‘Tough Love’ – What Dogs Need, or Popular Myth?

Documentary Sheds Light on History, Science and Practice

Documentary Sheds Light on History, Science and Practice

Dominance training, popular on TV, is discredited by science and animal behaviorists.

By Sandra Seitz

Wrong-headed ideas have a way of persisting, such as the popular notion that dominance, or “alpha dog,” training is the right way to handle the family pet.

Chad Montrie, history professor and documentary filmmaker, debunks that notion in a hard-hitting new film, “Tough Love: A Meditation on Dominance and Dogs.”

“We accept dogs as ‘man’s best friend’ and give them a special place in our lives,” says Montrie. “In turn, they are loyal companions. Yet, many dog owners believe that they are supposed to establish themselves as the dominant ‘alpha dog’ in relation to their pets, using physical restraint and punishment.

“How can we reconcile our feelings of respect and even love with the demand for submission?” Montrie asks. “Is dominance justified by the nature of dogs, based on biological facts and evolutionary history?”

“Tough Love” sets out to answer these questions and confronts the disconnect between accepted science and popular practice.

Tough Love Documentary Trailer, An Anchorhold Films Production (http://www.anchorholdfilms.com) from Chad Montrie on Vimeo.

Montrie shows how research on captive wolves in the 1940s led to the theory of hierarchy and domination in wolves. Researchers observing wolf packs in the wild have seen deference among family members, but not harsh and competitive behavior.

“The theory that pack hierarchy depends on frequent aggressive displays has been dismissed by more recent, nuanced research,” Montrie says. “But the alpha concept was adopted wholesale by some trainers and promoted to the public, along with the mistaken notion that dogs are just domesticated wolves.”

To show the differences, the film juxtaposes clips from the “Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan” television show – with its emphasis on establishing dominance and correcting bad behavior – with interviews and training clips of leading dog trainers and animal behaviorists. 

Some interviews are deeply touching. 

Dr. Sophia Yin, noted veterinarian and animal behaviorist, chokes up as she describes trying to train her pet boxer with a choke chain and other dominance methods, only to have his behavior worsen dramatically, even though “I was the program’s very best student,” she says.

“Dominance theory has caused acrimony in the dog training community,” says Terri Bright, behavioral analyst and director of training programs at the MSPCA-Angell in Boston. Dog owners naturally look for answers, because “aggression in animals is scary, even a Chihuahua that is really intent on doing you harm,” she says. “It’s even scarier in elephants – you can’t tell an elephant to go get his collar. It’s clear that we must rely on science, on understanding and shaping the animal’s natural behaviors.”

Dominance theory is about how one interprets an animal’s misbehavior, according to professional dog trainer Nicole Wilde, appearing in the film.

“It’s whether you think the reason the dog does something wrong is to get higher rank, or the reason is because that behavior is rewarded,” says Wilde, who favors gentle, positive training methods.

The use of positive reinforcement for reliable, compassionate training is prevalent among trainers of other animals, from birds to dolphins to elephants. As the film shows, its scientific underpinnings reach back to Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner and his experiments on operant conditioning using pigeons.

In a telling moment from archival footage, Skinner puts his finger on the distinction between behavior that comes from a positive reward and behavior that is learned to avoid punishment.

“We feel free when we are doing things we are reinforced to do in a positive way. We feel unfree and coerced when we have to act to escape from a very strong punitive situation,” he said. 

“Tough Love” was directed and filmed by Montrie and co-edited with Nathan Hendrie, an independent producer and editor whose credits include Nova, Nova scienceNOW and the National Geographic Channel. 

Production assistants were Sandra Garcia Mangado, Allegra Williams and Tyler Deary – all current or former UMass Lowell students. Music undergraduate Matthew Sowersby composed and recorded original music with viola accompaniment by Michael Coelho.

Project funding was provided by the UMass Lowell Council on Research and Scholarship.