Or so you would think looking at the array of reasons being rolled out for various methods of disciplining dogs. When I came across the latest version of this, during a video about a head halter, which delivers pressure across the bridge of the dog’s nose “just like the mother dog would do”, I decided to write about this.
The fact that mother dogs are generally extremely tolerant of their babies’ antics, including heaps of biting, doesn’t sit so well with this line of reasoning. They also never shake their puppies by the scruff of the neck: this “death shake” is reserved for prey they want to kill. Nor do they roll them over on their back to punish them; they may do so, but only in play.
I got suspicious of the efficacy of human growling when I took Giro to puppy school. There, Giro, at a tender age of 8 weeks exactly, was used by the trainer to show how to stop a dog doing something you don’t want him to do. Giro was presented with a plastic box, which, being a curious puppy, he obligingly started to sniff. Little did he know that this was “not his”. So the trainer gave a deep rumbling growl, which for all the class sounded convincingly scary. But not for little Giro: he simply kept sniffing the box. So he got another growl, and, obviously too “dominant” to respect the human trying to act as a serious alpha dog, he was scruffed by the neck as a result.
I am fairly certain that a puppy, if growled at by an adult dog, would heed this message instinctively. Giro simply didn’t understand that that sound the clearly non-dog being was making, was meant to warn him off. What he did learn was that things that smelled like humans make these sounds, and that sniffing a box made a bad thing happen. Unfortunately Giro turned out to be a very wary dog with little confidence: I often wonder how much this very early experience (and my subsequent dominance-busting attempts in his early life, before I knew any better) shaped his personality.
But back to the topic. We are not dogs, and dogs know it. They are surprisingly easy to fool by things shaped like dogs, even when they don’t smell or act like dogs: a stuffed life-sized toy dog is used by shelters for behavioural assessments, and how the dog interacts with this dummy appears to be a good predictor for his behaviour with real dogs. But there is absolutely nothing about us that would fool a dog into thinking we are dogs. Our crude attempts to copy dog language (including so called “Calming Signals) can never match their body language repertoire, and all they probably learn is that those dog-like sounds/movements we try to make are simply more sounds/movements we humans make.
The “dogs do it to dogs” or “mother dogs do it” reasoning is applied by all dog training camps, although usually more so by the aversive trainers. We don’t need this type of unfounded “reasoning” to train our dogs. What we need is a solid understanding of what the dog’s behaviour means, and how it learns, and how we can best teach them what it is we want. Dogs have evolved to live with us, and they know us far better than we know them. They are magnificent creatures, imminently and amazingly trainable, and they deserve that we find out as much as we can about the best way we can communicate with them – like an intelligent human being, not like a mother dog.