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Which Canine Curriculum Should You Choose?

JonBee jumps up at Cesar Millan, his sharp teeth snapping repeatedly. Millan calmly yanks on the leash and pulls the wolf-like Korean Jindo away. This continues for over a minute, with Millan’s face remaining undisturbed and JonBee’s owners gasping on the other side of the living room. Finally, the dog shows a moment of weakness. Millan quickly pins him to the floor and rolls him onto his side. Millan’s calmness seems to be reflected in the dog now lying frozen in submission.

Every Friday night, troubled American dogs undergo a seemingly miraculous transformation on national television. The magician is Cesar Millan, better known as the “Dog Whisperer.” He is the current face of dog training, and he has brought “dominance theory,” an age-old training technique, back into canine conversation and practice.

To understand how to control a dog’s behavior, according to Millan, one needs to look at the hierarchy of wolf packs. Domestic dog owners must confidently carry the title of “pack leader” and assume power over their pets.

But many dog trainers and behavior experts criticize the show, advocating a gentler approach to training that replaces coercion and physical behavior corrections with food rewards and other forms of positive reinforcement. They point to new studies that have placed the two popular dog-training methods head-to-head and almost universally shown positive training to be more successful than punitive methods in reducing aggression and disobedience.

Millan may have the ratings, they argue, but purely positive trainers have the science.

No more crying wolf

Millan’s concept of dominance is based on an old understanding of the behavior of wolves. In the 1960s, researchers observed that wolves formed large packs in which certain individuals beat out others to earn “top dog” status. These were called “alphas.” Millan contends that a dog displaying aggression is trying to establish dominance and attain alpha status, much like its ancestors. He advises humans to take on this position themselves, forcefully if necessary, to keep the dog in a submissive role.

Dog trainers whose practices are grounded in these concepts, such as the late Bill Koehler and Captain Arthur Haggerty, have dominated the business for most of the past half-century. But as Dave Mech, an expert on wolf behavior at the University of Minnesota, points out, the early wolf research — much of it his own — was done on animals living in captivity.

Mech has been studying wolves for 50 years now, yet only over the past decade has he gotten a clear picture of these animals in their natural habitats. And what he’s found is far from the domineering behavior popularized by Millan. “In the wild it works just like it does in the human family,” says Mech. “They don’t have to fight to get to the top. When they mature and find a mate they are at the top.”  In other words, wolves don’t need to play the “alpha” game to win.

In the 1980s, around the same time that our understanding of wolves began to change, positive dog-training methods slowly emerged from the fringes and grew in popularity. A tug-of-war continues today between dog trainers practicing predominantly positive reinforcement and those using punishment-based techniques.

Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University, is one of the leading proponents of positive training methods. He believes the source of most bad behavior, especially owner-directed aggression, is mistrust and recommends rebuilding a dog’s trust by “making sure that the dog understands that all good things in life come only and obviously from you.” To get those things — whether food or basic attention — the dog must learn to please you first.

Perils of punishment

Many veterinary behaviorists believe punishment-based techniques, like those seen on the show, could come back to bite dog owners. The National Geographic Channel even posts a warning on the screen during each episode: “Do not attempt these techniques yourself without consulting a professional.”

According to a paper in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, attempts to assert dominance over a dog can increase a dog’s aggression. Researchers from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom studied dogs in a shelter for six months, while also reanalyzing data from previous studies of feral dogs. Their findings support those of the Mech at the University of Minnesota: dogs don’t fight to get to the top of a “pack.” Rather, violence appears to be copycat behavior — something borne of nurture, not nature.

In another recent study, around 25 percent of owners using confrontational training techniques reported aggressive responses from their dogs. “The source of dog aggression has nothing to do with social hierarchy, but it does, in fact, have to do with fear,” says Meghan Herron, a veterinarian at The Ohio State University and lead author of the study published in the January 2009 issue of Applied Animal Behavior Science. “These dogs are acting aggressively as a response to fear.”

Dogs react physiologically to stress and fear in the same way people do, with hormones. Two 2008 studies out of Hungary and Japan showed, respectively, that concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol increased in dogs that were strictly disciplined and that levels were linked to elevation of aggressive behavior. What’s more, an Irish study found that physically or verbally reprimanding a dog with a history of biting people was one of the significant predictors of a subsequent bite. The results were published in April 2008 in Applied Animal Behavior Science.

“[All these studies] confirm what many of us have said for a long time,” says Pat Miller, owner of Peaceable Paws dog and puppy training in Hagerstown, Maryland. “If you use aggression in training your dog, you’re likely to elicit aggression back.” *Lynne Peeples ~ Published in “Life Science”

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