It’s no secret. The general consensus among most dog training professionals today is that labels like “dominant” or “alpha” have no real place in our discussion about who our pets are and how we can best relate to them. One need only look at the long list of citations at the end of this excellent blog post, No Such Thing As Alpha Dogs by Kelsie at Dog’s Life Canine Academy to see that there are plenty of research papers, articles, and position statements out there grappling with this topic. Phrases like “myth,” fallacy,” “old hat,” “detrimental to the human-canine relationship” abound. So I don’t particularly feel a need to rehash things that have been said so well already by many many respected members of not only the dog training, the scientific, but much of the veterinary community as well. The fact that so many pet owners are still in the dark about this veritable sea change of perspective among behavioral professionals continues to startle me on a daily basis, but then again, I just take it as a sign that–like so many other progressive movements and much of the rational, science-based discourse struggling to be heard in this country right now–behavioral science is simply going to take a lot more time to get a foothold in the average layperson’s consciousness. (For a great discussion on why dominance remains such a “sticky” idea in our society, as well as a great alternative, check out Kathy Sdao’s blog “Forget About Being the Alpha in Your Pack”).
My goal for today’s post is to bring the whole discussion into sharper focus around a single individual; because it is one thing to reject the concept of dominance in a broader sense on principle, and quite another to share one’s home day in and day out with a dog like Zydeco.
There is little doubt in my mind that even just a few years ago (and even in some circles today) our boy, Mr. Z, would have been called a dominant dog. Even among those of us savvy enough to switch from labeling dogs to labeling behaviors, many of Zydeco’s behaviors still seem to fall into the dominance category anyway. For example, when barking at strangers he stands tall, leaning forward, high on his toes, staring directly at the perceived threat. With his great big adult sounding barks and all the hairs bristling down his back, he looks skunk-like, and more than a little threatening. In fact, other than the mouth pucker, he pretty much looks like what, according to the 4-H Club’s textbook definition, is typically labeled an “aggressive /dominant” dog posture.
According to this WikiHow article “How to Work With Dominant Dogs”:
Some clear signs of dominance in dogs are pushing ahead of you, barking when given a command, jumping up on people and furniture, marking their territory by urinating on objects, mouthing, chewing and guarding objects and disobeying simple commands such as “down,” or “stay.”
Okay, I’m going to go through each of these in turn….
Pushing ahead of me out doorways so he can bust outside for a quick zoom around the yard, (’cause that’s friggin’ fun to do?) Check. Barking when given a command? Check. (When I ask him to “get in his house” for food time, he tends to bark directly at me first…Wooo! Wooo! Wooo!…And then, with a jaunty little hop, immediately scampers right on in). Jumping up on people and furniture? Check. He doesn’t have much access to furniture right now confined as he is to kitchen and backyard, but he has shown zero inhibition about jumping up onto anything else I’ve asked him to (which is not always a bad thing, particularly if you want an agility or search and rescue dog). Jumping on people? Check. When greeting me or anyone he likes, he’s all puppy hellos. Very normal floppy, paws-up-for-love-and-adoration type stuff. When greeting strangers, Zydeco tends to bark intensely for the first few minutes, and then goes all hyper-puppy (but friendly). If I don’t redirect him, just like any other over-excited puppy, he can jump up more invasively, sometimes nipping arms, hands, and even tearing clothes. Okay. So, I guess, double check on that one (jumping and biting). Urinating on objects? Nope. Probably not old enough yet. Mouthing and chewing objects? Check. (But, really, he’s a five month old GSD for goodness sakes! If an object is in range, anything soft, fluffy, moving, interesting–a leaf, a towel, my feet, a toy– it’s pretty much in his mouth. Annoying, yes. Abnormal? Again, not really.) Guarding objects? Aha! This is where Zydy would definitely have the average Joe fooled. When he’s got stuff in his mouth, he growls, and it actually sounds pretty serious too, deep and gutteral–right up until the moment you realize he’s asking to play and is bringing the toy right to your lap so you’ll throw it again. Is that a guarding behavior? Coming to give up the object? Ha ha! I think not! (But every time he does this playful talking thing, I do think of all the pet owners I know who really stress out about their dogs’ growls and often try to correct them for it–a sure fire way to create a guarding problem that wasn’t there before!) Disobeying simple commands? Well, Zydy is a super quick study actually, and as long as there is no overt pressure, particularly physical pressure, on him to comply, he’s usually quite happy to do just about anything I ask. He has learned most of the basic cues like sit, come, wait, let’s go, get it, leave-it, okay, get in the car, get in your house, hop up, go place, touch, etc. very very quickly… But the one behavior he’s still a little slow on? You guessed it: down. He’ll do it, but is definitely slow to “comply.” And, yep, he does sometimes bark at me too when I ask him for it. Classic, textbook, dominance issue, right? A dog who won’t lay down and submit. (Hint: actually, what’s going on is his down cue is just not quite fluent enough yet, and I also suspect that it takes him a few extra seconds to maneuver his gangly puppy legs into position too. He’ll get it. His latency is actually improving all the time).
What else? Well, when he plays his own games, he’s all devil may care wildness, careening around full tilt boogie like a boy playing Hot Rods or Top Gun (or Transformers or whatever horrible, violent, mass-produced media movie is big with the kids these days), roughing up (and mounting) the dog beds, chomping and shaking his toys mercilessly, destroying plastic bottles with great, gleeful crunches, drowning plushies in his pool, then vigorously “mopping” the kitchen floor with them, and just causing general mayhem. But is all that really dominance? Really? Or just good old fashioned puppy high jinx?
So, maybe the super playfulness is mostly just puppy high jinx. When meeting dogs, however, the dominance issue gets a little more difficult to shake. When he sees a new dog, Zydy’s first reaction is to bark his fool head off, then (after calming himself–because my rule for him is that only calm dogs get to play), when released, he can alternate between highly appropriate puppy behavior and a highly annoying, extremely persistent habit of mounting, as well as what many trainers call T-ing up with head and paws over the top of the other dog’s neck and back. Needless to say, although there have been a couple moments of very nice play for him during these visits, most of the dogs we have attempted to socialize him with have spent a good amount of time snarking at him to QUIT IT! A reaction which, unfortunately, he seems to find stimulating (i.e. reinforcing), and which usually just makes him come right back for more…But I have to say, in my professional opinion, even when I’ve had to physically pull him away from the dog he is persistently accosting, even then, I still don’t think “dominance issue” so much as “impulsivity issue.” When Zydy’s got his head together, meaning, when he’s under-threshold and calm, he’s perfect. Even around dogs, he can stay focused, accept treats, lay on his relax mat, play with tug toys, and even self-regulate and settle himself down in his ex-pen…It’s only when his arousal level skyrockets, that you’d better look out, because at that point it is certainly humpty-dumpty, barky-lungy time. The good news is, impulse control can be taught. The trick is doing it gradually enough, with better set ups for mellower, more structured interactions such as more parallel walks with dogs rather than unstructured free-for-all play for now, that we don’t cause so much frustration that Zydy ends up becoming aggressive to dogs in the long run.
Similarly to when dogs say QUIT IT!, when sensing a correction, or even a flare of grumpiness from a human, it’s true he is likely to bark right back in your face or, on occasion, even leap up, teeth flashing, in what seems to be a pretty provocative way…Now, I want to stop right here and stress that I have never once felt threatened by anything Zydeco has done, and I’ve also never felt that any of the dogs or people I have introduced him to were in any danger whatsoever (besides maybe being overly pestered, jumped on and puppy nipped). As someone who works with truly aggressive dogs regularly, I honestly do trust myself to be able to tell the difference between a puppy losing control of himself and a dog ready to take another dog out at this point. However, I also definitely get a sense with Zydeco that if the relationship we had with him was more pet owner /dominance-trainer typical (i.e. more confrontational), and push came to shove, as he matured, he’d eventually make good on the promise of those pearly whites.
So, if not alpha, what the heck do we call this constellation of behaviors then? Without the easy convenience of labels, it can be hard. And if Zydeco is so over the top sometimes, how is it even possible to teach him to behave without corrections? I mean, positive reinforcement might be great for cute tricks and well mannered dogs, but doesn’t a puppy like this need a firmer hand? Well, although I do love to wax poetic as you can tell, sometimes I feel words are simply not adequate enough. Here is a video of Zydeco’s Greatest Hits so he can speak for himself. When editing I intentionally left out the more challenging stuff he does because I believe in finding success-points and building from there. What this video shows is that when set up for success, our boy absolutely can do it, and he can do it beautifully. Those “bad” behaviors in my opinion are just “growing edges,” things he does in certain circumstances, and things he can certainly learn not to do. Most importantly, those behaviors are not who he is. Check out all he has learned in just a few short weeks and then honestly tell me, if I had not told you of the barking, jumping, mounting, wildness, and nipping, would you even think to call this dog “dominant”?
So, who is Zydeco?
When I was a kindergarten teacher I have a vivid memory of watching a young boy hurl himself with all his might in a furious battle against an unlocked door clearly labeled PULL. True to his German Shepherd lineage, it is important to remember that Zydy was very likely intentionally bred to not only have a strong opposition reflex, but to actually be triggered to even greater levels of arousal by anything even remotely confrontational. Restraint? Limitations? Challenges? Danger? Bring it on. The more you hold him back, the more he’s liable to come right back atcha. Although I don’t agree at all with the use of dogs in warfare, our boy is certainly the type brave (or foolish) enough to run headlong into gunfire or explosions. Ask him to leap fifteen feet in the air into the deep end of a pool after a toy as they do in the sport of Dock Diving, and I’m sure he wouldn’t hesitate. Set him up in front of an A-frame, or dog walk, and my guess he’d clamber up in minutes just for the thrill of being up so high. I could also definitely see him excelling at Schutzund and protection work too. Being held back and teased until in a frenzy of barking, lunging, fury, then released to take down the “bad guy?” No problem there. (Whether or not Schutzund training would indeed be good for him, though, is another story).
So, taking Zydeco’s genetics into account, it makes total sense why certain intense physical behaviors like barking, biting, tugging, chasing, running, pouncing, leaping, etc. are super reinforcing for him to do. Basically, you could say, he was born to move through the world intensely, so when he gets to do that, it feels great… And what I’ve been calling his “bravery” that’s in the mix as well. If you remember, at a very early age, he had to be a survivor. Running the streets. Starving. Covered in mange. All before the age of four months old? You better believe he has good reason to overreact to certain things after that. Considering the obvious prenatal neglect he came from, plus his natural German Shepherd temperament, and the little touch of fearfulness at the heart of all that bravado, to be honest, I am amazed that he isn’t more iffy around other people or dogs. But no. He really and truly isn’t aggressive; and if we continue to handle him as we have been, he shouldn’t ever be.
Calling Zydeco dominant, simply misses all the really important things about him. For instance, you might completely miss the fact that our boy is a deeply affectionate dog, with a very strong bond to the people he loves and trusts. He greatly enjoys physical closeness, and full body, lap cuddles…Oh, and that shoulder lean he does against everyone’s legs (another on the list of dominant behaviors)? That is actually his way of saying hi. He likes to do the lean so much, I’ve begun capturing it with the clicker, and will eventually put it on cue as his go to greeting behavior instead of jumping up. His mouthing– which he can actually do with very good self-control when not over-aroused– often appears to be his way of connecting to the important humans in his life as well. In the evenings before bed, one of his favorite things to do when sleepy is to snuggle close, take my whole arm in his mouth, and just hold it and chomp gently in a very baby-like fashion. He doesn’t suck or doing anything OCDish. It’s a deeply affectionate, self-comforting gesture, like a tough guy feeling safe enough to show you his gentle side. The thought of anyone hurting or scaring Zydy to correct this expression of closeness actually brings tears to my eyes.
Calling him dominant also belittles how smart and surprisingly respectful he is. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, he has taken to clicker training like a duck to water. It is the perfect training system for him because the learning process is hands off, non-confrontational, highly rewarding, and it requires him to think. It is difficult to think and be impulsive at the same time. By asking him to slow down and puzzle things through, training in this way actually builds up the skill of self-regulation… And, guess what? He’s a master! Never in all my years of working with dogs have I met a clicker-rookie that could fast-map cues to brand new behaviors as quickly as he does. Although certainly he has his normal flitting puppy attention span moments, most of the time, when I set out to teach him something, it’s like he’s read my mind and is already five steps ahead. Every day he challenges me to think up new puzzles for him to solve, and even the more mindless things like running after a Chase-it toy he still tends to turn into an intellectual exercise instead of a purely physical one. I especially love it when he bluffs that he’s too tired to chase the toy anymore. He will even pretend to flop out in the grass with his head down like he’s exhausted. But then, when I give up on my end, and hold the toy still instead of wiggling it around, that’s when he’s up like a shot and pounces…And what do I mean by respectful? Well, it’s a two way street. When I respect him, asking him to do things like leave-it or sit instead of commanding, or worse, grabbing him, and he feels safe, he is supremely biddable. Biddable means when I cue a behavior, he usually hops to it jack rabbit quick–not because he has to– but because he wants to. Voluntary choice makes a world of difference in my book; and honestly, if you really think about it, why would a “dominant” dog choose to do anything I ask–especially if it involves stopping something or giving up something he wants, especially if he knows I’m not going to back it up with a threat? To me, when there is freedom to choose, and the dog’s choice is a wholehearted YES, that is far more powerful than anything I could achieve with a prong collar.
The dangers of calling a dog like Zydeco dominant are obvious. Once you put him on that nefarious pedestal, all that remains of the courageous and at times highly sensitive soul that he is, immediately gets reduced down to a stereotype. Instead of a complex individual full of the potential to learn, grow and change, now he’s just an unfeeling four-legged creature that needs to be brought down a peg or two to fit into the human world “for his own good.” But lets just picture for a moment what the dominance paradigm really might mean for a dog like Zydeco. Grab him when he’s naughty and steals things? Lip pinch him for nipping? Alpha roll him for acting defiant? Knee him in the chest for jumping on people? Scruff shake him for growling? Shock him for barking? Yank him by a prong collar, or helicopter him for lunging on leash? Are you kidding me? This isn’t the type of dog that will go down without a fight. He has heart. That’s what he was bred for. If mishandled in these ways, I’m certain our Zydy could eventually even earn the more damning title of “dangerous dog,” most likely after taking a chunk of whomever was on the end of the leash that day right along with him down that scary scary road where humans are not to be trusted, and you’ve always got to watch your back, teeth at the ready, because the world is not a safe or happy place to live in.
Fortunately, however, that dark reality just ain’t gonna happen for Zydeco. Not on my watch anyway, and not on his mom’s watch either. After a rough start, he drew the lucky card in life in finding people willing to bust their butts to teach him coping skills rather than correct misbehavior. As his honorary “Auntie” I intend to stay in our boy’s life, keep up his lessons, and continue to support my good friend and her family in the ongoing, and I’m sure at times exasperating adventure that will be life with Zydy full steam ahead. After spending the last three solid weeks, almost 24/7 with this boy (only two more weeks to go!), I’ve gotten to know him well. There is simply no doubt in my mind that even when he is loud and annoying as all get out, even when he’s acting a complete fool, this is one fabulous dog; and the very things about him that make him hard, are also what make him great. So, who is Zydeco really? My final answer to that is: he’s a “Z-dog.” Being a “Z-dog” has no set definition. To me it means transcending all labels; for it is only by adamantly refusing to let ourselves or anyone else make the mistake of calling him “dominant,” that Zydeco can truly reach his full potential by being allowed the space to be wholly himself.