Teaching Who’s the Boss

I Finally Learned Who the Boss Is

“You have to teach the dog who’s boss,” is what I often hear when I ask professional dog trainers what the most important thing in training a dog is.  When I inquire further they confirm my suspicion that the trainer thinks that he is the boss.  Ha!  One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the dog is definitely the boss!

A study in contrasts-Squirrel is pretty much fully free shaped being held by Rudy of the Zoppe Family Circus, a traditional trainer.  Rudy offered to take Squirrel over and over.
A study in contrasts. Squirrel, pretty much fully free shaped, being held by Rudy of the Zoppe Family Circus, a traditional trainer who has an amazing circus dog act. Rudy offered to take Squirrel over and over.

Sure, you can get good obedience from the traditional techniques of leash jerks, shoving the dog’s body into the “correct” position, and using harsh words.  It’s worked for hundreds of years and it still works.  But the simple undeniable fact is that there is now a better way, a way for the dog to have fun and learn to do far more than just the simple, sit, down, stay, heel, and come.

It’s the Socratic Method for dogs!  Free Shaping!  But it is helpful to explore what it is about the old-school methods that works in order to show why they should be rejected.

The leash jerk and yelling are negatives that the dog will work to stop, and eventually work to keep from happening, though I’ve rarely seen a dog not get a regular “reminder,” justified in this philosophy in order to keep his focus.  The trainer using these techniques is basically utilizing the natural instinct to run away from a monster.   And the trainer in this case is the monster.  Luckily, dogs are smart enough to know the dual nature of humanity, that we can perpetrate evil while justifying the means used with the desired end result.  Luckily there is a long history of eugenics at work here, by which I mean we have bred selectively for this trait.

Trainers will go on with theories of how they are using the natural order, the way things work in the wild; the pack leader maintains his authority through violence therefore it’s not just justified, but actually mandatory for learning to take place.  Some trainers even advocate peeing on things because the dog that gets his smell up the highest is the top dog ….  That’s gross; and the mentality that I no longer argue against, at least one-on-one.

Before I gave up on talking to these trainers, I would be treated with derision. Obviously there is no way a human with full consciousness could come up with a better method than a wild animal following instincts.

The truth is that the dog at every second has free will and I’ve seen highly trained dogs with lots of obedience titles running, as if for their very lives, once they’ve gotten free from these trainers who have way more formal training than me.  I never fail to laugh in these cases, thinking to myself, “Who’s the boss now?”  I”m actually LOL-ing right now just at the thought.

A dog in this situation knows a correction awaits.  The irony is that once the dog is with the trainer he should get a treat; a reward for getting caught would increase the chances of a willing return in the future.  But no, he’s being punished for something that happened in the past.  “Just look at him. He knows what he did wrong,” these trainers will say.  But I’m convinced that the dog doesn’t know.  That “guilty” look?  I’m convinced it’s simple fear-the trainer is mad and the dog would look like that regardless of what he had done.  I’ve seen these dogs look that way when another dog is being chased down.

Mouse, just getting out of the water at the dog park
Mouse, just getting out of the water at the dog park

A personal story to elucidate this point.  One time (ha, this is an ongoing battle)  I was trying to get Mouse to stop barking when I let him out in the patio-there is just about always a squirrel that needs to be barked at.  I totally had a list of triggers that I was addressing.  The thought of going outside would make him bark so I had him in a down as I approached the door, opened it, I walked through, and then I’d call him to me and lie down again before going out the door.  Then I released him and grabbed him in a hug as he lunged through the door.  I pet him in encouragement at not barking at each stage.  Well, I released him, still watching carefully, and sure enough he does his little bounce to emphasize the bark that he’s about to do, and I’m totally lunging at him to grab him before he barks.

I’ll pause to mention that my reaction time is incredible, my reflexes finely honed, my eye-hand coordination remarkable even among passers at The Texas Juggling Society where I am known to catch any trick throw no matter how badly executed.  I’ve made my living as a juggler for many years.

As we return to the Mouse story, a reminder: I started my correction before the bark even occurred.  Well, Mouse did in fact bark as I was in mid leap, lunging at him.  He finished his bark, bounced over to the fence and had lifted his leg and was actually peeing by the time I got to him and gave him a poke to redirect him.  I could see it in his eyes, or at least projected it, “What am I doing wrong?”  I believe there was zero connection between the bark that had occurred less than a half second before and me poking him.

Here’s the thing, the only thing one can teach someone is that one is a jerk.  Everything else has to be independently learned.  Sure, you can get some tips and that is what Free Shaping is all about.  It lets a dog discover what you want him to do; this is the opposite of teaching him to not do things to avoid punishers.  Trust me, the one thing your dog wants to do in this world is to please you.

Just about anytime a dog isn’t doing what you want?  It’s because he doesn’t know what you want.  This is the very foundation of my training and a perspective that is indispensable in guiding any training plan.