Friday, February 24, 2012

Oops. There Really IS Dominance in Wolves


We all make mistakes.  I make 'em every once in a while, and you do too.

The true test is not whether you make a mistake, but whether you own it, and by that test Lee Charles Kelley comes out alright.

I don't know Kelley.  Never read him before.  We might disagree on nothing, or disagree on almost everything.  I have no idea.  That said, I give him a small nod for cowboying up for a serious error.  It would be nice if other dog trainers would follow suit. 

Kelley writes in Psychology Today online:

A Mea Culpa to Mech, an Apology to Bekoff

When it comes to understanding canine behavior, Dr. David Mech — the world's leading expert on wolves — and Dr. Mark Bekoff — the world's leading expert on coyotes and canine play — are two of my biggest heroes. So imagine my chagrin to discover that they're both irritated with me....

I wrote a piece last week titled "Deconstructing the Dominance Myth (Again...)," which was a response to a personal blog post written by Dr. Roger Abrantes, posted on another part of the internet, far, far away. The main thrust of my article wasn't that dominant behaviors don't exist, but that the terms we're using to describe them are anthropomorphic, and that saddling dogs with these labels is harmful to any dogs whose behaviors may, in fact, be the result of stress or anxiety, not dominance. I now realize, and freely admit, that I made mistakes in my article, mistakes I wasn't aware of until Dr. Bekoff pointed them out to me here.

My first mistake was referring to the concept of dominance as a myth. That's a charged word, one that carries with it the implication that scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding animal behavior are all operating under some kind of mass delusion. I deeply regret making that insinuation, however unintentionally. In recent years, it's become fairly common in the dog training world for some of us to talk about "the myth of dominance" in a somewhat cavalier way. What's generally meant by this is that the idea of dominating a dog, as the basis for a training system, isn't based on real science and can be harmful to the human-canine bond.

Dr. Bekoff also took me to task for the following passage:

"Dr. David Mech, the world's leading expert on wolves, says that in 13 years of studying the wolves on Isle Royale in Michigan he never saw any displays of dominance. In other packs Mech says that dominance displays are so rare as to be almost nonexistent."

I turns out that this isn't exactly true. I was basing what I said on the following passage from a 1999 paper ("Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs," Canadian Journal of Zoology.): "In natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none." (I made another mistake by getting the geographical location of Mech's studies wrong.)

Dr. Bekoff apparently sent a copy of my post to Dr. Mech, who responded with the following: "A quick scan of the Kelley article reveals much misinformation attributed to me. This misinterpretation and total misinformation like Kelley's has plagued me for years now. I do not in any way reject the notion of dominance."

In his post, Dr. Bekoff pointed me (and other readers) to a 2010 paper written by Dr. Mech and H. Dean Cluff ("Prolonged Intensive Dominance Behavior Between Gray Wolves, Canis lupus") in which they write: "Dominance is among the most pervasive and important behaviors of wolves in a pack."

Clearly, I'm not keeping up on my research. So I was wrong to insinuate, here and in other pieces I've written on dominance, that Mech believes dominance is rare or doesn't exist at all in wild wolf packs. I apologize for my mistake and will attempt to make corrections to all the pieces I've written that contain this outdated view (there are a lot of them).

But wait. It gets worse!

My thesis about the cause of dominance and submission—as outlined briefly in my post—is that they're primarily the result of a wolf's internal tension and stress. But in the comments section of Dr. Bekoff's post, Simon Gadbois, from the Canid Behaviour Laboratory at Dalhousie University in Halifax, wrote: "My PhD thesis was on social stress in wolves... Jane Packard, that had done the stress studies with Mech in the 80's was on my committee. Here I can tell you that your interpretation is wrong because you are over-generalizing. We simply do not have enough data to jump to the conclusions that you get to."

Read the whole thing, but let me be clear that I am applauding Kelley for owning up to his error, setting the record right, and putting it in print.

Contrast that to another person who will remain unnamed, but who was the subject of a blog post about dominance (in which David Mech weighs in -- see the comments) authored by Dr. Mark Johnson.  Read that post here: Is Dominance Always Bad?  And, of course, the answer is NO. I featured excerpts from Dr. Johnson's post on this blog two years ago (see here) and even featured video of wolf dominance filmed by Dr. David Mech and Dean Cluff (see here).  For those who like video-enhanced story, I put up a post entitled Dominance Creates and Maintains Wolf Packs which told the story of the rise and fall of the Druid Wolf pack -- the largest wolf pack in the world at the time it was being filmed. 

And yet we still have this nonsense about dominance in wolves and dogs as a "myth."  Why is that?

Mostly it's because a small slice of dog trainers have decided that in order to differentiate themselves in the world of dog training they need to brand what everyone else is doing as "abusive" while proclaiming "their" method (click-and-treat) as the only one that is "scientific."  

This is the Internet School of Dog Training where Lee Charles Kelley has apparently been hanging out and drinking the Koolaid, and it seems he has simply not bothered (up to now) to actually read the sources that he and others have been referencing. 

Even now he cannot quite let go of the nonsense, writing that what he meant "is that the idea of dominating a dog, as the basis for a training system, isn't based on real science and can be harmful to the human-canine bond."

Um.  Mr. Kelley, you still don't get it.  Dominance is not violent.  It is not bad.  It is simply taking control and establishing respect and leadership on your part and establishing respect and followship on the part of the dog. It is not a threat to the human-canine bond, it is the essence of it.  And, to be clear, dominance occurs every day and not only with wolves, but also with dogs, people, elk, bison, and pretty much every other animal that lives in social groups (as well as many that do not). Dominance makes the world go around.

Kelley, describes himself as as a "neo-Freudian" dog trainer. I have no idea what that means, but he seems to think it has something to do with prey drive. I guess I know a little about prey drive in dogs since I have working terriers with the scars to prove it, but I have never felt any need to quote Freud. Let us remember that the real experts on dogs have tails. 

I have to say I find it amusing that Kelley says words like "dominance" and "submission" are "anthropomorphic" and then turns around and calls himself a "neo-Freudian" dog trainer.  Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot.  Not too much self-awareness there!

So what is this contrived and entirely fake controversy about dominance in dogs about? 

It is about marketing. 

Remember that dog trainers are trying to sell a service and so they are trying to differentiate themselves.

In order to differentiate themselves, a dog trainer may claim to be neo-Freudian or "gentle" or "natural" or "positive" or "holistic" or "balanced." 

Casting about for a rationale for why people should choose their training methods as opposed to their competitors, many of these folks have done two things simultaneously:

  1. Mis-characterized scientific work on wolves and dogs, including and perhaps especially the work of David Mech, and;
    .
  2. Mis-characterized the training methods of thousands of years of dogs trainers, including and perhaps especially the work of Cesar Millan, who happens to be the most famous dog training personality on television these days (a spot previously held by Barbara Woodhouse).

Since the previous text straightens out much of this mis-characterization of Mech, let me address the second one -- the mischaracterization of Cesar Millan. 

In Cesar's Rules, Millan and co-author Melissa Jo Peltier write about what Millan actually does and what he has actually written:

My co-author tells me that on occasion someone will say to her, “I don’t approve of Cesar’s training methods.” When she tells the person that what I’m doing isn’t dog training but dog rehabilitation, he or she often grudgingly admits to having watched only one or two episodes of the show or a one-minute clip on YouTube and typically has not read any of my books or seen my videos. When my co-author asks, “What do you think his methods are?” the answer invariably is something like, “Oh, all the choke chains and the e-collars and the alpha rolls.”

Well, any regular viewer of Dog Whisperer knows that these tools don’t fairly represent what such a critic would call “my methods.” Curious about this, our producers did a show-by-show breakdown, watching hundreds of hours of television and counting when a particular technique was used in any given episode. At the time the breakdown was done, we’d filmed 140 shows, covering over 317 separate cases of problem dog behavior.

The person who doesn’t approve of my “methods” might be surprised to learn that the number one thing I advocate nearly every show is simply leadership (in 98 percent of the episodes), which I teach as the calm-assertive energy that any leader, teacher, parent, or other positive authority figure projects to her followers. I’ve used the word dominance to describe the energy of leadership, but in the animal world dominance doesn’t mean “brutality,” and assertive certainly doesn’t mean “aggressive.” I believe that good leadership never involves bullying or intimidating; instead, it depends on confidence, knowing what you want, and sending clear, consistent messages about what you want.

The number two method I advocate, according to the producers’ breakdown, is body language (91 percent), which is a primary way in which leadership is projected in most animal species. My third top “method” is exercise — walk your dog properly at least twice a day (72 percent). And what is the fourth most common “method” I’ve used on Dog Whisperer episodes?

This one may shock a few people. I used positive reinforcement in one form or another 67 percent of the time in the first 140 shows. As Barbara De Groodt reminds us, positive reinforcement doesn’t have to mean cookies. It can mean anything that a dog likes and that becomes a motivator or reward for the dog.

Personally, I don’t think I have a specific “method” or “system” that I apply in order to change or improve a dog’s behavior. For me, there is no magic formula. I believe in trusting my instincts and in treating each dog as an individual.

So there you go: those are Millan's "methods," and if you oppose them, then you are telling me and the world that you oppose leadership, exercise, body language, and positive reinforcement.

There is much more in the book of course, but you will have to actually buy the book and read it.  Since a quick glance through Lee Charles Kelley's previous writings tells me he has not actually read Cesar Millan either, he might take a hint and do a little reading there too. 

Does reading books (and not just Internet bulletin boards and Facebook posts) make me an "old school" dog trainer?  

If so, then I am very old school, and I have the T-shirt to prove it



3 comments:

SecondThoughtsOptional said...

I do apologise for how long this post is going to be, but if I don't say this, it's just going to keep renting space in my mind.

Cesar Millan bridged a great gulf in what I observed. I should explain -- I spent my teen years in a suburb of Accra and this is where we had dogs, both local* and imported (a couple of dozen over the years). People didn't train their dogs -- dogs live outside, do their own thing. They rarely got touched unless it was to pelt them with rocks. And yet... dogs were for the most part well-behaved. They didn't harass people, bite kids, bark incessantly, hunt the numerous stray chickens or goats.

We treated our dogs a good deal better. We gave them food, shelter and veterinary care. They got petted, not pelted. Because I was dog-obsessed and didn't have the luxury of a dog-trainer, I taught myself from whatever books I could lay my hands on. I think we got the best of both worlds: our dogs were respectful, but teaching them specific commands meant we could do more with them. It was my observation for one that the moment I taught 'sit', I'd get a dog that would stop jumping up on me or others without ever addressing the issue directly. Whatever they learned, they would quickly generalise and apply in other contexts.

A very puzzling contrast then, were the local dogs owned by white expats. Without exception, they were *horrible* -- stubborn, screaming, neurotic... absolutely nasty pieces of work. Didn't make sense to me -- weren't these the people who should have a better handle on dogs?

Moved abroad for college, have stayed abroad. Gained more access to dog books (though not as many dogs as I want yet!) and was mightily puzzled about the dichotomy between dog trainers and dog behaviourists, particularly the latter's assertion that obedience training did not resolve dog problems. I still remember the soul-deep puzzlement with which I read Dr. Dodds's accounts of dog behaviour and drug regimens for just about everything.

I started watching The Dog Whisperer and it made sense at last. The first time I saw Cesar walking with a pack of dogs at his feet, that was exactly how my dogs followed me when I walked around -- it was like coming home. He engendered respect in dogs and taught people how to do the same. In the context of respect, dogs are tolerable, which is 99% of what people actually want. Anything you do with them is a source of mutual joy and obedience training is a key to a shared language. Without respect, dogs are horrible and I can see how 'sit' and 'stay' don't mean very much.

I think the two great tragedies of the 'modern way' are 1) the notion that dogs don't need to respect people and 2) that stultifying monotony is a-ok for dogs.



*When I say local dog, there's quite a variation. What was most typical where I was were the basenji-type dogs, though there's quite a phenotypical range. More rarely, you'd see the greyhound-types that would be brought down from the north of the country, big, sharp-minded dogs, deeply unpopular in the crowded south on account of their prey-driven, territorial nature. Even more occasionally, you'd get the red hounds that go with the nomadic cattle herders, many of which would be dead ringers for a ridgeless Rhodesian ridgeback.

Nancy Drew said...

Great post. It is human to make a mistake and very big of you to admit it. Impressive really.

PBurns said...

It would be more impressive if Lee Charles Kelley did not make so MANY mistakes.

Apparently he has a habit of saying nonsense and then retracting it.

My favorite email this morning was from the fellow who steered me to a place where Kelley says: "I'm one of only a small number of pet dog trainers in the world who've rigorously studied, tested, and applied dominance techniques, the Koehler Method, Tellington Touch, all aspects of the behavioral science paradigm, a few other odd things that came up along the way (some of which turned out to be useful), plus Natural Dog Training. In fact I don't know of any other trainer who can say that."

Right. No one ever trained dogs before, LoL.

Take the line given as an example of the very worst in Internet dog trainer marketing. No one else in the world like him!

Caveat emptor.