Kip, Karma and Icarus sleep on my bed. Although, Icarus, the cat, prefers to use Karma’s tail as his own personal flirt pole rather than sleeping.
When Kip first came to us, he preferred to sleep under the bed. It took some time using coaxing and treats to convince him that it was safe to sleep in the open. When puppy Karma earned the right to come onto the bed, I was sensitive to the fact that Kip likes his space. If others are too close, he retreats to the floor.
I brought treats with me to bed, ensuring that I quickly set some ground rules. “You lie down here and you lie down there.” Both were close to one another, but both had their assigned areas.
I had anticipated that Kip would be uneasy. Surprisingly, Karma snapped at Kip. “Back off – my space- my treats – my mom.” She is a spunky little gal. While mild resource guarding might be natural, I do not like it. I do not want it in my house. I do not want it when I’m around other dogs either. Mild resource guarding does not scare me, but I am on it immediately. Therefore, I made the decision to follow the following rule:
“Karma, you get your treat last.”
Many trainers claim that problem dogs are trying to assert themselves, trying to become the alpha. By feeding them last, you are driving home the point that the dog is at the bottom of the pack, the omega. “I am alpha, you are not. Knock it off. Alphas eat first and you need to be the alpha. Feed the dominant ones first, and you cannot let it be the problem dog.”
Trainers and owners swear that this strategy works. I have no doubt that it does. After all, I just said that I implemented it.
A treat for Kip, then a treat for Karma.
A treat for Icarus, then a treat for Karma.
A treat for Icarus, a treat for Kip and then a treat for Karma.
Not only did we do this as we prepared to go to sleep. Karma had snapped at a couple potential dog friends.
A treat for the strange dog, then a treat for Karma.
Initially I would have one dog to the left of me. Karma was further off to the right. The distance between my outstretched arms increased the distance between the animals. With time, I allowed the other dogs closer and then initiated a pause.
A treat for Kip, followed by a pause, then a treat for Karma.
By pause, I mean the briefest of moments. It feels like you have taken a short breath and are still waiting to exhale. With time, those pauses grew longer. “Please learn to patiently wait for your treat.”
Finally, we added the element of motion. If I tossed a treat to another animal and it went astray, I wanted Karma to back away instead of fighting over it.
Throw a treat to Icarus, watch the cat bat it around like prey, then a treat for Karma.
Execution matters. We worked in careful measured steps. This is an overview, not a how to. Had these been adult dogs, I would have put safety precautions in place. I hope that the gist is clear.
Karma eats last. Proponents of dominance theory use the same exercise. The problem dog eats last. Yes, it can work. I do not think it has anything to do with dominance.
There is this principle in science called Occam’s razor. It states that if there are two hypotheses, the one with the least assumptions is likely true.
We can assume that dogs act like wolves. We can assume that the desire to be the alpha dog motivates them to act in dangerous and destructive ways, even if it seems counterproductive and unstable. Our assumptions can extend to the idea that dogs keep a tally based on when they eat in relation to others. We can leap to the conclusion that dogs are too dense to realize we belong to another species. We can believe that we can integrate ourselves into this battle of social rank and that we can influence the dogs. We can ignore the caveat that dominance is about relationships between conspecifics – members of the same species.
Would it not make more sense to say that dogs make associations? Pavlov rang a bell and the dogs salivated. If Kip gets a treat, then Karma gets a treat. I am creating an association. See a dog get a cookie and salivate.
With repetition, the dog’s internal emotional state changes so it no longer wants to drive away other animals. It wants those dogs closer. “Please, come closer. If you get a cookie, I get one too. I’m drooling in anticipation of your presence.”
Feeding the problem dog last can be part of an effective strategy for many dogs. However, the fact that it works doesn’t prove that dominance played any role in the problem. Similarly, just because some trainers justify the strategy with dominance based explanations, it does not make the technique flawed.
Occam’s razor is probably right. It usually is. Classical conditioning as an explanation has an additional benefit. Labeling our dogs as dominant, painting them as creatures set on usurping our authority is combative. These magnificent creatures share our homes and our hearts and deserve better than a negative bias based on assumptions. Ulterior motives for misbehaviour justify anger, frustration and punitive measures.
If I have two competing hypothesis, I choose to go with the one that paints the dog in the more flattering light. If I feed, pet, play or give attention to a dog last, I’m very likely creating an association. We can break down all protocols into basics confines of learning theory. We really don’t need an explanation that is more convoluted than that.