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Are You REALLY a Pack Leader?

Koa, Capone, and Elvis

A friend of mine, and fellow Cesar Millan student from England, asked me a question about helping to reset a dog’s brain and/or outlook after missing certain periods in their lives. And part of the conversation had to do with doing things the way an actual pack would deal with problems of this sort and the way an actual pack leader in the wild would direct that “rehab”. There are, of course, many people on either side of being a “pack leader” debate and whether or not that’s “really what would be happening in the wolf world”.

So people take sides with whether or not Cesar knows what he’s talking about, or whether someone else who has spent time in the woods with wolves knows what they are talking about, or whether the rest of everyone believes that wolf leaders do ANYTHING that we claim they do with their pack. People and clients ask me where I fall in this debate and the answer is simple: All. And none.

Humans… we tend to take things so literally that we are worrying about imitation rather than concept. What one person’s experience is versus another is immaterial; we can learn from both. But I heard Cesar say to a student during his class at his ranch that humans worry about the technique that makes the difference: what should we DO that will make the dog different? What do dogs DO when this same thing happens in the wild? The key is to know how the canine species views their world, how they view leadership, and THEN move forward with what you do. In a human way that remains in charge.

The fact of the matter is that no one can replicate what you would do in the wild because we’re not in the wild and we aren’t dogs. We live in THIS world with an entirely different set of rules. That doesn’t mean that we only do things the way humans do them because that is short-sighted and naive. We also cannot do things the exact way it’s done in the wild. Understand the CONCEPTS and then move forward. And, by the way, if you don’t understand the concepts then you will NOT move forward as productively and efficiently as you would like. Learning is defined as a “change in behavior as a result of experience”, but not all teachers change behavior toward a positive goal.

A study by Martin Seligman in 1972 on behavior (and I am paraphrasing a lengthy paper) had a control group of dogs receive a low-level electric shock in a box that had a small barrier in it. These dogs could jump out of one zone into the safe zone to escape the shock. Once they learned to do this, they would also learn to avoid the area that would shock them. A second group was suspended in a hammock sling and would receive the same level of shock but couldn’t escape or leave the area. What they found was that after a short while, the dogs in this group learned to take the shock (even when it was increased) and not even physically respond until the shock was over.

A third group of dogs consisted essentially of the dogs in the second group, but then put into the box where escape was readily available. The result? The dogs would still take whatever level of shock until it was over and then stay on the same side, never exploring escape as an option.

This study has far-reaching effects on human sociology but obviously has implications for dealing with dogs and learning processes. It’s called “Learned Helplessness” (behavior that occurs when the subject endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape from or avoid) and the concept is that we don’t explore options when we aren’t allowed to explore them, even when it is a matter of survival. Take our back of the pack behavior dogs that are constantly coddled by well-intentioned humans that give way too much affection at the wrong time, and then the dog never accepts options that it must explore on its own (a.k.a. self-esteem for accomplishments). These dogs don’t break that cycle (what Cesar calls being stuck) because we don’t allow/encourage breaking it. “Helplessness means the dog needs me therefore I am needed.”

It’s not about YOU! It’s about helping our dogs be the best they can be for their sake. If the knowledge is there and you pick some canine behavior communication to move forward, great. If you pick human communication (and it works), great. If you use combinations of both/all, awesome! Just be wary of these “systems” that are unfamiliar to you. For example, “Rolling a dog” and pinning them on their side does indeed happen in the wild (and at dog parks), but if you are familiar with the process and are comfortable doing it, then do not do that (by the way, it’s on their side, NOT on their backs). But if not, or if you don’t know WHEN that conversation is necessary, then you need to select another conversation.

Until next time, TEACH your dog to LEARN, not just to behave. Give your dog (or your student) real CONTROL over the outcome of a situation. And, if you have a dog, learn how to TEACH, not how to TRAIN.

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