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“Alpha” Training Can Backfire
Updated. New study shows aggressive techniques yield aggressive dogs.

[3/2/09 update: In a recent blog post, Susan Leisure, the director of AARF (Atlanta Animal Rescue Friends, Inc.), reacted to the latest study on aggression and dog training much like we did (below). But Leisure also recommended a Bark story, Choosing A Trainer, as "critical" reading before hiring a pro. We agree there, too.]

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania confirms what so many trainers already know to be true: Confrontational, aversive training techniques with aggressive dogs only make the aggression worse. The results of the year-long survey, published in the current issue of Applied Animal Behavior Science, provide important perspective on dominance-based training popularized on television and in books.

“Behaviorists and trainers should all familiarize themselves with this study so that when speaking with clients, they can inform them of the dangers of using forceful and violent techniques with their dogs,” says Karen London, PhD., an Applied Animal Behaviorist and Bark columnist. “This study shows that kinder, gentler training methods pose less risk when working with aggressive dogs.”

This is no small issue since, according to the study authors, aggressive behavior is the number one reason people seek the help of a veterinary behaviorist.

“This research indicates that when professionals advise clients to use confrontational or aggressive methods when working with dogs, that they are putting the people who trust them, as well as the dogs they love, at great risk,” London adds,  “and it’s not right.”

Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of, most recently, Dog Park Wisdom. lisawogan.com
CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Anonymous | February 25 2009 |

Did we really need a bunch of PhDs to tell us this? I just hope some people (I'm not naming names) get the message.

Submitted by Bill | February 25 2009 |

I have to read the entire study before I can comment. Every dog is different, every case of aggression can be also. There are so many variables involved. I'm a certified trainer and behavior modification specialist and I know that when I train a dog for my owners and aggression is one of the issues, even if the dog has a bite on record, more than 60% of the time the aggression dissapears once the owner/owners are out of the equation. This gives me something I can work with, starting over in a sense and hopefully train the behavior to extinction, knowing full well we only manage aggression never 'cure' it.

Submitted by Kathy Konetzka-Close | February 26 2009 |

To those of us who live with, and love dogs, the results of this study seem to illicit a “Duh” kind of moment, but as I think back to my first obedience class back in the late 80’s/early 90's, I clearly remember the discomfort and shame I felt as I “alpha rolled” my playful (read:disobedient) puppy at the instruction of my trainer. My intuition told me that it was wrong, but I did what I was told. Ah well. Once we know better, we do better. There’s a wonderful chapter in Temple Grandin’s new book that suggests what dogs really need is a mom and/or a dad, i.e. a parental figure as opposed to an alpha. That makes so much sense to me, and as I am once again about to start obedience school, I am gratified to see how much has changed over the years. My playful, silly, and absolutely wonderful Collie puppy will have a much different experience, and so will I.

Submitted by Anonymous | February 28 2009 |

Without fully reading and looking at the study it is hard to get the full story out of it. However, people often interchange "alpha" "aggressive" and "dominance." Dogs do not use these words and our behaviors do not mimic the interactions dogs would have with each other. An alpha in a wolf pack or dog pack does not go around "beating" other dogs but when a reprimand is needed it is done. Each dog is an individual and and training must be adjusted as such. Many dogs are given up because of "behavioral" problems. Many which could easily have been avoided had the owners been "afraid" to reprimand.

Submitted by Anonymous | February 28 2009 |

It looks like this might be a "survey" from owners which can lead to very different results than an actual controlled study.

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