Saturday, October 27, 2012

Are Dogs Pack Animals?

Wolves in their natural environment, so not captive ones, function as a pack. They hunt cooperatively and raise their offspring together. There is group cohesion because there is common interest, and the breeding pair sets the direction not so much because they fought their way to top position, but because they are older and more experienced - the pack consists of parents with several generations of offspring.
The wolf pack is not as static as once believed. Internationally recognized wolf expert L. David Mech states that every wolf, once an adult, has the freedom to disperse, mate and form a new pack, and many do. Furthermore, a wolf who doesn’t benefit the group runs the risk of being ousted or killed.
However, that revised information is not common knowledge. The belief that wolves are hardwired status challengers, and that it is the physically strongest one that prevails and keeps the others in check,  and that the same is true for dogs since wolves are dogs’ ancestors, is so widespread that even non-dog-owning folks believe it.
It is also what Cesar Millan accepts as true. In “A Member of the Family” he writes that canids in the wild arrange themselves in smoothly functioning packs, and if a dog misbehaves or aggresses, it is because the pack leader has weak energy the subordinate recognizes and takes advantage of. Handily, he has a number of dominance displays up his sleeve the weak human ought to apply to demote the canine ladder climber a few rungs, but warns not to repeat it at home.
In any case, just because Millan says something and masses believe it, doesn’t mean that it is so. A three-year study of feral and stray dogs in Italy revealed social behaviors that are not at all wolfish – or packish.
The normal adult group size was 3-6, but there was a high mortality rate and new dogs were frequently recruited to keep the number stable. In other words, only the number of adult dogs was stable, the make-up dynamic; by the end of the 3 years only one dog of the original group remained.
When the optimal size was reached, outsiders were aggressively driven away, but there was no aggression within the group, and there was no animosity observed against other dogs on the garbage dump feeding sites. Only the home resting area was defended, not the roaming range, or food.
The dogs in the group had preferred associates and sometimes roamed with a buddy, but each one also spent time alone. There was no obvious pack leader.
There also wasn’t a breeding pair. All females mated and preferred familiar males to the strongest ones. Since the stud, unlike daddy-wolf, neither protects nor feeds the brood, strength is irrelevant.
Mom-dogs whelped away from the group, and stayed away for 4-5 months. The group did not help raise the pups, but stayed in loose contact with the female.
After the pups were weaned, they followed their mom to the feeding sites - neither she, nor any of the group’s adults, regurgitated food.
Only about 25% of the pups stayed with group.
The observations of this study align with others made around the world. Feral and stray dogs universally:
Do not form hierarchical packs, but loosely and transitory groups, and/or roam with a buddy, and/or alone.
Females breed often and with every male they choose, and are on their own raising the brood.
Unlike wolves, dogs don’t hunt cooperatively, but scavenge independently. Some avoid humans and adjust feeding to times when people aren’t in the vicinity, for example at dawn and dusk. Such was the case with our feral born Will, who was first spotted by humane society volunteers outside of Calgary. She and her 4 littermates were a guesstimated 10 weeks old, they traveled with mom-dog but no other ones, and all of them were so apprehensive that they couldn’t be trapped, not even with smelly wet cat food, but had to be tracked and cornered in their home-base hideout. And it's hideout, not dugout. The feral dog study found that the dogs did not dig dens, but moms-to-be used already existing cavities to whelp.

Strays are often less elusive. I observed non-owned dogs Greece and Southern Spain who solicited food from tourists, even though they were repeatedly shooed away by locals. They never jumped and stole food, and there are accounts aplenty of bolder strays that do, but the ones I observed didn’t. I also didn’t see any aggression, not against people or each other. They just hung out where tourists were, where they experienced morsels being tossed their way.
In Chalkidiki, a mom-dog and her litter followed me to dinner for a week, and in Andalusia a large blond dog arrived at the hotel pool each day when I had my lunch. Once I understood his pattern, I bought lunch for the both of us, and sometimes the hotel manager’s purebred Old English sheepdog would join in – both dogs intact males, no aggression.
So, an unchanging linear hierarchical pack, and the dominance that comes with it, is about as unnatural as it gets regarding dogs that are not directly manipulated by people. That is not how self-governing dogs arrange themselves.
The relevant and important question is if that changes when we eliminate autonomy and make dogs our dependents. When we include a dog in our social setup, don’t we function like a pack? Isn’t the owned dog a pack animal then, if not by nature, by adaptation?
Well yes, although I dislike the word pack in that context. Humans who live together, share space and  purpose, are called a family, circle of friends, sports team, focus group, school class, organization, but never pack. And owned dogs live with people, not the other way around, so my dog is a family member. But that is just semantics and rather trivial. What we have to understand, and that is crucial, is that the moment we acquire a dog, he has no option but to assimilate and become a functioning part of our intimate social group. At that point, the dog needs someone who teaches him how to: how he fits in, like members of any group need someone who outlines the direction. That instills safety in the newcomer, and group.
In the dog/human composition, it is the person who is the leader by virtue of species.
The ambition to lead humans is a choice. Many people are perfectly content to dabble away and let others make the important, and sometimes tough, decisions. In our relationship with dogs, there is no choice. The dog has lost independence and became a dependent, relying entirely on his people to provide for his needs. Like you would need a roadmap how to function successfully in a foreign land or culture, the dog needs directions how to access resources, how to gain social acceptance, how to feel secure - safe, and how to deal with stimuli that are part of his environment.
It is a no-brainer that that level of dependency makes the dog the one family member who is exactly NOT dominant and in charge. You are, and your dog knows it.

Forget and forgo the idiotic and damaging dominance rituals Millan and alike prescribe. Forced submission and physical power displays emotionally paralyzes the timid by nature dog, and provokes aggression in the confident one. We instill distress, and foster competition in a species programmed to orient to humans and be solicitous.
Dogs are not pack animals, or perhaps even innately social ones, but they are hardwired to be able to form close and permanent social relationships, which is what we're banging on when we invite a pooch to share our life’s journey. Studies showed that dogs look at humans for information; wolves don’t. Dogs are food, but also social opportunists. They are perhaps the only, other than human, animal who can feel more comfortable living with another species than their own.
Far from being naturally dominant, the dog is a natural follower. Remember that puppies follow their mother to where the food is? Following who facilitates basic needs is hardwired in dogs; they pay attention to whoever is important.
Attention is an offered behavior and has nothing to do with rank, but facilitation. Once we earned that attention, all we have to do is teach behaviors that please us the pooch can use to get what pleases him. In other words, the dog learns to access what motivates him through cooperation, and once these behaviors are habitual, no further leading is necessary - unless the situation changes, at which point the dog who has authentic group identity, feels bonded and trusts, will seek information from his human and follow his lead.

A pack, any social group, shares space and has common purpose. One does not become a pack leader by entering someone else’s home, pinning the dog or forcing him with a 20-cent rope to trot behind. Millan’s “pack” is nothing more than an arrangement of individual dogs coerced to avoid a certain set of behaviors when he is in the vicinity. That’s all. His is a relationship based on dominance and forced submission, and indeed requires what he preaches: to be on top of it all the time, to always be calm-assertive.
How tedious and impractical a relationship with an animal who is by nature not hierarchical, but programmed to form a cooperative close social bond and live in harmony within group.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Email From a Morphed Alpha Human

I want to share with you an email that landed in my inbox, one of many similar ones, by the way. Here it is: 
“I own wolf dogs and if you are not the alpha, they take over. A stern voice or glance makes my dogs go to the ground. I would never hit them, however. I will snarl, stare and let them know I am the dominant of the pack. I have also neutered and spayed them because my husband and I are the only breeding pair in this pack. We have also started showing them that our son has a higher place than them in the pack. My male tries to be the dominant one, but has never successfully won. Nor will we let him. I am alpha, he is a pack dog and nothing else.”

Here is my response:
The author believes that she has a functional pack because the way she and her husband relate with the wolf dogs follows Nature's Rules. Like many, she's been misguided.
In nature, the social climbing male could and would leave and form his own pack.
In nature, the existing alpha would always have to be on guard, and it appears that the author of this email also is.
In nature, no wolf is forced to submit to the next generation offspring, her son. Rank comes with seniority.
It appears, that her male wolf dog understands how nature works and hasn't authentically submitted. The sentence: “My male tries to be dominant but has never successfully won” implies that he continues to challenge, and that means that his humans have not convinced him that he is nothing but a pack dog.
To "never successfully won" I answer: So Far!
This sentence worries me. I see a real risk that if the owners have their backs turned, the male might try to take the weakest link out first - the child. And that risk is there regardless if the owners are actually accurate and the dog is dominant, or erroneous and he is anxious, frustrated and angry because of the way he is treated.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Resource Aggression

As part of his Canada Tour, the famous TV dog trainer Cesar Millan is coming to our province in December. In my next few posts, as a welcoming gesture, I will give you my take on key premises he is basing his methods on.
Planned are: The Migration Myth and how much exercise a dog really needs; Whether or not Dogs Are Pack Animals, and if I have enough time Mother Nature’s Rules and the twisted thinking that because a tree hurts us when we hit it means that we must inflict pain when our pooch does something we disagree with.
I’ll begin with Resource Aggression. A behavioral issue more than a premise, it is today’s topic nevertheless because of a couple of video clips that made the social media rounds a few weeks ago, because it is a common problem, and because many people, including some trainers and rescue folks, still address it confrontationally.

Dogs, as a species, are deferent to humans. I said that before, and am not the only one saying it. We have the big brains to decide dogs’ fate, the bank accounts to provide what they need and want, and the dexterity to impose our will onto them with the help of collars and leashes. For some 14.000 years dogs experienced us as direct or indirect food suppliers, and owned dogs are entirely at our mercy, depend on us for everything: food, water, safety, shelter, mental and physical stimulation. How much more dominant do you need to be?
If dogs are so deferent, you might argue, then why do some fiercely aggress against the very people who provide resources? Isn’t that dominance? Isn’t that proof that the dog feels in charge and needs to be demoted a few notches? No, not necessarily.
Resource aggression, in fact, is always rooted in fear – the fear of losing something. Although partly hardwired: resource possessiveness is nature’s survival and normal for all species, a dog who defensively guards food, stuff, space or himself often either experienced loss at the hands of humans (or dogs), or resource deprivation, or both.

If a dog is given access to something he considers valuable, or that is an existential necessity like food, and moments later challenged for the very same thing, he becomes distressed and defensive. The tension, the growling and snapping, are the expressions of it. Rather than a dominant disposition, intragroup aggression is human-induced.
The foundation can be laid by the breeder, so before the owners have access to their pup. Such was the case with one of my recent clients, new owners of a giant breed puppy they acquired from someone who removed, as a rule, the litters’ food after 5 minutes without concern if each pup was satiated. Circumstances warranted that my clients’ pup stayed with that breeder until she was 16 weeks old, which means that during her entire critical developmental period she experienced food scarcity. It beats me what the breeder aimed to accomplish. Teach the puppies to eat speedily? Like gorging is a good thing, especially for a deep-chested giant dog. Did he want to get the pups used to people taking food away? Acclimate them when they’re young so it wouldn’t be a problem later on? That is my hunch, but what a misguided idea.
True, repeated exposure and experiences can habituate a dog to stimuli or events, but regarding resources it doesn’t work that way. Think about it: Would you get used to someone stealing the tomatoes from your garden just because it happens every day? And realistically, tomatoes aren’t that important. Food, to a dog, is. Food is what money is to you: Survival. If someone would repeatedly pilfer your cash, you’d be more than a little annoyed. You’d be distressed, suspicious and defensive, and likely go to great lengths to stop it.
How do you think my clients’ now 24-week-old pup feels when people approach her food dish? Yeah! She is suspicious and defensive, but because she is in a new environment, young and not that confident yet, her signals are still subtle and mild. Considering though that she could reach an adult weight of 150 pounds, and that there are young children in the family, future and overt aggression over resources are a real risk. Luckily my clients recognized that and hired not one, but two positive experts to help them with all aspects of ownership, and I am confident they’ll be fine.

Food floats animals’ boat, and a dog can be protective not just over his meal, but also accidently dropped people food, garbage, the dish even when it’s empty, and the area where feeding takes place.
In addition, pretty much anything can be perceived as defend-worthy: a bone, toy or stick, a person, and space: the dog’s bed or yours, his crate, the couch, the car, the property and the home’s entrance points.
A dog who guards his food rarely only guards food, and conversely: just because a dog doesn’t guard food doesn’t automatically mean he won’t defend other things.
There is one important facet of aggression in association with resources that is often overlooked: The dog feeling unsafe. In other words, it might not be just the loss of a resource the dog is worried about, but his own hide.
My guess is that’s what happened between the dog Holly and Cesar Millan. Watch this video clip, brilliantly captioned by dog trainer Carol Byrnes and you can see what I mean. Perhaps the initial issue was food related, but the first attack happened when Millan “tssted” and reached for her, and the second, the bite, when the pressure continued despite her appeasement signals. When Holly had no option to flee, she fought. Notice that the whole time she neither oriented to where the food was, nor did she try to dodge for it. The food wasn’t the issue any more; the man and his hand were.

Does force and confrontation work sometimes? Yes, it does. Every method works with some dogs, but with many it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, a nasty bite like the one we see on the clip is a possible result. Bites like that in an average home typically means a one-way ticket to the veterinarian.
Holly, though, didn’t get euthanized, at least not yet. You can see in this clip what happened next.
Holly doesn’t attack, and that is success, right? Not so fast. Notice that the context changed; Millan, this time, doesn’t rely on his calm-assertive energy that provoked the bite, but on his ever-ready rope he placed right behind Holly’s ears to give him absolute physical control. He corrected her a few times, and had she acted out, in his words he would have pulled her up. How far up I leave to your imagination, but my guess is front paws off the ground, which of course asphyxiates the dog.
We also don’t know what happened between the bite and rehab clips. Was she shocked, or muzzled and pinned, until she capitulated?
Plus, the Dog Whisperer used step-up stairs. He claims to bring the dog in a less dominant position while she eats, but methinks that it coincidentally, but conveniently, also provided a barrier between him and Holly at one point.
On a side note, watch Millan’s own dog, the pit bull Junior. At the beginning of the clip he does something wrong. What eludes me – all I can see is a dog who excitedly greets his human, but Millan disapproved and Junior responded with exaggerated submission. What does the world’s best dog trainer do? He says “No” and walks away. No what? No submit?
Natural deference and fear are two different things; a deferent dog still seeks social affiliation, a fearful one avoids it. Lets see what Junior does next: He picks up a ball. When my dogs find a ball, they bring it to me and solicit play. Millan’s dog lies a distance away and first gums it a bit, and then moves even farther away. He avoided his pack leader; wished no social interaction; is, in my opinion, fearful.
Back to Holly! Based on the second clip, would you say that she is cured of resource aggression? Well, she might behave with someone she has learned can overpower her, but my educated guess is that she might not be equally non-aggressive with every person, for example a child. A dog “cured” by force doesn’t trust, and a dog who doesn’t trust isn’t trustworthy. It is as simple as that.

Dogs are safe in every context only when they authentically feel resource security: have learned that people aren’t competitors and confronters, but resource providers, protectors and cooperators. Once a dog is convinced that his stuff is safe, and that he is safe, he won’t feel defensive any longer and the aggressive expressions disappear.
Here are some tips how to achieve that:
~ If food is the issue, vary the places where you feed, so that your dog doesn’t become possessive of a certain space.
~ Remove the empty food dish and food. If your dog is teased by its presence all day long, food, when it finally manifests in the dish, is a big deal. It is like having the world’s best chocolate cake in a locked class container in front of you. When you find the key, you are all psyched out and would snarl at anyone who comes near it, especially if there is not enough to share.
~ On that note, share your food. Good people food is better than most kibble, and food sharing is bonding. Don’t worry about your dog thinking he’s alpha. The giver has the power, not the receiver, so you actually score leadership points when your dog realizes what wonderful assets are under your control.
~ Although free feeding is not a viable option for everyone, a dog who experiences surplus is less likely to guard. One of my friends has food everywhere all day long, and never had a resource issue with her own dogs or her fosters, even the ones that came to her with food aggression issues.
~ Have several identical food bowls. Offer a lower value food and walk away with the higher value food, call the dog and hand it over. Repeat. You can have several bowls with different food, or you can increase the amount of the same food, so that each time your dog leaves his dish voluntarily to follow you, he gets tastier, or more, food.
~ Put most of your dog’s ration in the dish, release him to it, and walk away. While he eats, approach, toss a high value treat, and retreat. Gauge the distance carefully, because ideally you want to toss before the dog becomes defensive, but what you do is not contingent on his behavior. In other words, even if you misjudge and your dog growls, still toss and walk away. Don’t punish tension or a growl by removing the food. Even if you are temporarily successful, there is real danger that you create a time bomb without the tick: a dog who still feels defensive and might explode, but won’t signal it any longer. Think away from reinforcing the growl with this toss and retreat exercise, because what you are after is to change your dog’s emotional response. His mind. What a person near his bounty means: From it potentially disappearing to more materializing.
In a considerable short period of time your dog will anticipate your coming closer with excitement, not suspicion, and then you can get closer and closer, and eventually add the extra loot by putting your hand in his bowl, and then take some out and put it back in, and so on.
Although you want to practice this, also let your dog eat in peace. Being bothered while consuming food, even when bothered with a cookie, is irritating. Try it. Give your partner and kids permission to nicely interrupt each meal you enjoy. I mean, my morning coffee is sacred. I don’t speak English before I haven’t had my coffee, and the last thing I want is someone solicitously offering me candy.

Adding instead of removing is the core concept regarding other resources as well, including when dogs aggress against other dogs. If you have three dogs have three toy boxes and ten balls in the yard.
When a new dog moves in, life has to become better for the other ones, meaning more resources, including attention and interaction with their humans.
Food is a dog’s right, and they shouldn’t have to jump through figurative hoops to receive it. Regarding other resources: toys, space, your food, teach your dog to “leave” and “give”. There is a lot wrong with forcing a dog, but nothing wrong with controlling access to what’s important to him. I wrote about “leave” before, and give can be a fun game when you trade in and up. Check out Chiraq Patel’s fabulous Drop-It clip 

One last thing: Once a dog trusts, you can count on it that he is safe, but keep in mind that life is never static. What an animal deems important enough to defend is dynamic and can change with age, health or situation.
Take for instance the dog who never guarded food, but is on medication and always hungry. You might suddenly see aggression against other dogs pop up, rarely against his humans.
Think of a dog who is sore and more defensive being touched because it hurts.
My friend’s dog never guards food or water because he lives in a land of plenty, yet once snarled a dog away from a water dish because he was particularly thirsty after having played Frisbee on a warm sunny afternoon.
Smart owners know that dogs are living organisms and not programmable robots, and they proactively take measures to decrease the chance of conflict when life becomes more difficult. I always err on the side of caution, and so did my clients who segregated their two male littermate brothers while their biological mother was in heat. The boys are castrated, so an unplanned mating wasn’t the issue, but they had an injury inflicting fight history with each other, and made progress to a degree that surprised me. To prevent any regression, the owners temporarily backtracked when the situation in the home changed.

We saw in the first Holly/Millan clip what can happen when a dog is under pressure. It beats me why anyone would choose a method that puts him, and his loved ones, at risk. In all fairness, it is not just Millan who applies these methods, but he happens to be the one who influences laypeople the most these days; people who do what they see on TV even though there is a disclaimer that tells them not to.
When you choose a non-confrontational way to deal with a dog’s defensive behaviors, you CAN do it at home. That said, whenever aggression is involved, hiring professional help expedites progress. Some dogs have such a deep-seated fear of loss, based on ongoing deprivation, that they can be quite dangerous and harder to convince that their needs will be predictably fulfilled from here on in. The problem is compounded when the dog is also defensive of himself; feels unsafe in the vicinity of humans, when touched, and reacts to hands that reach for him. With such dogs, one can’t work beyond their comfort level. Neither reason nor compulsion can make one feel safe; it has to be experienced, and even gently caressing hands initially can be too much for a dog who is that jaded. An experienced and positive dog expert will be able to accurately determine where to begin and how to proceed, so that trust can be established again, and the dog eventually becomes trustworthy.