Review of Monique Bladder seminar on dogs and dominance

Review of Monique Bladder’s 22 January seminar about dogs and dominance in Maasland, The Netherlands
By Laure-Anne Visele, Jan 2015
Full illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague


Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

I am a behaviour therapist for dogs (Canis bonus, The Hague, Westland, Delft and region) and the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I studied Zoology (University of Newcastle), got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour (dip) and am a licensed/certified dog trainer (O&O).

After mocking around with dogs all day, I spend my nights and week-ends reviewing dog books and writing about dog behaviour for my blog and other websites.

If you are near The Hague and have dog behaviour issues, get in touch to make an appointment. I work in English, French, or Dutch and only use animal-friendly methods. Want to find out more about the behaviour therapy practice? Check my training page.

Introducing Monique bladder

Monique bladder photoMonique is a Dutch canine behaviour therapist. She has years of dog training experience, is certified in the most modern techniques, has a double behaviour therapy qualification AND haunts every science conference on dog behaviour. Her science communication blog about dog behaviour is widely followed in The Netherlands – and widely respected. She also co-runs Annolurna, a training institute for dog trainers, with the two other Dutch dog training giants: Jolein van Weperen and Erica Brokelman.

Our paths crossed when one of Monique’s articles caught my eye a few years back. It was, as  it happens, an early criticism of the pack theory. We were both ugly ducklings on the local dog training scene with our rejection of the pack theory, so we got chatting. We found we had a lot more in common: we both train force-free and are both passionate about keeping up with the latest technical and academic insights on dog behaviour. We have been in touch all that time and Monique has been a tremendous help and support when I was transitioning towards full-time training. In fact, she is the one who convinced me to get my Postgraduate in Applied Animal Behaviour

Not normally a fan of dog lectures

So I know of the quality of Monique’s work with dogs and writing about them, but I’d never been to her lectures. I am a little nervous of the seminar scene as it can be tough to sort personality cults from genuine information before you’ve bought the ticket. And if you’re not careful, you can spend your next mortgage on seminars that don’t really bring you anything.

I have to sit on my hand to stop myself constantly interrupting the lecturer about their inaccuracies/loose ends. Turns out I had to resort to the hand thing again, only to fight the urge to jump up and high-five her. 

But I knew of Monique’s serious credentials, so that wouldn’t be an issue. I did hesitate for another reason: I am an infamous idiot-savant/lecture-heckler. After years of offending lecturers with my facial expressions and constant questions, I taught myself to keep it to ‘maximum’ five (okay, or six-seven) interjections’ per lecture. I implement this by practically sitting on my hand between “turns”. But when I heard Monique was giving a lecture near The Hague, I figured I’d show my support and “pack up the girls” (our interns at OhMyDog!). At least they were going to hear modern dog behaviour ideas from someone other than their bosses.

So I got to the lecture dreading another night where I have to sit on my hand to stop myself constantly interrupting the lecturer about their inaccuracies/loose ends. Turns out I had to resort to the hand thing again, only to fight the urge to jump up and high-five her. Count this science pedant duly impressed with yesterday’s seminar. This is my review of the evening whilst it’s fresh!

Rookie dog: Introducing dominance

Monique opened the scene by laying solid foundations: the concept we were going to examine critically was ‘the layman’s dominance’: the idea that every dog wants to climb to the alpha spot in your house.

When she asked the audience for examples of ‘dominant’ behaviour, we had to cringe through the usual litany: crossing a door threshold in front of me, resting on an elevated place, eating before I do, etc… My colleagues and I hear these ideas so often that we played along and added a fair few to the dreaded list ourselves.

Nerd dog: On wolves and dog ethology

Monique then took the audience through the classic BradshawMechMiklosi arguments:

  • Wolves aren’t dogs: a nifty review of seminal research on the many impacts of domestication and the respective cognitive and communicative abilities of both species with regards to humans. 

    the ‘top spot’ is more pater familia than alpha male

  • Wolves do not necessarily form packs, but family units.
  • In many wolf packs, the ‘top spot’ is more pater familia than alpha male, and the cubs are no more likely to usurp him than your own kid is to take your spot as bread winner.
  • We have no valid reason to assume that dogs see humans as fellow dogs, and there are known differences between dog-dog versus dog-human relationships and communications.
Fighting wolves

Using only wolf behaviour to design dog training techniques is like observing chimps to learn about child pedagogy

If you weren’t familiar with our fantastic three, here’s a run down:

  • John Bradshaw is a huge name in anthrozoology – research into man-animal interactions.
  • David Mech is a leading wolf ethologist, and arguably the one who popularized the concept of alpha wolf in the first place.
  • Adam Miklosi runs one of the most influential research labs on dog cognition.

Not exactly blundering amateurs, thus.

Greedy dog: It’s all about resources

I still count my lucky stars that the first dog book that made it through my hands was The Culture Clash. I was thus primed to be critical of the concept of dominance from the word go. Monique, having a lot more experience than me, started in the dark old days of choke chains and leash jerks. The dominance panacea didn’t gel with her, and she found it inconsistent, but rejecting it left a massive vacuum. The only ‘treatment’ options were, at the time, rank reduction programs.

This very vacuum is what prompted Monique onto the journey of discovery that now places her among one of the best read professionals on the topic. She allows her audience to experience this ‘vacuum angst’ only for the briefest moment, until she reviews the list of ‘dominant’ behaviour from a new angle. For each of the behaviour that was labeled dominant by the audience at the start of the lecture, she offers a simpler, more elegant, less far-fetched answer. A lot of the simpler explanations revolved around Resource Holding Potentials.

The RHP is a well-established idea in ethology. Animals are constantly churning risk calculations to see whether something is worth fighting over or not. The background theory gets a bit complicated, but you can boil it down to two questions:

  1. Does my opponent care enough about this to fight me over it?
  2. Do I care enough about this resource to fight him over it?
being bad

Rex, trying to take over the world one couch at a time

So she could settle most people’s concerns about: “What if my dog crosses the door in front of me?” and “What if he growls at me from the couch” with either: 

It’s nothing to do with plotting to gain status over you in the long-term. It’s just about that comfortable couch right here, right now

  • It’s not a conflict: He’s just curious about what’s behind the door, he’s keen and it’s bugger all to do with domineering you.
  • It’s to do with RHP: It’s nothing to do with plotting to gain status over you in the long-term. It’s just about that comfortable couch right here, right now. It’s not healthy and it needs to be addressed, but it doesn’t need dominance to be explained and rank reduction program won’t help.

Honest dog: Approaching a controversy with honesty

I was particularly impressed with how much she encouraged critique. All she focused on was what people were making of these ideas, whether they could start to process them. It wasn’t about being right or showing off, it was about giving people the tools to think critically about dog behaviour. She didn’t turn the lecture into the so manieth intellectual dictatorship, she didn’t turn a single idea into a personal crusade. This rigorous intellectual honesty was music to my ears.

Monique also showed an honourable reluctance to get into diagnostics on specific cases. She wasn’t tempted to show off and just said, where warranted: “This is too complex to get into meaningfully right now. It depends on too many factors like x, y and z.” Daring to say “I don’t know” is one of the greatest virtues in my eyes. It’s a sign you are talking out of reason, not ego. 

Hard dog: Making complex stuff clear, tangible and entertaining

An experienced speaker, Monique seemed to have a compelling analogy up her sleeve for every possible question. I am going to unashamedly recycle some of them with my own clients, actually. She has this knack of bringing the point home with analogies that people can relate to. A great gift for a science communicator. Here are some examples:

  • Take food guarding: “If you hadn’t had your favorite meal in ages, and the waiter kept taking your plate away as you’ve about to eat, you wouldn’t be too happy to see him come near, right? And how about a waiter who keeps bringing you more and more succulent tidbits? You’d really be looking forward to seeing him each time, right?”
  • (about criticizing the study of wolves to inspire dog training techniques) “Imagine a bunch of aliens came down to earth to study our culture, and based all their conclusions on their observations of chimps. Sure some of it would be accurate, but how much would they be off the mark?”

Dominance as one-size-fits-all explanation to dog conflicts? I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

The quirky touches of humour that sprinkled the lecture really contributed to the open atmosphere. There was a lot of back and forth between Monique and the audience, and even the most hard core pack theorist couldn’t resist her conviviality.

And here’s another powerful thought she shared with us: If as many dog problems boiled down to dominance, my job would be so easy. No diagnosis, no choice of treatment. Just always the same: “He is being dominant so we need to put him back in his place”. These snippets will, hopefully, lodge themselves into people’s brains and will make them think critically next time a ‘trainer’ ‘diagnoses’ their dog with ‘being dominant’ (overusing quotation marks much, Laure-Anne?)

I was happily surprised that she didn’t pussy foot around the New Agey ‘energy’ and ‘natural’ concepts. As a skeptic, nothing makes my skin crawl more than hearing them branded about by pack theory proponents (some call themselves ‘naturalistic dog trainers’).

The words ‘energy’ and ‘natural’ get thrown around a lot. But they’re so vague they are as good as meaningless

Her no nonsense answer was spot on “The words ‘energy’ and ‘natural’ get thrown around a lot. But they’re so vague they are as good as meaningless. What does it mean the dog’s ‘energy’?” Well, she knocked that one on the head before it could lead to the usual rounds of unproductive rhetoric. In case you’re wondering, this was one of the toughest “resist the urge to high five” moments for me.

Dominance: Why it matters?

Lest the audience begins to suspect we are splitting hair, she laid down very elegantly why it mattered not be lured by the easy explanation:

  1. Quality of life: The dogs’ freedom is compromised severely when every initiative they take is considered a bid for power. This has an impact on the dog’s quality of life – which, I might add, is a great source of behaviour problems, perversely.
  2. Abuse: The pack theory philosophy can easily slip into physical punishment and confrontational methods.

Pulling ranks

You could hear the audience was still with her, but was anxious about “how do you get there,” how you get a dog who still listens to you reasonably well and doesn’t have tons of boundary issues and behaviour problems. Her answer is three-pronged:

  • Get the training side right, know your learning theory inside out.
  • Establish a bond and work on it: there is no goodwill in a relationship vacuum.
  • Think of how to use resources to avoid, rather than create, problems – that bit about RHP.

Perhaps the most important point she made in this segment is to urge people to  make a distinction between pure obedience, training problems, with underlying emotional problems. She explained a little that we, behaviour therapists, are mainly concerned with changing problematic emotional association and not so much with the obedience side.

The verdict

Tiny pedantic points aside, the lecture had it all: the contents were rigorous and clear, the delivery was entertaining and confident. Monique managed to bring academic points to life and make a difference in how dogs are treated every day.

My initial question was answered: turns out Monique Bladder is not only great at writing about science, she rocks at talking about it too.

Contacting Monique

Note all presentations and articles are in Dutch.

Photo credits

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