Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The One Show, Dominance and Resource Guarding

What have these three topics to do with each other? Let me explain... What happened?

1. The One Show

On September, 16th, 2011 BBC's The One Show introduced a dog trainer/behaviourist to their team. His name was Jordan Shelley. They showed an episode of him teaching a Jack Russell Terrier to stop food guarding. These are fairly run of the mill issues for dog behaviourists and shouldn't really cause too much trouble. But this one did...

When the JRT who was eating his food growled and snarled at Jordan Shelley approaching the bowl, Jordan pushed the bowl away with his foot and then used his foot trying to push the JRT terrier away from it. The dog kept biting his foot and continued snarling and growling. This went on for apparently 45 minutes at which point the dog finally backed off when Jordan approached the food bowl.

In no time at all, The One Show, the BBC, OFCOM and the RSPCA had a huge amount of complaints from dog trainers/behavourists, animal welfare organisations and dog owners alike... I too complained of course as I too was as shocked by the whole episode as everyone else. Why?

2. Dominance? Or Not?

Dominance type training was the way training was done years ago where most behaviour was put down to the dog wanting to be dominant and the owner had to be the "alpha wolf" to control their dog. The theories of this were derived from a captive wolf pack in the 1940s which was observed as to their behaviours with each other. This theory was then popularised by the Monks of New Skete that advocated alpha rolls, scruffing and the like to establish dominance over a dog. Studies in the last 50 years however have shown that the original observations on that wolf pack were flawed as it was a captive wolf pack with members of different wolf packs thrown together. This of course makes for a much more aggressive way of life than a natural wolf pack would lead if comprised of family members growing up together like it happens in a wild pack.
In addition, it has also been found that dogs differ in many ways from wolves due to their domestication many thousand years ago. So wolf behaviour can sometimes not be applied directly to our domestic dogs.

Ok, so we now know that dominance isn't the way to go because it is based on a flawed theory from the early 20th century... but what is the actual problem with it? After all, not all outdated stuff is bad, right? Correct... however, dominance based training can have a pretty disastrous fall-out in some dogs and is a rather uncomfortable and miserable way of learning for most dogs (and owners for that matter).

First of all, dominance based training usually puts an awful lot of pressure on the dog by using aversives (e.g. alpha roll), by forcing them into behaviour they don't understand (e.g. punishment for natural behaviours) and by flooding them and making them face their fears. This puts enormous stress on the dog, doesn't promote a good owner-dog bond and makes the dog comply through fear of what happens if he doesn't! This type of training also tends to focus on correcting the dog, and not on teaching them the right behaviour... as you might know from your own experiences at school, work or in the family, not a nice way of learning!

Secondly, dominance based training usually addresses the behaviour, not the underlying cause. This means that although the dog may now behave as desired, the underlying emotions of fear, anger, frustration etc. are still there, trapped, building up and waiting to explode at some point! And bingo, you have got yourself a dog that attacks out of the blue in a seemingly unrelated situation. Have you ever come home from work where you were reprimanded for something (perhaps even something you haven't done or wasn't your fault), and you complied because of the fear of losing your job, but you then had a go at your spouse about a trivial thing that wouldn't normally bother you? Well, there's your emotions building up and frustration coming out... in an unrelated situation, but it can be traced back to surpressing certain behaviour earlier in the day.

If you are "lucky" you have one of these dogs that just comply and give up, and you then have created "taught helplessness", in other words, the dog doesn't try behaving in a certain way anymore (good or bad) and simply shuts down. A perhaps very compliant dog, but often not a happy one.

So if dominance isn't the way to go, how DO we teach dogs what we want them to do?

Positive reward based training is, as you know, what we use in WTDT Classes and Personal Training. Why? Science shows us that dogs (and any other animal for that matter) learn the same way as we do: we repeat behaviour that is rewarding and stop behaviour that isn't rewarding. It's as simple as that! We use that simple learning theory principle. Unlike in dominance/aversive based training, where behaviour is mainly corrected, positive dog trainers teach the dog how to behave correctly so "bad behaviour" doesn't happen in the first place. This is of course very simplified, but it's the basic principle.

Positive reward based training is also much safer than aversive/dominance type of training as the underlying cause of behaviour is addressed, not just the symptom which is the bad behaviour. So the dog isn't stopped communicating and the behaviour doesn't just get surpressed but is actually resolved (and if it isn't, at least you know about it as the dog will still give warnings!).

2. Resource  Guarding

The issue on TOS was resource guarding of food. This is a very common problem in dogs, and many other species like for example us humans. Someone on a blog so nicely explained it: how long would it take you to stop a guest removing all your furniture from your house? The guest probably couldn't even make it to the first door with your TV set, right? That's resource guarding - and of course perfectly justified.
And then I have this friend that pokes anyone that is trying to take food from her plate with a folk - another human resource guarder!
How much you guard your possessions depends on the value of the resource and on your temperament. So how much a dog guards their food will depend on the same values... and considering that food is one of the most valuable resources in any species, it is no surprise that many dogs will guard it.

Although it is perfectly natural behaviour, it is of course not a very desirable behaviour for a dog living in a family and perhaps with children around. So in most cases, we will want to change this behaviour. Punishing the growling and snarling will - as we know - surpress the behaviour but not stop the dog feeling anxious about people taking the food away. The aggressive behaviour could then resurface at any point if the dog is pushed far enough, or perhaps more importantly, it could resurface in other situations seemingly unconnected; and there won't be any warning of this happening as you have just thought your dog to surpress warnings too.

So what do we do? We teach the dog that people around his food are rewarding, that people's hands near their food are a sign of good things coming, so the dog won't feel the need anymore to guard and hence won't. Here's my suggestion on how to achieve this (especially useful also for puppies to prevent them from becoming a food guarder), which is one of many possible positive ways of doing it - but please remember, if your dog is already a resource guarder, contact us or another good behaviourist to help you with this issue!

Aim: the dog is happy for you to approach him and touch him when he is eating and you can take something away from him if necessary. Make sure that you keep yourself safe at all times during this exercise. Do not allow children to practice this!

NEVER take any food/toy away from your dog as this would only reinforce the need for guarding (unless of course your dog has taken something dangerous).

  1. Approach your dog to a distance where your dog does not show any aggression (body stiffening, growling, looking) and throw a special treat towards him, e.g. cheese, cooked meat etc.
  1. Gradually decrease the distance where the dog does not show any aggression and when you see your dog expectantly looking up to you for the next treat.
  1. Once you can get close to your dog without getting an aggressive response, drop the treat in the bowl. Repeat this until your dog is really looking forward to you approaching him.
  1. Then put the treat in the bowl (or next to the treat/bone) with your hand. Again repeat until your dog is perfectly happy with you putting treats in his bowl.
  1. Take the bowl up, put a treat in (give the dog a treat) and bring it straight down to the dog again. This will teach that even taking the bowl away is a great thing as it is returned IMMEDIATELY with extra treats.
If at any point, your dog shows aggression, back off and go back to a previous step where the dog was still ok. Never challenge your dog and never punish him for an aggressive response in this situation.
Chews/bones etc: if your dog is eating a chew, do the same kind of training, but never take the chew away. Always offer an extra treat when you approach (built up in the same way as above) until your dog is not bothered by your presence there anymore.