It depends what you understand each term to mean. Isn't it just semantics between words?
Unfortunately not. If you understand that dominance is a term that describes the personality of a dog and
assertive is a collection of behaviors that described how a dog is behaving them you are going to interpret the dog's actions differently and respond differently. And a dog's social structure, just like humans, is not that simple.
Many people associate the term dominance with a hierarchical social structure, one that relies on a vertical hiearchy. Their understanding is there is an "alpha" dog and a "beta" dog. The "alpha" dog is dominant over the "beta" dog for all things in life and so on down to an "omega" dog at the bottom of the hierarchy. The same way the human military is structured. General, Colonel, Captain down to Private. The lower ranks must abide by the rules of the higher ones, even if they are arbitrary, as the assumption is that the higher ranks know what is best for the entire group. Military structure exists in situations where one group of people band together to prevent others from taking something away, like during war.
With this way of thinking, the dog is always trying to rise up a social ladder and get control. And therefore you always have to be on guard because the dog is always trying to get a higher social standing than other dogs or their human. The tendency towards using violence in such a social structure is common due to high arousal. They have to be to be on guard at all times for the possible challenge from individuals lower down in the hierarchy.
War is a very extreme behavior among the same species and not normal behavior for animals at all. It occurs in less than 5% of normal social situations. Hence 95% of the time, the social mammals go out of their way to avoid conflict and have developed and learn from others very intricate behaviors to avoid damaging conflict.
Maintaining possession of a territory (piece of land) as an example is generally done is many subtle ways long before any physical interaction occurs.
The very regular presence of an animal in an area, using chemical communication like droppings and urine placed at regular intervals keeps other members of the same species from lingering. Even if they see each other at a distance, there is much posturing done.The posturing allows them to assess each other without risking injury. The less assertive animal can simply move away. As they get closer to each other or accidentally find themselves too close for comfort, there are more subtle behaviors that keep the peace and tell each other there is no need for alarm. "I am no threat." And during close social contact, there are still other behaviors that can help smooth over social fauxpauxs or misinterpretations.
Typically, when arousal level is high is when we see animals acting "dominant" in a situation over a resource. The arousal may be triggered by the fear of loss of the resource (or in humans feeling inferior, embarrassed and other emotions). It is often these very emotions and the chemicals triggered by them that can lead to aggressive behaviors and a loss of social self-control.
Demonstrations of dominance behavior and aggressive tendencies tend to be more common among non-social species who rarely interact with others of the same species. In general, they have higher overall levels of chemicals in their bodies related to aggression (vasopressin, testosterone) and lower levels of social calming chemicals (serotonin, and oxytocin etc).
During mating season is the most common place to see dominance behavior in mammals. The chemical communication draws in several males who find themselves in close proximity wanting the same resource. Arousal levels are high due to the potential for mating with the female. The female is a resource that needs to be protected by the male that is most capable of keeping the other males away. More chemical communication. Remember that mating occurs only once a year in most medium and larger wild mammals (with the exception of rodents, rabbits and some marsupials who can breed several times a year, providing the right conditions exist.)
The level of testosterone can affect how individuals relate to each other. We know that when we see the effect of steriods on weightlifters.
A dog that is perceived as assertive displays a collection of behaviors that show he is standing up for his own welfare without being aggressive with other dogs. He is only responding to a real threat and tends not to respond to all potential loss of a resource. For example, a dog that allows another smaller or younger dog to eat food out of his dish but who could easily win during a conflict between the two. Dogs that are confident in themselves do not need to show threatening displays (like a high tail or chin over shoulder) to get what they want. They use calm body language and respond to other's communication. They are often seen as the amicable ones.
Recent science has highlighted that dominance exists but occurs when one dog values one resource more than another dog and is willing to take risks to keep that resource. So for example, a dog that guards his food from another dog highly values that food and is willing to risk injury to keep it. A dog that protects his sleeping space is being dominant in that situation. The interesting thing is that functional well-socialized dogs have fluid social structure where they try to avoid conflict because conflict is dangerous at a biological level. They may start out resource guarding against another dog, but when they learn to trust that the other dog doesn't want the food as much as they do and are willing to respect the first dog's need for the food (and will have their needs taken care by their humans) then they no longer feel the need to protect it against that dog.
Dogs that exhibit true dominance are actually worried about losing something. If you have a dog that is demonstrating he is willing to take a risk in getting hurt for many things, you actually have an insecure dog, poorly socialized dog or a traumatized dog. Dogs with these characteristics do not make good service or assistance dogs.
When people start training their dogs a service dog or assistance dog candidate, I recommend that they start early on with two behaviours that are essential for every service dog. These behaviours are often confused for two similar, but different behaviours. Let's take look at the difference.
Down Stay vs Settle/Relax
Most pet dog classes teach a formal down and stay behavior. This is because the origins of older dog training comes from the military where they had strict adherence to formal obedience and dogs were drilled on the behaviours. This is a formal behaviour that involves the dog laying in a sphinx position (dog staying very still with front feet extended and rear feet tucked under the body and the head up). Formal down stays take much focus and energy to maintain. Even the best-trained dogs cannot hold the down stay position for very long. Formal competition obedience only requires a 3 minute down stay. Pet dogs and service dogs don't actually need a formal down stay.
What both pet and service dogs DO need is a settle or relax behaviour. A settle/relax allows the dog to get comfortable on the ground. That's it. The dog can determine what is comfortable. If that is laying with their one hip rolled under them, laying on their side or laying on their chest like a frog or bear rug, that works.
The difference is that a settle/relax can be done for long periods because the dog is comfortable and can move around. Most service dogs work 4-8 hours a day or more away from home, often more at home. Like us when sleeping, our dogs move around. It is not reasonable for a handler to expect a pet or working dog to maintain a down stay for periods. The dog can stay relaxed yet still be alert for doing his job, or he can fall asleep but is still nearby. In a settle/relax, the dog can shift around on the spot, as long as he stays low on the ground. Many handlers use a towel or yoga mat to let the dog know the space that he has to move around on.
Some handlers train a 'park' cue that means the dog can get up and turn around as long as he stays on the designated spot (mat). More movement is allowed for a 'park' than a settle/relax.
The only time a settle/relax might not work is if the dog needs to curl up into a small ball to avoid being stepped on or if placed in small spaces like under a seat in a plane. Then they are also taught 'under' and 'curl'. Two more useful behaviours.
It is a great compliment when someone observes a handler leaving a restaurant and exclaims "I didn't even know there was a dog here until you got up to leave!" A settle/relax allows an assistance dog to be out of sight.
Heeling vs Loose Leash Walking
Another often taught behaviour in pet classes is the formal heel. It too has the same history as the down stay. Heeling involves the dog staying very close to (a few inches a way) or in physical contact with the handlers leg or wheelchair. In some styles of heeling, the dog also holds his head upright rather than looking forward. This is very hard on the dog's neck. Turns (left and right) are controlled with cues.
Heeling, like the down stay, is also a very difficult behaviour for a dog to sustain for long periods. Even highly trained competition dogs only do a formal heel for 5 minute periods. Heeling is only used with service dogs in specific situations such as when moving through narrow areas with many people (crowds or aisles in a store) then the dog is released to go back to loose leash walking after the obstacle or group is passed.
In loose leash walking, the dog can move within 24 inches of the handler and turns with the handler without cueing or leash tension or direction. The dog may be in front of, beside or even behind the handler, as long as they stay with 24 inches of the handler's leg or wheelchair. Quite frankly, we would not want a dog to heel very close to a chair or other medical device as they risk getting their feet run over or getting knocked into it. The extra distance from the handler allows the dog to safely navigate around storm drains, curbs, posts without affecting the handler's direction or movement in space. The dog can also move to the end of the leash to retrieve dropped objects for the handler as they move along.
Service Dog Training Institute offers classes each month on both Settle/Relax and Loose Leash Walking because they are important enough to do so. Registration runs the first wed to the second wed of each month.
Is Owner-Training a Service Dog a Good Fit for You?
Over the years, we have worked with people who have tried to owner-train a dog to become public access assistance dogs for themselves or a family member and were not successful for a number of reasons unrelated to training the dog.
If you tend to be overly optimistic or unrealistic about your ability to choose the right dog, create the right environment, and your ability to follow through for the 2-3 year or more process then you will want to consider this list. The risk of failure is very real among owner-trained service dogs and assistance dogs. Having a dog fail can set you back emotionally, socially and financially. Your health and emotional stakes are high! Read the information below before you start the process!
Here are 5 categories that have been barriers to success for owner-trainers:
1. Medical condition
Unstable Medical or Psychological condition:
Your focus will be on your changing situation rather than on training the dog. The training process may be put on hold due to your condition. If you have been newly diagnosed, you will be busy learning out how to live with the condition for the first while, setting up your support system etc. A dog can come later.
Unsuitable dog: Starting with a puppy or adult that does not meet the solid temperament and great health needed by a service dog to withstand the daily stress of working. A service dog candidate needs to be raised in a stable indoor home environment, have good genetics and parents/grandparents with good health, ideally from tested adults.
If you are starting with an adult dog, the same applies. The dog must be even-tempered towards people and other animals. Adaptability and resiliency are key. The dog needs to have the size and physical ability to do the tasks required. Choose a dog that has daily exercise requirements that you can realistically live with. If you live in an area with a small dog population, then you will need to look further afield for a candidate which will involve travel.
The physical and emotional environment a dog lives in affects his behavior in a good way and a bad way, just like it does you. Consider the amount of space, the suitability of that space, the location where you are living and how safe it is for a dog. If you live in a rural area, you will have to add distance to go to socialize your dog and do public access training.
Consider who else you are living with as well as paid caregivers, their beliefs and knowledge about dogs and how to interact with them. A living environment that puts you or your dog at risk for physical or emotional abuse is not conducive for creating a successful service dog.
Do you have an unstable or overly busy family life? Too many things going on, whether it’s a busy family with many kids and many pets, a farm to care for or a caregiver/trainer with their own health issues divides your attention. Training your own service dog is like raising a baby. You need focus, time and energy to do it long term.
Do you have a support system? Raising and maintaining a service dog or assistance dog takes a community. From family/housemates, canine professionals like trainers, vets and groomers, professional healthcare to open-minded retailers, everyone is involved in successfully raising and training a service dog to the point of public access. Do you live in isolation? This will be problematic.
Rental or Strata housing don’t recognize a service dog in training in most jurisdictions. The landlord/manager’s perception of the dog or breed you choose can create difficulties. They can change their mind and revoke permission at any time. They can manufacture a reason to revoke permission for the dog. Managers/landlords and Strata councils change.
School or workplace acceptance: Make sure your school or workplace is supportive of you training your own service dog and will allow the dog access during training and later once the dog is ready to accompany you. These places may not be covered by public access laws.
4. Required Finances
Raising and training a Service Dog requires money, even if you owner train. You will need to learn how to train your dog to professional standards. Even if you are already a professional trainer, you will still need to consult other dog training professionals for group classes, problem solving and to get an outside perspective. If the dog experiences trauma, a certified veterinary behaviorist may need to be contacted. These are very expensive.
Every dog has basic needs that need to be met. They need to be fed, housed, have veterinary contact and grooming fees. They get sick and injured and need immediate treatment. Heath testing and neutering are done when the dog is an adult. It’s mandatory to raise a good chunk of the money upfront, ideally all of it, before you start like organizations providing the dogs do. Otherwise, you will be fundraising while training and that takes your focus away from training and adds a level of stress into the process. Plan on Canadian$3000-$6000 depending on what age and training level the dog is starting at.
What if you run out of money before the dog’s training is completed? There will be ongoing maintenance training and also upgrades to training if your medical conditions change.
5. Personal Skills/Characteristics
There is a long list of skills and characteristics needed for a handler to successfully train their own service dog. If these are lacking, they can become insurmountable hurdles.
- No previous experience in sole care of a dog. You need to understand what is realistic to expect a dog to do and not do at the different stages of life and how to make sure the dog’s needs as a biological being and keep the dog healthy and fit for working in public.
- If you are unable to focus on training in the moment (short-term focus) or create a long-term training plan (big-picture goals) this will make training very difficult for you.
- An inability to adjust your expectations to match what the dog is capable of in the moment or being easily overwhelmed work against your success.
- If you are unable to generalize learning from one behavior to another then you will require step by step plans laid out with all possible options. This requires the help of a personal life coach or daily support person.
- You will need the ability to keep detailed records and daily journaling about the process.
- Inability to go into public places regularly to train the dog. This may be due to a medical condition (agoraphobia, anxiety, severe environmental allergies etc) or lack of dog-friendly transportation to get you there.
- Dis-interest or too stressed or anxious to learn how to train effectively, especially in new environments.
- Lacking self-evaluation skills (of yourself as well as the dog.)
- Lacking coping strategies when things don’t go well, or people confront you about your dog in public etc.
- Needing excessive amount of support for decision-making and action-oriented tasks
Check out this blog post on what characteristics professional service dog trainers require.
If you find that you are missing several of the key skills and characteristics, then you will want to seriously consider not training your own service or assistance dog.
If you still think you could benefit from a service dog and be able to take care of one:
Find an ADI accredited program to get a trained dog from. Each have their own application process, screen potential handlers and often have requirements for fundraising to be done upfront.
Find a training company who will sell you a trained dog. Do your research. There are several scammers who will make unbelievable claims (like saying a 12 week old puppy is a fully-trained service dog, or make guarantees they can’t follow through with etc. ) Check the better business bureau, do a Google search, and look for Facebook complaint groups to see if anything concerning comes up. Get references and talk to clients who have had a dog from them for at least a year.
Here's an interesting article that shows behavioral and physical traits in a dog may predict his or her success as a service dog. Something to pay attention to when selecting your next dog! Front paw preference (right or left), eye preference (left or right is the more dominant one) and hair swirls (clockwise vs counter-clockwise) could be key in pre-determining the success of your canine partner as a your service dog. According the to the results of her study off 115 guide dogs, it could be key.
According to the article, the perfect candidate for Guide Dog school would be right-pawed, left-eyed with an anti-clockwise whorl.
Assuming the experimenter is correct about the use of dogs on the right side of the handler, left-handled handlers may be better to choose a right-eyed dog and train them to work off their right (as in heel on the right), which in left hand-drive countries, would be safer anyway since the dog would be away from traffic.
Not all labs are equal.
Temperament and health problems are linked to the genetics of the 'silver' labs.
Interestingly, the few I have met locally all have had either skin issues or been over reactive dogs. Are you willing to put that much time and energy into a dog with health and temperament issues that may not make the grade as a service dog?
Do you research before you make your selection. Genetics are important!
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