she wants her dog to know. At one year of age her dog still thinks like a puppy to a great extent. Dogs don’t come into this world or to a new home knowing all the household rules – they have to be trained (for more on this see 100 Reasons Why You Need to Give Your Dog More Respect). The occasional compliance she is seeing from him is for the things he does understand. Her poor relationship with the dog and the fear he feels around her certainly don’t help any of this.

I am not being judgmental here; I’ve learned that 95% of dog owner mistakes with their dogs are because they just aren’t informed about proper and better options. Most dog owners are not intentionally hurting their dogs when they make mistakes like this.  I believe that is the case with this dog owner too.

If you are having problems like this with your dog or you know someone who is, seek the services of an experienced and certified full-time dog behaviorist for help to objectively discern the real issues and get proper guidance.