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Answering Your Dog's Questions

Set your course by the stars, not by the light of every passing ship. - Anon.

So much of dog training parallels into raising my kids, and vice versa. I'm surrounded by adolescents now (River is 14, Robynn is 16, and my dog, Arwen is 7 months. I feel as if Ellis, the 2.5 year old pit bull, is my only respite from hormonal outbursts and teenage drama. Even my husband is all emotional over someone named Margit ever since Elden Ring came out.

My daughter, River (aged -14), and I got into a battle of wills the other day. I realize it’s part of growing up: expressing a difference of opinions, not readily agreeing with everyone says, and generally breaking away a bit. Just because it’s a normal phase (and let’s face it, necessary), doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Or even fight those battles.

Yes, you read that correctly. I am not my daughter’s “alpha” any more than I am my dog’s “alpha”. That term actually disgusts me.

David Mech introduced the idea of the alpha to describe behavior observed in captive animals. Alphas, he wrote in his 1970 book "The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species," win control of their packs in violent fights with other males.
But, as he outlined in a 1999 paper, he's since rejected that idea in light of research into the behavior of wolves in the wild.
Mech writes on his website (with the lovely title Wolf News and Info) that his original book is "currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it." -Rafi Letzter

I'm not here to dominate my daughter. What I’m here to do is answer questions for my her as long as she needs me to do so. As she gets older, the questions get less frequent, but more intense and definitely more serious. When she was 4, she wanted to know if she could have candy for dinner (um…no).

Now that she’s an adolescent, she wants to know if she can spend hours on her computer and neglect her homework. It’s obviously not a question that is vocalized, but rather asked through her actions (or lack thereof). Again, the answer is “no” (she's got a 3.6 gpa now).

Eventually, she will be at a point where she doesn’t need me to answer her questions anymore (though she still may want to seek my advice). I will hopefully have done my job as a parent, and showed her how to think for herself; how to take information and act upon it.

It’s a difficult break when the time comes, but as a human, that’s my goal: a child who will always be my little girl, but also she will be a strong, courageous woman capable of both standing up for what is right, yet also capable of apologizing when she’s wrong.

I raise my kids in a very similar way that I raise my dogs.

No, really. I’m here to answer my kids’ and my dogs’ questions. As far as my dogs go, my Sparta’s big questions usually involved other dogs, and if they are a threat or not.

For Orion, it was usually about a fear of being separated from me.

My current dogs have plenty of questions as well. Ellis wants to know about that food on the table.

And Arwen wants to know when we're going to get some more activity, if she can drag me on the walk, and, to be honest, a whole lot more.

But I’m not their “alpha”. I’m the person who has answered all of their questions in a way that they understand, and doesn’t scare them. I don’t lose my temper…at least not in front of them. (Hint: It’s okay to walk away.) The difference between dogs and kids, though, is that you aren’t raising dogs to be independent. Dogs will always require a Pilot to help them navigate our human world. The important thing to remember, is that it is still their right to question our answers.

Let me repeat that: a dog is allowed to ask questions, and to challenge the answers you have given them.

The key is that you have the right to stand firm in your answer. For instance, Sparta’s main question, as I’ve stated in an many posts, had to do with other dogs. She perceived them as a threat. Her question was usually, “Should I kill it before it kills me?”.

Of course my answer is “no”.

But it is her right not to immediately accept my answer.

I call it the Are You Sure. The object of the game isn’t to bully her into accepting that my answer is valid and correct. It’s to help her understand that I will stand firm in this answer, and that I will keep answering her questions until she accepts my answer.

Look at it from a human perspective. I bought a new house a few years ago, and did a 100% gut and remodel of the interior. During the process, I was convinced that I wanted hardwood floors. I love the look, the feel and just the vibe of hardwood. My husband, on the other hand, suggested tile floors.

No way.

So he set about answering my concerns about it:

It will look cheap. No, there’s tiles that look exactly like hardwood floors.

We can’t refinish it like hardwood. We won’t need to refinish it; it’s so much more durable than hardwood.

It’s cold. We can put radiant heating under it.

So eventually, I took the leap of faith (after many, many more rounds of Q & A). I accepted his answers to my questions. We put in the tile.

And I love it!

But bear in mind that my husband did not “alpha” his way into getting me to accept his answer. He gave his answers in a calm manner. He didn’t ignore my questions, nor did he try to distract me from my questions about the tile. He definitely didn’t use an electric shock collar on me to get me to accept his answer (I mean, wtf?!). He answered questions for me until I felt that his answers made more sense than mine did.

Now, I’m not going to say I can always be this cool and rational about a difference of opinion. After all, I’m human, and so is he. We sometimes throw emotions into it. The really nifty thing is that dogs don’t. They are logical, sensical beings who, once you have a higher amount of money in your Piloting Piggy Bank than they have, will acquiesce. And the more money you have in your bank, the more they trust your answers.

I will never bully my way into being Pilot. I want them to ask questions of me. To feel safe asking questions that I will always answer for them (to the best of my ability). One cannot use the pain of a shock collar to establish your role as Pilot. That role is earned, not inherited just because I have opposable thumbs and they don’t. I answer their questions. And most importantly, I choose my battles. Yes, I usually answer their questions (“Can I bark at the mailman?” ”May I please have a treat?” “Can I pull on the leash?”) but only if I feel mentally capable of doing so at time. I need to be calm and rational when answering questions. Not harried and frustrated. Let’s be frank, the more I answer their questions, the more money I get in my Piloting Piggy Bank. But sometimes, I just don’t have it in me, and that’s fine. As I told my husband the other day, I win 100% of the battles I choose to fight with our dogs (and our kids!).

So that battle with River that I had?

It really wasn’t a battle with her. It was a battle of my being tired after working all day, along with her being a 14 year old girl trying to move her boundaries forward. But I’m the adult. I’m still her Pilot. I knew I wasn’t in a position to Pilot her correctly when I was tired, so I didn’t. I told her that while she had a valid point worthy of discussion, that we would have to address it in the morning when we were both more rational. I stood hard and firm in that conviction, and gently, but firmly negated her attempts to discuss at that moment. After a few “Are You Sure’s” from her, she accepted that answer, and we did end up discussing it in the morning.

And you know what? I answered her original question ("Can I have a later bedtime?") with a positive. She presented her points and reasons why she should be allowed to stay up much later, and I agreed. She was right.

Piloting isn’t always about standing firm in your convictions; it’s about being able to change your views when presented with more information. That’s what Piloting is about: giving the correct answer, not the easiest nor the most convenient. And that’s how to win a battle correctly.

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio


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