From Alpha to Understanding: A Dog Trainer’s Journey

I used to be one of those trainers who taught using dominance as my base for all behaviour. Even after I transitioned into positive training, when a dog would act up I would still use that as my behavioural model, pulling out the standard “he’s trying to be alpha and you need to be more assertive with him” or some line like that.

If a dog sleeping on the couch growled at someone that walked by and pet it, I would say, “He’s really challenging you. You need to be more assertive, a better leader. He doesn’t respect your authority.”

But gradually over the years my perspective changed and I really started listening to and hearing what the dogs were saying. Some might say I started to see what was right in front of me all along.

Where I used to say, “This dog is trying to be dominant” I now started looking at what the dog might be trying to communicate. I looked at environmental factors, experiences with the people and dogs he regularly interacted with, patterns of behaviour and, one of the most important, his body language.

When I started to notice the dogs body posture, I began to see that the dog snapping and snarling at the hand reaching down to pet it was actually leaning away from the person, with its ears back, tail tucked tight under its belly, paw raised and was averting its gaze, among other signals. All classic signals of fear, insecurity or discomfort. And quite the opposite of what one would expect a “dominant” dog to act like.

Now changing my perspective didn’t mean I developed a passive attitude. I still set boundaries, sometimes use aversives or punishment in my training and have rather high expectations of my dogs behaviour, probably more so than most. I am not a purely positive trainer. And, let’s face it, some days neither is my attitude.

But what this shift in perception meant for me was where I would previously have jumped to the label ‘dominant,’ now I would observe the actual dog in front of me to see where it might be coming from. After all, the motivation for any one behaviour in a dog can be as dynamic and unique as they are with people, but you can’t see what you aren’t looking for. My new labels became things like “confused,” “anxious,” “unclear of the owners expectations,” “uncomfortable,” “stressed,” or “in pain.” (Physical and medical conditions comprise a significant amount of behavioural issues, but tend to get overlooked if no one is looking beyond the dogs behaviour.)

Now I look at the sleeping dog on the couch who growls at the person trying to pet it and think “How would I respond if I were in a restful sleep and someone – uninvited – came and started messing with me?” The answer, unequivocally, is I would be very upset. Even my dogs know not to wake me up before the sun comes up.

And when I started to put training into terms that related the dogs experience to the same or a similar human experience, the dogs behaviour started to make more sense to me. And how I dealt with a particular issue changed even more dramatically. Instead of trying to fight to remain on top (I’m sure the dogs were laughing and saying, “Haha, we get it, you’re in charge. Quit trying so hard. Even WE don’t work to prove it to each other that much.”), it became about how I could teach the dog to enjoy the experience or about training the behaviour I needed instead of the one I was getting.

The positive side on the human end is that I noticed a shift in my human clients, as well. People became less tense and anxious that every move their dog made was an attempt to overthrow the government. They started to relax and enjoy life more with their dogs, especially the people who themselves were not naturally inclined to be “alpha” or authoritarian. I found other ways of dealing with dogs who seemingly had a big attitude that were just as effective, if not more so, than my old ways of training. Some clients were more than relieved when they found out they didn’t have to pretend to be someone with their dogs that they weren’t or simply didn’t want to be.

This shift for me didn’t happen in an instant. It took years. I was not particularly open to having what I believed to be true for so long challenged. (Okay, I’ll admit it, I wasn’t open even a little.) And let’s face it, it’s very unnerving to start from the ground up in unchartered territory using ideology where the result is unknown to you. And I’ll tell you my ego wasn’t thrilled either about the possibility of having been wrong.

But I eventually pushed through all that. It took listening, over and over, to, hearing and being open to seeing what some of my colleagues were telling me. Then it took finding the courage to change what I believed, trying a new approach and seeing for myself if it was actually true and gonna work.

But when the dog who previously snapped at the owner trying to pet it while it rested on the couch transitioned into a dog who’s tail wagged and eyes lit up when people approached it, I knew I was on the right track. And when the dog who previously flipped out so bad she needed to be sedated to have a nail trim transitioned into a calm, relaxed dog who would allow me to hold all of her paws and trim each of her nails while she watched, I was sold.

All it took was my willingness and curiosity to explore things from the dogs perspective instead of my own.

I know the idea about dogs and how they should be trained using an alpha attitude has been around for a long time, but I will leave you with this thought….

…..What if, after all these years, we were wrong?

Yours in training,
Darcie
www.facebook.com/CommuniCanine

11 Comments

  1. Aase Lange says:

    Thank you. Change is difficult and it’s so hard to admit, especially publicly, that we were wrong. I admire everyone who does.

  2. Leah says:

    I like that you got dramatic real results. I get very frustrated by “trainers” that go on about dominance, but don’t seem to have an alternative. I was skeptical as I read this article, but it gave me something to think about when you got amazing turnarounds. I would like to learn more, since I would have just smacked that dog off the couch!

    • Darcie says:

      Honestly, Leah, the nail trim dog blew my mind. If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I wouldn’t have believed it either. The vet who used to sedate her thought I was a rockstar after that.

      I wish I could say that I always understand the issue and have perfectly lovely solutions for them, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I sometimes get more perplexed now with certain cases than I ever did before because my answers are no longer come from a text book but from the individual dog in front of me. And not all the solutions are perfectly lovely and positive. I’m not that good yet! Maybe in another 14 years. 🙂

      I would highly encourage you to continue learning more. The best gift we can give our dogs is the understanding that they so deserve and are so often short changed on. Good luck with your journey and if I can be of any guidance along the way, I’d be happy to help.

      Cheers,
      Darcie

  3. WOW Darcie!!! Thank you for that beautiful description of your journey. Want to know how happy I am to know that I have had the exact same journey as you? I AM SO HAPPY!
    I felt so alone through wondering what the heck I was doing being a dog trainer because I hated it so much and started to resent my owners not doing their homework. I felt SO guilty after I corrected a dog. I wondered why I had so much anger all the time. Well after many sensitive dogs coming into my life, I realized that these dogs were coming into my life to teach me. They are most amazing teachers! And once we can see this, we can CHANGE and we stop the anger at them for everything. Instead we learn to communicate with this incredible companion animal.
    I love teaching, I love my clients, I love the dogs, am so much more willing to do more with my own dogs. I love being a friend rather than an enemy to our furry creatures.
    So Thank you for letting us into your life because you are not alone. Happy Training! From Sabrina at Cedar Ridge Complete Canine Care- I am proud of my transition too!!

    • Darcie says:

      Thank you, Sabrina! Your comment brought tears to my eyes. It’s been an amazing journey thus far and it is far from over. The point you made about feeling angry is bang on. And what a horrible way to show up everyday with our dogs and ourselves.

      I would love to connect with you sometime, as well. Feel free to give me a call and I will do the same.

      Cheers, and thank you again.
      Darcie

  4. janice says:

    Darcie
    Although you don’t know me, I remember speaking to you briefly a few years ago on the subject of dogs wanting to dominate/ take over. Your approach to the subject at that time was very different than what I read in this article. I’m impressed with your openness and honesty. You are to be commended for moving ahead and being brave enough to take a risk on the unknown. The information for more respectful progressive approaches is out there but it takes a real effort to find it and a willingness to pursue big changes in belief and attitude.
    Years ago I also took a more traditional approach to dogs and have to say it was a real vehicle of anger and frustration for me. My gut twisted when I “disciplined’ dogs but didn’t know what else to do. Finally I decided there had to be a better way and I started my search for a more progressive positive way of relating to dogs. It took me a few years of research but I found my way and have continued on in my learning process since about 2006. It feels great to be using my energy to build relationships and communicate in a positive way! The added bonus to my new direction is that it has led me to other new and fantastic stuff that I would never have dreamed of. You just never know what wonderful places your courage will lead you. Good luck!

    • Darcie says:

      Thank you, Janice. And I’m curious to know what direction you took in finding your new path? I’d love to hear more about your journey.

  5. janice says:

    My search for more positive approaches started really ramping up in about 2005. Although I had done alot of looking in books and articles, talking to dog people, mulling it all over, nothing really caught my attention until I read Suzanne Clothier’s book, “Bones Would Rain From the Sky”. In it she briefly mentioned a method called Tellington TTouch. I had never heard of it but was intrigued so started to research it and ultimately decided that for the sake of my dog and myself and our relationship I needed to check it out. I was a skeptic for the first day of the initial workshop but that quickly changed my mind as I saw respectful and gentle techniques making amazing changes with dogs. All the while I observed that the relationship between dog and handler(s) seemed to grow stronger/deeper as they worked together. Communication, patience, trust, respect, compassion….I began to believe that it could flow back and forth equally between people and dogs. It was a life-changing experience and after those first 6 days I knew I’d never look back. Even though I found myself sometimes falling into my old style and attitude regarding dogs I was determined to leave behind what didn’t feel right. I pressed on, learning and practicing Tellington TTouch, doing case studies and going to workshops for the next 2 years. In 2008 I became a practitioner and since that time I’ve been working with people and their dogs (and other companion animals) in small groups and individually, as well as volunteering my skills at the SPCA doing info sessions and working with the shelter animals. I keep working to improve my abilities as a Tellington TTouch practitioner and presently I am working on my level 3 Therapeutic Touch (energy work) which I am learning to integrate into my Tellington TTouch work. This is something I never thought I would be doing but this is where the universe has brought me and I must say it’s an incredibly fullfilling experience. I see and feel ‘movement’ in the animals I work with and within myself. My beautiful Rotti has been gone now for 2 years but I owe her a debt of respect and gratitude for bringing me to TTouch. She taught me many things about life and dogs and most importantly about myself. I wouldn’t be surprised if she knew that I would be finding other amazing things further along the path. One thing is for sure. The more I learn and experience the more I realize there’s so much more and that it’s important to take out my beliefs about things (in this case dogs) and look very closely to see it they still ring true. If they don’t then change is on the agenda and I get on with it. What’s important is that there is a openness to learn new ways of improving the lives of our animal companions. It’s where my heart is. I started exploring Tellington TTouch 7 years ago, and I am really looking forward to the next 7 years as the universe presents opportunities to continue to grow. I wish you many wonderful lessons and much contentment in your path choice. I think it’s fantastic. 🙂 Cheers!

  6. Steven and Catreeya says:

    Darcie, good article. When I first got Catreeya 2.5 years ago, I thought dominance was going to be important, mainly because she was second-in-command for 7 years out in the yard at her breeder’s, and she can be quite an alpha dog. Demonstrating to her that I was the alpha male around this ranch was important at first, perhaps, but that has changed over time. I realize that just like a human being, the number one thing she needs from me is love and the security of knowing I’m committed to taking care of her. I show her a lot of affection, through touch and words and eye contact. I talk to her as if she understands me, because she does – not the words specifically, but the intent, the tone, the feeling. In other words, I let myself have an easygoing one-to-one relationship with her. When I need to take the garbage out and leave her for a few minutes, I tell her so, using my words – “Hey Catreeya, gotta take the trash out. I’ll be a minute. Wait here, OK?” When I head out to yoga class, before I put her in her crate I simply tell her where I’m going and that I’ll see her in awhile and she’ll be fine, etc. She understands and, of course, she knows I’m going to yoga because she’s already come up and sniffed the pantleg of my yoga pants as soon as I’ve put them on. My words are often a simple acknowledgement of what’s going on at the moment, which she usually anticipates anyway.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that our relationship is simpler and feels more “normal” than it did earlier. It’s more fluid, somehow. I pay a lot of attention to her, asking myself why she’s doing what she’s doing in the moment, and I discuss that with her as we go through our days. I tend to treat her as my dear little friend, and I think she likes that, and it helps her want to listen when I ask her to do or not do some behaviour. She knows she’s loved and so she wants to please me by doing what I ask – it’s part of her way of saying she loves me and appreciates how much I respect her and let her be herself. My respect for her as a living soul and my care for her are the foundations of our relationship and she feels those things from me. Her obedience to me arises from her love for me, which arises from my love, freely given to her.

    It gets simpler all the time. :))

  7. Steven and Catreeya says:

    Darcie,

    PS Not to mean to give the impression Catreeya always responds to my requests – that just ain’t the case, especially when she thinks a good temporary alternative to listening to me is some food someone’s dropped on the pathway (her motto seems to be “I may not know a lot of things for sure, but I do know I love CHICKEN – and cookies and liver and tuna and treats and sometimes apples and bananas and cheese too and muffins and a lot of other stuff too!”)

    As well, I’m fortunate in that she came to me as a doggie who had been well cared-for, without any real issues to speak of, so she’s been easy to work with, whereas other owners, especially with rescue dogs (like Cricket for instance) must often have many more challenges to overcome. I even heard about someone’s dog who chewed up the wiring under the carseat – can you believe it? :))

    Steven

    • Darcie says:

      Haha, Steven, you crack me up!! Those poor people with chewed wiring. Hopefully their insurance covered it!! lol

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