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Dominance-based Dog Training Controversy

By Dr. Michael W. Fox
July 2013

QUESTION:

Dear Dr Fox,

I am a great admirer of your work (at least what I know about it.) I own many of your books and was attending the SPARCS 2013 conference this last weekend of June, 2013. I like the part of spirituality that enters, is given space in your work.

A controversy was created around your comments re: use of aversives, use or neck shaking and shock collars. These seem to contradict all of your work or my perception of your work, approach of respect towards other animals. I see you as a man of grace who would not hurt other animals. Some people here (Canada) are totally flabbergasted by these 'recommendations" as they perceive it. To me it is very painful because I really appreciate all of what you did so far for animals all over.

When I see your interactions with animals I cannot imagine that you would use or recommend these methods to modify their behaviors. The shaking of the neck is something that Cesar Millan would recommend and in some dogs it will escalate the emotion and increase the risk of a bite therefore putting them in danger of losing their life. And yes I am struggling with the opinions of trainers who take the position that only gentleness (so-called R+ or positive reinforcement/reward) works and should be used at all times and it makes things difficult to maintain a balanced view and find where I position myself all things considered. You see what the controversy is about. I needed to put my mixed emotions on paper out of the admiration I have for you.

I would really appreciate if you could share your thoughts on this with me.

Respectfully,
Marie
Carignan, Quebec

RESPONSE:

I think that it is important to address what seems to be an on-going controversy ignited by the dominance-intimidation ways of people like Cesar Millan which I have publicly deplored. Some dogs need physical restraint to learn internal inhibition/self-restraint, one method I have described being ‘Cradling’ for pups and small dogs. Holding around the neck and shoulders with one arm or holding the neck- scruff and when needed, placing a hand around the dog’s muzzle or putting on a muzzle are standard handling procedures for keeping some dogs still for veterinary examination. I would not write this off as cruel domination but rather, as when a cat is held by the scruff of the neck, induces a reflexive passivity. Pups are likewise held by the scruff of the neck when being carried by their mothers and a reflex passivity is triggered as per my earlier research on the reflexological/neurological development of the dog.

I would only advocate using a scruff and muzzle hold and even holding a dog down for a few seconds as an extreme intervention, only by a competent person, as when one dog has attacked another. When put into practice, as at my wife Deanna Krantz’ animal refuge in India, in addition to other safe and effective techniques to break up a fight when caring for a free group of 30 or more dogs, this NATURAL, ethologically appropriate method of canine behavioral inhibition works well. Loud sounds can also prove effective at a greater distance.

I hope this helps clarify things for you and my position and total aversion to the Millan-style of domineering aversive conditioning which could increase canine aggression.

Another issue is training collars using remote wireless signals: buzzers and tones are fine, but no electroshocks for any dog, hunting and working dogs in particular where there can be much misuse and abuse of these devices. Bark-activated buzzers can work well for some dogs who are incessant barkers, but again, electroshock-devices I find ethically unacceptable and yet they are part of the abominable devices used by some trainers and handlers.

At the other extreme are the ‘hands-off’ never shout or hold-down dog trainers/counselors who put gentleness before all else, a position I respect but which will prove ineffectual with some strong-willed and over-indulged dogs, like some parents who are averse to exercising ‘tough love’ when it comes to dealing with their delinquent offspring who do not respect boundaries and want their own way---like so many delinquent dogs. Striking may be the solution of last resort or only response for some, an action which I deplore. There never can be any justification for hitting or kicking a dog, an attention-getting loud hand clap or shout being sufficient. Also. ‘time-out’, such as banishing a misbehaving dog immediately to another room, is another effective corrective for most dogs.

Canine genetics, early experiences, socialization and other dog-related influences on behavior and tranability/adaptability/educatability not withstanding, one must look at the attitude, competence, confidence, intelligence, understanding and capacity for empathy of the dog’s human companion with equal thoroughness before deciding on the most appropriate remedies for troubling, unwanted, aggressive and other behaviors which need to be modified in order to improve the human-non-human bond and in many instances prevent animal abuse, cruelty and even abandonment or euthanasia.

I must add that many people, including dog caregivers and trainers/educators, are limited by their own preconceptions and misconceptions about how to handle and communicate with dogs. No amount of factual knowledge without hands-on experience is going to make a difference because they variously lack empathy, have unresolved fears, need to dominate and control etc etc. This is why I do not advise many people to engage in play-fighting with their dogs which includes grabbing and shaking the scruff of the neck, cheeks and muzzle. But many people can engage in such intense physical contact because their dogs know what is going on and the humans know when to set limits and boundaries in terms of response intensity and duration of interaction. Those who play together stay together.

But many trainers say, mistakenly, that such interactions, and even having a tug-of-war with a chew-rope or knotted towel, will encourage dogs to become aggressive and dominant in the relationship. So they say no to what many dogs really enjoy, along with their human playmates. This is unacceptable and makes me wonder about the training/education of many individuals in the dog business of training and behavioral counseling. Some trainers even regard a dog jumping up on a person as dominance behavior, another example of a little bit of knowledge potentially causing more harm than good. Dogs also jump-on to greet, embrace, display affection and to solicit play.

Even a leash and collar (and especially the choke-chain collar which I deplore) can be an instrument of torture and abuse in the wrong hands. When commonly used improperly as tools of domination, correction and control they can cause neck injuries and great harm especially to small breeds whose tracheas can collapse when they pull too hard or are corrected too roughly. Small breeds in particular should be walked in harnesses around the chest, and for other dogs the Anderson-type ‘Gentle Leader’ around the muzzle can provide effective, non-injurious control and direction.

Above all we must examine the truths that we live by, including what we believe to be the best and only way to treat, handle, train dogs and other animals, and to remain open to new ways and old using common sense as our guide, not ‘pure science’, and compassion, not custom, expedience or convenience, as our compass.


Dr. Michael W. Fox is a well-known veterinarian, former vice president of The Humane Society of the United States, former vice president of Humane Society International and the author of more than 40 adult and children’s books on animal care, animal behavior and bioethics. He is also a graduate veterinarian from the Royal Veterinary College, London, whose research lead to a PhD (Medicine) and a DSc (ethology/animal behavior) from the University of London, England.