In today’s episode, Doug Poynter shares expert tips on obedience training for your furry friends. Dog owners often complain that their dogs become difficult to train and handle, but it’s usually not the dog’s problem. Join Doug as he talks about the human components of misbehaving dogs, as well as the best ways to get your dog to listen to you and do as you say. Pro-tip: punishments don’t work. Instead, rewarding your dog for behaving well changes everything.
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“Am I Really Difficult?”
I’m the Owner of the business Better Dog Behavior Now located in Central Virginia. I’ve been doing this for many years. I solve behavior problems in dogs. People don’t traditionally hire me for just obedience work. Obedience work is pretty simple for what the average client wants. Most people don’t want an obedience champion. Obedience champion quality work is not easy. That takes a lot of work to get the obedience routines precise so that one can compete in obedience trials. I can do it but it’s not what I specialize in. What I specialize in is solving behavior problems.
There is an element of obedience that goes into solving a behavior problem. Teaching my clients’ dogs basic obedience is something that I do and that aids quite a bit in solving some behavior problems but my focus is on behavior problems. I work with aggressive dogs, reactive dogs, fearful dogs, dogs that have separation anxiety, dogs that are hyped up and can’t seem to focus or any of those things that have owners wrapped around the axle with their dog’s behavior.
I always say, “I help dogs, train people, train dogs and help people.” I’ve yet to see a canine behavior problem that didn’t have a human component. I’ve got some dogs that I’ve worked with that have got chemical issues, not meaning that they’re drug abusers but their basic chemicals cause some of the behavior problems that they have and exhibit.
In every case, the human element has made the problem worse and it’s the human element that I work on along with solving the dog’s behavior problem. There’s nothing about what I do that involves punishment, aversive or what people would typically call corrections. It doesn’t work with humans and dogs. That’s some controversy.
I’ll have people get irritated with me for saying that I’m going to do an episode here in the near future on an issue that’s happening in San Francisco. By the time that episode is dropped and you can read it, the issue may be over within San Francisco but I’ll do it. It raises the points that I was talking about in terms of corrections for behavior problems and even for obedience.
There’s a proposed ban in San Francisco on using eCollars so I’m going to do an episode on that. It wouldn’t bother me if eCollars were banned because I don’t use them but some folks use eCollars for their training. I’m going to talk a little bit about that. If there’s a controversy, we’ll talk about the controversy about corrections or no corrections but there’s nothing that I do that’s punishment, aversive or anything like that in solving canine behavior problems because the research and my anecdotal evidence show it doesn’t work.
My job is to make the dog’s and owner’s life easier, have everybody be able to get along with each other and have fun. Be able to enjoy your dog the way you want to enjoy your dog. I use positive reinforcement training, marker training and clicker training. I use verbal markers if the clicker doesn’t work. Why would a clicker not work? Sometimes dogs can be spooked by the sound. What’s more likely to happen is the human has a hard time coordinating the clicker with everything you got to do in training the dog. If that happens, then we use verbal markers but this is what I do.
I have clients all over the state of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Atlanta, Southern California, Nicaragua and Armenia. Those clients are at a great distance. I’m working with Zoom and had great success with Zoom sessions. When the pandemic hit back in 2020, that’s all I did with Zoom sessions to keep me and everybody else safe. I do have the ability to do that as well but most of my work is in person with folks here in the Virginia area.
The Alpha Status
At any rate, what I wanted to talk to you about is something that I find very interesting. I don’t know if it’s controversial. What I’m about to say is going to make it controversial for some folks but for me, there’s no controversy in this at all. It’s cut and dried. Before I talk about what the issue is, I want to refer you back to a previous episode I did that’s called What’s the Deal with Alpha? It’s the first episode that I did here on the show where I clearly cite the sources for the information that there is no such thing as alpha dominance, for example, in a wolf pack.
What I find in quite a bit of our training is that the dominant tinge to it comes from the idea that there’s a dominant male or female or alpha male or female in a wolf pack. Since our dogs have descended from wolves, science pretty much agrees with that. DNA is 98.8% identical. Dogs can breed with wolves. It is essentially the same species. If it works for a wolf pack, it must work for dogs. That’s where a lot of our training has come in.
I’m not calling any names but you’ve seen it on TV for many years, dominance and submission, calm, submissive dog. This comes from the pack and the order in the pack, the dominance hierarchy. We, humans, must be at the top of that if we’re going to control our dogs, especially with the bigger dogs, the working dogs and the dogs with some oof to their personality.
It’s so parred for the course that a lot of people who do training have training methods that are based on an undercurrent of dominance and don’t even know where it comes from because we’ve been doing this so long. The issue that I’m going to talk about for this episode is something that is driven by this idea of alpha status and being able to maintain that as humans to be able to control our dogs.
The information is out there that you can go freely see where Alpha does not exist in a real wolf pack in the wild. It is on YouTube. I invite you to go look it up. You can go to YouTube and put Dr. David Mech, alpha status or just alpha. It’ll take you to his video that he did many years ago, saying this idea of alpha status, the idea of a lead male in a wolf pack who is in charge because he fights better is wrong.
Dr. Mech admits, “I’m the guy who pretty much put that term alpha on lead wolf in a wolf pack.” It was in a textbook he wrote many years ago, with a study that he started in 1984 and went 16 summers on Ellesmere Island in Canada above the Arctic Circle. He was studying the wolf pack there that was not afraid of humans because there were no humans on Ellesmere Island and these wolves had never been hunted.
He was able to get close to a wolf pack in the wild. It’s something that we had never been able to do before. We had to study captured wolves put in pens. It’s a stressful situation. Of these studies about wolves in captivity, the most famous was probably the one from 1947 by Rudolph Schenkel. There was a bigger, stronger male who did dominate and who was challenged regularly by other males in the wolf pack as long as he could take care of them physically.
When I say take care of them, I mean beat them down. He then maintained control of this pack. As Dr. Mech said, that was like having humans in concentration camps. That’s what pens are for wolves. Under those stressful situations, there was a dominance alpha principle making itself known. When Dr. Mech got to Ellesmere Island and studied the wolves on Ellesmere Island, they were wild wolves in a real wolf pack with no captivity. He could get close again because they weren’t afraid. He noticed that there is little structure in a wolf pack.
We, humans, especially people in the training world, are fond of saying dogs need structure. Dogs don’t need structure. Dogs have lived for millions of years happily with no structure whatsoever. Dogs in the wild don’t know when they’re going to eat. We hope it’s not stressful captivity but dogs who live in our homes don’t need structure to be happy. They behave better for us when they’re structured. We need the dogs to have structure but dogs don’t need to have structure.Dogs who live in our homes don’t need structure to be happy. Click To Tweet
Dr. Mech himself says in this video, “There’s little structure in a real wolf pack in the wild or a wild dog pack.” What we used to call alpha males are now called breeding males. Alpha females are now called breeding females because a wolf pack is a family. A quick review, if you are one who has felt over the years that there needs to be an alpha component or you’re going to have problems with your dog, then what I’m about to say to you at the start is going to sound something that you may have said about your dog or you’ve heard someone say about your breed of dog.
Dealing With A “Challenging” Dog
What I’m going to say in response to it might be the thing that causes the controversy. Here’s what it is. I was reading on social media. I’m connected to various dog groups and breed groups. I was reading a post about the Argentinian Mastiff, otherwise known as a Dogo Argentino. This is a dog that looks like a giant pit bull. They’re almost all white.
They’ve normally got cropped ears. They’re huge. They weigh between 90 and 120 or 130 pounds. They’re big dogs. They’re hunting dogs. They hunt wild boar. They hunt cougar with these dogs. Their personality is supposed to be fearless personality for battle. There are stories about these dogs taking on cougars, jaguars and wild boars. This is a pretty intense dog.
There’s a person. She’s a breeder and I believe I found her on Instagram. She’s got an Instagram page. She was talking about the nature of dogs. She said, “The dogs, at some point in their development, can challenge you, especially the males. You have to have a handle on that. You have to be able to one-up them and not let them challenge you.” When I hear that, the first thing that I think to myself is, “I’ve never had a Dogo so maybe she’s right. I’m not going to go out and say that she’s wrong because I’ve never had one of these dogs.”
I will tell you that I’ve worked with dogs all the time. I get referred by other trainers who tell me that the dogs are challenging them and they’re difficult to deal with. I have none of those issues with these dogs. I’ll give you an example and I’ll tell you how you can handle it if that’s what you have in your house. Keep in mind something. If you’ve got a dog that is aggressive with you or feels aggressive to you and/or your family, people that you know or the general public, don’t try to do this by yourself. Find a qualified behaviorist in your area.
Lots of people can call themselves behaviorists and they’re not really. They are just your average trainer who thinks you got to slap an eCollar on the dog and correct him or pop him with a leash, pop with prong collars and do things to punish dogs’ bad behavior. That’s not what I’m talking about. Go look up in your area anyone who’s a member of the IAABC, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants or the APDT, American Pet Dog Trainers. These are folks who are going to be most likely the type of folks who will do and work in the areas that I’m going to describe here.
I’ll tell you so you can see a story of a challenging dog that if you look at it from a dominance perspective like, “On top of this dog, I got to be bigger and badder,” then he could be a challenging dog. If you look at it more accurately and you take your emotion out of it, you would see that this particular dog wasn’t challenging at all. Let me describe him. He’s an 80-pound pit bull. He’s pretty impressive and intimidating looking.
His owner wanted to get him trained up so she sent him to a board and training facility of some folks that I’m friends with. They do a good job. Unfortunately, their lead guy made a mistake with this dog. He was in the car while he was talking with the owner. He reached into the car and wanted to scratch the dog under the chin.
It’s a nice hello but you don’t reach into the car, an animal that you don’t know. When he scratched the dog under the chin, the dog growled at him. He asked the owner to immediately get the dog out and put a muzzle on the dog. He was going to walk the dog, “lead him” to show him, “I’m the leader, not him. He can’t do that stuff to me.” This is dominance.
This came from the idea that the dog was trying to dominate this trainer. The thought was, “This dog is trying to dominate me by growling at me so I got to show him I’m the boss in this scenario.” The problem is that’s not why the dog growled at him. The dog growled at him because the dog felt threatened. That’s why dogs growl at people. If you look at it from that perspective, it can help you change your mind about what’s going on with the dog.
Let me tell you what ended up happening there and how I got this dog as a client. The trainer took him out for a walk. He had the owner put a muzzle on the dog, went out and made the dog walk with him. The trainer told me the whole time that he was walking the dog and the dog was muzzle-punching him. He was trying to bite him but he couldn’t bite him because he had a muzzle. He is hitting him in the leg with the muzzle. He called me and said, “Would you take this dog? I have novice trainers working for me and I don’t want them to have to deal with that.”
I said, “I got no problem taking that dog.” I went to my new client’s house and saw her dog, Tucker. It’s a big dog. She brought him out into the backyard and based on what I was told, he was going to try to bite me. Before I wanted to interact with him, I wanted to get a look at him. I looked at him from the other side of the fence that was around her yard. He came running to the fence, barking at me like he wanted to come to get me.
I wasn’t certain that his owner could hold him on a leash because he is a big strong dog. I asked her, “Does he do this a lot? Does he run at people as they pass your yard on the street?” She said, “Yeah.” I said, “Do you want to work on that?” She said, “Sure.” We set up an exercise where I taught her how to call him back or recall him. She started that close to him. When he came back to her, she clicked and treated. He then started to enjoy coming back to her.
I sat in my car while she did that. I taught her how to do it with her dog in the house. I showed her how to face the dog and back up so that he moved in her direction. When he got to her, she clicked and then gave him a high-value food treat. She then backed up again and he moved towards her. When he got to her, she clicked and gave him a high-value food treat. Once he was starting to offer that, then she started to use the cue come as he started to move in her direction.
When he got close to her, she clicked, treated and gave him a high-value food treat. He’s excited about this process. He enjoys it because he’s working. He’s having fun working and he’s getting paid well, high-value food treats. I had her take him inside. I then got out of my car and stood outside of their fence. She let him out in the backyard.
He went running, barely at the fence, barking his full head off at me. I stood there and looked at him. I had her come up 10 feet behind him and call him back. She was close to him so he turned around and she backed up. He ran to her and she clicked and gave him a high-value food treat. I then called him to me and he ran to the fence barking at me. She then came up behind him and called him back to her. She started close to him but she gradually called him further and further back.
Before this exercise was over, he was running the diagonal backyard all the way across the backyard to her to get a food treat and then running to me without me even having to call him at the fence. As soon as he got to the fence, she would call him and he’d turn around, run back and get the food treat. He started wagging his tail when he ran towards me at the fence and stopped barking. Why? It’s because he associated, “When I run to that guy, I’m going to get called back to mom and get a nice food treat.” He started enjoying that exercise and that was our first session for the day.
She took him back inside and I said, “How’d you feel about that?” She said, “That went well. I was afraid that he was going to continue to try to get you.” I said, “No. He started to change his mind about me when he associated the food treat with you or getting the food treat from you. After running in my direction, I was no longer a threat to him.”
In our next session, we did some other exercises where she was clicking and treating with him while I was in his presence. In our third session, she brought him out to me and I laid some treats down on the driveway. As he came out and saw me, he also smelled the food treats, put his nose down and started following the food treats down the driveway, gobbling them up.
I was at the end of the driveway standing sideways to him so I would not be a threat. Facing a dog is threatening sometimes so I was standing sideways. As he got to the last food treat, I held my hand out with a pile of food treats. He came to me. I clicked as he got to me and then he gently took them out of my hand and wagged his tail. We’ve been best buddies ever since. He sits when I ask him to sit. He comes to me when I ask him to come to me. He walks politely on a leash with me. No threat, no dominance, no challenge.
Stop Creating Stressful Situations
If you’re looking at the whole interaction with dogs, especially male dogs and working dogs as one of, “We have to have upper status. We have to get on top of our dog. We have to be dominant,” then all of his behavior that I witnessed before we started doing these exercises would be considered challenging. If I’ve got to get on top of him, then I got to do something challenging back. I’ve got to overcome this. I got to be bigger and badder than him.
Here’s the problem with that. That creates a stressful situation. That’s the equivalent of the stressful situation that Dr. Mech talked about with wolves in captivity. They’re stressed in captivity. With that stress, there’s fighting and because of the fighting, someone or something is naturally going to come out on top. Some wolves are better fighters than others. That stressful situation is what creates that whole dominance, alpha status problem.
If you want to have that with your dog, then make it stressful. That’s when you tend to see dogs that want to squabble with you and dogs that want to “challenge” you and defy you because you’ve created that stress. You want your dog to work with you the way it’s in their blood, his blood or her blood to work with you in his or her genetics, which is in partnership. It’s the same way wolves will work with each other. It’s one of the things that Dr. Mech says in his video. Wolves work together. They have a primary goal, which is to survive. They have to work together to survive.
That’s the point of the pack and the hunt. They all know how to operate and know instinctively what their jobs are on the hunt and how to execute those jobs perfectly. They don’t always get their prey but they all know what they need to do. It’s in their blood and instinct to work together as a team. It’s the same with your dog. If you want to create a stressful situation because you’ve got to be bigger and badder than your dog, then you’re going to have these problems where your dog “looks challenging.”
When you understand that that’s not what’s going on, then you can create some of the exercises that we created for Tucker and create a dog that’s happy to work. When I do sessions with his owner, I go over to their house and as soon as Tucker sees me, he sits. You could say he’s being submissive to me. He’s not. He’s learned that if he sits and behaves, he gets paid for it. He’d rather be polite and get paid. It’s more fun to do that and work with me than to be the way he was before when someone was stressing him out and trying to push him.
I want you to understand it. I’ve never had a Dogo. Maybe Dogos are challenging but I have a feeling that what’s going on there is what’s going on with a lot of folks with big dogs that are intense and that work hard. The owners are creating this. They’re putting their dogs in this situation by needing to be pushy and alpha. What you need to do is teach your dog what you want in terms of behavior and reward your dog for it. You’d be surprised what you see as a result.
That’s my session for you. If you want to get started on stuff like this, then go read my episode called The Magic of Markers. Go get the book by Karen Pryor called Don’t Shoot the Dog. I say this on a number of episodes and learn about clicker training. Start clicker training your dog. This is where basic obedience comes in. Use basic obedience exercises to get started. Ask your dog to sit. If your dog doesn’t know how to sit, take a food treat out, hold it in front of your dog and then raise it in the air and back over his head so he’s got to look back up and back to see it.
As his butt hits the ground, click and give him the food treat. Do that several times. Once he’s starting to offer that sit and his butt’s going down, let him hear you say the word sit. As soon as his butt hits, click and treat. Do that a bunch of times until he’s excited about doing it. Don’t show him the food treat. Ask him to sit and wait. You will see him thinking, “What does he want me to do?” As soon as his butt goes down and as it’s touching the floor, click and then treat. Remember that sequence. When you get the behavior that you want as you get it, you click, then you get the food treat. That’s generally how it goes.
You can teach him to come to you by facing him and backing up. As he moves to you, click and then hand a food treat to him. That’s the way you can teach him to come. If you want to teach him to lie down, wait for when he naturally lays down. As he lays down, click and give him a food treat. He’ll probably get up when you click and give him the food treat. You wait and you’ll see him looking at you like, “What do you want me to do?”
Wait for him to lie down. When he lays down, click and give him a food treat. You start working like this and you have your dog working for you. You can stand in front of your dog with his food dish and ask him to sit. When he sits, click and then put his food dish down. He gets his food. He’s now working for you and working with you. That’s when we start to see a big change in your dog.
Get started on this. If you have any problems with it and you want to contact me, you can contact me on my website. I’m happy to talk with you. You can go online and look up clicker training. A good clicker trainer is Emily Larlham. She’s got a site called Kikopup. You can see a lot of exercises about how to train with markers. Emily’s good. I hope to have her as a guest on this show one day.
I’m happy to help you as well. If you have a dog that you feel is dangerous to other people or you, then don’t try to do this alone. Find yourself a qualified behaviorist. Go to the IAABC or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. I’m a member of that. There are lots of people in that and the APDT.If you have a dog that you feel is dangerous to other people or you, then don't try to do this alone. Find yourself a qualified behaviorist. Click To Tweet
Find some of those folks in your area and hire them to come and help you. Don’t put yourself or your family in danger but you’re going to see a big difference in your dog when you start to think about it this way. You start to work with marker training to teach your dog the behaviors that you would rather see. I hope this has been helpful. I look forward to talking with you next time. I’ll talk to you soon.
- What’s the Deal with Alpha? – Past Episode
- Dr. David Mech – YouTube
- The Magic of Markers – Past Episode
- Don’t Shoot the Dog
- Kikopup – YouTube
- International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
- American Pet Dog Trainers