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WHO'S THE ALPHA?Easy Step-BY-Step Training For A Great Canine Citizen
By Alan Berg
Abbott PressCopyright © 2012 B. Alan Berg
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSection 1
Domestic dogs are believed to be descendant from Eurasian gray wolves, but tens of thousands of years of domesticated living have made them a different animal. To be sure, it's undeniable that dogs still share many of the wolf's basic characteristics. And, if you observe dogs carefully, you will still see the rudiments of wolf pack behavior in the wild (not artificial groups of wolves thrown together in captivity). And we have certainly modified these domestic canid's behavior to suit our needs. For instance, we have modified their hunting instincts to retrieve game (and bring it back without chewing or eating it) or herd animals and move them about as we want (without eating them).
Ultimately, there may have been nothing special about the wolf that got singled out for domestication: perhaps it just happened to be the social canid that was in the right place at the right time.
I have this picture in my head of one of our cave dwelling hunter ancestors sitting around his fire enjoying a big dinner after a very successful hunt and a prehistoric wolf-like animal standing just outside the light hoping for some scraps. Perhaps the cave dweller just had too much food left, or perhaps he just wanted to see what would happen. Whatever the reason, he threw scraps to the wolf. Being a smart guy, the wolf thinks "Hey, this might be the start of a better life. This human could be a good guy to team up with." As time went on, they both found that they could benefit from working together. And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Dogs, like wolves, are social, pack oriented (when I say pack, read 'family'), den-dwelling, predatory animals. Thousands of years of domestication, however, have produced a subspecies of the Eurasian gray wolf, Canis Lupus Familiaris (the modern dog), that given a choice would almost always prefer a family (read 'pack') of humans to a pack of dogs and would generally avoid a pack of wolves. A recent study conclusively proved that domestic dogs do indeed bond more strongly with people than with other dogs.
Equating the word pack with family is a relatively new twist on our understanding of our canine friends. For many years, scientists tried to interpret domestic dog behavior by observing the behavior of captive wolves. Captured wolves seemed to be in a constant struggle to get and keep their status in the pack. The strongest, smartest, most ruthless wolf gets to be Alpha for as long as he can hold on to the position.
Unfortunately for us dog trainers and all dog owners across the globe, no one understood that the packs in captivity were not representative of the wild wolf pack. Captured wolves were thrown together into artificial packs forced together by their captors. In most cases, these wolves were not related by family, and may never have met until they were thrown together in a cage. In hind sight no one should have been surprised that these captured wolves would fight over everything.
In the wild, we have observed that packs are always extended family units where older siblings stay with the rest of the pack, share the responsibilities of care giving, providing food, and protecting each other. There is almost no strife over position or status within a wild wolf pack.
We have also observed that it is a very contentious and dangerous situation when a lone wolf tries to join an existing pack. This lone wolf versus existing pack is much more like what we have seen in our zoos.
This misconception about the pack led to the whole training philosophy of physically and mentally dominating your pet to make sure it 'stayed in it's place' and obeyed the stronger Alpha member in all things. It led to a more punishment-based training system, and a system where the Alpha human had to 'win' every situation. They even use to teach that you had to win every tug-of-war game with your pet. We now know this to be ridiculous. Modern training should and must take advantage of the fact that a domestic dog is a loving, cooperative, family oriented (when I say family, read 'pack') animal who, if raised and trained correctly, is completely comfortable with her position in the pack.
How do you get to be the Alpha of such a loving, friendly creature? By being a loving, caring person who takes care of his or her pack. By making sure the pack has everything they need, both physically and emotionally, to live confident and happy lives. THIS TRAINING GUIDE WILL HELP YOU SUCCEED IN BEING THE ALPHA!
Also, it is a very important fact that our demands of our best friends have significantly changed over the last few generations. Most dogs used to live in rural settings and were expected to contribute to the work of survival. Today, in our urban and suburban settings, dogs have lost their jobs. And their evolution has not kept up. Dogs do not and cannot evolve as quickly as the rest of technological culture has changed, and continues to change.
Today, their environment is much more strictly regimented and controlled. This puts unique and extreme pressures on our fourlegged friends and goes a long way toward explaining the significant portion of the domestic dog population that suffers from separation distress. One in five dogs are now believed to be suffering from separation anxiety. To my mind, this is the single biggest issue of dog owners today. As such, it deserves to be covered in greater detail later. But the important point I am trying to make here is that our canine friends are under severe stress and pressure in our fast-paced, crowded, modern environments, and as their BFF (Best Friend Forever), we have a greater responsibility than ever to help them 'fit in'.
What You Need To Know Before
I promised you at the start of this guide book that I would not try to cover every single topic that you will need to study in order to be the best friend possible to your furry companion. However, I would like to say just a few words about how the breed and the age of the dog affects training.
Since the beginning of our relationship with dogs, we have sought to bend them to our needs through breeding for specific traits. This has accelerated in the last century to the point that we have probably done irreparable harm to the canine genome.
During this process, we have created dogs for every taste-tiny ones, huge ones, flat nosed ones, big eyed ones, ones with no tail, ones with tails that curl tight against their backs, and many others. In the making of these breeds, few were bred for brains, but all were bred for dependence on man.
Despite all this, dogs still (even today) remain true to their basic instincts-they are social, they communicate with each other and anyone who has eyes to see. But some breeds can communicate more fully than others. If a dog has no tail, it obviously cannot use the tail position or movement to show fear, anxiety, greeting, happiness. The same is true for dogs with cropped ears, or floppy ears, or bulging eyes. But they all still signal as best they can. And what they say is very important to you, her human. If you understand her signals, you can adapt your training to help her learn. A good source of knowledge about how your dog is talking to you through body language is a pictorial guide called Canine Body Language by Brenda Aloff. I strongly recommend to every dog owner to read this book or other similar works (see the section Recommended Reading) before you bring your new canine buddy into your home.
Also, I recommend you do some research for a breed that matches you, your expectations, and your needs. You are making a 10 to 15 year relationship commitment. Every breed has certain character strengths and proclivities. A suggested reading would be The Perfect Puppy by Gwen Bailey. If you do not think you have the instincts to be a good trainer, then choose a breed that is easy to train above all else.
As for older or rescue dog versus puppy, everyone knows the adage 'you can't teach old dogs new tricks'. Well, there is a kernel of truth to this saying. Puppies go through a series of sensitive development phases (during ages 3 weeks to 6 months) which we will discuss in the next chapter. What they learn or don't learn during this 5 month plus period will strongly shape who they are and what they can learn, as well as how they will adjust to various types of stress for the rest of their lives.
An older dog is obviously past these sensitive development stages and, as a result, will already have a personality and 'tool kit' of behaviors (read 'excess baggage'). Changing these behaviors is hard! We all know from experience that changing old or bad habits is way harder than learning good ones from scratch. Also, just like people, the older a dogs gets, the less flexible her thinking becomes-again making it harder to learn new behaviors. This means an older dog will take much longer to learn the behavior you want. And she may come to you with problem behaviors that will need to be addressed as well. But if you can put in the time and have patience, the rewards will be well worth your time!
Socialization-For Young and Old
If you have chosen to bring a puppy into your family as opposed to a rescue dog, there are a few things about how they develop and learn that will help you understand how to train your furry friend.
First, you need to understand the mom's environment. Especially during the last third of her pregnancy, if the mom is stressed, her pups will show a reduced learning ability. They may also be more emotionally reactive and be more likely to show extreme or exaggerated behaviors. So if possible, check out the mom's life before and after she has her puppies. And this definitely means stay away from the puppy mills!
The first 12 days of a puppy's life are all about mom and smell. At birth, the puppy's brain is only 10 cubic centimeters (the size of your finger from first joint to tip), so not much is going on in there. The only senses that are really working at all are smell and touch. The puppy learns her mom's smell, the smell of her milk, where to find warmth, and her litter mate's smell. Over the next 12 days, some very mild stress would actually be of great benefit to the puppy's development. By mild stress, I mean touching, stroking, handling, as well as mild temperature changes. The result will be a more confident, less fearful, better problem solving dog. Normally a caring, confident breeder will interact enough with the new puppy just in the normal course of helping the mom with her litter.
Days 13 through 20 are called the Transition Period. During this time, the puppy opens her eyes and begins to use her ears. She also starts having deliberate social responses like play fighting, growling, and tail wagging. The breeder should continue to handle the puppy and begin to add her voice to the interactions.
The next development stage is called the Socialization Period. This stage is from about 4 to 12 weeks and is a very critical period. Since most breeders don't part with the puppies until 8 weeks, you can understand again why choosing a good, reputable, caring breeder is extremely important-at least as important as choosing the right puppy.
During this period, the behavior and responses that develop will be extremely difficult to change later. So once you have chosen a caring, experienced breeder and a puppy from the litter of a gentle, relaxed mom, the next month (from 8 wks to 12 weeks), will be your opportunity to form the companion personality you want in your life for the next 10 to 15 years. This is why training (although informal and playful) will start immediately once the puppy enters your world. YOU HAVE FOUR WEEKS, DON'T WASTE THEM! More on this later.
The final development stage is usually called the Juvenile Period. This runs from 13 weeks to 6 months (although some experts say this period continues until puberty or 1 year old).
One of the things that science has taught us about our canine friends is that they remember their experiences as pictures-not word pictures as we humans do, but as visual and smell pictures. We have also learned that they create a sort of folder system for like experiences and assign behavioral responses to these folders.
Fear is the default response to a new experience for all mammals including domestic dogs. Thus, later in life, if they run into a new situation, they look to their mental folders for similar experiences, and respond to the new situation with an older learned response from their experiential mental files. Or they react with flight or fight (aggression) to the fear they feel in this new situation UNLESS, some outside agent helps them chose a different response-namely YOU, the Alpha of her pack.
During the Socialization Period through the Juvenile Period, and Who's the Alpha? to a much lesser degree for the rest of her life, your canine will create a 'Scratch n' Sniff' picture-book of experiences and assign behaviors to them. As the puppy gets older, however, the creation of new files becomes harder and the mature dog finds it sufficient to just use the files it already has available to shape it's responses to the world-again UNLESS an outside agent intervenes. Thus it is very important that during these developmental phases, you expose your furry friend to as much variety of people, places, and things as possible-but in a calm, controlled manner. And these development periods are the best time to create the really big mental file called 'check with my Alpha for how to respond'. This is the overall goal of your training-to condition your companion to look to you for clues as to how to respond in any new, complex environment.
Because your canine experiences life as a 'Scratch n' Sniff' picture book, it may surprise you to know that ALL the details of a life experience are important to the memory or file. For instance, to a dog, cats are not people, which is obvious. But to a dog, children are not small people, and babies are not 'even smaller' people. They are separate species because they look and move differently, sound different, and most importantly, they smell different. Even the neighbor with a full beard or who wears boots or a cowboy hat, or the lady down the street with big hair or strong perfume may be seen as a different species by your puppy. Your dog will create separate representational files for each of these species, or where it seems appropriate, lump a few together-say a 'human women are OK' file, or a 'men are scary' file, or a 'babies and children are OK but should be avoided' file. Fortunately, dogs are one of the few species that can bond or imprint onto several species if they have friendly encounters during their sensitive phases. Therefore, it is critical that you introduce your new puppy to the rest of your family (pets, children, uncles, etc) in a slow, quiet, calm way when you bring the puppy home (See the chapter Home Sweet Home).
As with all mammals, dogs respond to new stimuli with a flight/fight (or fear/curiosity) response-with fear being the default reaction. Your goal as Alpha should be to encourage the curiosity, and minimize and weaken the fear reaction as much as possible. There are two ways you do this. As I already said above, one very important way is to give you puppy lots of happy, pleasant experiences. The other way is to teach your dog that in any unknown situation, she should look to you, her Alpha, for clues on how to respond.
Training—Who's The Alpha?
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), the burden of successful training falls on your shoulders far more than on your companion. Our world is way too complex for a dog to interpret by herself. Our world is visually centered, which is not a dog's instinctive first choice in interpreting his environment. If you develop a trusting relationship with your pet, she will be comfortable in interpreting the world around her through you, the Alpha of her family. This is the goal!!! Succeed and your companion will be comfortable to follow you anywhere; fail and your buddy could end up paranoid or hysterical, fearful or aggressive in new situations or with new people.
The training 'Secret': clear messaging and absolute consistency. Use the same key command word EVERY TIME. Don't use complicated sentence structures when giving commands. Use a calm tone EVERY TIME. If you give a command, you must consistently follow through until you get the behavior required EVERY TIME.
Other key elements: understand your dog, observe her as closely as he observes you, use his instinctive and inherited behaviors to your advantage. All this will be made clear as we get into the details of training your friend.
The beauty of the training and behavior modification techniques that I will teach you in this guide book is that it will work for rescue dogs or new puppies, for young or old dogs, for aggressive or docile dogs, for complacent, bored dogs or hyperactive dogs.
Excerpted from WHO'S THE ALPHA? by Alan Berg Copyright © 2012 by B. Alan Berg. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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