For some years now, sister Daphne and brother-in-law Denis, with whom I had a most happy stay last weekend, have been telling me interesting things about dogs. I promised to do a posting about this earlier, and here it is. (“Education” is an odd way to categorise it, but this was the best I could find.)
D&D have two dogs themselves, but more to the point they’ve also been reading a particularly interesting book about dogs, The Dog Listener by Jan Fennell. Denis did a very positive customer review of this book for Amazon. However, these customer reviews apparently come and go, and Denis’ one, which was there a week ago, seems now to have gone. Luckily I had already copied and pasted some of what he had said:
Her suggestions are so simple that, as a dog owner for many years, I thought they could not possibly work. I was so wrong that I was amazed. Within days my two labradors were so much more relaxed and better behaved that I experienced a fresh delight in keeping dogs. … Over the years I have read many books on dog training and this is the best.
Jan Fennell’s wisdom is based on the observation of dogs and dog packs in the wild, including wolf packs, dogs being the domesticated descendants of wolves. In this respect Fennell’s work resembles that of Monty Roberts, the famous “man who listens to horses” alluded to in the title of Fennell’s own book, and the writer of the forward for it.
I read through The Dog Listener while staying with Daphne and Denis, and I can’t say that I grasped all of its subtleties. But a few core notions I do now understand. Dogs are pack animals, and the key to knowing how to relate to them means knowing how dogs relate to other pack members. Your dog, if you have one, thinks of you as a member of its pack.
And here’s the most surprising thing. There is every chance that your dog thinks that it is the leader of your pack, and that you are its subordinate.
I had always imagined that dogs are like human infants only with about a hundred times more energy. That they might be worrying about their “owners” in the way that a parent worries about its child never entered my head. Yet when an “owner” abandons a dog, for example by leaving the dog at home, and the dog gets into a frazzle and bites the furniture and messes up the carpets, the dog isn’t reacting like an abandoned child. The dog is reacting like a distracted parent who has lost its child. Don’t think: neurotic dog, well, that’s dogs for you, neurotic by nature. No. Think: pack leader who is failing in his basic responsibilities. Think: captain of ship who is out of his depth and who knows it. This is where the “neurotic dog” cliché comes from. Crazy, uncontrolled, obsessive behaviour is only natural for a dog in the sense that it is natural for me to piss in my trousers if someone holds a knife to my throat. That there are so many neurotic dogs out there is because there are so many owners who don’t know how to take charge of their dogs. Such owners don’t know how to relieve their dogs of overwhelming and impossible responsibilities.
Other boss dog (“alpha dog”) habits: barking at strangers, on account of it being their job to guard the den against strangers; tugging at the leash, on account of it being their job to decide where the hunt goes; simply ignoring requests to come or sit or just calm down, on account of top dogs not obeying bottom dogs.
So how do you place yourself above your fellow pack member in the pack pecking order? How do you put a dog in its place?
The essence of the answer is: by ignoring it. When I arrived at the D&D household for the first time, I did exactly as Denisinstructed: ignore them, go where you’re going, don’t go towards them, don’t make eye contact, don’t pat them, don’t smack them on the body, don’t, don’t, don’t – and I soon had the dogs behaving as if I was the boss. This after a lifetime of greeting dogs in the human style, like long lost but low IQ friends – or like small children. Shouting enthusiastic greetings at them, smothering them in affection and body contact and generally making a huge drama out of how glad I am to see them – followed by them not giving me the time of day from then on. That’s because if you do all that stuff, so natural to a human, the dog then reckons it outranks you. Everything you do to change that – more shouting, more you approaching them, more drama, more physical affection – only confirms their superior status to you in their eyes.
On the other hand, do to a dog what if done to another human would be called “cutting them dead”, and the dog is yours to command. And perfectly happy about it. It works. If I can do it, anyone can.
After that it got more confusing. If a duly subjugated dog then approaches you and you pat it on the head and tickle its ears, are you confirming your superior status, or undermining it? More seriously, what’s the point of owning a dog if, for its own good, you have to ignore it all the time? So far as I got from my first reading of The Dog Listener the answer is that you can play with your dog, but that you must do it at a time and with toys of your choosing, not his. And you keep these toys hidden away. But I could have got that wrong. If you want to explore the subtleties of all this, you’ll have to read the book yourself.
On all other matters canine I defer to Denis’s superior knowledge and far greater experience (to say nothing of Jan Fennell’s of course), but one thing Denis said to me that I do severely doubt. I think he may have been rather exaggerating my expertise in saying, as he did, that I now know more about dogs and how to handle dogs than 99% of people (and he may even have said dog-owners). To put it another way, I think he underestimates how well Jan Fennell has been doing, with her television appearances, her books (there’s now another), her public demonstrations and now her voluminous e-mail correspondence.
Not all those customer reviews are as positive as Denis’s was. One says, for example, that Fennell’s stuff is either well known already, out of date (whatever that may mean), or else over-dependent upon the idea of the canine hierarchy. The review I’m quoting now has also gone, unless I’m doing something wrong.
Although this book may help many people because Jan’s techniques may work by accident, she hasn’t got the faintest idea why they are. She tries to compare dogs to wolves, but appears to have learnt about wolves by reading the back of a cereal packet.
This isunfair. I distinctly remember a long description in The Dog Listener of a televised confrontation between a wolf pack and a new alpha-wolf who was offering himself as their new leader, their old one having died. You don’t see TV shows on cereal packets.
Ignoring her dogs in the morning calmed them down because ‘they accepted her as the pack leader’. Rubbish. She was no longer rewarding their excited behaviour with attention and that’s why it worked.
Most dog trainers and behaviourists in the UK are holding their heads in their hands with despair that such a misinformed book is now the bible for the average dog owner looking to understand their pet.
As I say, Jan Fennell’s stuff has definitely been getting around, certainly among the dog-people. I think I smell a turf battle here between the different dog-persons, with the old alpha-experts barking like hell at the upstart Fennell. I further suspect that these anti-Fennellists dislike the idea of canine hierarchy not because it’s not a reality, but because it’s a reality that they don’t like. Egalitarianism among the animal trainers!
But what do I know? Take your pick. Or, use the comments section to tell me what’s really going on here.