By Guest Blogger DoLittler, AKA Dr. Patty Khuly, at dogtime.com
One of my close relatives took a bad dog bite to the face. Strictly speaking, there was no doubt it was her fault. He growled at her…and she bit him.
Yes, you read that right. After years of dealing with this dog’s seizure/personality disorder by the book (neurologists, behaviorists, trainers, acupuncturists) his owner lost it and bit him on the ear. It was a corrective kind of a bite he might have expected from another dog. His reaction: a swift, punishing bite to the face.
I offer you this close-to-home story by way of explaining how easy it is for humans to become emotionally overwhelmed by a dog’s aggressive behavior. Problem is, while aggression may be a natural, universal language, its interpretation is typically species specific. Thus, a dog cannot read human signs of aggression anywhere near as well as he reads his own species. Even our sophisticated human attempts to convey our emotions at the canine level are likely to be misread by a large percentage of our most docile dogs.
Enter Cesar Millan, “The Dog Whisperer,” and his ilk. Promising almost immediate success through basic dominance-based concepts any human can understand makes the message compelling. The entertainment factor and deliverer’s charm gives it traction. And the media massage of our basest instincts allows for ready acceptance of an almost irresistible idea: great behavior through good pack leadership skills.
It’s not a terribly wrongheaded concept in and of itself. However, expressing canine leadership through the prism of our humanity is not as doable as it sounds. There’s just too much room for misinterpretation.
A recent article in The Journal of Applied Animal Behavior highlights how simple corrective measures conveying dominance can be futile, misconstrued, prove counterproductive, and often result in bodily harm to humans. According to lead study author Dr. Meghan Herron at the University Pennsylvania:
Nationwide, the number-one reason why dog owners take their dog to a veterinary behaviorist is to manage aggressive behavior. Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation, do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses.
Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian, applied animal behaviorist, clued me in to this research and urged me to help foster pet owner interest in pursuing non-punishing, non-confrontational, less Millan-ish ways of handling basic and problem behavior.
Dr. Yin found that “the highest frequency of aggression occurred in response to aversive (or punishing) interventions, even when the intervention was indirect. In contrast, non-aversive methods resulted in much lower frequency of aggressive responses.”
Though science and soothing is undoubtedly less sexy to the average pet owner than Millan’s testosterone-fueled fare, studies like this are necessary to help explain the potentially damaging effects of pack leadership-based training methods.
Back to my relative: After two years of hard work the right way, one small bite based on the concept of pack mechanics undid it all. Her beloved (and I mean one really adored dog) was euthanized in the aftermath.
It may take a while for these more subtle methods to reverse the trend Cesar Millan has espoused, but it’s crucial to remember: Confrontation? It can kill, and it’s the dog that suffers in the end.