Tag Archive for: behavior modification

BDBN 3 | Finding A Trainer

Finding A Trainer

If your dog is exhibiting serious behavior problems, it might be time to hand in the training to professionals. Finding a competent and qualified trainer is the way to go to keep yourself and your dog safe and unharmed. In this episode, Doug Poynter gives tips on how to vet trainers that achieve results properly and ethically. Quick results don’t equate to good training methods. You want a trainer who understands your dog’s condition and way of learning and doesn’t just use harsh punishment that creates negative associations. That is not sustainable, nor is it safe. Find out what criteria you should be using to vet trainers for your beloved furry friends by tuning in!

Listen to the podcast here


Finding A Trainer

In this episode, what we’re going to be talking about is how to find a good trainer. Before I get started with that, I’d like to say this to you. I’m going to give you somewhat of a disclosure here. I specialize in solving behavior problems. If you have a dog that’s got a serious behavior problem, you feel like the dog is aggressive, you feel like the dog is dangerous to you, your family, or other folks, do not try to do this by yourself. Get yourself a competent and qualified trainer, and stay safe. When I do this type of work with dogs, I make sure that I’m safe and that the family or the owners of the dogs are safe as well because getting bitten by a dog is no fun.

If you have a dog that has a serious behavior problem, is aggressive and dangerous to you, your family, or other folks., do not try to do this by yourself. Get yourself a competent and qualified trainer and stay safe. Click To Tweet

I’ve been bitten too many times over the years. I don’t want to be bitten anymore. I don’t want you to be unsafe either. Don’t try to do this alone. Find yourself a qualified professional trainer who can help you with this and keep everybody safe. Let’s just get going now. Let’s talk about how you can find an excellent trainer to help you with your dog.

Find A Trainer From A Trusted Association

The first thing I would suggest to you is to try to find someone who’s a member of either the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, the IAABC, or The Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the APDT. These are organizations that are involved with behavioral training. They’ve got courses that those of us who train can take, certifications that we can get, and studying that we can do to make us better at what we do so that we can help you in a more effective way.

One of the things that you want to be seeking is a trainer who’s a student. I’m a student of this. There are none of us who know every answer to every question about dog behavior. Nobody does that or knows that because this is a work in progress. We’re all learning. We all need to be students in this profession. It’s something that we’re dedicated to and should be studying and learning more and more each and every day. These are organizations that support that. They also support the minimal invasive techniques that will do the least amount of harm to dogs. We’re going to talk a little bit more about that later on in this episode. I will have an episode later on down the line that we’ll talk about that more exclusively so that we focus just on that. We want to do the least amount of harm to our dogs.

One of the problems with dog training is dogs are so tractable. They’re so attuned to us. There are some studies that show that dogs would rather be around humans than be around other dogs. Because of that, they’re a gift to us. Do you know what dogs spell backward is? The dogs have been a part of our lives for so long that we can get some results with training that’s not the best just because of how great dogs are. We don’t want to go there. We want to use the training that is the most effective and the least intrusive on the dog and causes no harm to the dog. When you are dealing with someone who’s a member of these organizations, that’s the trainer you’re dealing with. Make sure that you’re looking for that.

Find A Trainer Who Understands How Dogs Learn

You also want to look for someone who has an understanding of how dogs learn. Dogs learn by association. Dogs also can learn by role modeling, but the association is the main way that dogs learn. You want to be involved with a trainer who has a working knowledge of operant conditioning and classical conditioning. We don’t have to get too technical here. You don’t have to have the technical information yourself, but it’s helpful for you to know a bit about this so you can know the questions to ask. Operant conditioning is learning by association with what happens after the behavior. If the dog sits and gets rewarded for sitting, that’s operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is the learned association between two events. One event is typically neutral, and one event elicits an unconditional response.

What does that mean? If you’ve heard of the story of Pavlov’s dogs, Pavlov was testing something having to do with the salivary glands. What he would do is he’d feed his dogs and then ring a bell while they were eating. He’d ring a bell, and they’d eat. I must confess I can’t remember how long this experiment lasted. Something seems to be telling me it was several weeks. After that period of time, without food present, he would ring the bell, and the dogs would drool. Why? Drooling is a physical response to eating. The sound of the bell created an association of food in the dog’s bodies, and they drool. That’s classical conditioning. You want a trainer who understands operant conditioning and classical conditioning.

When you go and do your research and talk to these folks, I want you, at the start, to be dedicated to finding the right person. It may take a little while, and it may take talking to a bunch of folks. If the reason why you’re contacting trainers or trying to find a trainer is because you’ve got a behavior problem with your dog, what I want you to do is describe the problem to the potential trainer and ask them what methods they would use to solve this problem. You can find out a lot when you hear the response to that question, “What method would you use to solve my dog’s separation anxiety? What method would you use to solve my dog’s problem of barking uncontrollably? My dog growls at people and acts like he doesn’t like people. He’s nipped or bitten some folks. What methods would you use to solve those problems?”

BDBN 3 | Finding A Trainer

Finding A Trainer: You can find some of the most wonderful people with the highest skills you can imagine out there that will help you with your dog. And then you can find people who can create far more problems for you than they help solve. So do your research.


Let me say something else. Let me get right down to the brass tacks because here’s what happens in the business that I’m in. There are a lot of people who have a lot of old-school ideas about how to solve problems like this that end up creating more problems later on down the line for the dog because the methods are very harsh. I’ve had to come behind that many times and fix the problems that type of training has created. If you want to know the truth, it chaps me that people are still doing that stuff, but there are plenty of folks out there who are using very harsh methods, like hanging dogs, picking dogs up by the leash and choking them if they act in any way, shape, or form aggressive, zapping them with high levels of electricity with the eCollars, and creating more problems than they solve.

I told a client one time, “If you want to see what this potential trainer is about, ask them what methods they use and ask them if they would use that same type of method on their own child, ‘Would you, as a trainer, if I did to you what you’re going to do to my dog, would you be upset about it?'” If you said that to me, I would say, “Do exactly to me what I’m going to do with your dog because I would love it. Your dog is going to love it as well. It’s effective.” You’ve got to go and do your research on these folks before you spend good money to have somebody help you with your dog. There are a lot of good folks out there, a lot of people who know what they’re doing, and a lot of people who don’t. Buyer, beware if that makes sense.

Avoid Trainers With These Red Flag Responses

When you ask, “What would you do to solve the problem?” If you hear this phrase, I’m going to correct it. I want you to immediately have your antenna go up and beware because that, many times, is synonymous with, “There’s going to be bad stuff that happens to your dog.” I can remember many years ago before I got into this business, when I was training my own dog, I talked to a lady who trained in this area. She told me that, “The way that you kept a dog from being aggressive with another dog with a person is if he shows signs that he’s going to go that way or starts barking, growling, and trying to get at another dog. What you do is you take the leash, pick him up, and hang him in the air until he passes out.” That’s what she said. She said, “It works.” It will stop the behavior, but it doesn’t change the way the dog feels about the animal or the person he’s looking at.

It’s a barbaric method. It’s more than old school. It’s not anything that you want to be involved with. When you hear stuff like, “I’m going to correct it,” find out what that means. Many times, it is synonymous with some old-school bad stuff that you don’t want to be involved with. It can create more problems than it solves. What you want to hear when you ask the question, “What kind of methods do you use to solve these behavior problems?” is you want to hear behavior modification. You want to hear desensitizing and counter conditioning. That’s what you want to hear because those are the effective methods that do no harm to the dog and don’t create any negative associations.

When you ask the question, “what kind of methods do you use to solve these behavior problems?” you want to hear behavior modification, desensitizing, and counter conditioning. Those are the effective methods that do no harm to the dog, and don't create… Click To Tweet

These are the folks that you want to do business with because they’re the ones who know what they’re doing typically and are the ones who do the least amount of harm to your dog and create wonderful solutions for you. Having said that, let me also say that just because someone says they do behavior modification doesn’t mean they’re any good at it. I’ll give you two examples. There was a lady that was in my Facebook group. She claimed that she was a behaviorist. In claiming that she was a behaviorist, she said, “One of the problems that dogs face is when people leave the TV on in the house for the dog when they leave,” she said, “Never do that because these noises on the TV can irritate the dog and make the dog’s problem worse.”

She was talking about a dog that she supposedly worked with that had a problem with the sound of cars and horns beeping. The problem is that they would leave the TV on, and there would be some TV show or something with a car beeping, and the dog would go crazy in the house and make it worse and worse. I’m going, “She’s not a behaviorist.” Behaviorists would love to use a TV as a tool. Turn the volume down so that the sound of a horn is so low that it doesn’t bother the dog. Once the dog is okay with it at that level, you crank it up a little bit. It’s desensitizing the dog to the sound of a horn beeping if that’s what the issue was.

Sometimes people say they’re behaviorists or use behavior modification, and they’re not good at it. I saw another example. This lady was well-meaning. She was using behavioral methods, but it wasn’t working simply because she hadn’t set it upright. I was walking with a friend in a park. There was a pathway to walk. Walking on the other side of the pathway was a lady with the dog with two dogs. One of which looked like some type of hound mix. He was clearly scared of everything around him. While he was being fearful, she was throwing him food treats while she could have thrown him food treats until the cows came home. It wasn’t going to change his behavior because all of us that he was scared of were too close to him.

The food wasn’t changing his mind. The food was immaterial. He was just getting fed while he was being scared. His scaredness never stopped because we were too close. The scaredness and the fear that he felt for us was bigger than the pleasantness of the food. She and I talked for a moment. I said, “You may want to take him out someplace where there’s a little bit more room where he can see us, but not be scared, and he gets a food reward, and then you gradually get people closer and closer. This is just too much.” I gave her my information and said, “Give me a call. I’m happy to talk with you about that.” Behavior modification is great, but you got to know what you’re doing to make the behavior modification work.

The next thing that you can do on this is asking for some references. If you like what you hear, ask, “Is there anybody you’ve worked with that I can talk to? If they have a website, do they have a testimonial page?” Take a look at the testimonials and get a good feel for that person. See if there are any ratings for these folks. You can begin to get an idea about whether you want to do business with these folks or not. Another thing I want you to be aware of is when you hear somebody tell you over the telephone after you describe the behavior problem for them, you hear somebody tell you that, “It’s going to take 10 or 15 sessions to get this done.” They don’t know that. There’s no way they can know that without seeing your dog. That’s someone who’s trying to get your money from you. I’ll give you an example.

There are two dogs that I worked with who had similar problems. They wanted to bite people. They both have bitten people before. One dog took me fifteen sessions. I had a package deal I worked with my clients at that time, where they could get a pretty good discount if they bought five sessions from me upfront. Those sessions lasted an hour. We got to the second package of five, and my client purchased those. I said, “Here’s the thing.” I said, “I think we’re going to need more than five. This is what I’m going to propose to you. Let’s turn these 1-hour sessions into 30-minute sessions so that we get 10 more sessions out of this package of 5 you purchased.” She was all for that.

Within those sessions, we got the problem solved. My client told somebody that she referred to me that it was a miracle because of how bad he was. I had another client with a very similar issue. He would run up behind people and bite them when they brought the person into the house. The lady told me prior to me coming to her house, “I’m going to need to buy a package from you because he’s pretty bad.” I said, “If that’s what you want to do, we’ll settle it at the end of the first session.” She said, “Okay.”

I went there to the first session, and I fixed it in 45 minutes. She said, “I don’t need you anymore.” She said, “This one session is good enough.” I went, “Great.” You never know until you see the dog and start working with the dog. Even then, sometimes you don’t know how long this is going to take. If somebody tells you upfront, “This is going to take 15 or 10 sessions,” run because that’s a person who’s trying to grab your money. You don’t know until you see and start working with the dog what it might take.

Beware Of “Quick Results”

The other thing I want you to be aware of that is going to sound like the opposite side of the same coin is quick results, “We’re going to get this done quickly.” We will never be going to get this done quickly. I will tell you that when you hear quick results, that usually means something has been done to your dog that’s not the best, some type of punishment, some harsh method to squash the bad behavior so that you can see a result quickly. There’s only one problem with that. Many times, it creates a negative association. It never changes the dog’s mind about the situation. It just shuts down the behavior. It shuts down the dog many times, sits on the dog, and doesn’t create a pleasant experience for the dog. It doesn’t change the way the dog feels about the situation in a good way.

Many times, it can change it in a bad way. Let me give you an example. I’ll tell you another story. I got a client with a German shepherd. It’s a nice looking and impressive looking dog, a Czechoslovakian bloodline German shepherd that if you got to look at him, you would not think, “I’m going to break into that house and rob it.” There’s no way that you would think that. He was pretty impressive looking. The reason I was hired is because his owner told me that he had developed dog aggression.

He would see another dog, and he would lose it. That’s what she wanted me to help her with. She had done training before. When I went over there and saw him, I said, “I think I’m going to be able to help you with this and be able to show you what you need to do so that when I leave here, you can work this stuff yourself. You’re not going to need me around because you’ve got some experience with training, but I’ve got to show you the training and the timing of the behavior modification. Once you get it, you’re going to be good to go.” She said, “Okay.”

I said, “Before we get started, can you tell me what was going on with him when this began to happen? You told me something in our phone discovery session” By the way, I do discovery sessions at no cost over the telephone. I’ll talk with you about your dog and ask you all the questions that I need to ask, and then I’ll present to you what the plan might be, what that would look like, how much that would cost, and when I’m available, how long the sessions would last, and you can decide whether you want to work with me or not.

I had that discovery session with her. I was asking her all these questions about it. She told me that he never was aggressive with dogs before until she sent him to this organization that kept him on a boarding train for two weeks. I will not mention the name of the organization. I will tell you that it’s an organization that’s a franchise and are famous for getting stuff done quickly. She said the trainer called her after he had been there for 2 or 3 days and said he exhibited some reactivity to another dog in the training facility. She asked the trainer, “What did you do?” The trainer said, “I corrected it.” What that meant is he got zapped with the eCollar. When he came back, he had full-bloom dog aggression.

That’s a lack of knowledge as to how dogs learn. That created a very negative association. I saw another dog that irritated me. It’s normal dog behavior, and I got zapped with something painful. The association is, “I see dogs, I get pain. I don’t like dogs.” That’s what came out. When she got him back, he could sit and come to her. He could walk pretty well on a leash. He could have walked better, but he sat and came to her and would lie down, but he wanted to nail other dogs. It was simply because of what was done to him in the training session. That is something you want to be aware of, getting quick results.

Many times when we were talking about a behavior problem, he didn’t even have a behavior problem. The work to try to get a quick result created that behavior problem. When we have behavior problems in general, sometimes it takes a while. I can’t always guarantee somebody I’m going to be able to be able to fix that problem in one session. I’m not going to tell you it’s going to take me ten if I don’t know your dog. I’m going to do my best to get it done in 2 or 3. At the very least, what I’m going to do is I’m going to show you what you can do so that you don’t need me at some point. That’s why I say I train people and help dogs because I want to make you independent. It’s not going to be helpful to you 3, 4, or 5 years down the line if you’ve got a problem with your dog and have no idea what to do with it because I’m the one who took care of all of it. You don’t even know how to proceed.

My goal is to get you trained so that you can get your dog taken care of. That’s the client that I want to work with. I want people who want a trainer like that. They like to do the work themselves. If you want somebody to do it for you, that’s fine, but I still would ask the questions that we’ve talked about here, “What kind of methods do you use? Would you object if those methods were used on your dog? Would you object if they were used on you?”

There’s a great video out there. I’m not going to say who did it, but it’s a guy who’s teaching eCollar training. He shows some outtakes in his video. Outtakes are funny. They’re entertaining. One of the outtakes is they show him picking up the eCollar. He’s got it set the way he has it for his dog. He picks it up, and by mistake, he touches the little electrodes that conduct the electricity. It hurts him so bad that he drops it and screams. I’m going, “That’s what you were going to put on your dog.” Those are the types of things you want to be careful about when you talk to a trainer to make sure that you’re not going to have bad stuff done to your dog.

Look For Trainers Who Do Marker Training

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather get it done right. I’d rather get it done slow if I have to get it done slow to keep my dog safe and healthy and not hurt my dog. I’m not interested in hurting your dog or having my dog be hurt, either. That’s the trainer you want. You can also ask them, “What kind of training do you do?” What we’ve been talking about before is, “What do you do to solve this behavior problem?” You want to find out in general what training they do. In my opinion, here is what it is that you want to hear, “I do marker training.” That’s what I want to hear. I want to hear a trainer that does marker training because marker training is the highest level of obedience. Dogs are trained with markers. There’s no stress put on the dog. They love it. You can get very precise training results with marker training.

Marker training is the highest level of obedience, dogs are trained with markers. Click To Tweet

Even in some of the old school-dominated fields like protection work, where you’ve got a lot of old school trainers. Because we’re doing protection work, they think, “We’ve got to dominate the dog, or we’re going to have problems.” The training can sometimes be very harsh. Even in those areas, marker training has begun to change the landscape and the people who are winning the IPO trials. Even over in France, with some of the Mondioring, Belgium Ring, and French Ring champions, they’re using marker training. I won’t say it’s the newest craze because it’s been around for a while, but it is something that is the most effective for my money. It’s the best for your dog.

Find out what training these folks are doing. If you hear, “I’m doing marker training,” you’ve probably got somebody that you want to work with that’s probably going to do well for your dog, and you’re going to have fun with it as well. If you stay tuned in the next several episodes, I’m going to teach you marker training right here on a show because it is something I can talk you through. If you follow the way I describe it to you, you’ll be able to do it with your dog yourself. Keep an eye out for that. Marker training is a great thing.

I need to talk to you guys about how to find a good trainer because there are a lot of people out there who do what I do not have any regulation on training. You can find some of the most wonderful people with some of the highest skills that you can imagine out there that will help you with your dog. You can find people who can create far more problems for you than they help solve. Do your research. I’m happy to do a discovery session with you if you would like to talk and tell me about your dog. I love to talk with you. It is a privilege to be able to work with folks who want to train their dogs and have their dogs be healthy, happy, and better behaved. Until the next episode. I’m glad to talk with you. Keep on training.


Important Links


BDBN 1 | Alpha

What’s The Deal With Alpha?

You’ve probably heard of the term “alpha” in your dog training journey. But this term might not mean what you think it does. Join Doug Poynter in this insightful episode as he dispels the myth about the dominant alpha. Most people think that the “alpha” is a domineering figure and dog owners often think that’s the role they should follow to get their canines under control. But this is simply false! It’s not about dominating at all; it’s all about leading. Punishment does not work! Doug cites studies done by Dr. L. David Mech, the person who coined the term “alpha,” and William Campbell, the expert in solving behavior problems with dogs. Listen in to learn why your training methods aren’t working and what you should do to fix it!

Listen to the podcast here


What’s The Deal With Alpha?

Welcome to episode number one of the Better (Dog) Behavior Now. My name is Doug Poynter, the owner of the business Better Dog Behavior Now in Richmond, Virginia. For many years, I have been helping people solve their canine behavior problems. I always tell folks that what I do is train people, and I help dogs because it has been my experience that I have yet to see a canine behavior problem that was truly a canine behavior problem. There’s always a human component. I’m training people while I’m training and helping dogs as well. I use behavior modification, and I will explain why some of that here in a second.

To let you know a little bit about my background, I started in Corporate America as a trainer. I was a sales trainer. Before Corporate America, I taught tennis for about ten years. I used to teach people to play tennis here locally, and then I moved into the corporate world and became a sales trainer. I have a pretty long experience of training people and relating to people while at the same time working with dogs.

That started several years ago when I had a behavior problem with my dog. My dog Ruger is the sweetest dog you ever saw in your life but Ruger had a thing where one night he growled at me over a bone. I’d given him a raw bone and walked by him. The growl that came out of him was nothing I had ever heard before. It sounded like he wanted to rip my face off, and I was completely stunned. This was my sweet dog. Everybody loved him. Where did this come from?

What I started to do was research. I’m a trainer. I said, “I will do some research and figure out how to fix this.” At the time, I didn’t think I was going to be teaching people how to do it but after I got into it and was very entranced by it, I said, “There are probably a lot of people who could use this help.” I ran into a guy named William Campbell. He’s no longer living. I talked to him on the phone and studied all of his stuff. I have spoken with his wife, Peggy. Great people. He is the Dean of solving behavior problems with dogs. He is the one who invented this stuff.

He wrote a textbook back in 1972 called Behavior Problems in Dogs. Not the most exciting reading on the planet but very valuable for a person like me, and I started to study his stuff. I realized I had caused my problem with my dog. As soon as I started making some changes, my dog went right back to being the nice sweet dog that he had been before, and this was what I found.

One of the things that I want to bring to you as I continue to do this show is that there was no punishment involved. There were no corrections involved but there was a big change in my dog’s behavior for the better once I understood what was going on. As a result of that, long ago, my vet was aware of all this, and he began to refer people to me and say, “Do you want to take on this behavior problem here?”

My very first client was a lady and a husband and a wife who had a beagle with separation anxiety so bad that they couldn’t even leave the room. He would start howling. They lived in an apartment complex. They had been given 30 days to fix it or they were going to be evicted. I never even met those folks in person. We talked over the telephone, gave them the information, and walked them through what they needed to do.

Three weeks after we met, I got an email from his wife and she said, “We were able to go to dinner last night for the first time in over six months, and he laid on the floor and slept. We know that because we ran the camcorder while we were gone and came home and watched the video.” That was so long ago. There were no cell phones like iPhones. None of that stuff. They had to set up a camcorder, run it, and come back and watch that video.

They said he slept the entire time that they were gone. That was my first big client, and I got many other clients after that from my vet. The other thing that propelled me into this is that there was a lady who ran a rescue organization here in Richmond, Virginia, who saw me working with a client’s dog at a boarding kennel. I was doing this part-time. I still had a corporate career. I was sales training people for Circuit City while I was doing this.

As I said, this was part-time. This lady saw me working with a client and her dog at a boarding kennel. The dog had been banished from the apartment that they lived in because he was so wild and crazy, running up and down the hallways. The lady that ran the boarding kennel said, “He was vicious. He tried to attack me,” which, of course, he did not.

Luke was an American Pit Bull Terrier. He had crazy yellow eyes. This lady thought he was trying to attack her, and he was not. He was the sweetest dog but was spooky looking. He was also very unruly. It didn’t take me long to help Laura. That was his owner’s name with Luke got his behavior under control and got him more orderly. This lady with the rescue organization saw me because she had her dogs at that boarding kennel and asked me if I would help her out.

What started all of this in terms of turning it into more of a business was creating a new adopter’s class for this rescue organization that we did every Friday night at 6:00 for several years. What she told me was that once the class started, the return rate to the rescue organization went down below 1%. That is the great secret. The evil secret of the rescue world is that many dogs get adopted and come right back to the shelter for the same reason they got sent to the shelter in the first place. That’s behavior problems.

This class was set up to help people solve or keep those behavior problems from happening. Whenever anyone had a problem once they owned the dogs, I would get hired to go out and solve those problems on the spot. That several years were very instrumental in me being able to get this whole thing started here in Richmond, Virginia, Better Dog Behavior Now.

The Myth Of Punishment

One of the problems that I had in working with folks was the idea that the way to fix a behavior problem is to correct it or punish it. In dog lingo, correction is usually synonymous with punishment. It was difficult, at first, to get people to understand that this was not the way to do it. Behavior modification was the way to do it.

BDBN 1 | Alpha

Alpha: In dog lingo, correction is usually synonymous with punishment. Behavior modification was the way to do it. The reason why people didn’t accept this or had a hard time accepting this was because there was the notion that we need to be alpha to our dogs.


The problem that I found and the reason why people didn’t accept this or had a hard time accepting this was because there was the notion that we need to be alpha to our dogs. The title of this show is Alpha Dominance Fact or Fiction. We are going to go through this, and I’m going to give you the low down on all of it. The biggest problem that I faced was everybody thinking that the dog’s behavior problem was the dog trying to be dominant.

Unless it was something like fear, the dog was trying to be pushy. The dog was trying to take over the “pack.” Where this came from is the idea of alpha dominance and the fact that we must be alpha to have control over our dogs and fix behavior problems. That’s a very popular notion. You can watch TV and see that come up on TV time and time again. Lots of stuff and methods in some of our training that is more old school. Even some of the traditional and balance training has to do with the underlying idea of maintaining dominance with our dogs.

Where does that come from? Once I was able to find some research on this understanding of where it came from and what the reality was, the thing that made me able to convince my folks to listen to what I was describing and to my behavioral methods so that we could solve the problem with their dog. I will tell you where it comes from. You probably know this. It comes from wolves. When I ask my clients, “Have you ever heard the term alpha?” They all go, “Yeah.” I go, “You know where it came from?” By far, the majority of them say, “It comes from wolves.” It comes from wolf packs and what we know of wolf packs and what we have known of wolf packs.

Your dog is descended from wolves. Science has pretty much come to that conclusion. The DNA in your dogs is 98.8% identical to the DNA in a wolf. Your dog can breed with a wolf. Dogs and wolves breed all the time. We know that our dogs evolve from wolves. The argument is how that happened. I won’t get into that now. We might make an episode out of that sometime in the future because it’s very interesting but it could take us a while. I don’t want to get sidetracked on that. That might be the argument.

The DNA in your dogs, 98.8% identical to the DNA in a wolf. Click To Tweet

So far, the argument is not whether dogs came from wolves or not. Most people in the science world accept that as being the truth. Here’s what has happened with this alpha stuff. We have known that there’s an alpha male in a wolf pack who rules with an iron fist. There’s an alpha female as well. The alpha male maintains control and structure of the pack because he’s bigger, stronger, and better than all the other wolves in the pack.

When the other wolves try to take over or be dominant themselves, he’s able to slap them down, and that’s how they maintain control in a wolf pack. This is something that we have known over the years, and it has been the thing that has underpinned quite a bit of our training and “solving” behavior problems with our dogs. We have got to be dominant. They need to submit. Dominance and submission. You’ve heard that before. This comes from the idea of alpha in a wolf pack.

There was a textbook written many years ago called The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species by Dr. David Mech at the University of Minnesota. This is not the most exciting reading on the planet unless you love textbooks. I have it here in my hands, and I’m flipping through the pages there of this book. Page 69 of the book is where Dr. Mech first mentions the term alpha. He categorizes all kinds of behavior in a wolf pack among the behaviors he categorizes as the dominance behavior.

Page 69 is where he first calls the lead male in the wolf pack alpha and the alpha female. I don’t know if Dr. Mech is the one who coined that term for wolves. The word alpha is a centuries-old word. The principle around wolves or the term alpha was not invented for that. Coining the lead male in a wolf pack could have been something that Dr. Mech did. I’m not sure about that.

BDBN 1 | Alpha

Alpha: That term “alpha” has come to signify what we need to be to our dogs to keep behavior problems from occurring.


That term has come to signify what we need to be to our dogs to keep behavior problems from occurring. We are especially told that when we are dealing with working dogs. German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, Boxers, American Pit Bull Terriers, Mastiff breeds, any of the Bully breeds, and Bulldog breeds. The herding breeds Border Collies, Australian Cattle Dogs, and Australian Shepherds.

If we are not dominant over these dogs, we are going to have some serious problems because what’s in a dog’s blood is to try to take over the pack, especially if the dog is a more dominant dog. You hear it, “He’s a dominant dog.” If we are not on top of that, that’s where we are going to have problems. This comes and is underpinned by the information about wolves.

This was what I had to overcome to try to teach my clients the best way to solve their behavior problems. Campbell, quite frankly, said, “Punishment doesn’t work.” Campbell, again, is the Dean of solving behavior problems, and this is the guy that I studied. My experience with the work that I did was that it was correct. When my dog growled at me, I tried to punish him. It didn’t help anything. When I changed the way I acted and did behavior modification, everything changed quickly.

Something was inconsistent here. Something is not computing, and it didn’t become clear until I began to read Dr. Mech’s studies. Here’s the deal. I’m telling you that alpha and dominance are not the way. I’m telling you, that’s wrong. I’m telling you that it is false. The title Alpha Dominance Fact or Fiction of this show, the answer is fiction.

The Idea of A Dominant Alpha Is Wrong

Alpha and dominance is not the way. That's wrong. It is false. So the title alpha dominance: fact or fiction? The answer is fiction. Click To Tweet

You might say to me, “This is the very first show you’ve done. We don’t know who you are. I hope that won’t be true in a year,” but it’s probably true now for most of you reading this. “We don’t know who you are. We have seen it on TV. We have heard it from other trainers and have seen it down through the years that dominance and alpha are what we need. Why should we believe you when you say that it’s not true?”

Here’s the deal. It’s not me. It’s Dr. Mech himself. The man who is most responsible as the world’s foremost authority on wolves for coining this term or propagating this term, whether he coined it or not, again, I’m not sure. This textbook is where it began to be used on a regular basis. He’s the one who said it’s wrong.

Let me tell you what that’s all about, and then I’m going to tell you the information that’s right so we can begin to use that with our dogs because here’s my supposition. Tell me if I’m wrong. If wolves have evolved our dogs, our dogs came from wolves. If what we have known about wolves has been inaccurate, then what we have known about our dogs has been inaccurate as well.

BDBN 1 | Alpha

Alpha: Our dogs came from wolves. If what we’ve known about wolves has been inaccurate, then what we’ve known about our dogs has been inaccurate as well.


What I propose to do here is, first of all, why we got it wrong? Second of all, what’s right, and third of all, how can we apply that to our dogs? That’s what I do when I’m in my business. That’s what I do when I’m dealing with behavior problems. I don’t typically get hired to train a dog to do obedience. That’s pretty easy stuff. Most people do not want an obedience champion for a dog.

It takes a lot of skill to train a dog up to obedience champion level. That’s not what most people want. Most people want a dog that behaves. I get hired to make that happen. I’m going to tell you the stuff that works, and I’m going to tell you where it came from. The person who came out and said, “This alpha stuff is wrong,” is Dr. Mech himself, the guy who propagated it.

You can see Dr. Mech on YouTube. Listen to how long this has been out there, 2005. He put a video out on YouTube, and he didn’t beat around the bush and basically say, “I was wrong.” He said, “I was wrong. I’m one of the people who has been responsible for pushing this idea of alpha. The idea that an alpha male is an alpha male because he fights better is totally wrong because he’s bigger, stronger, and can smack the other wolves around is wrong.” I’m going to tell you why he said it’s wrong and what the right is, and we will move forward from that.

When all of this changes and then we are going to start talking about how this works for your dog. When we are done with this episode, I want you to be able to say, “He’s convinced me. The standard old school way of doing this is not the way to do it.” It doesn’t work. Wolves don’t do it. Why should we do this with our dogs?

Here’s what Dr. Mech said. First of all, things changed when he was able to do a study on the wolves of Ellesmere Island. Why was that so important? Ellesmere Island is in Canada. It’s above the Arctic Circle. At the time back in 1984, when Dr. Mech started this study, there were no people on Ellesmere Island. I’m given to understand that the only people on Ellesmere Island even now are scientists who are studying.

There are no people who are living on Ellesmere Island. Dr. Mech was able to do this study on the wolves of Ellesmere Island and study the wolves in their environment. Why is that important? He said, “We got this wrong for so many years about wolf behavior because we were never able to study wolves in their natural environment.”

I want you to understand something. Dr. Mech was not talking about our pet dogs. He was talking about wolves but again, our pet dogs evolved from wolves. Everybody wants to say, “If it works for wolves, it must work for our dogs.” I want to tell you what works for wolves so you can see what works for your dog.

Dr. Mech said that until his study, we were not able to ever study wolves in their natural environment. They had been so hunted by us that when the human scent was in the air, they were gone. We could study them from a great distance, by helicopter or airplane. If we wanted to get up close in personal with wolves, we had to study captive wolves. That’s where the information about alpha came from. Three studies in the ‘30s and ‘40s were on captive wolves.

There was a bigger and stronger male in this captive artificially created pack. Not wolves that were around each other in nature but had been forced into a pin. That’s a completely unnatural environment for a wolf. That’s like human beings being imprisoned. Wolves can travel 40 to 50 miles a day or more in search of food. They are always moving. To put them in a pin is a completely unnatural environment.

These studies were done on those wolves, and in those studies, there was a bigger and stronger male who was ruling with an iron fist. There were other wolves that were challenging him, and he would smack them down. The thought was that’s the way they are in real life in nature. That changed when Dr. Mech was able to do this study on the wolves of Ellesmere Island.

He went to Ellesmere Island from 1984 to 2000 every summer, sixteen summers. He saw some things that were different. From the information that I have gathered on Dr. Mech’s studies, I have pulled the things that I feel would work with our dogs, and they do. That’s what I want to give you. What Dr. Mech noticed was the first idea that there’s conflict in a wolf pack and that there’s an alpha male who’s got to slap everybody down.

The Pack As a Family Unit

The first thing that he noticed that dispelled that was this. A wolf pack is a family. The “alpha male and female” are mom and dad. The rest of the pack are their pups, who stay with the pack for 2 to 4 years before they run off, meet with another wolf, and start with their own pack, sometimes tagging onto the original pack. It’s a family unit.

As a matter of fact, Dr. Mech stopped calling them alpha. He calls them breeding male and female. One of the things that he says in the video on YouTube is this very little structure in a wolf pack or a wild dog pack which completely blows the whole theory out of the big strong male keeping order in the pack. There’s very little structure.

The alpha male and female, I call them alpha because breeding male and female is too many syllables for me but mom and dad are what I’m saying. They are the family. That’s one of the reasons why there’s not this fighting and trying to take over the pack. When people tell you your dog is trying to be dominant, it’s not in your dog’s blood to try to take over your human pack. You don’t even have a pack but it’s not in their blood to do it. What’s in their blood is cooperation.

Your dog is essentially a collaborative being. Your dog needs a job. Your dog needs to cooperate and collaborate with you and you with your dog. Click To Tweet

That’s one of the things that Dr. Mech talks about is the fact that each wolf has a job on the hunt, and they can execute that job flawlessly. That doesn’t mean they always get their prey but they have to work together. A single wolf could not bring down a 1,200-pound moose by itself. They can’t do it, so they have to work together to be able to survive. The main activity of wolves is eating and hunting. In order to survive, they have to cooperate.

The first thing I want you to keep in mind is that your dog is essentially a collaborative being. Your dog needs a job. Your dog needs to cooperate and collaborate with you and you with your dog. Does your dog need to be a bomb-sniffing, arson, police or tracking dog? No. That’s not necessarily what having a job means. I’m going to show you a principle from Campbell. We are going to mold these two things together. I’m going to show you how you can turn everyday real life with your dog into a job.

One of the things that Dr. Mech noticed was cooperation, collaboration, and working together to acquire wolf gold, food, and hunting. Number 1) The reason why there’s no conflict in the wolf pack is that they are family. Number 2) The reason why there’s no conflict is that they cooperate with each other. They have got to work together on the hunt.

There’s something else here that is very interesting, and this is what I have pulled out of this. Dr. Mech is not talking about dog behaviors. He’s talking about wolf behavior but I have pulled this out and it seems to work very well. Here’s what you’ve got to understand about people who do what I do. We are always studying. The ones of us who do well at this are the ones that work hard at this. We are studying.

Anybody who tells you they know what’s going on in every way, shape or form with every dog runs like you stole something because nothing works with every dog. You’ve got to be open. You’ve got to understand the principles and study. That’s what I have been doing here with this information with Dr. Mech. What I’m about to tell you seems to work well with gaining great behavior with your dog, and I’m going to give you a little wolf reference to it.

What Dr. Mech says is that, “With the important activities in the wolf pack, mom and dad, alpha breeding male and female or whatever you want to call them, initiate activity.” They don’t tend to follow activity. I will give you an example. If you and I were to see each other, and I was to extend my hand to shake hands with you, and you extended your hand back, I would be leading that. You would be following but if I extended my hand and you didn’t extend your hand back, you would be leading that.

Where humans are concerned, that’s rude but where canines are concerned, if you are the leader, if you are mom or dad, that’s normal. One of the things that he noticed is that when the breeding male and female alphas come back to the pack and the other wolves come running up to greet them. The other wolves are trying to initiate the activity of affection. The alphas, mom and dad, stand and take the adulation. They don’t respond back. They very nonchalantly take the adulation.

When I look at that, I go, “They have to not respond because if they respond, they are following.” The lower wolves are attempting to initiate an activity of affection. If you come to me and you lick me around the face, which is what they do. The lower wolves are up greeting them. They are all wiggling, happy to see them. Yipping or licking around the face in the mouth. These are activities that say, “You are above us. You are our leaders.”

If I’m the upper wolf and I respond back to that, then I followed you. That’s why they don’t, because they are running the show. There’s never any lack of affection for mom and dad in a wolf pack. Other activities that lead wolves initiate, it’s time to hunt. When it’s time to go hunt, the alpha male goes. Everybody has to follow him. He doesn’t go check to see if everybody is ready. He takes off, and they follow. Why? He’s leading.

BDBN 1 | Alpha


Why You Should Lead Not Dominate

This is where we humans mess up with our dogs, we don’t lead. I want you to understand something. What I’m not telling you is to dominate. What I’m telling you is to lead. What I’m telling you is to have your dog follow you. That is step number one to creating better behavior with your dog. Let me show you how we can mess that up. One of the things that sometimes happens when your dog wants love and affection, and there’s no reason you can’t give your dog love and affection but one of the things that will happen.

Sometimes your dog comes up and takes her nose and nudges your hand with her nose. Puts her nose under your hand and tries to nudge it to get you to pet her. Paw at you or come up and drop a toy in front of you. Come up and adopt the play stance in front of you. Chest down, butt up, tail wagging, barks or yips because they need to go outside.

These are not attempts to dominate, take over or be a leader. They are not. What they are is their request for affection in dog language, “You are my leader. Please give me love, attention, and affection.” That’s dog language. In human language, we think that’s cute. We pet the dog. We throw the toy at the dog or take the dog out. We give the dog what it wants. It’s fun, and our dog is cute. There’s only one problem, that is, we followed in that transaction. We did not lead that transaction. We followed, and this has been my experience over many years.

When people follow their dogs on a regular basis, then the dog can listen to them if he wants to. If he doesn’t want to listen, he doesn’t have to. Why? It’s because he’s leading the transactions. Please understand me. It’s not like your dog tried to take over. He did not. He was looking for love, affection, and attention but what we did was put him in the driver’s seat of the car. “Go ahead. You drive.” What then happens is when he behaves the way a dog who’s in the driver’s seat behaves, doesn’t listen and does what he wants to do whenever he wants to do it, we then punish him and correct him.

I always use this analogy. It’s like when you were a kid, if your parents said, “Let’s go out and drive. You are sixteen. Let me take you out and teach you how to drive.” You put the keys in your kid’s hand, and the kid goes and sits in the driver’s seat and puts the key in the ignition, and you pop him for putting the key in the ignition. “What are you doing?” “You put me in the driver’s seat. Don’t you want me to drive?”

BDBN 1 | Alpha

Alpha: We are correcting and we’re punishing a dog that 99% of the time we have placed in the driver’s seat of the car.


Can you see how this would drive a dog crazy? Create neurotic behavior on the part of a dog. We are correcting and punishing a dog that, 99% of the time, we have placed in the driver’s seat of the car. This is in dog behavior to cooperate and work together, and there are certain signs that show dogs who are running the show and not running the show. Please don’t confuse that with dominance. That’s not it.

Dr. Mech said that in one of his studies, if I remember correctly, the language was over the sixteen summers he was on Ellesmere Island. “You hardly ever saw a dominant behavior.” The lower wolves are always squabbling with each other over who gets food first but the leaders don’t get involved in all of that. It’s a very unstructured environment led by animals who lead, not follow.

What we do with our dogs in correcting behavior and punishing behavior is way over the top. I got a client with a dog that had been into protection training. He was a little too nervy about that. He’s a German Shepherd. He was considered very dominant. He was sent to a board and train. When he came out of the crate, he ran at the trainer and tried to attack her. They said, “We are not going to take this. Will you take it?” I said, “Sure.”

Jeff, the guy who owned this dog, I went to his house. I said, “Bring him out on a leash. Do not yell at him. Do not talk to him when he goes off. Stand there with him on the leash.” I showed him how to operate the leash so that it didn’t aggravate the dog. Pulling the leash tight aggravates the dog. You have to have a good grip but you are not pulling it tight.

When he brought the dog out, the dog dragged him down the steps trying to get to me. He went off up on his hind legs barking. You’ve all heard a German Shepherd lose it, multiply that by 2 or 3, and that’s what you had here. It took me 45 minutes. Not once did we correct anything. I waited for him to calm and then I rewarded him.

I will tell you something. In the last session I did with him, we walked him through Bass Pro Shops. People were walking up to him and petting him. He was wagging his tail. He was a calm, nice dog, not one correction but we did a lot of behavior modification. I taught Jeff and his family how to lead and get the dog to follow him.

Dogs love this. They love being part of a team. I’m going to tell you how to do that, and then we are going to wrap this thing up. What it is, we are going to add a Campbell principle to this. It’s going to immediately get your dog working and also following you. If you have a dog that seems to be pushy and dominant. I want you to try this and see what happens. When your dog comes to you and asks for or demands attention, if he’s done this for a while, he might seem demanding.

When that happens, instead of giving him the love and affection that he wants right away, I want you to ask him to do some work for it first. What could that be? Ask him to sit, lie down or come to you. This is Campbell’s earn your praise program. A lot of people try to take things in this business and appropriate it for their own, so some people have called this, “Nothing in life is free.” I like that name, but Campbell is the one who invented this, Earn Your Praise.

Some people call it Earn to Learn. Some people call it deference. It doesn’t matter what you call it. Ask your dog to do some work for the love and affection that you want to give him anyway. He comes up and nudges your hand with his nose. Ask him to sit. If he sits, then you can pet him. If he doesn’t sit, ignore him for an hour or so.

Ask your dog to do some work for the love and affection that you wanted to give him anyway. Click To Tweet

Don’t look at him, talk to him or touch him. Come back later, ask him to sit or ask him to come to you, and if he does, then you can give him some love and affection. That will begin to change the tie. Am I saying this is going to fix all your behavior problems? I’m not saying that at all but it sets the foundation so that fixing them is a much easier prospect.

I hope this has been helpful for you. This has been our first session. The show is brought to you by Better Dog Behavior Now, www.BetterDogBehaviorNow.com. I will be creating another one here for you and a little bit, and we will continue down this road to creating better behavior in your dog and on the parts of human owners to help facilitate that. Thanks a lot.


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