Monday, April 2, 2012

Emma's Misbehavior Really Isn't My Fault

I’ve always been curious about my Boston Terrier, Emma. What does she know? What does she see? How does she experience herself in the world? What’s the best way to reinforce obedient behavior? What’s the best way to eliminate bad behavior? So, whenever a book on dog training or on how dogs think crossed my path, I bought it and read it. When Cesar Millan came onto the scene, I bought his CD and listened to it intently.

Over the last six years I’ve gained valuable insight into Emma, but I experienced one detour along the way. In Cesar Millan’s work, he focuses exclusively on the theory of the wolf pack in his training philosophy. He espouses the notion that many dog issues are a reflection of the owner and their inability to either show strong leadership and, or to deal with difficult issues in their own personal life. I thought this made sense—even doing my own personal inventory of what issues I might be transferring onto Emma. But after several years of thinking I lacked leadership and that Emma was aggressive with other dogs because I had an issue with other people, I decided I no longer believed Cesar’s theory.

Emma is a Boston Terrier and terriers, particularly female terriers, can be aggressive and territorial. I concluded in my own mind that the best approach I could take was to train and discipline Emma as I would a child. I would set expectations and limits and reward her appropriately for good behavior.

So it was after this extended period of learning by doing, I read with pleasure Alexandra Horowitz’s “Inside of a Dog” in which she tackles head on the theory of the wolf pack. Horowitz is a behavioral psychologist who teaches at both Barnard College and Columbia University. She writes, “…it’s high time we revamp the false notion that our dogs view us as their pack.” The theory that wolves organize in packs with a dominant alpha pair in charge was based on observations of captive wolves. Wolves in the wild organize in families and individuals do not challenge for the top position. Only one pair mates, others hunt while others raise the young. The breeding pair provides leadership but is not dominant “any more than a human parent is the alpha in the family.” Dominant and submissive behaviors are utilized to keep a social order and unity, not to vie for power.

Dr. Horowitz goes on to say that the lives of dogs are very different than the lives of wolves in the wild. Dogs do not hunt. Their mating is unrelated to their human family members. And they will live out their lives with primarily human family members who wake, eat, sleep, walk, and socialize together with underlying rules of behavior.

Horowitz suggests that if we take the position of the alpha wolf and punish a dog or use submission in their training, we are misinformed. For wolves learn by observing and dogs do as well. Emma learns quite well when she understands what behavior is rewarded and what behavior is not. Without the threat of punishment, she like a child, is able to use her mind to consider how best to be rewarded for the correct behavior.

It was with a great sense of relief that I now know with some certainty that I’m not a poor pack leader or that my neuroses has created a behaviorally disordered dog that is on occasion referred to as a “terrorist.” My Emma is a domesticated dog who, in many ways, is much more like a child in her needs, in the way she learns, behaves, and interacts with me and within the our human family.

So, I think Emma would agree with me, that if you own a dog, Dr. Horowitz’s book provides a wealth of scientifically driven information about the true nature and world of dogs that will prove not only beneficial to you as a dog owner but to your best friend(s).

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