Last week, I wrote about the Association of Professional Dog Trainers online certificate course that I recently taught. Posting on a discussion board was one of the requirements for certification. Some conversations were about the concept of dominance. One of the participants wrote:
"I also find sometimes that when owners or trainers [play with their dogs] incorrectly, they can actually incorrectly establish the wrong pack hierarchy structure. Allowing the pup/dog to feel as an 'equal member' of the pack."
This is a common misconception that is important to correct. In the human-dog (interspecies) relationship, there is no "wrong pack hierarchy structure." There can be and often is a hierarchical relationship among the dogs in a multidog household, but we humans are not part of that "pack" and are not viewed the same by our dogs.
Just as significantly, I don't know why my dogs would believe they are not "equal members" of our family. They ask for things that they get. They ask to go out, and I get up and do their bidding. They ask to be petted, and I respond. They bring me a toy and request a game, and more times than not, I'll comply. They tell me when they're hungry, and I feed them. On the other side of this relationship, I ask for things and get them, too. I ask for compliance to my cues, and they do as I ask. I ask for affection and attention, and I get it, and so much more!
This conversation led to a discussion about how the participants view their relationship with their dogs, using a variety of terms and labels. One participant preferred to refer to himself as his dog's "leader" and asked me how I view my role. I replied:
Do we need to a label for our relationship? I am my dogs' owner - bought and paid for (and continuing to pay). I'm not their "guardian" (a legal label that potentially creates problems of "ownership"); I'm not their "parent"; and I'm not even their "leader." Often my dogs lead me - they're ahead of or running around me on a walk.
I am the decision-maker - deciding such things as what they eat, when and where. My dogs don't really care (or even think) about those things as long as there's food in their dishes every day. I decide where it's safe to let them off leash to run free, but they don't care about the choices I make - just the fact that I make them.
I don't use a label to describe what I am in relation to my dogs, nor do I use one in teaching how to train dogs. The dog is the dog, and the human is the human. The relationship is a dependent one (on the dog's side) and a mutually rewarding one.
We both get what we want - we get good behavior, the dog gets good reinforcement. And we both get affection - at least I hope we do. We share a cooperative relationship from which both species benefit tremendously. And I, personally, thank God for that!
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.