Basis of Dog Behavior:
The most important thing to keep in mind when attempting to train, or mold your dog’s behavior, is that he or she is basically a wolf! Because wolves are highly social animals, with a clear sense of hierarchy, they are easily adaptable to life with man. Early man probably found benefits to keeping abandoned wolf pups, much as we find benefits of keeping domesticated dogs. No doubt adopted wolves provided protection, security, help with pursuing game, companionship and physical warmth, just like domestic dogs provide these same things to modern man today! Through hundreds of years of selective breeding, wolves not only slowly became German Shepherds and Huskies (clearly wolf-like) but also Chihuahuas, Shar-peis and delicate Yorkies. Despite their superficial differences, our canine friends are basically wolves, both genetically and behaviorally. In fact, many genetic experts are hard pressed to consider them as separate species, because wolves and dogs can inter-breed and still produce fertile young.
In the wild, dog packs are controlled by a leader, referred to as the ‘alpha dog’. The alpha dog establishes rules (guided by instinct) and ensures that all of his subordinates do not break these rules in his presence. With subtle exceptions, domesticated dogs also establish a linear system of dominance in which no dog is exactly equal to another dog. That is, the alpha dog is always dominant to every other dog, the second dog in command is dominant to all others except the alpha, and so on. Punishment is the means by which superior dogs exert their dominance over the lower ranked dogs within the pack, while submission is the means by which lower ranked dogs communicate to their superiors that they understand the hierarchy and the rules and signal them to stop the punishment.
Who’s in Charge:
Dogs like to know where they are in the hierarchy of the pack and are very satisfied not to be the alpha dog. Often, if a dog perceives that an alpha dog is not keeping up his responsibilities in making decisions and keeping order in the pack, the dog will become emotionally stressed and may try to take on the role of ‘alpha’ dog himself. So don’t feel bad for making your dog take the submissive role; you are actually doing him a favor by remaining the strong, ‘alpha’ leader.
An analogy that makes sense to most people is that of an ocean cruise vacation gone terribly wrong. Imagine the stress you would feel if you were on a large ocean liner and you found out that no one is in control of the boat because the captain and the crew have all been incapacitated due to some illness or tragedy. Fear and stress would ensue as the passengers attempted to determine who is most qualified to take control of the boat. Let’s imagine that among the passengers present is an airline captain that understands basic navigation and operation of large engines, radios, etc… The passengers all agree that this person is most capable of handling the drifting vessel and elect him to the position of boat captain. Though he may not be as skilled as the original captain, he is certainly better than no captain! These are the same emotions a dog goes through when the owner does not take the role of ‘captain’. Instinctively, the dog depends on an alpha leader to ensure a steady supply of food, water, shelter, and safety; if a leader does not become apparent then the dog will initially go through a period of stress. A way to resolve this stress is to replace the failing alpha dog with a more capable one, and an owner might be supplanted as leader by his pet if he/she does not maintain his/her alpha status. This can happen if the owner is away often, is inconsistent with rules and administering appropriate punishment or if the owner administers inappropriate punishment, such as hitting.
Alpha dogs and wolves, as previously stated, enforce the rules of the pack by delivering punishment. Punishment should be as mild as possible; enough to “deliver the message” but not so much to hurt the pup. The subordinate dog will signal that the message is understood by exhibiting submissive gestures that might include: lowering the head and averting the eyes (a ‘sheepish’ expression), tucking the tail, rolling over, urinating a little bit, or holding still and trying to figure out what just happened. When these “Roger, that!” messages are given by the submissive dog, the dominant dog should immediately stop the punishment. When considering the wolf, not having to deliver more severe physical punishment helps the pack stay physically fit, so that all dogs can participate in pack protection or hunting. If the dominant wolf persisted in injuring his subordinates, the pack fitness would be jeopardized and the survivability of even the alpha wolf would be in question. So it makes sense not to injure your subordinates- you might have to depend on them.
When delivering punishment to a puppy, sometimes all that is necessary is a firm, verbal, “No!” Corporal (or physical) punishment is too severe and may cause fear or lack of trust in the pup. Look for the body language that demonstrates that the puppy understands and then cease all punishment.
Once you have established that the behavior that elicited the punishment was negative, immediately re-direct the puppy to some acceptable, but similar, behavior. For example, if the puppy was chewing on your favorite shoes, and the behavior was successfully stopped by a strong, verbal “No!” followed by the puppy demonstrating the appropriate submissive gestures, now is the time to redirect the chewing behavior to a soft chew toy. Once the puppy has switched his attention to the appropriate chew toy, praise him lavishly. In this way, you are allowing an outlet for instinctive behavior (chewing your shoe) that both you and the puppy find acceptable (chewing the toy). Remember that we won’t be able to stop instinctive behavior, but we might be able to mold it into something different, that both the dog and the owner can accept.
Be consistent with the training. Any and every time you find him chewing on the shoe, he must be punished and re-directed. If you let him do it every now and then, the message will be muddled. Punishment should not vary in intensity: if the shoe was a very expensive one, the punishment should be no worse than if it was an old sneaker. Dogs also have trouble with ‘qualifiers’. For example, if it is OK to chew on your “old” shoe, but not your “new” shoe, the dog will be confused. If it is OK to chew on the shoes you give to him, but not those a friend gives to him, he will be confused again.
Dogs have trouble with temporal associations. In other words, if too much time has elapsed between the negative behavior and the punishment, the dog will not understand what he is being punished for. In our example, if the dog was chewing on the shoe two hours ago (or even two minutes ago) it is too late to punish him. If you try to establish the relationship by rubbing his face on the shoe, the message he might learn is “letting my owner rub my face on the shoe is bad” instead of the lesson “shoe chewing is bad.” The second lesson will only be gleaned if the punishment occurs during the unacceptable behavior. You have to catch and punish the dog “in the act” of bad behavior.
Dogs will consistently test the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The old adage of “give someone an inch and they will take a mile” is very applicable to most dogs. If you fail to deliver punishment for an established bad behavior, the dog will be tempted to try it more often, or the behavior may slowly worsen in small increments. Eventually, the dog might re-shape your behavior!
What about Crate Training?