Friday, March 19, 2010

Wolf Experts on Dominance and Submission



Mark Johnson, DVM, is Executive Director of Global Wildlife Resources, Inc. and the senior wildlife veterinarian for the Yellowstone Wolf Recovery Project.

Over on his Feral Dog blog he asks, "Is Dominance Always Bad?

And, of course the answer is NO. He writes:

I am seeing a lot of blogs about how how horrible dominance is and how there is no need for dominance when working with domestic dogs. They say the use of dominance is now considered ineffective and, worse, it is unethical and inhumane. Those critical of using any forms of dominance are describing what wolves and feral dogs do and do not do and I am seeing so many incorrect statements.

I work with wild and captive wolves, and have handled over 2,000 feral dogs. I was also the Project Veterinarian for the 1995-96 Yellowstone Wolf Reintroduction program and had the privilege of working with Dr. Dave Mech, one of the founders of wolf research, when we captured wolves in Canada and brought them into the US. Many people condemning dominance are referring to Dave’s comments.

This discussion of dominance relates to my work, not only because I work with wolves and feral dogs, but also because I am dedicated to teach animal control officers and disaster responders how to handle frightened dogs without creating a fight with the animal. That is why I write in this blog and website about the Energy of Conflict.

I would prefer to set aside the claims of wolf and feral dog behavior and explore more deeply the concept of “dominance”. But the statements about wolves and feral dogs have been so inherently wrong that I have to offer my viewpoint and then below I will explore what is driving these discussions which is our concept of “dominance.”


Dr. Johnson then goes on to note that

Over and over again there is a deeply seated concept of dominance that is really limiting our ability to objectively study what animal handlers are doing and is, at times, limiting our ability to create a harmonious relationship with the dogs. Many people want to rid themselves of dominance so much that scientific studies are being interpreted to support their beliefs (which is always the weakness of science) and people are coming up with new interpretations of what wolves have always been doing. Any mention of dominance is taboo in these circles.

.... Punishing a dog into submission is obviously an unhealthy relationship. Strictly giving a dog rewards addresses our warm fuzzy desires, but does not always build the healthiest relationship either. The middle ground can still be compassionate and loving.

.... But dominance does not have to be mean and is an integral part of the social hierarchy of many animals including dogs, wolves and horses. Listen carefully to Dave Mech’s video. He says wolves do not fight to get to the top of the pack, but they still get “there”. I agree. Wolves do not continuously fight to get to the top of the pack, there is no argument. Fighting is not in their best interests. But everyone who knows wolves knows there is posturing, tail position, facial expressions, and ear positioning to create that hierarchy without fighting. It is a healthy form of dominance. I once watched a pair of wolves in Yellowstone Park kill an elk calf and one wolf asked for permission from the other wolf before it could feed. It is a reflex for the wolf to define where it is in that hierarchy. But there does not have to be violence to create the hierarchy. It is not demeaning or punitive and they flourish in the pack knowing how they relate to their pack mates.


Needless to say, read the whole thing. Dr. Johnson goes on to talk about feral dogs too -- apparently feral dog packs exist (who knew!?)

Read also L. David Mech's comments to the post cited above -- he agrees with it!

Of particular interest to some readers of this blog will be Dr. Johnson's notes on the use of the Y pole which works, in large part, because dogs recognize dominance and readily submit to it.

It is the nature of canids to submit to this gentle restraint device when properly used. Proper use requires a combination of dominance with kind and calm movements. The dominance motivates the dog to submit. Kindness and compassion will make the animal feel safer and more will to do what you request. The Y pole will not work with physical force alone.

Again, read the whole thing.


11 comments:

Anton said...

Wow somebody with a PhD that is somewhat in the Milan camp. Some people will start questioning this guy's credentials for sure now ;)

The Learned English Dog said...

Can your next post be from a human-sciences based Ph.D? I've always been curious about pure positive people who argue loudly (including literally screaming) and tirelessly about the science on their side. These bullying tactics seem to me to be a dominating pose, and yet these folks are arguing that there is no such thing and it doesn't work.

PBurns said...

Yes, some irony there, eh?

;)

But in fact the "pure positive" people are both right AND wrong.

How can they be both? Simple: most are fuzzy thinkers who are mixing apples and oranges.

To summarize: aversives do not work (very well) to TEACH A NEW TRICK.

They do work well, however, to stop an entrenched bad behavior.

Most puppies and young dogs are presenting with very few entrenched bad behaviors, however, and so most training CAN be done with "pure positive" (i.e. reward-based training) alone.

Where "pure positive" falls down is on self-reinforcing bad behaviors, and on entrenched negative behaviors.

Having said what I just said, it should be stressed that "pure positive" training and dominance are, in fact, different issues.

Most good teachers are clearly "dominant" and have to be in order to hold control in a classroom. And yet, the very best of teachers get the best results from their students by mostly being almost entirely positive. And why does that work? Because most kids (and most dogs) want to do well, want to learn, and want rewards.

That said, if you are in the dog RE-HABILITATION business, and not in the puppy training business, you cannot afford to ignore aversives. And no matter what busienss you are in, you cannot afford to ignore dominance.

P.

hunter said...

Correction to Anton. Mark Johnson DVM doesn't appear to be speaking from " the MIllan camp" - at least there's nothing I can find about Cesar Millan specifically in his blog. And he's clearly been doing this a lot longer than Cesar Millan has been on TV (and so has L David Mech.)

I think the point he's making is much more important than what one guy on television does or doesn't do. I read it as saying more about our responsibility to animals, and how we can observe and honor the way animals regulate their own societies, in and amongst themselves. In their world, "dominance" doesn't mean anything negative. Not at all. It's more about societal order and intra species communication. Basicaly knowing where you stand in any given interaction. It's not the "bogeyman." That's my interpretation anyway.

Luisa said...

Good find! [trots off to blogroll]

Moop said...

There seem to be several motivations in the dominance debate, and they have nothing to do with dominance between dogs or wolves.

One is the use of "litmus test" words which identify people not of your own political party. Changing the approved language to describe things seems to be what political parties do.

Because I have trained in many aspects of dogs, I can mimic the lingo of either "party" and be warmly welcomed, or despised, depending.

Using "Alpha" or "dominant" indicates that you are not in the PP (purely positive) group. Using a chain training collar is a visual litmus test that works the same way. Cesar Millan avoids these words, and substitutes words like "calm assertiveness", I would guess because he is claiming his own political/business territory and wishes to not be categorized.

The other reason is competition between dog trainers. There is not enough business to go around in clients, book sales, seminars, etc. Trainers have had to establish some argument that their methods are more modern and better, and that other trainers are abusive, in order to survive financially.

Animal rights activists promote the concept that any form of control over any animal behavior is abuse; and claim that even the mildest forms of control are a "slippery slope" leading to worse abuse.

Dog training requires flexibility and rational thinking. Politics requires black/white thinking and demonization of the competing party.

Viatecio said...

Moop, that's why I'm going into training and not politics.

If someone comes to me with an issue, then they trust that my advice will help them. If they ask about other methods or why they might or might not work, I will explain, but the main thing is, they come to me for my advice, not to hear me parrot something they could read in a book, see on teevee or anything of the sort. I give my advice on the issue, work as a teacher for both people and dog, and if they don't like it, they can leave. I don't care about the whole Cesar thing anymore; he is not training this dog (even if the owners are trying his techniques), neither is Dunbar, nor That TeeVee Bitch. I am teaching the owners how to train their dog according to what works for everyone and, most importantly, fulfills all goals.

Dog trainers should compete based on results, not methods. Unfortunately, no one listens to me and I still see dogs walking out of group classes at PetsMart pulling on leads and generally not listening. I see dogs learning to be ring-smart, collar-smart, leash-smart, cookie-smart, and these are all results from training. I don't work toward any of these, and it's frustrating for me to watch people unknowingly work toward goals like these under trainers whose own dogs aren't even reliable off-leash around distractions. The fact is, this is a time where many are more concerned about the "journey" and what's more "enjoyable" than the end result, when in fact we should give equal emphasis to both. Until that's the case, people will continue to spend months teaching their dogs to walk on loose leashes, relying on highly edited shows to learn the more broad points of training (as opposed to the finer points which make it really WORK), and be spoon-fed rhetoric that touts only "humane/ethical," "violence-free," "dog-friendly" methods that are "scientifically proven" because it's more "fun" and takes longer, but still get "results."

mrjohnson said...

Thank you for sharing my blog article about exploring types of dominance. I would enjoy having more discussion if people show desire. As you point out, it plays an important role in how I humanely handle street dogs and wolves. The Y pole is a great example.

By the way, Hunter, you are right on.

Best wishes,
Mark Johnson DVM, Global Wildlife Resources, Inc. and Feral Dog Blog

mrjohnson said...

If you are interested, I have recently posted a video on my feral dog blog showing the use of dominance with humanely catching a wolf using the Y pole.
Respectfully,
Mark Johnson DVM

PBurns said...

Excellent -- Will promote to a full post when I get a chance.

Patrick

mikee said...

Looks like Anton was right.
http://tinyurl.com/ykesxk4