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The Problem With “Lassie Syndrome”

Oftentimes, when considering adding a dog to our family, many of us may have some unrealistic expectations of how our future dog will be. We have an idea of what they will look like, how they will play, socialize, and interact with us. These ideals are easy to get caught up in. So many of us remember our childhood dog who “never did anything wrong” or we think of how Lassie interacted with Timmy. There is so much in our media that can lead to a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding of what dogs actually are, what in-born qualities and traits they actually possess, and what they will be like to raise and train.

While Lassie and other movies and shows have probably had a great deal to do with popularizing pet dogs, it is important to remember that these types of depictions are fictional and these dog “actors” are/were highly trained animals and simply following cues/commands given to them by their handler behind the scenes.

On the other hand, you have shows on TV that have popularized and propagated the idea that you must represent yourself as a pack-member of your dog and become the “Alpha”. The term Alpha was first coined by L. David Mech regarding a study of wolves in the 1960s. The Alpha Theory has since been disproven over and again and many scientists, behaviorists, and researchers – to include L. David Mech! Dr. Mech, shortly after publishing his book: "The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species", realized he had made an error with his original findings and tried to get his book taken off of the shelves. However, this erroneous information still plagues the canine community, from dog owners to dog trainers to veterinarians and everywhere in between. It is also hard for many people to grasp that domestic dogs are, indeed, not wolves. Descendants of wolves? Yes, but distant. Today’s domestic dog exhibits very little wolf-like qualities. Domestic dogs are physiologically AND behaviorally different from wolves.

Now, without considering those dog owners who ascribe to the Alpha Theory, we still have many dog owners who have an extremely unrealistic understanding of dogs and what is natural and normal canine behavior. One of the main things inhibiting most dog owners to have a true understanding of canine behavior is Anthropomorphism. This is simply when we project human-like qualities onto things that are not human. In some ways, anthropomorphism in a dog-owner relationship is harmless- but in many ways, it can cause a lot of problems and a lot of misunderstanding. For example: “ My dog is (insert bad behavior here) because he knows it makes me mad” or “I don’t know why he would act this way! He knows better!” These kinds of ideas that dog owners have makes it seem that the dog is acting in a certain way to spite you, is intentionally disobeying you, or is being disrespectful to you because “He’s in the rebellious teenage years”. When we rationalize this way about our dogs’ behaviors, we are likely to react in a way that is 1) Not going to resolve the problem, 2) Our dog will likely not understand why we are behaving this way, and 3) Can often negatively impact our dog’s mental and emotional well-being, as well as violate the trust/bond we currently share with our pet. Also, respect, spite, vengeance, and obedience are all human attributes. These types of attributes and/or ideas do not exist in the animal kingdom.

Traditional training methods are considered the “tough”, “no-nonsense”, “hard-nosed” type of training. These methods focus on using physical manipulation or discomfort, intimidation, shock, and/or fear tactics (to name a few) to train a dog to behave in a way that is suitable in its environment. However, to have such a tough and hard persona, I have found that most of the dog owners and trainers that follow these methods are often the very same dog owners and trainers that go along with the notion of this animal being capable of understanding human concepts and ideas. And when you think about it that way-well-it sounds kind of silly. On the other hand- Positive Reinforcement training methods are considered “permissive”, “ineffective”, “soft”, and trainers using these methods have often been called “cookie pushers” and are not taken seriously at all by the Traditional Method trainers. However, dog owners and trainers that have a basic understanding of true canine behavior understand very well why these methods work.

Positive Reinforcement dog trainers understand these simple things: a dog, like most any other animal, requires and actively seeks out a few things: food, water, safety, social interaction, entertainment, etc. These are all basic needs for our four-legged friends. A dog, whether in a home or living on the street, will seek out these basic requirements. All of these things are primary reinforcers. By consistently using these primary reinforcers as motivation to acquire desired behaviors from our dogs, we are working WITH the nature of the dog, not against it. By keeping training sessions fun and game-like, a trainer or owner doesn’t have to worry about the dog getting to a “breaking point”. Positive Reinforcement methods are also focused primarily on Operant and Classical Conditioning. This may sound familiar from your 6th grade Science class when you studied Ivan Pavlov and his dog experiment. Using these methods correctly, you will train into your dog a highly reliable behavior that often-times can be borderline involuntary because the training has conditioned your dog’s brain to believe that any trained behavior means great things for them when executed in a correct and timely manner.

I certainly hope that this blog has been informational and helpful for all. That being said, I encourage each and every one of you to do your own research. See if it makes sense for you!

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