>> Stay informed about: CANADA - Pitbulls versus Ontario
Obedience is about more than power
Your dog depends on you to guide it through human society
Monday, May 29, 2006
Pit bulls are back in the news this month. Chess, a two-year-old pit
bull, is finally going to get his day in court. His owner, represented
by lawyer Clayton Ruby, is arguing that Ontario's 2005 ban on pit bulls
is too vague to be constitutional.
According to the law, pit bulls must be neutered, leashed and muzzled in
public. Failure to comply can result in six months in prison or a
$10,000 fine for the owner. Regardless of the outcome, the problems of
aggression by dogs will remain.
Although the law was enacted to deal with the more catastrophic effects
of aggression, veterinarians see variations of the problem on a daily
basis where the victims are the owners of the dogs and, in a way, the
Dr. Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at UBC and a prolific
writer on things canine, says: "The major problem with dog aggression is
that people don't want to see it, nor do they want to believe it exists
in their dogs."
Dogs attacking other dogs and people are clearly instances of aggressive
behaviour. But veterinarians often see more subtle signs of aggression
in their practice.
Bootsie develops an ear infection. It is itchy, sometimes painful, and
drives her crazy. The veterinarian prescribes some eardrops that will
give Bootsie relief in less than 24 hours. A week later, at the next
office visit, the infection is worse. Bootsie's owner admits to not
having administered the medication because "Bootsie wouldn't let me put
the drops in."
Variations on the theme are many: eye drops, oral medication, bandages
on paws, therapeutic baths -- in short, anything involving touching the
animal becomes impossible with some dogs. When owners can't administer
treatments, simple problems become uncontrollable with serious
consequences for the dog.
There is something dysfunctional about this relationship. The dog is
calling the shots. The caregiver is unable to properly care for his ward.
Traditionally, obedience in dogs was considered to be a contest of
wills. Humans exerted their will by overpowering the dog. Methods used
were a reflection of pedagogical principles of the time -- spare the rod
and spoil the child.
Today, a more natural and humane approach has become popular, one that
makes use of the hierarchical nature of the dog pack to assign roles. In
this model, the handler becomes the alpha dog and power flows to him or
her from this relationship.
This notion of hierarchy was most eloquently elaborated by an unlikely
source. In New Skete, New York, a community of monks got involved in the
breeding and raising of German Shepherds. Their methods were successful
and led to the publication of several books.
The monks became a sort of underground phenomenon among those interested
in dog training. Their basic concepts have now become mainstream and
form the basis of most modern obedience programs.
How do you know who is top dog in your family? Here are a few tests.
- Can you touch any part of your dog's body without fear?
- Can you open its mouth and touch its teeth and gums?
- When you pass your dog in a narrow hallway, who gives way for whom?
- Can you step over your dog when it's lying down?
- Can you take food or toys away from it?
- Who goes through the door first?
- Will it get off the furniture when you ask it to?
- Can you reach for your dog when it is under a bed or table?
If you can't do these things with security, then your relationship needs
Obedience is not merely the exercise of power for its own sake. Dogs do
not live in a natural environment. It is up to us to lead them through
modern human society in a way that protects them and us.