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Dog Training Without Dominance: The Toxicity of Alpha-Style Training

“Beware of all those in whom the urge to punish is strong” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Darwin Dogs Training - Origins

Scared dog

Everyone always wants to know the origin story of my Piloting method of dog training. What made me suddenly become a dog trainer? Where did I learn all of this. The short answer is that every day over the last 20 years of training dogs I've been learning, and will continue to do so. Every single session provides me with at least some minor tidbit to keep in my head, adjust my techniques according to new information.

I watch dogs. I learn from dogs, and I know that dogs always have something interesting to tell you (just not with their voices).

Unfortunately, sometimes those voices are stifled, either from fear or anxiety. They are afraid to speak up, to ask questions. Sometimes it's because a dog has had all the questions dominated out of them, and they are afraid to ask any more, merely turning into obedient dog robots, with their eyes constantly glued to "master" for fear of missing a command (and the potential repercussions).

Sometimes it is simply because they never heard an answer before, so they've anticipated that their owners have no answers.

I learned this young from watching and learning early on. But amazingly enough, the concept of Piloting dogs and training dogs didn't start with a started with a horse.

Learn how to answer your dog's questions here

What's the difference between dog training and dog behavior here

Learn how to Pilot your dog here

The First Dog I Trained - A Horse Named Troy

Troy was handsome, and looked similar

As a little girl, I had just about every kind of rescue you could imagine. I was the kid who found it and rescued it. From the first rescue at 8 years old (a kitten I named “Boots”, who I found on the way to school) to a white rabbit (I named him “Hasenpfeffer”) to a turtle I named Ivanhoe, there was always a conveyor belt of animals I found and cared for until they could find their forever homes.

Obviously I had the normal pets growing up: my cat, Belle. And the family dog, Pebbles, a Border Collie mix we got from a shelter when I was about 4. I was also fortunate enough to have two horses, Stargen and Troy.

Stargen was a white Arabian stallion, who technically belonged to my single-for-life aunt (who doted on me excessively), but I was in the thick of it with her. Eventually, at age 10, I was gifted a neglected off-the-track thoroughbred gelding named Troy.

Troy had the most kind, gentle disposition of any animal I’d ever met, allowing me to braid wildflowers into his long black mane as a child. He showered me with endless patience as I tried to figure out exactly how to put his bridle on. He was patience personified. When I screwed up, I felt as if he was saying to me, "It's okay, little girl. Try again. Keep at it." I felt safe enough to fail and not be perfect around him, and with him I grew in ways I never had before.

However, Troy was dangerous.

He was kind and loving, yes. Affectionate, and the best horse to give a hug. But the moment he was startled, he was dangerous.

And he could be startled by anything. A leaf blowing. A car door slamming from the drive.

I lost track of the times he threw me (although to be fair , I never learned to ride, just to "hang on").

Growing up, I always wondered what the difference was between the two horses. They were the same age, and to add even more confusion, one would think the “hot blooded” Arabian stallion would be the more dangerous one, not the gelded Thoroughbred.

My young mind chewed this up, over and over in my head, and developed thoughts about the wherefores and they whys, as only a young kid can do.

Have a reactive dog? Learn more about it here

Learn about the missing connection with your dog here

What things does your dog wish you knew? Find out here

Understanding Where We Started From

Dog sitting and looking up
We can't always choose our dog's beginnings.

The difference between the two horses was partially who they were naturally, but mostly had to do with their beginnings and the amount of money in their Piloting Piggy Bank. Just like training dogs, my horses each had different amounts of money in their bank (To learn more about dog behavior and the Piloting Piggy Bank, check out this article.)

Troy had been set up for failure from the start, both based on his loving, but anxious personality, and the abuse he had received at the racetrack prior to coming into my care. He would have been a train wreck under a normal circumstances, but the abuse he received made him an anxious mess.

So how does this apply to dog training and dog behavior?

I learned quickly that beginnings matter. But it also taught me how to write the ending.

Find out how I spend my first 48 hours with a new dog here

Learn what you need to know before picking any new dog here

Choosing a rescue dog? Get tips here

Dog Training Through Dominance

pug on floor sitting

I grew up in an abusive family (felt weird to actually acknowledge that).

I was slapped, spanked, beat with a belt, and subjected to some rather bizarre punishments for “doing wrong” (kneeling on raw rice - wtf?).

My first bully was my dad.

My mom has a story she loves to tell for some reason, about why I have always been “such a bitch”.

“We were eating dinner, and her father used to tease her, and she’d start crying. One day I finally told her to get him back. And that was the day I lost my sweet girl.”

I was six.

That day I learned that not only was the emotional abuse normalized, but that nobody was going to protect me from it. It was the day I learned to be defensive. When that didn't work, sometimes I needed to be aggressive.

My mom thought that was the day she lost her sweet girl, but in reality, that was the day I realized I was on my own.

I didn’t trust them to protect me from even themselves. I grew up skittish and afraid, constantly looking for the next thing that would attack me with words, emotion or even a smack.

I was taught to treat the animals in a similar fashion.

When the family dog got on the couch to watch us through the window as we pulled out of the driveway, my father was sent back inside by my mother with the instructions to "smack her".

If the horses “misbehaved”, I was to take the metal chain that crossed over their nose and yank on it with all my might *cringe*.

I was taught to give horses an uppercut under their chin if they gave me trouble.

I saw my aunt kick Stargen on more than one occasion, and I was told to do the same to Troy.

In other words, I was taught how to dominate, but never how to communicate.

I refused to take part anymore when Troy showed up.

I saw my own fear in Troy. Scared of where that misstep he made would lead to. Flinching if you made a sudden gesture. Scared of constraints because he felt trapped, his flight response gone, he had no choice but to rear up and break the crossties, where he would flee only a few feet before allowing me to approach and collect him. He had nobody to trust, so therefore he trusted nobody. He wasn’t aggressive, per se, but he was definitely defensive, and that was a problem.

So when I was told to “beat” Troy for misbehaving, I didn’t see a horse who was bad. I saw me.

And I refused to do it.

Was I going to beat the fear out of him? I could obviously make him more afraid of my wrath than of the original thing he was afraid of, but that would never make him safe. He would never confide in me, just as I never felt safe confiding in, or being protected by, my parents.

So rather than beating my horse, I decided we would both just beat the fear instead, and we would do it together, as equals.

I was eleven at this time.

Be informed: why I hate shock collars here

Learn about how to work with a scared or abused dog here

The mindset of dog training: a being vs. a thing here

Your Dog is Not Against You, He's For Himself

First I had to address the more dangerous aspects of Troy: his fear of failure. Every time he reared up and broke the crossties and ran, when I finally got to him, his eyes were wild, and his lungs were working like bellows. It took a bit for him to cam down. So rather than making him calm down with force or manipulation, I decided to fight my true enemy (and his): the fear.

Fear is what makes a dog attack. Fear is what makes a dog reactive dog snarl and lunge at another dog while on a walk. Fear is what makes a dog become labeled dog aggressive or dog reactive. But the issue isn't the reaction to the other dog, any more than Troy's problem was with crossties. It was the fear being trapped when bad things happen. To distill it even further, it's a question that my horse was asking, same as that dog reactive dog:

"If you remove my options for flight, are you going to protect me since I can't run away?"

Rather than answering the simple question our dogs ask us, we've resorted to bribery through treats or other tactics. We've relied on force and brutality to not only avoid answering the question, but to make said animal fearful of asking that question in the future. We've taken animals with a small to moderate degree of natural anxiety, and then amplify, leaving us wondering why our dog is giving us such a hard time.

But I want you to remember something. Write this down. Tattoo it on your forehead.

Your dog isn't giving you a hard time, he's having a hard time.

The same way that Troy wasn't out to hurt me, he was out to defend himself. A dog would much rather run away from the perceived threat the other dog implies (or better yet, know that you've got the situation) than become leash reactive, or even redirecting upon you.

See your dog's behavior for what it is: not about you, but about the unanswered question regarding the situation. Empathy is a wonderful place to start any kind of conversation, but especially one stemming from fearful dog behavior.

Learn about your dog's fight or flight response here

Learning the behavior of dog trust in this post

Want to know what's it's like training an aggressive dog? Find out here

Troy's Ending

I wish I could say that I cured Troy of all his anxieties. I wish I could say he lived happily ever after. I can say, however, he lived better ever after.

Troy died of colic when I was barely 18, giving us just a brief amount of time together. But during that time, he saw me stand up to my family when I was told that I needed to "control" him.

I was able to do safer rides with him. He still would bolt and rear sometimes, but his intensity and determination was tempered, and his flight response fizzled to a simmer.

We each saw each other's flaws and shortcomings not as something to dominate, but something to draw us closer. We attacked the fear, and we did it as a team.

Troy also stopped breaking cross ties. I removed stimulation all together, and then started over, only draping a crosstie through his halter, one at a time. Gradually, as he felt I wasn't going to hurt him while he was trapped in the ties. I added a bit more restraints day by day, until he started to answer his own question based on past experiences with me:

Am I safe? Of course I am. Kerry will protect me.

Thank you, Troy, for not only teaching me about trust at such a young age, but allowing yourself to trust me. Even almost 30 years later, I still miss you, and will cherish the lessons you taught me.

Dog Training vs. Dog Life

By focusing on dog life, rather than dog training, our goals can become so much more attainable and clear-cut. Most of us don't want an obedient dog, we just don't want a dis-obedient dog. Robot-style dogs who are afraid of stepping out of line are for certain types of people I guess.

But that's not my style. That's why I developed the Piloting method of dog training over 20 years ago, a force-free method of dog training and puppy training that didn't rely on abusive shock collars or cruel prong collars, yet didn't constantly bribe with non-stop click-n-treat style dog training. I want a bond with my dog based on trust and communication.

Learn more about our Piloting method of dog and puppy training here.

Find out more about our private in home 30 Day Best Dog Ever and 30 Day Best Puppy Ever training packages here.

Have questions about our puppy training or dog training?

border collie dog

Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training and Puppy Training

Greater Cleveland Area

Northeast Ohio

2 comentários

Wow! What a story! A powerful manifesto for courage and resilience and compassion! Your voice speaks, not just in this story, but in every training you do, for all the dogs that need to be understood and respected. You help the humans you work with see clearly that dogs are sentient being with thoughts and feelings and interests and desires. But you also speak for all the children who are mistreated. Your voice is their voice. And you speak for all the animals who are used because you know that it does not have to be so. I cried for that little girl what was Kerry, who had to be so strong when she was so young and tender. T…

Kerry Stack
Kerry Stack
15 de mar. de 2023
Respondendo a

Thank you so much for your wonderful and kind words! I feel as if perception is everything. As I stated, your dog isn’t giving you a hard time, your dog is having a hard time. It’s so important, the distinction.

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