The general public has been indoctrinated with the belief that dogs are basically wolves and should be handled the way that wolves treat their own pack members. This belief is flawed in several respects. While I doubt that many would disagree with the theory that dogs are descended from the ancestors of modern wolves, the fact remains that dogs have been domesticated by humans for thousands of years and that the dog of today is not the same animal which helped prehistoric man catch dinner.
While modern dogs still share similarities with modern wolves, dogs are not wolves and training methods and techniques should not be based upon a mistaken belief that dogs are really no more than smaller versions of wolves. Domestication created an animal which retained which retained many juvenile traits, even through adulthood. One of the reasons that wolves (and most dog-wolf hybrids) do not belong in private homes is that, while a wolf puppy behaves very similarly to a canine puppy for a period of time, as a wolf pup begins to approach maturity, it loses those juvenile characteristics that enabled it to co-exist with humans and dogs.
While most dogs are not kept in dog packs, a hierarchy exists even if the pack consists only of one dog and one or more humans. We, as people, are enchanted with the idea of equality (whether we practice equality or not) and often people try to incorporate ‘equality’ into their lives with dogs. One of the similarities which dogs still share with wolves is the fact that ‘equality’ is not part of their lives. Every member of a pack has his or her own place in the hierarchy and overstepping those boundaries will result in consequences. Many dog owners whose dogs have bitten them are reaping the consequences of their desire to treat their dogs as equal members of their families.
Dogs that are allowed to become leaders in their households are benevolent dictators. Unlike people, dogs do not hold grudges, nor do they seek revenge for real or imagined wrongdoings. Dogs also rarely bite without warning but, unfortunately, quite often people do not heed the warnings nor do they recognize the warnings given prior to a bite. A high ranking dog will use its body language to signal, and if these signals are ignored, will often escalate to a growl. When the owner “punishes” the dog for growling, the dog will retaliate in the same way it would to any subordinate who is pushing the established boundaries – and the owner suffers a dog bite. Often owners will say that the dog is remorseful, stating that the dog licked them after the bite to apologize. The dog isn’t “sorry” – it is simply reassuring a subordinate that no further retaliation will be necessary now that the boundaries have been re-established.
Two of the most commonly held public misconceptions about disciplining or correcting a dog surround the use of a scruff shake and an alpha roll. These methods are usually conveyed by well-intentioned but misguided individuals who state that both are used by wolves to correct pack members and by dog bitches to correct their puppies. In actuality, these two methods of correction are not based upon true wolf or dog behavior and have the potential to cause great harm to the relationship between pet dogs and their owners.
While a wolf or dog might correct another wolf or dog by briefly ‘pinning’ the other animal and exerting slight pressure on the back of the neck, neither will lift the second animal off the ground and shake it. A bite, hold, shake is used solely to kill prey. An older pup or dog treated in this manner will often bite as its defense drive is activated. By holding the dog, the owner is preventing a flight response and the dog has no choice but to freeze or fight. While dogs will accept corrections from those above them in the pack, a hold and shake is not a correction as much as it is an attack upon the dog.
An effective correction, which more closely simulates what one would see from a dog or wolf, is not a grab and shake but a simple grasp of the fur around the neck with an accompanying verbal ‘growl.’ While this method is less likely to activate the dog’s defense drive, in the case of a highly dominant dog living with an owner who has not previously established boundaries, even this mild degree of correction may elicit a corresponding ‘correction’ from the dog in the form of a growl and/or bite.