Ready to get into shape for the New Year? Have I got the program for you!
Every time you say, hear, read, or write the words “dominance” or “dominant” in regards to a dog, drop and give me five push-ups.
I guarantee you’ll have rock-hard biceps, abs, and pecs faster than your dog can eat kibble out of a dish.
I could make millions if I patented this game, because “dominance,” it seems, is the most popular word in the pet-dog world. Ethologists — people who study animal behavior — use the word commonly to describe relationships and behaviors in animals, but, somehow, dog trainers bastardized the word decades ago and — whether it was intended that way or not — it is now used as a catchall term for “everything a dog does that people don’t like.”
And boy do dogs suffer because of it.
Many of you have been following the saga of Emma the Beagle’s separation anxiety. She used to be so terrified to be left alone that she would chew the doorframe trying to escape the prison of our home. She would run around darting from window to window and door to door, howling, barking, crying, and even scooting her butt across the rug. Her fear was so intense that she couldn’t eat a drop of food no matter how hungry she was or how delicious the treats were that we left for her, and she would lose control of her bladder everywhere — the wood, the carpet, the couch…
Was Emma being dominant? OF COURSE NOT! It couldn’t be a more ridiculous question to ask. And yet yesterday, the day after Emma stayed home alone for one-full hour without any fear, worry, or concern, a friend forwarded me a blog post about Weimaraners and separation anxiety. (I’m not going to link to the post, because there is so much bad information in it that I don’t want to draw traffic to it and run the risk of more dogs getting harmed.)
Because the author believes that dominance is one cause of separation anxiety, his recommendations assume the dog is in some kind of power struggle with the person, rather than an understanding that separation anxiety is a profound fear many dogs have — often due to genetics, not because of something their guardian did or didn’t do. (You’d think the word “anxiety” might tip off the author that if any struggle is occurring, it is an internal one. The dog is flipping petrified.)
He recommends things like using an über-sturdy crate that the dog can’t chew his way out of and just shoving the dog inside if he won’t go willingly. Show him who’s boss. Then he’ll feel more comfortable being left alone, because you taught him! (The logic completely evades me.)
I’m afraid of spiders, because one house I lived in when I was a kid was infested with massive, furry, mini-tarantula-looking things. Do you think I would have gotten over my fear if my dad had forced me to stay alone by myself in a small box while the spiders scurried around the room? No! You’d call that abuse.
Interestingly, many dogs who suffer from separation anxiety also suffer from confinement phobia. Can you imagine the hell a dog must go through not only being left alone, but also being locked in a cage with no ability to run and hide? Take a look at Emma the Beagle’s top left teeth when you have a chance. Oh wait, you can’t. Before we adopted her they were all removed, because she had mangled them when she tried to chew her way out of her cage during her days as a neglected breeder dog.
Do we use a crate to desensitize Emma to our absences? No. She’s afraid of being confined so we’re empathetic to her fears, and we’re helping her develop coping skills in a caring way. (Not to say that crates are never a good tool for dealing with separation anxiety, but forcing a dog who is not comfortable in one, to teach him to behave when he’s left alone, is just plain cruel.)
The word “dominance” is dangerous to dogs.
(If I say it in a fun, alliterative way, will you remember the message?)
I’ve just listed one example of how the word is misused and how dogs suffer because of it, but I hear it and read it constantly. I’d share more stories, but I already owe myself 30 pushups for saying the D-word six times in this post.
If you think your dog suffers from separation anxiety, please turn to the best in the biz for help: www.malenademartini.com.
Note: Renowned ethologist Marc Bekoff writes extensively on the use and misuse of the D-Word. Check out these essays for more info:
- Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate
- Dogs, Dominance, and Guilt: We’ve Got to Get Things Right
- Dogs, Dominance, Breeding, and Legislation: A Mixed Bag