Tonawanda News

July 14, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: Don't force dominance over pets

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — I believe in science. I believe in tests and retests. Sometimes science is slower then whimsy and magic, but science sticks. 

Science holds up, where other types of animal training fail, though calling animal whispering “training” is a stretch. When going through books or websites that offer secrets to training animals — bypass them altogether. The science is in and there are no more secrets to basic animal training. We may learn more insights in the future, but with the knowledge we have now, we can live in harmony with our critter companions using the most positive, least-invasive techniques possible.

Dogs are decedents of wolves. Many people, including whisperers, believe wolves live in dominance hierarchies and therefore dogs need to be dominated. A 13-year study following wolves on Ellesmere Island in Canada reported that wolves do not live in packs and do not have an alpha male. Instead of packs, they live in families. The reason why only the “dominant pair” reproduces is not because they are dominant over the other animals; it is due to the animals being related. The group of wolves would include the mom, dad and offspring. Since the offspring do not mate with each other or their parents, only one pair is reproducing.

The reason why we believed that wolves live by hierarchies and dominance is due to many studies taking place in captivity. In captivity the wolves that live together are almost never related, but rather forced together. Most individuals are adults and the wolves’ solution to living in captivity is to form a top-down order.

Knowing this do we need to be the leader of the pack at home with our pets? If it is not the system their wild kin are working with, why would it work in our homes? Rather than a pack leader, being a supportive pet parent might be a better situation.

Being dominant, pushing a dog down to sit, barking at them when they make a mess, can and will work, but it is not the most constructive relationship one could have with their pet.

Good parents set limits for their children’s safety and teach manners so when things do arise when the neighbors are watching they can be corrected quickly. Following this logic, we can teach our pets a foundation of acceptable behaviors using positive reinforcement to strengthen our relationship.

I was in high school, working at the Aquarium of Niagara, when I “audited” (absorbed as much information as I could) a college class called Animal Training and Learning. I didn’t attend all the classes, but the classes that I did attend were quite fascinating. On the first day of class, a few brown-nosers would raise their hand to volley a slew of answers back at the teacher. Some of the responses were correct. Some answers were wrong. No matter what they said a small foam animal — much like the kind you could find for a craft project — was placed on their desk.

There was no explanation, just a foam animal deposited on the desk. The class went on for 50 minutes, at the end the professor said for every five foam animals, you will get a credit to be used as a bonus point for your final exam. The next class I attended, many more hands were going up answering questions.

At the end of this class the teacher asked, “Why are you getting foam animals on your desk?” A student raised their hand and said, “For replying with the correct answer.” The teacher placed a foam animal on her desk and said, “Good answer, but wrong.”

The teacher was giving foam animals for participation. By actively learning and contributing, the students paid attention and at the end of the class learned many things including that the individual being trained doesn’t need to be aware that training is taking place.

Our animals also do not need to know that they are being trained. They will simply learn, with the correct training techniques. If you want them to pay close attention to you, reward them with praise or treats, when they are in-step with you. If they do a behavior that you don’t like, asking for an incompatible behavior at the same time, reinforcing anything but that incorrect behavior or changing the motivation of the bad behavior are all positive alternatives. Dominance does not need to be a solution.

Imagine if that professor got up in front of the class and scolded the students for not raising their hand or for not knowing the correct information that was about to be taught. Learning — both for humans and animals — can build momentum quickly when there is a supportive foundation. Imagine what you can teach.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to, or search for “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook.