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Dogs and dog people – is Jan Fennell the new alpha-dog-expert?

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.

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13 comments to Dogs and dog people – is Jan Fennell the new alpha-dog-expert?

  • Right on! Dog Trainers are a varied bunch and most disagree on something. I’ve had trainers tell me that ‘the dogs can work it out and humans shouldn’t interfere,” while other trainers say “dogs need structure and dogs can kill each other if allowed to…” So, who’s right? … well, I’m one of those people who has found out that dogs need structure and are happiest when their owner (a politically incorrect statement to some… in SF, a dog ‘owner’ is verboten… you are a dog’s guardian and never an owner) sets guidelines.
    Chow Ciao!

  • Denis Watkins

    From a ringside seat – as the owner of the two dogs you met – I was impressed by your description, backed by your experience over a weekend, of the Jan Fennell method. I have owned dogs since I was a child – mongrels through German Shepherds to my present two labradors – and I find her methods work. In my view much training is an abuse of dogs and some training damages them. This method leaves them calmer and a pleasure to have around. Regards. Denis.

  • Lisa Wylde

    I was fortunate to get a place on one of Jan Fennell’s two day foundation courses. This was spent in her home, and to see how content and relaxed her own dogs were was an absoulute inspiration. I have been interested in canine behaviour for many years, and is interesting to see that many of the “experts” do not own dogs themselves – or indeed some of them own ones with “problems”. Of course there are some behaviourists, such as the late John Fisher who have a lot to teach us, unfortunately not all of them are as dedicated to the canine mind and spirit as he was.

    You state that you should “ignore them all the time” this is not actually the case, simply that when YOU want to play and fuss your dog – YOU call them. Assuming they respond to your call, you can play, cuddle, fuss, whatever you want to do. But if you are sitting on the settee watching the tv, for example, and the dog comes to you uninvited, and plonks his head (or body!!) on your lap – you would quietly push them away, because you had not instigated contact. This is why some people believe it is cruel, “ignoring your dog all the time” but this is not actually what you do – just simply when you are relaxed and want to play with the dog you do so, and you would both enjoy it more, but if the dog was demanding to play, barking, jumping up etc. although you may accept this behaviour in the park when you are appropriately dressed, you may not appreciate the same “request” by your dog when you are dressed up ready to go out! Consistency is the key, if the dog knows that you will only play with it when you want to, and therefore learns manners, both of you will really relish that quality time together!

  • Melanie Stilgoe

    It was very interesting to hear of your experiences. I know how ‘bitchy’ (excuse the pun) the dog worl can be, i visited my local dog training club, and was appaled how stuck up they were with me because I do not own a dog. This is not my fault, due to circumstances, it would not be fair for me to do so, but i am a dog walker, i walk a lovely staffie every day, and have done for two years now, the point is, over that time, i tried soooo many ways to get him to behave, and eventually i discovered jans method, i obviously cant do all her method, as i dont live with him, but i have implemented what i can, and now, instyead of him going beserk with every dog he ses, i simply ask him to follow me, and lead him away, he can still meet him regular doggy friends, and that fine, but i have found him much more managelbe, and he now walks in a formation something resembling heel!
    i too have been lucky neough to get a place on a two day jan fennell course, and can’t wait! i hope to learn more, and im sure it will be very inspirational.
    melanie

  • Tina

    I am an ordinary dog owner (PC or not, I’m going to use that term) and 6yr old my Border Collie is typical of its breed; nervous, humerous and loving. However, I have just started (within the last week) Jan Fennell’s Amichien Bonding. I can see some improvements already – and I;m delighted. I can’t understand why people would want to use choke chains (well, would YOU wear one?) to dominate a dog. Far better to use the dog’s own phsychology. Sorry if I upset people, but I just want a happy dog who will do what I ASK of it because it wants to, not because it’s afraid of me.

  • Mariolina

    I believe it works. I have a 9 mo GSH, with whom we made as many mistakes as poss. In particular, we failed to recognize that, far from being cute, our little one thought of himself as a double Alpha leader! I started to apply JF’s method in February, with good results. Unfortunately, I had to leave for ten days. I came back to find an unruly dog who refuses to obey me, jumps off the garden wall, runs away when let out in the garden, plays and obeys for the reward, when he doesn’t refuse my approaches point blank. He even ran after some Highland cattle. All of this in spite of my attempts to re-establish my leadership from the first re-union aftermy absence.
    I am the only one who tries JF’s method. My dog knows what I am up to! But I also see that he gets confused by what I am tryn to do, as opposed to my partner’s traditional ways. And he’s the one who walks the dog!
    So, I still try regular sessions, a span of max 10 minutes. Then the dog disobeys, or becomes anxious or refuses to “give in”. Shall I give altogether or risk having a confused dog, or worse have a dog who I cannot control when he is with me?
    Typical: When I put him on the lead to sit in the car, he grabs the lead as if I was is puppy. When I go to bed, he stops everything to lie next to me, head or tail or body blocking me. No objection to my partner coming to bed. In fact, he thenleaves, noisily but promptly.
    Any sound advice, apart from rereading JF’s book, which I do every day?

  • Mariolina

    I believe it works. I have a 9 mo GSH, with whom we made as many mistakes as poss. In particular, we failed to recognize that, far from being cute, our little one thought of himself as a double Alpha leader! I started to apply JF’s method in February, with good results. Unfortunately, I had to leave for ten days. I came back to find an unruly dog who refuses to obey me, jumps off the garden wall, runs away when let out in the garden, plays and obeys for the reward, when he doesn’t refuse my approaches point blank. He even ran after some Highland cattle. All of this in spite of my attempts to re-establish my leadership from the first re-union aftermy absence.
    I am the only one who tries JF’s method. My dog knows what I am up to! But I also see that he gets confused by what I am tryn to do, as opposed to my partner’s traditional ways. And he’s the one who walks the dog!
    So, I still try regular sessions, a span of max 10 minutes. Then the dog disobeys, or becomes anxious or refuses to “give in”. Shall I give altogether or risk having a confused dog, or worse have a dog who I cannot control when he is with me?
    Typical: When I put him on the lead to sit in the car, he grabs the lead as if I was is puppy. When I go to bed, he stops everything to lie next to me, head or tail or body blocking me. No objection to my partner coming to bed. In fact, he thenleaves, noisily but promptly.
    Any sound advice, apart from rereading JF’s book, which I do every day?

  • BECKY

    I THINK THESE DOG TRAINERS ARE TOO BIG FOR THEIR BOOTS. I HAVE HAD MANY DOGS IN THE PAST AND THEY HAVE ALL BEEN TRAINED BY SO CALLED DOG TRAINERS. THEY DO WHAT THEY ARE TOLD BUT YOU CAN TELL THAT MOST OF THE TIME THEY DON’T WANT TO DO WHAT THEY ARE TOLD. ‘WE ARE FORCING THEM TO DO SOMETHING THEY DO NOT WANT TO DO’ HOW DOES THIS MAKE A HAPPY DOG? I RESCUED 2 DOGS A FEW YEARS AGO AND THEY HAD SERVERE PROBLEMS. I TRIED DOG TRAINERS AND IN THE END ONE OF THE DOGS BIT ME. I DID NOT WANT TO PUT THE DOG DOWN AS I WANTED TO TRY AND SAVE HIM. I LOOKED INTO JAN’S WORK AND I WAS AMASED AT THE RESULTS. NOW THEY ARE BOTH LOVING COMPANIONS AND BEHAVE PERFECTLY, AS THEY SEE ME AS THE ALPHA AND BEHAVE NATURALLY, AS THEY WOULD IF THEY WERE WILD DOGS. I THINK JAN’S WORK HAS BEEN ABSOLOUTLY AMAZING AND I GIVE HER ALL THE LUCK IN THE FUTURE, AND I HOPE OTHER DOG OWNERS WILL UNDERSTAND AND TAKE PART IN HER THEROY. AS FOR SNOOTY DOG TRAINERS, I THINK THEY NEED TO BE TRAINED FROM A DOG’S POINT OF VIEW.

  • BECKY

    This is a reply to Mariolina and her GSD. From what you say you have been trying to carry oiut Amechien bonding with no avail. This is because your partner is not using the same methods as you, therefore confusing the dog. You have to make sure that you BOTH ignor him whenever you return from work, even if you just go upstairs and come back down, you still need to ignor him for 5 minutes, or until he relaxes and sits down. Once he is relaxed you can call him over and play for as long as you wish, but you have to play on your terms. If the dog comes over to you when you or your partner have NOT invited him, you must not give him attention back. They might seem like they are sulking but they are not. You have to remeber that they are NOT HUMANS, thay are dogs. I think one of the best ways to see for yourself, is to watch some descovery programmes with wolves or wild dogs. See how the alpha is in charge and always ignors the sub dogs. All the sub dogs will run up to the alpha and lick him whilst staying low to the ground. This shows that they respect the alpha and he is dominant. If you come in and greet him straight away, you then look like the sub looking up to the alpha (your dog). You have to reverse this role. Also remeber to eat before he does, the alpha always eats first.
    As for him lying in front of you on the bed, he feels he is protecting you, as he thinks he is alpha and this is his role. You have to make sure that you invite him up, do not let him come up on his own accord. If he does this gently push him back off and leave him for a few minutes.
    I hope this helps. Try to think of it a bit like a child. If you give them everything they want they will turn out spoilt and have tantrums if they do not get what they want whenever they want. They must obey by your rules.

  • Jasmine

    I have studied dogs and wolves for over nine years and EVERYTHING that Jan has said is true. I have always said that if you want to learn about the dog you must first study its predecessor, the wolf. The alpha wolf behaves in the same manner as Jan suggests; granted, we cant replicate some of the elaborate body language of candid species; but Jan shows us what we can do to have a healthier relationship with “Man’s best friend.”

  • Hello.
    I wonder if somebody can help me get information on Jan Fennell. I´ve been trying to find her homepage.
    I´m interested in her courses.
    E-mail adress would be geat too.
    Thank you all.
    Znibban

  • to znibban, go to http://www.janfennellthedoglistener.com
    there is everything on there u need to know, and can find out about her courses there. hope that helps! i went on one of her courses in feb, and it was amazing!

  • Theresa Mancuso

    WOULD YOU AND YOUR DOG LIKE TO BE PUBLISHED? FREE BOOK AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT FOR YOUR ANECDOTE. I am contracted with Adams Media, Inc., for a dog book entitled: Dog People Do It Better, to consist of anecdotes 150 to 200 words in length. I am seeking short story contributors! Happy, sad, angry, glad, successful, or embarrassing — whatever you want to share! Anecdotes will be edited for insertion into my book and presented with short reflections drawn from your story. The idea is that dogs improve our lives! The book goes on sale Autumn 2004. Please send me your story by email: geisty@verizon.net or call (718) 633-9678 for mailing information. Authors of selected anecdotes will receive a free copy of Dog People Do It Better. Your name will appear with your anecdote. My first book, Who Moved My Bone: A Guide for the Multi-dog Home (also published by Adams Media) goes on sale Summer 2004. I hope you’ll participate in this exciting project. Thanks for reading this invitation. Please pass it on! – Theresa Mancuso (Brooklyn, New York 11218, U.S.A.)