HOLD YOUR GROUND: Why it matters to dogs
Updated: Apr 1
In the late 1990's I had the pleasure of meeting National Geographic underwater cinematographer, Wes Skiles. He had visited the art studio where I worked at the time to recruit my artist friend to be in a documentary film with Grateful Dead drummer, Bill Kreutzmann. Strangely, Wes liked to swim with sharks. We asked him, "Wes, what do you do when a great white shark charges at you?" He said, "Don't back down. And, if you need to, lunge towards them." I have to admit this was the first time I had ever heard someone tell me to "punk out" a shark!
Wes Skiles prepares to film Blue Hole Vortex
Photo by Luis Lamar
This lesson transcends sharks as a species, dogs, and even people, for that matter. In fact, it permeates the behavior of nearly all predators on Earth. When we retreat from predators, we engage their natural, predatory neural circuitry, and in doing so, they tend to chase and attack. The flight response of prey usually plays out poorly for those who are not well-equipped or fast enough to escape the threat. This means that some prey must do what is counter-intuitive -- to face the threat in order to fight back. But this is not the only example of holding one's ground. This concept is also found in canine parenting.
Holding your ground is a leadership value that communicates across species that you are a confident and competent leader.
Holding your ground is a leadership value that communicates across species that you are a confident and competent leader. Dog's, in particular, intuitively understand that people who hold their ground during difficult times can be more well-trusted to carry the family safely through difficult times.
During adolescence, dogs begin to intentionally challenge the authority of their caregivers. This is a normal and natural process in the developing adolescent brains of social mammals. And these social challenges have a reason for existing. Challenging authority is, in part, an assessment, or audit, of their caregivers. This audit is an adaptive, compensatory survival mechanism. In other words, they do it so they can compensate for your lack of authority in various areas, and to adapt and optimize the family for survival in a changing environment. The dogs think "If you are not in charge of the family, then I'll take over. Somebody has to do it or we're all doomed!" And they are right. If every figurative seat in the bus is not filled, then the family as a successful organization will not survive. Thus, the rise of various authoritative structures in dog and human societies. What is a family but an organized system built upon the mantle of survival in an often difficult, dangerous, and turbulent world?
Those who back down from holding their ground, shy away, or drift from their position when challenged, are often demoted in rank. When seeing this, some dogs will take this as a cue to assert themselves as caregivers. These apparently weak human family members are often seen by dogs as ones to be taken care of themselves; to be controlled or even parented for our own safety. And so the parent becomes the parented.
Imagine, if you will, fight/flight responses as existing on a spectrum, or continuum. On this continuum are different degrees of fight/flight responses. One such emotion on this spectrum is empathy. Empathetic parenting circuits can be triggered in dogs during times of perceived threat. A dog who jumps in front of a child to stop them from getting in the pool is fighting for the life of the child. And, in doing so, is parenting the child to that extent. These dogs will block and hold their ground against the child to prevent their movement (as an aside, I hope you never look at your dog intentionally stepping in your way in the same light). We have worked with many dozens of cases whereby dogs have become aggressive while children are swimming in pools. This is a more extreme response of over-driven parenting circuits run amok. "You will get out of the pool, or else." Click here for my online interview with CNN about empathy.
For these reasons, when working with dogs, it is important for parents to hold their ground when challenged; advice that can also benefit many of us in other areas of our life. Holding one's ground can be thought of in 3 dimensions: physical, intellectual, and emotional.
Physical: It is important to avoid physically shifting around with an excitable dog. Instead, use what we call the "hub of the wheel." This means to turn and face the challenge and hold your ground to repel any physical overtures that come at you. A common example would be a dog who jumps forcefully at you. Face them and extend a knee to defend your space. Avoid turning away from them. Doing so signals to animals that you are considering running away. That's bad news when you are up against a predator.
Consider too refusing to go around a dog who is intentionally blocking your path. Instead, it is best to hold your line and move straight through them, requiring them to move instead. Remember, dogs don't always perceive your being polite as meaning you are a great leader. Conversely, your role is not to be mean. Leadership is about leading with confidence. Hold your ground and act decisively upon your intentions.
Intellectual: As Executive Decision-Makers it is important to hold our ground in planning and implementation of choices. You may know that dogs are capable of strategic planning. Great dog parents will maintain their role as executives by being the ones who make high-level decisions on behalf of the family. Doing so will ensure your dog is liberated from the stress and responsibility of making potentially hundreds of life-or-death decisions each day. Leadership isn't without it's stresses. There is no need for your dog to shoulder the stress of leading your family.
Emotional: A leader also holds their emotional ground. They are not easily swayed by a dog's attempts to bully, harass, or run guilt trips. Emotional leaders understand their own competency. They know what they are doing. Any complaints and tantrums from young dogs should be disregarded as the longing of a not yet fully developed adolescent brain. We must understand this brain to be functionally irrational in its ways and yet to become wise to the rules and requirements of society and nature.
If you need help with your dog's behavior, please reach out for assistance.
Aaron McDonald is a canine behaviorist, author of Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior, and President of Three Dimensional Dog, a canine behavior consultancy firm located in Birmingham, AL. Three Dimensional Dog behaviorists offer private, in-home canine behavior and "parent training" services for the Greater Birmingham area. They can be reached at 205-563-8383 or visit www.ThreeDimensionalDog.com.