Think Dog

Why Does My Dog?



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These books contain a lot of duplicate material, and 'Why Does My Dog?' is perhaps the better choice if you only want to buy one of these books, though there are some useful points in 'Think Dog' which aren't repeated in the later book. 

Both 'Think Dog' and 'Why Does My Dog' came out in the early 1990s. They are a little dated, but they are still wonderful books that reflect Fisher's practical approach to dog behaviour, and the breadth of his experience from a long career working with dogs. 

Fisher's work was hugely influential among trainers and behaviourists in the UK. 'Think Dog' represented a move away from an approach to behaviour and training which was based more on corrections, and towards a more reward-based approach. Fisher also explains how much of what owners perceive as 'a problem' is just normal canine behaviour. While Fisher argued that owners should behave like an alpha, his message isn't simply 'be dominant'. He also examines stress, both good stress and bad stress, health, diet, and other factors that can affect behaviour. It might surprise some people that section two of the book is entitled 'The Positive Approach to Problem Behaviour'. Despite Fisher's emphasis on 'dominance', he stressed rewards rather than punishment. It's well worth reading these books both for what Fisher says about dogs, and to trace the path of the development of modern dog training.

 Fisher was a practical man, rather than an academic. If he called his approach 'positive' it was because he thought that 'positive' meant rewards, and 'negative reinforcement' meant 'punishment'. Fisher was influenced by Karen Pryor's 'Don't Shoot the Dog', which doesn't really explain these terms. Today most trainers are aware that 'reinforcement' makes a behaviour more likely to happen, and that, logically, 'positive' should include 'positive punishment', Fisher's terminology, then, won't help you pass a dog training exam. Though he was a founder member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Consultants, he wouldn't be admitted today, due to his lack of academic qualifications. However, his lack of a conventional academic background was perhaps a strength, since he was able to develop a holistic approach to dog behaviour.

Fisher stressed that punishment, what he called 'negative reinforcement' could have unpredictable results. He argued that it can be more effective to reward a dog for good behaviour, like paying attention to you, and doing a nice sit in the presence of temptations, than to berate him for bad behaviour. Fisher also stressed safety first, an important reason for avoiding confrontations. It's safer not to allow a dog access to a disputed area in the first place than to try to move him physically. There was a move away from physical corrections in 'Think Dog' and 'Why Does My Dog' .

So, Fisher's was a reward-based, non-confrontational approach, coupled with a view that many problems would resolve themselves if the human's position as alpha was made clear to the dog. This meant humans behaving in ways that paralleled the behaviour of alpha wolves. In 'Think Dog', owners were told to take precedence when going through doors, and ensure that they could control strategic points in the house. Dogs were meant to stay on the low ground, the floor, for example, while humans were meant to occupy the high ground, such as on the furniture. Humans were also meant to eat first, if only a token sandwich, and to sit in the dog's basket, to show they had the right to occupy his den. This idea of humans showing dogs they were pack leaders went hand in hand with the idea that some dogs were naturally 'dominant', so had to learn their place. Other dogs were classed as submissive, and could be allowed privileges to adjust their rank upwards, and increase their confidence.

Today, we're more aware that dogs don't attach the same significance to our actions that they'd attach to actions performed by another dog. Just as we wouldn't assume that a dog looking at a newspaper is reading the paper, a dog seeing us eating a sandwich before giving him food doesn't necessarily think 'Ah, my leader having first bite of the kill'. Wolves are also now seen as less hierarchical than was previously thought, while it's clear that dogs can have very fluid pack structures. Who defers to whom may be very context-specific, especially if there's a mix of breeds living together in a household.

Much of what was previously seen as 'dominant' behaviour is now more often regarded as something that dogs tend to do, unless taught otherwise. Most untrained dogs will playbite, jump up, and try to eat food off their owner's plate. Some dogs are pushier than others, 'Resource guarding' isn't so much a sign of 'dominance' as part of normal canine behaviour, which can be modified by training. Fisher's later work took into account some of these criticisms, but sadly, he died before he could develop his ideas further.

Fisher's reassessment is evident from 'Diary of a Dotty Dog Doctor', where he reviews one of his earlier cases, involving a boxer that was breast fed by the wife and growling at the husband! Fisher notes in 'Diary' that 'resource guarding' is perhaps a more useful explanation for the dog's behaviour than his earlier view that the dog wanted to be the alpha. Dogs may see owners as a resource, and want to guard their access to the resource, which helps explain why some dogs are only aggressive when their owners are present. (One solution is for owners to absent themselves as soon as the aggression starts, so there is no resource to guard.) 'Diary of a Dotty Dog Doctor' is very funny, and illuminating, but is much more a collection of anecdotes, and much less thought out than either 'Think Dog' or 'Why Does My Dog', so it's well worth reading Fisher's early work for a full understanding of how he saw dogs.

Fisher systematically reviewed his cases of 'canine dominance' after meeting Raymond Coppinger, a biologist, and realising that he'd overemphasised dominance in wolves and dogs, Fisher wanted to find out what was happening in those cases, and why. Owners had generally found that 'rank reduction' techniques had some beneficial effect, but not always, and it was not always the effect that they expected. Sometimes dogs became depressed. They'd expected nice things, like being able to snuggle on the sofa next to their owners, and had these nice things taken away, which was a form of punishment. The very detailed prescriptions for dealing with canine behaviour problems were reassessed, and today it's no longer seen as necessary for owners to eat before their dogs, and curl up in our dogs' baskets! 

It's curious that today, many people believe that if you use the word 'dominance', especially in the way Fisher did, implying that humans should behave like alpha wolves, you necessarily couple this with harsh methods. Yet Fisher certainly didn't, he strongly emphasised rewards. The status markers, like eating a sandwich before you fed the dog to show your 'dominance', sound laughable today. The idea of the human as 'alpha' is a little simplistic. However, the idea of the human as a leader, in the sense of someone who provides direction and guidance, is still useful. Dogs can't survive well without humans. Feral dogs don't live as long as domestic pets, and if our dogs aren't well supervised and controlled, they have a high risk of dying young. Furthermore, we don't want them to bite us, or our children, or try to savage passing dogs. Leaders think of the group as a whole, and develop rules which help to ensure harmony when there's more than one dog.  

Leadership, then, is a useful skill. Leaders don't just say 'no', they also protect their followers from harm, and initiate enjoyable activities, which means working out what motivates individual dogs. Leaders try to communicate with their followers, listening as well as giving orders. This means making an effort to understand canine language, and what dogs are feeling. John Fisher stressed the importance of communicating with dogs, in his early works, as well as his later writings. He stressed that owners should try to see the world from a dog's point of view, and should try to 'Think Dog' - hence the title of his key work.

John Fisher, then, is well worth reading because he was one of those rare people able to combine the theoretical and practical, and make his ideas understandable to ordinary people. He was also open to new ideas, and was constantly developing and reassessing his views and techniques. His intellectual honesty, humanity, and sense of humour come through very clearly in all his works. He died before he could revise 'Think Dog' and 'Why Does My Dog', but even without revisions they are a very valuable legacy for anyone who cares about dogs. 

Review by Alison Lever