… is a great movie about Ian Curtis, which you should definitely watch. While I hate to disappoint you, this blog post isn’t about Joy Division, but about dog training and closeted alpha theorists.
I went location scouting for a BAT set up today. So I was driving and thinking about training dogs, and ended up pondering closeted alpha theorists. A closeted alpha theorist is someone who believes in clicking and treating, but also in “setting boundaries” and “leading the dog” and “taking the responsibility of controlling the situation/the chance to control the situation away from the dog,” in “letting the dog know that the human is controlling the environment, and he doesn’t have to.”
To my ears, this sounds like a euphemism for the alpha theory. A straightforward, non-euphemistic alpha theorist would say something like, “All dogs want to control all humans! Therefore, we (qua humans) need to control all dogs. We need to let them know we’re in charge, and they aren’t.”
The closeted alpha theorist, on the other hand, uses a euphemistic, more subtle approach to convey the same message: Maybe not all dogs want to control all humans, but this particular dog sure is a bit obsessed with control. Maybe we don’t need to show all dogs who is in control, but we certainly need to show this dog.”
The openly alpha-theorizing trainer argues that “this dog wants to be higher-ranked than we are – he wants to control everything.”
The closeted alpha trainer, on the other hand, says, “that dog is insecure, and therefore, he thinks he needs to control everything. He doesn’t know that you will take care of the situation.”
While the underlying factions are slightly different (“dogs are power-driven hierarchy-climbers” vs. “dogs need a confident leader in order to be happy”), the implications are the same: “You (the person) need to control the dog.” The only difference is that the openly alpha-theorizing trainer wants to control the dog for her own, i.e. the trainer’s, sake, and the closeted alpha-trainer wants to control the dog for the dog’s sake. The open alpha trainer assumes an egocentric stance, while the closeted alpha trainer sees herself as altruistic. Still, whether they are aware of it or not, both follow an alpha approach to training.
Both myths make me cringe, but actually, the altruistic alpha myth makes me cringe even more because it’s harder to counter. It’s a sneaky myth, a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing myth; the kind of myth that invades people’s minds easily. The closeted alpha approach is like a center right party. It’s a “respectable” conviction in society at large, the ÖVP of dog training. People who will indignantly distance themselves from the extreme right (or the open alpha theory) may still say that some ideas of that right-wing extremist do make sense. They themselves are no alpha-theorists, for sure. But they can certainly understand the people who are. And really, the alternative – the far left, the cotton ball throwers -, that kind of training certainly has its perks for soft dogs, but it wouldn’t work for their dog. Their dog, after all, likes to control his world.
The problem I see with both open and closeted alpha approaches is that they want to resolve problematic behaviors by means of taking control away from the dog. By means of “clear rules” (closeted alphas) or “strong leadership” (open alphas).
Unfortunately, this solution may actually look like it “works.” One example is what Rütter said in his cabaret at Stadthalle the other day. He suggested that dogs who are afraid of the vacuum be trained a really strong down/stay, first without the vacuum, then with the vacuum present.
A dog who is afraid of the vacuum, but has an incredibly strong down/stay, may actually hold his down/stay while the vacuum snuffles and grunts and wreaks havoc around him. He may stay on his spot, panting ferociously, but stay. As a result, he will get flooded. Flooding is one method of habituation. The other one is desensitization. The problem with flooding is that while it works for some dogs, it doesn’t work for others: “Stimuli that elicit really strong emotional reactions, such as fear, often don’t habituate. Instead they continue to affect the general arousal of the animal and make the response even stronger.” (Reid 36) If your dog is truly very afraid of the vacuum, he may get even more scared of it in the future if you force him to hold his down/stay. And not only that: he may even sensitize to additional sounds as well, such as the sound of the blender or the sound of the blowdryer. Very light fears are more likely to habituate, while full-blown fears are likely to sensitize even further – and while habituation is specific (e.g. habituation to only the sound of this specific vacuum), sensitization tends to generalize (i.e. sensitization to all kinds of noises).
In the down/stay situation with the vacuum, you controlled the dog. Both open and closeted alpha theorists may applaud you.
I (just like everyone else who truly opposes the alpha myth) would take a different approach to that problem. Instead of controlling the dog, we would control the vacuum. Start with counterconditioning in combination with desensitization. Have the dog move freely, and present the stimulus at an intensity he is comfortable with. It may take a while until you reach a point where he doesn’t care about the vacuum any more – but it’s worth the effort: no matter who uses the vacuum in the future, he’ll stay relaxed, and there is no need to “control” him in order to keep him from killing that expensive Dyson.
Phoebe isn’t in a down stay – she has learned that there’s no reason to get up. All she has to do when the vacuum goes on is continue whatever she was doing before, and every once in a while, treats will materialize in front of her nose.
The same holds true for dogs who are scared or over-excited by visitors. If you want to help the dog feel better rather than just suppress his reaction, careful counterconditioning and desensitization are the way to go, not flooding in combination with controlling the dog’s position. This is something I practiced with my last foster dog, and I was impressed by how fast he improved: when I couldn’t train, I managed him (had him hang out in a different room, behind a baby gate or in his box with a frozen Kong, for example). When I could concentrate on training, I had visitors come and go, come and go, come and go … in and out of my door. They would not approach him, but as soon as the door opened, I would feed him yummy treats at the other end of the room distance. When they disappeared, the treats stopped again. It took lots of repetitions, but with every new visitor I played this game with, he was able to stay more relaxed. He started learning that he could choose to not approach rather than having to be kept from approaching by force. He learned to control himself rather than being subject to his human’s control.
Let’s look at another example. Some dogs seem fine once they have gotten used to the fact that you, a stranger, are in their house: you are sitting down with their person, not looking at them, and you haven’t moved for half an hour. Slowly, their excitement level goes down. They start to relax. You don’t seem quite as scary after all.
A client has a dog like that. She gets excited and alarmed by visitors, but starts calming down after a while and approaches the new people.
However, as I kept observing her interactions, it turned out that her approach didn’t mean that she was okay at all. She was still past her magnet point, so approaching was not a choice for her – it was something she had to do. The trigger kept drawing her closer like a magnet. The living room was very small, so she would usually approach soon and even try to climb on visitors’ laps. When the visitors moved, she would stiffen and growl. I’ve observed a similar reaction in my last foster dog as well. What happened in these situations?
As the alpha fraction has it, “She was being dominant!” (Wrong answer.)
The closeted alpha might say, “She’s a dog who wants to control everything – she doesn’t allow you to move.” (Tricky answer!)
Let’s look at the closeted alpha answer in detail: control is indeed a primary reinforcer, making it something that animals (human and non-human) covet. It is not just any old reinforcer either, but a really potent one, since it is connected to safety (thank you, Christian Holeček, for this observation). Being able to control your own outcomes ensures your personal safety. This shows us that control has nothing to do with “dominance,” but with using your own behavior effectively. Control means that your behavior is having an effect on your environment. That makes it the opposite of helplessness (not being able to use your behavior effectively, and eventually giving up). So, indeed, the closeted alpha’s response contains a grain of truth. The dog tries to practice behavior in order to have an effect on his environment. Why? Because he wants to get some safety distance between himself and the scary monster (aka visitor)!
Why does the dog growl at visitors he had been fine with first? Because changing body positions are scary! Suddenly, the scary monster looks at him or touches him or moves. That’s way more scary than when the monster held completely still. The dog who growls at the moving visitor exercises the only behavior he knows will keep him safe. If he growled in the past and didn’t get eaten by the scary monster as a direct result, he will growl again in the future. Growling keeps scary monsters from eating dogs, and dogs do what works.
Imagine you are moderately scared of spiders. You wouldn’t choose to approach one, but when you happen to visit your friend’s place and realize he has a pet tarantula in a terrarium, you might be fascinated by the creature. It’s sitting completely still, and there’s glass between you, so you might be so intrigued that you go closer, maybe even tap the glass. You are thrilled, you heart rate fastens, but you feel fine – after all, the spider doesn’t move. After watching the motionless thing for a while, you’ll sit down for a coffee with your friend and almost forget it is there … until you see it moving from the corner of your eyes. All of a sudden, it jumps. It moved, you didn’t expect it, and you are likely to jump yourself. The same happens to the dog when the visitor makes an unexpected movement.
Why, then, did the dog approach the visitor in the first place? Because the visitor was too close for him to not approach, just like the spider in the terrarium drew you closer and made you run through your script for commenting on friends’ pets (“Big, beautiful, hairy!”) even though you don’t trust spiders.
Let’s get back to the training question. How is my approach different from a closeted or open alpha? Both closeted and open alpha theorists will try to solve the problem by means of minimizing the level of control a dog has over the situation.
They might punish the dog when he growls, thus contacting a strong reinforcer themselves: control. Controlling your dog is very reinforcing if you are the one doing the controlling. Even if we don’t punish the dog but “only” force him to stay next to the visitors and be quiet, for example in a down stay like Rütter suggested for the vacuum, again, this might look as if it worked: your dog has stopped growling; he might even have stopped behaving altogether (helplessness). If this is all that happens – lucky you.
However, it may get worse. Remember what we said about sensitization versus habituation? If the dog is forced to stay near the scary monsters (aka visitors) and is kept from behaving effectively, he is being flooded. Of course, there is a chance that he will habituate to the visitors and be fine in the future. However, the bigger his fear was initially, the bigger the chance that he might sensitize instead. In the future, he might not only growl at, say, male visitors or visitors in wheelchairs, but at all visitors. If you combined your “control” of the dog with punishment upon his initial growling, you might end up with an even bigger problem: you might end up with a dog who doesn’t growl, but bites right away.
Open as well as closeted alpha theorists will try to minimize the dog’s level of control in one way or another. If you truly distance yourself from the alpha myth, on the other hand, you will take an opposite approach and try to maximize the dog’s level of control. You will set up a safe environment for the dog to learn how to behave effectively in a way that doesn’t put him or yourself or your visitors in danger. The good thing is that this approach works, and there is no fallout. If it doesn’t work, it is not because the method is faulty but because you overwhelmed the dog with the situation and asked for more than he could handle. In order to set him up for success, you want to present the problematic stimulus at an intensity he is comfortable with: people at a far-enough distance for the dog to stay calm and relaxed, yet notice the trigger and gather information. A distance that allows the dog, as Grisha Stewart would have it, to stay in the green and blue zone:
I did a BAT set up with a client the other day, and I loved how obvious it was that the distance to the trigger needed to be really, really big at first – way bigger than it would ever be on a walk through a busy neighborhood. This way, the pet parents could actually observe their dog making wonderful choices: gathering a little information about the trigger, than continuing to sniff and explore the area. Wandering to the left, to the right, behind a car … This is very different to the behavior the dog shows on their busy home street: she will try and approach everyone and tend to be hypervigilant. She may not bark at the first dog she encounters, but certainly at the third one. Giving her enough space in the set up gave her human mum and dad the chance to be proud of their dog’s good choices and to realize that, in fact, direct contact with the trigger was not the dog’s first choice, as they had thought it was. Most importantly, it showed them that they didn’t have to “control” her every movement all the time, either.
On a walk through a busy neighborhood, you are automatically in survival mode with your reactive dog. It’s hard for him to learn because his arousal is always high. Depending on the dog and the strength of his reactivity, he may be able to learn even in a highly stressful environment to cope better – or, like my client’s dog, he may not be able to do so; he may experience constant trigger stacking and not be able to “think clearly enough” to develop a set of alternative behaviors for difficult situations. As in the examples above, without helping him develop an alternative set of behaviors, he may sensitize rather than habituate.
The first dog (the one who is able to learn even though he is in a stressful environment) will do well even with a closeted alpha trainer. The second dog won’t: you can’t build confidence by means of minimizing your dog’s control over her outcomes. She may give up responding (which is probably your best case scenario), but won’t learn to relax in the vicinity of her triggers. In order to do that, she must have a chance to learn that her behavior is effective, and that curving around or walking away from a the trigger is a behavioral choice she can make. As you continue practicing, that distance will shrink, and eventually, the dog will be able to even make “good decisions” in a highly stressful environment. What’s more, he may even start to enjoy the company of his triggers. The path there is long, but it’s there, just waiting for you and your dog to walk it. It is paved with patience and understanding, not with control.
For some wicked scientific background info on why it’s all about setting your dog up for success and letting him experience the effectiveness of his behavior, check out:
Reid, Pamela J. Excel-Erated Learning. James & Kenneth, 1996.
Stewart, Grisha. BAT 2.0 Series. (DVD) Tawzer, 2014.
Yin, Sophia. Solving Fear and Aggression. (DVD) Tawzer, 2013.