In this episode, we explore questions around rank management, shared resources, and how to train your dogs so that they don’t see your child as an explicit threat to their social order.
Dogs And Kids In Competition
Morgan: So the question for today is: “I currently have 2 dogs – sometimes they fight over toys, and sometimes they fight over my attention. Should I be concerned for my child? What should I do?”
Mike: Well, that’s a very good question. And yes, if there’s something like that going on, you should definitely be concerned.
Dogs will tend to interpret the presence of a child, especially as that child becomes a little more mobile, as another sort of sibling-style competitor for attention, resources, etcetera. And if they’re already competitive about that, that’s definitely going to lead to a whole bunch of flashpoints.
So, there’s a whole bunch of things we need to do to prevent that. And that gets into complexities of rank management.
The first 40 or so pages of the book are on what’s called rank management.
Morgan: That’s your book, Good Dog, Happy Baby, is that right?
Mike: Correct, yes. Good Dog, Happy Baby. So, rank management is basically a series of mostly symbolic steps and protocols for living with our dogs that sends very, very consistent signals about social status.
And social status obviously has to do with access to resources, or you might say dominance. I don’t like that word, because it’s loaded.
But one way to understand it is like this: elevated social status increases access to valued resources and control over them, right?
Pay Attention To Your Dog’s Self-Esteem
Mike: It’s like that with dogs, too. We can often inadvertently elevate dogs either into competitive status positions, or even into positions where they assume themselves to be superior to us. And often, it’s through contest around resources that these types of things are sorted out.
So, if you’ve got two dogs that are going at each other and are competitive with each other in a negative way – not playfully competitive, that’s OK – but competitive in a real way, then we need to make some assessments with them.
Between the two of them, which is the more high status individual? And we need to make sure that both dogs understand that we’re the highest-status individual around.
And then we use that psychological framework to construct a context in which we control all the resources, and we also help the dogs to understand who’s got access to what.
But primarily, we want to do what we can to defuse tension between them, and make sure that they respect our ultimate authority as the controller of all resources in the house.
And that can get tricky and complex – and the sooner somebody starts, the better.
A Wolf-Related Side Note
And I can throw in another thing here that gets away a little bit from just the baby-dog thing and into one of the big controversies in dog training.
Nowadays, a lot of people out there say that dogs aren’t really pack animals, and that you can’t really make conclusions about dogs’ sense of social status by referencing wolf hierarchies, and things like that.
That’s not true – and that card has been overplayed, for sure. Certainly, dogs aren’t constantly trying to climb the social ladder with us – but social status and social symbolism are very significant, and especially in situations like this, associative learning by itself (just learning by association) won’t be enough to resolve issues of social tension in the house.
And that tension can get easily transferred to the child.
Morgan: So, you’re saying it’s a question of associative learning versus a more direct intervention asserting hierarchy?
Mike: Yes, definitely. Associative learning is just conditioning, like Pavlov’s dogs – it’s basically [inaudible] classical conditioning. It’s just learning by association. “I do this – that happens. I don’t do this – that happens.”
And there are people in the so-called purely positive training camp who try to make a scientific case for the fact that dogs learn primarily by association, and that social status and social learning don’t have much to do with anything.
But study after study shows that to be wrong –and that’s a big part of the book I’m working on right now. And it’s in situations like the one we’re talking about today that an understanding of rank and status is really important.
That doesn’t mean that associative learning isn’t enormously helpful – but it’s dramatically facilitated and mediated by social learning, which has to do with status, rank, etcetera. And this is especially true when you’re trying to deal with thorny social issues like competitiveness.
And dogs will definitely translate that competitiveness to the child.
And again, as we’ve talked about in many podcasts, over and over, it’s especially true after the child becomes more mobile. The first milestone is after that 8-month threshold, and then the next is at a year and 2 months, and then it just increases.
After a year and 2 months, the child just becomes more and more mobile – but not that much more in control of itself! So, to the dog it’s just a flaring, spinning competitor for things – including mom’s attention.
Morgan: Oh yeah, big time. So, the systematic desensitization – which is something, obviously, we’ve spoken a lot about on the podcast – is that an example of this associative learning?
Mike: Yes, yes – it’s basically teaching a dog to associate something it’s afraid of with positive things in increasing quantity, so it no longer has negative experiences in relation to whatever trigger we’re dealing with.
Let’s say it’s nail clipping – the dog starts to have a lot of positive experiences relating to that. “Every time I get a nail clipped, I get a hotdog treat.” That’s a form of associative learning, for sure.
Which Method Is Best?
Morgan: So in a case like this, we’re talking about fighting over resources and competing over resources, and the potential of the child entering into that – because you’re saying that no matter what, the dog is going to see the child as a competitor for resources.
You’re saying we have to take a different approach in situations like that. Associative learning isn’t going to work – we need something that’s more fundamental to the architecture of the dog’s psychology, which has to do with rank management, it has to do with hierarchies.
Is that the essence of what you’re pointing to now?
Mike: Yes, that’s exactly right. Just to be clear – and there’s a lot of finesses, because this is a subtle topic – but I’m not saying that associative learning couldn’t play a role in dealing with dogs like this. It probably could. But it needs to be aligned with the basic social instincts and sensibilities of the dog.
Morgan: Got it.
Mike: And again, the whole thing with dominance, and rank management, and all that, is that it’s not an excuse to be harsh on the dog. And that’s the way it’s often framed: that anybody who refers to rank management or anything to do with status and dominance with dogs is just using it as an excuse to be physically harsh with them.
That’s not true – anybody who will look at my little Doggy 12-Step Program will see that most of the stuff in there is non-confrontational.
There are very rigorous ways to send a consistent message about status, power and control in a non-confrontational way. Because, largely, that’s what dogs and wolves do with each other – as do humans, by the way.
Handshakes And Head Pats
In the new book that I’m writing, there’s a whole section on the overlapping social systems in dogs and humans, and why we use so many similar social symbols.
I’ll give you an example: you’ve always heard that when you pet a dog you don’t know – especially if he seems a little shy – you pet him under the chin not over the head, right?
Morgan: Yes, I’ve heard that – and also to keep your fist closed. Don’t come in with an open hand, but keep your fist closed.
Mike: Well, that’s less of a symbolism thing, more of just a “protect-your-fingers” thing in case the dog bites [laughter].
But the social parallel in human beings would be: if I don’t know you and I’m just being introduced to you at a company meeting or at a party, I don’t throw my arms around your back and give you a big hug.
That would be kind of socially offensive. It might not be considered an assault, but it could be considered offensive and inappropriate. So I shake your hand, right?
Morgan: Right, right.
Mike: And that handshaking comes from way back when. It was originally to let the other person know: “I have no weapons, I mean no harm. I’m empty-handed.” That’s a symbolic parallel – we scratch dogs under the chin first to introduce ourselves, to say: “Hello.”
Once I know that dog over time, I can pat him on the head all I want. And once I know you well, I can give you a hug the first time I see you.
So, that’s just one example – there’s many examples like that of overlapping social systems.
So I’m always baffled when people freak out when you talk about rank management, saying it’s just abuse – which it isn’t. They just missed the fact that we do most of the things that are involved in rank management programs ourselves.
The Power Of Rank Management
And just to continue kicking that horse: I’ve seen, many, many times that when somebody who has serious behavior issues with a dog implements very strict rank management program, the problems disappear all by themselves, without ever having to be addressed directly.
And that involves no associative learning; it just involves a restructuring of the social situation.
If the dog’s biting the owner, for example, in many cases there’s nothing associative you need to do – you just reorganize things with rank management, and the biting goes away, because the dog suddenly no longer feels like it has the right to assert itself in that way.
So, this is the kind of territory we get into with this question. It’s very complex, and where this is this issue – not that the dogs like to play tug of war, or whatever, but there’s a constant sense of competitiveness between them for attention, for things, to be first fed, etcetera – that will translate to a young child. And so, that needs to be taken very seriously.
Morgan: Yes. Alright, so let’s say my wife and I are expecting, and we’ve noticed this issue and come to you. And we’re like: “OK, this seems like something we need to address.”
What are our first steps? What do we do? Tell me where to begin.
Mike: Well, the first step would be to look over the rank management program and start implementing it.
Morgan: Get your book. Get your book.
Mike: Get my book, exactly. Well, that’s the answer to all of your questions [laughter].
Managing The Social Context
Well, there’s two things, really. There’s a fairly rigorous implementation of rank management, and then you can also try to make an assessment, as best as possible, as to which of the two dogs would be considered the more dominant.
The trick, then, is to reaffirm the dog that’s naturally more dominant in its dominant position. That means it’s treated preferentially, in such a way that both dogs notice it.
So, that should start to reduce the need for competitiveness.
And once that’s established, if the higher-ranking dog starts making inappropriate overtures to the lower-ranking dog, like bullying, we can step in. As the pack leaders, we have the right to control social conflict in the group.
And if the lower-ranking dog is making inappropriate overtures to the higher-ranking dog, we can also interfere there. So, we start to manage the social context.
Morgan: Got it.
Mike: And, again, in that context there’s a lot of room for clever uses of associative learning; of operant conditioning and classical conditioning.
Learning by association is more technical. You teach the dog: “When this happens, that happens.”
You teach the dog: “When the other dog steals its bone, that dog will get a treat if it comes to you. Instead of lashing out at the other dog, come to mommy or daddy, get a treat and some TLC,” or something like that – that’s associative learning.
That’s more mechanical. The rank management is more social and intuitive – and obviously there’s very specific steps there, but it’s not so mechanical.
And especially when you’re dealing with two dogs who are having issues with status around the house, there are some gray areas.
It’s both science and art – but there’s more art to it. I was going to say there’s more art to it than with clever use of conditioning, but there’s art to both.
It’s just that the social stuff requires a bit of intuition to know how to steer things.
And I guess the other answer to your question is: if you’re in that situation, get the help of somebody who knows what they’re doing when it comes to rank management and conditioning.
And again, rank management doesn’t mean that we’re bullying the dog around, and just yanking and jerking him into submission. That’s not rank management – that’s just brutality.
Just How Far 8 Bucks Can Go
Morgan: OK, I think all that’s nice and clear. And one of the main takeaways for everyone listening, is: if you’re having this issue, go pick up Mike’s book.
In the first 40 pages, he lays out a complete rank management system.
And you want to start to implement that right away, whether your baby’s coming, or your baby’s here, or you have a toddler – the sooner you do this, the better.
Because, as Mike pointed out, it’s going to be an issue. Mike, do you have any final points you want to make before we close this episode?
Mike: Well, I’ve done this with a few clients, and the rank management program in the book is very powerful.
I think the Kindle download of the book is like 8 bucks. So, I often tell clients who are having similar issues: “Spend the 8 bucks.
“The 8 bucks is cheaper than I am, if I come to see you for private training. Spend 8 bucks, get the Kindle version, and read the rank management section. There’s a lot of good information in there.”
So, that’s really for anybody who’s having what they think are social issues with the dog. I just encourage people to get familiar with the principles and tenets at least, and see how they apply in their situation.
That applies whatever it is – whether it’s this type of thing that you were asking about, or just in general. It’s a good, basic, structural alignment of the dog with a social order that’s going to make sense for having a dog, a baby, and humans in the picture.