Decoding your dog: Behavior experts offer advice for pet owners


A new book makes strides busting the dominance theory.

I was at the Western States Veterinary Conference and walking that marathon walk from the convention center to the Mandalay Bay hotel elevators with veterinary behaviorist Dr. Gary Landsberg. At that time, Cesar (the Dog Whisperer) Millan’s TV program was hot, and dog trainers and veterinary behaviorists heard from dog owners about his techniques on a daily basis.

Millan was big on saying that people must express dominance over their dogs, implying that otherwise dogs will dominate them. The so-called dominance theory isn’t new. Millan was only responsible for resurrecting methods that veterinary behaviorists—and nearly all certified animal behavior consultants or applied animal behaviorists—consider antiquated.

The dominance theory isn’t the only misconception out there. Frustrated, Dr. Landsberg suggested that one day it would be nice if real science-based methods could reach the public. With only about 50 boarded veterinary behaviorists, that task seemed daunting. I suggested the group write a book for the general public: a science-based, let’s-set-the-record-straight book.

And now they have, with the publication of Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). Twenty-one diplomates from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists combined to write the book, edited by Dr. Debra Horwitz, DACVB; Dr. John Ciribassi, DACVB, and—I am honored to say—myself.

While I am certified as a behavior consultant, my job was primarily to insure veterinary “ivory-tower-ese” was translated to the general public in way that average dog owner could understand.

Millan isn’t the only trainer who has suggested that dogs should absolutely never lead their people out the front door or be allowed on a sofa or bed because that puts them in control. Being in control will explain many aggression issues, these dog trainers say.

All wrong.

And one example of how Decoding Your Dog sets the record straight: According to the chapter called “Aggression Unleashed: Do Dogs Mean to be Mean?” by Dr. Ilana Reisner, PhD, DACVB, and Dr. Stefanie Schwartz, MS, DACVB, “The perception that dogs bite their owners or other familiar people because they are competing for ‘alpha status’ has largely been replaced by the realization that dogs bite for defensive reasons that are not related to a social hierarchy.”

Bottom line: Biting is not an expression of dominance. And what’s more, most aggression is, in fact, fear-based.

Authors explain that dogs like to run outdoors first, only because they’re excited to go out, as their nose leads the way. This has nothing to do with dominance.

Similarly, dogs favor couches for napping like we do, because they are soft, and also because they smell like their favorite people. There is no science to even hint that being “higher up” on a couch, or sleeping in the same bed as a family member has anything to do with dominance, rank or hierarchy.

Furthermore, the editors explain, “The idea of possessing the dominant position in any relationship or hierarchy has inappropriately been applied to dog training, based on faulty research of wolf behavior. That idea has now been disproved by research on free-ranging wolves, and with that in mind, certainly does not apply to dogs.

As the authors point out, dogs do thrive on structure and consistent positive reinforcement training. Sure, there ought to be rules, and humans are the instructors. However, being dominant has no relevance and is likely to damage the human-animal bond.

Dominance theory is one of many myths busted in Decoding Your Dog. This book will help keep dogs in homes for a lifetime. And when there is a behavioral issue, veterinarians, certified dog behavior consultants and positive trainers using science-based methods become resources. Also, there’s a clear message repeated throughout the book your clients need to hear: As a dog owner, you might assume the problem is behavioral, but there may instead be a medical explanation. So please see your veterinarian any time you note a change in your dog’s behavior.

Steve Dale, CABC, writes a twice-weekly syndicated newspaper column for Tribune Media services and is a contributing editor at USA Weekend. He is also host of two nationally syndicated radio shows, "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute," and is heard on WGN Radio.

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