Let Dogs Be Dogs

Understanding Canine Nature and Mastering the Art of Living with Your Dog
By Patricia McConnell PhD, December 2017

The new book from the Monks of New Skete (actually written by Brother Christopher and dog trainer Marc Goldberg) boldly takes dog training several steps backward by encouraging the use of leash jerks and emphasizing the importance of being dominant over your dog.

It begins with a dystopian description of our current relationships with dogs: “The leisure time today’s dog owners have is often devoted to events and activities deemed more important than creating a healthy relationship with their pets … Too many of today’s basic obedience class are dumbed down and truncated, more concerned about being politically correct than with offering dog owners effective solutions.”

The book’s primary message is that dogs are pack animals who need strong leaders. “Put very simply, by being a strong pack leader you will strengthen your dog’s pack drive, which in turn will lead to good behavior and a happy relationship.”

According to Brother Christopher and Goldberg, one achieves leadership in part by using leash pops, which are meticulously defined: “A quick in-and-out motion with the left hand on the leash … reminiscent of the way one snaps a towel at someone at the local pool. Its purpose is less punitive than attention-getting.” (No mention is made of the fact that many classes teach attention as an exercise.)

Along with a “strong verbal no,” leash pops are advised for a dog who fails to sit on command, while an abrupt about-turn “redirects the dog’s focus on you as you walk in the other direction.” Well, yes, it does. The dog focuses on you because if she doesn’t, she’s going to get hurt. On the other hand, there are glimmers of progress. They advise owners to teach dogs “leave it” by trading them for something better. Whew.

I find two things to be particularly disappointing. First, dog owners who know nothing of progressive dog training methods and the science behind learning are going to snap up this book like a dog with a doughnut. It’s already #1 on Amazon in the Dog Training category. (The Monks’ first book, How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend, published in 1978, is still the book I often see facing out on bookstore shelves, which is astounding given how long it’s been around.)

Confession: When I started reading about dogs, I loved How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend. Just about everyone did, because it felt like a balm of benevolence compared to what else was out there. For example, Koehler, who advised us to “fill a hole full of water and hold your dog’s head in it to stop him from digging.” At the time, the Monks’ advice felt revolutionary. But that was then, this is now. Compared to the resources now available to dog owners, this book doesn’t feel benevolent—it just feels sad.

Second, this kind of thinking pollutes the concept of leadership, in its best iteration. Dogs do need to know that we have their back, that they can count on us when they need protection. Dogs do look to us to protect them, feed and water them, and provide nurturing and social acceptance. One can indeed argue that dogs are attracted to people whom some would call “natural leaders” in the best sense of the word. However (and I can’t say this strongly enough), this has nothing to do with leash pops or “strong verbal no’s.” It has everything to do with being someone who is comfortable in his or her own skin.

Do you know someone who dogs love to be around? I’ve found that these people don’t fuss over dogs, but rather, have a presence about them that everyone can sense. They come into a room and everyone looks at them. People want to stand beside them. I’ve known a few; some were dog trainers, some were not. What sets them apart is their aura of comfort in being who they are; in some unquantifiable way, they are rock solid. Like the earth. Military veterans tell me that this is the kind of person they see as a natural leader, and who they would follow to hell and back.

Perhaps this is what the authors also see, and are trying to teach people how to achieve. However, I would argue that the ways they suggest you try to get it—by using physical force and taking away your dog’s autonomy—are wrong.

We are advised to put our dogs on leashes throughout the day so they are forced to get up when we get up and to go where we go. The monastery’s dogs are expected to be on a down/stay during dinner and while their owners are working. If we treat our dogs this way, the authors guarantee, they will be calmer and more obedient.

Well, yes, there is some truth to that. My young Border Collie, Maggie, was recently spayed, and for a week afterward, was on a leash, a down/stay or in her crate. Rather than being buzzed up from lack of exercise, she became very quiet. No doubt many people would have considered her to be calm and well behaved, but I believe that she was resigned, if not unhappy. As she gradually got more autonomy, she became more animated, with a sparkle in her eyes and an open, relaxed face. Guess which dog I’d rather live with.

I have no doubt that the authors of this book love their dogs, but theirs is a road I hope few decide to travel. Join me in helping counter such old-fashioned ideas by recommending all the great books, videos and web-based programs that teach progressive training perspectives.

If you need direction, go to my Learning Center’s book reviews, to The Bark and its many excellent articles, or to Dogwise for the dozens (if not hundreds) of books that describe truly benevolent and effective training methods not based on control, hierarchy or physical punishment. Or take Dr. Susan Friedman’s BehaviorWorks class, or watch videos made by the late Dr. Sophia Yin or check out the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy or read classics like Don’t Shoot the Dog, The Culture Clash or even my own book, The Other End of the Leash, or, or, or … The options are endless.

Take the road that should be most traveled. Your dogs will thank you for it.

Patricia McConnell, PhD, is an animal behaviorist and ethologist and an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as the author of numerous books on behavior and training.