Call Us: 805-965-3456 | Contact Us | Login

Defining a subjective term.

December 16, 2008

I hear the words quite often…But what do they all mean? What exactly is being described? What is the message being sent? It’s difficult for me, the dog trainer that comes from the “academic” “science-based” philosophy camp, to judge or determine why a dog is doing what they’re doing based on these subjective terms that owners share with me. What words am  I speaking of? Allow me to share: 

  • My dog is being dominant.
  • My dog is being alpha.
  • My dog is being controlling
  • My dog is being aggressive.
  • My dog has learned to be submissive with me. 
First off, let’s see what some of the true definitions are, shall we?
  • Dominant: commanding, controlling, or prevailing over all others.
  • Alpha: something that is first.
  • Controlling: inclined to control others’ behavior : domineering.
  • Aggressive: tending toward or exhibiting aggression. 
  • Aggression: a forceful action or procedure (as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master
  • Submissive (submission): to yield oneself to the authority or will of another
Wow. I find all of these terms pretty interesting – and confusing, and frankly quite negative in describing a loved one, including our pets. I think we all understand what they mean, and how they would pertain to describing another human. But describing our dogs? Really? Okay, I’ll give you “aggression”. That one I’ve used myself when describing dogs that would fit into my Feisty Fido class – one with dog-dog issues, or dog-stranger issues. But even a word like “aggression” can be very subjective. What’s “aggressive” to one person, might not fit that same picture to another. Geez, you should see me on the road sometimes, I can be pretty “aggressive” 😉 I’ve been known to bark more than my own dog Poncho… at times. 
As for these catchy and popular terms… well, humans can use them all they want to describe their dogs behavior… but what it comes down to, and what I will ask right outta the gate when working with clients is, “what is your dog doing? Paint me a picture.” Why? A few reasons are: 
  1. Subjective terms don’t tell me anything substantial to correctly evaluate a situation. 
  2. The descriptions could be more about an owners own frustrations with their dogs behavior, vs the actual behavior of their dog. 
  3. Acts of “dominance” to one person could mean something completely different to someone else. 
  4. There is no exact scientific measure, standard protocol etc… of these descriptive terms. 
What are dogs really doing when people use the above descriptive terms? Is your dog bolting out the door before you? Uh, hello? Is that being “dominant” or are they just being a bit more impulsive? After all, they are dogs, right? Impulse control is usually not in their behavior repertoire. How about jumping up to greet when you get home? Is this “aggression” or just the normal greeting behavior or dogs? I believe the latter. As for “submission”, well, I ask you what the underlying motivation is there when animals “submit” to us humans. Usually “fear”. They don’t want to “get in trouble” (yikes, dare I use this phrase…) so they provide their innate body language of “I’m no threat to you.” 
Regardless if you use these terms or not, it’s probably more important to pay attention to what your dog is doing and not try to figure out what they’re thinking… I’m not clairvoyant, but I’m a good history taker and can observe your dogs behavior, the details, triggers, and of course how and or why a behavior is being reinforced – by you and/or the environment. Which brings me to this important question for you to take with you today: if you think your dog is controlling you, what are YOU doing that is reinforcing the behaviors you don’t like? Ouch, there’s the word of the day: “accountability”. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *