Reminder of the dangers of 'dominance' training

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 1/3/16
By: Gail T. Fisher

I recently visited a webpage of a dog trainer who proudly claimed that he wasn’t influenced by education or science. He bragged that his methods were based solely on his personal experience. How sad that there are still people who are not interested in learning from scientific studies or from others in their profession, but believe their way is best simply because they say it is.

I’m participating as a mentor in a beta program for the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) mentoring trainers and behavior consultants. The 3 mentees I am working with are in Australia, and I am loving learning their perspective (and listening to their accents).   Many of the issues we trainers deal with in the U.S. are the same in Australia. One of the mentees lives in an extremely remote area with very low population, and only two veterinarians, one of whom believes strongly in the importance of “dominance” and the “Alpha Roll.” She also has a local trainer in her area that is a follower of TV dog trainer Cesar Milan.

Much like the dog trainer whose website I visited, Cesar Millan is self-taught—and much of the information he spouts is flawed. I wrote about this a few years ago, but it is well worth revisiting in light of new trainers following in his footsteps, who believe there’s something wrong with formal education. Here’s just one example of how wrong this approach can be.

In an on-line article in “National Geographic News” (July 31, 2006), Maryann Mott interviewed Cesar Millan. In the article entitled “Dog Whisperer to Critics: My Techniques Are ‘Instinctual’” Mott asked: You use what's known as the alpha roll [flipping a dog on its back and holding the animal in that position to emphasize the human's dominance] in your training. This is a highly controversial technique among trainers and behaviorists. What's your response to those who feel it should not be done and that it's harmful to use this technique? Millan replied:

“That's their point of view. It's the difference between going to school and the dogs being your school. One is the intellectual knowledge, the other one is instinctual. I am instinctual. I'm open to [other trainers'] beliefs and I'm open to their knowledge. They close their minds. They say their way is the only way, and my way is the wrong way. That's not a very good leader.

“If you study a pack of dogs, the first authority figure is the mom, and the mom does pin the puppies down. It's an instinctual relationship that I have to establish with them. It's for the benefit of their species. The reason why I'm able to accomplish what I accomplish is because I am calm-assertive to [the dogs]. So the mother is the first calm-assertive energy they know, then it's the pack leader. Domination, dominating, and the alpha roll exist, and will exist, until we get rid of the species of dog.”

Aside from the arrogant belief that his instincts make for better dog training than experience mixed with “intellectual knowledge,” one might look down on “book larnin’” if your instincts (“beliefs”) are correct. But his are not! The entire premise of the dominance approach is based on a fallacy. “Domination, dominating, and the alpha roll” do not exist as he claims! His claim that this technique comes from “study [of] a pack of dogs” displays an appalling lack of knowledge, “intellectual” or otherwise. If he had ever watched a mother dog disciplining a puppy he would know that the mom does not pin the puppy. Rather, the puppy voluntarily rolls over himself. The puppy’s response to mom’s discipline is to roll himself onto his back in what is called passive-submissive posture. In fact there is no such thing as an alpha roll practiced by dogs or wolves. The alpha roll was invented by humans.

Millan justifies his “instinctual relationship” as being “for the benefit of their species,” but countless trainers, veterinarians and behavioral professionals call it abuse—and abuse cannot be considered beneficial by anyone’s standards. The most inviolate “rules” of the dog species have to do with keeping the peace: avoiding conflict; turning off attacks and aggression. Dogs have a wide range of body signals designed to diffuse conflict. Ultimately the one that shuts off the attack is passive submission, rolling over. The rule regarding this ultimate in subordinance is that it stops aggression.

But that’s not what Millan does. What he demonstrates on his popular and damaging TV show is to physically overpower the dog, rolling it onto its back. Millan frequently gets bitten because from the dog’s perspective, this man is the attacker. How cruel to frighten a dog so badly that it bites him, all in the name of “instinctive training.” It isn’t instinctive. From this trainer’s perspective, it is called abuse.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2016. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.