Do dogs really want their human to be the leader of the pack?
Carlo Siracusa, a veterinarian and animal behavior expert at Penn Vet, thinks all the talk about dominance in dog training is overblown.
"The outcome of dominance-based training is more aggression," Siracusa said.
He was among the speakers last weekend at a Penn-sponsored seminar for dog breeders that covered canine science from genetics and fertility to the microbiome. (A story on other speakers can be found here.)
"What works," he said, "is the same thing that works in humans."
So dogs prefer a boss who doesn't yell at them all day, gives them some control and knows how to communicate.
Siracusa said dogs almost never attack without warning. People just aren't very good at reading the signs that the dogs are feeling stressed or threatened. Signs that a dog is flipping out include flattened ears, yawning or lip licking, dilated pupils, bristling hair and low body posture.
Dog owners often make the mistake of yelling at dogs when they do something bad without showing them good behavior. "We don't tell them what we want from them," he said.
Of course your dog is excited to see you when you've been away and he jumps to show it. Instead of punishing, try teaching him to greet you by touching your hand with his nose. It's a lot easier on your clothes and is incompatible with jumping.
Siracusa urged empathy. He said the brains of humans and dogs are quite similar when it comes to emotional processing.
"They are fearful creatures, as we are," he said.
Where we have an advantage is in the part of the brain that thinks things through and makes decisions. "After adolescence, we are able to control our impulsivity," he said. Dogs find it a lot harder.
With that in mind, think about what your dog is going through when you put him on a leash and make him go to Reading Terminal Market. Also, remember that the breed you've chosen may not be an ideal fit for your lifestyle. Little terriers, for example, were bred to be active hunters. "You don't want a couch potato for this," he said. They can be a tough fit for a small apartment. "If I want a very laid-back dog, I should not go for a terrier."
Our expectations can also be unfair. We set the bar high for golden retrievers, even when people are treating them badly. "I'm expected to be a good boy," he said of the dog. "I'm not allowed to growl at someone."
Pity the poor chihuahua who's frightened or angry. "Nobody would take me seriously," Siracusa said. "They would laugh at me."
While a significant amount of temperament is inherited, Siracusa said breeders and other experts don't have good measures of dog temperament. He said people are often drawn to the very shy puppy, but he has concerns. Shy puppies can turn into fearful adults and fear can lead to aggression.
He thinks breeders should be looking for homeostasis, an ability to regain equilibrium after being really happy or upset.
"I want to select a dog that is emotionally stable," he said. "If he reacts, he is able to calm down relatively quickly."