Continuing Education

The Myth of Dominance: An Interview with Learn to “Speak Dog” Instructor Suzanne Engelberg, PhD

Learn to “Speak Dog" instructor Suzanne Engelberg, PhD has spent a lifetime exploring the ways humans communicate with canines and developed a system of understanding that flies in the face of long-established practices by offering a Imagedeeper, more holistic means of relating to our furry companions.

Q: When did you first discover you had an affinity for canines? Was there a particular relationship or inciting incident that inspired you to forge a deep relationship with dogs? 

I think I was born with that affinity. My mother told me that when I was a toddler I eagerly walked up to dogs twice my size. They always responded well to me, so I either had good judgment, was lucky, didn’t seem threatening to the dogs, or a combination of all three. When I was in elementary school I desperately wanted a dog, but my parents didn’t. Even though I knew I couldn’t get a dog, I ready every child book on dogs I could find— dog training, different breeds, even how to groom a poodle. I fantasized about having a dog who would be my best friend.  I would train the dog so well that we would win awards, and everyone would be amazed and impressed.  I wasn’t able to get my first dogs until I was in my 20’s and in graduate school. I made a lot of mistakes with those first dogs. I wish there had been someone to help me see life from my dogs’ perspective, to understand all the things they were trying to tell me, and to help me communicate with my dogs in ways they could understand better. Part of my motivation for teaching Learn to “Speak Dog” is to share the knowledge and insights I’ve gained over the years—to be the resource I wish I had had.

Q: When it comes to discussing the psychology of humans and canines, where do you feel the key points of connection lie between us? What do dogs and humans share that has created such a long-term bond between them? 

Dogs and humans share many things. Research is demonstrating that we share similar brain structures and brain chemistry, and have the same needs for affection, community, security, intellectual stimulation, etc. Some of our human psychological theories (such as learned helplessness) and much of our medical research is performed on dogs because we are so similar. Some of these similarities are because we are both mammals. For example, elephants, horses, rabbits, etc. have these same needs. Most mammals get their needs met through other members of their same species. Humans have created dog breeds that are willing to get some of these needs met through people instead of through other dogs.

There is a theory that early dogs and early humans trained each other to enjoy our connection.  Wolves learned to tolerate humans because trash heaps provided food, and humans learned to tolerate wolves because they provided an early warning system against predators. Both wolves and humans learned that the more comfortable we were with each other, the better off we were. Wolves living in villages (instead of in the woods) got more and better food, and the humans got better protection.  This increased comfort with humans and the wolf characteristics that humans liked best were passed down genetically through generations of wolves until these companion animals were so different from their ancestors that they needed a new name—Dog. Eventually humans got sophisticated enough to breed dogs to further accentuate the characteristics we like—friendliness, desire to please us, skill hunting or guarding, etc. That’s how we got all the different breeds we have now—each one intentionally bred to have specific characteristics.

Q: Is there an interweaving of your work as a licensed psychologist and your canine advisory work? How have you gone about dovetailing to the two? 

There is a lot of similarity between the work I do as a licensed psychologist and the work I do as a canine advisor. Dogs are our family members. Just like children they respond to what is happening with the people around them—the amount of stress, joy, tension, chaos, stability, kindness, abuse, etc. in the home. Also, people give their dogs roles the same way they give roles to children—the good dog, the peacemaker, the scapegoat, the dog who distracts the family from other problems, etc. As a psychologist and a canine advisor, my job is to help family members (whether human or canine) understand each other’s thoughts and fImageeelings, communicate more effectively, and act in more effective ways to get what they want. With both human and human-canine families I do that by helping people (and dogs) use their strengths to overcome their challenges. Although the exact techniques I use are slightly different depending on if I’m working with a human family or a human-canine family, the way I think about the family dynamics and my goals for them are very similar.  

One difference in working with people and their dogs is that people often don’t recognize dogs’ signals, because dogs communicate with body parts we don’t use for communication—for example ears and tongues. Interestingly, humans often misinterpret some signals that are the same in dogs and humans.  For example, even though looking away often indicates intimidation or discomfort, people often assume it means disinterest, distraction, or disrespect. Instead of backing off so the dog (or child) can relax enough to understand what the person wants, most people become even more intimidating when they see a dog or person looking away.  How often have we heard an adult demand of a child: “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” My job as a canine advisor is to help people interpret their dogs accurately, so they can have a better, closer relationship with each other that makes them both happier. I also help people figure out what their dog needs to be happier and behave better—for example more time with other dogs, less stress, more intellectual stimulation, and more consistency. I also help people decide if their sick animal is ready for the vet to help them end this life.

Q: How do you respond when people refer to you as a “dog whisperer?” Why do you feel this is neither an appropriate nor accurate descriptive term for the kind of work you do? 

There are two reasons why I don’t like being referred to as a “dog whisperer.” The first is because of the connection with Cesar Milan. Although he is a very entertaining personality, his theories and methods are outdated. Research proved decades agoand continues to prove—that a focus on dominance and being alpha are not as effective as working with the dog. Cesar Milan’s techniques are based on the myth that wolf pack leaders must repeatedly demonstrate dominance in order to keep their pack in line. That research was done on wolves in captivity. Recent research on wolves in the wild reveals that the most effective pack leaders don’t continually prove their dominance. The pack automatically respects them because of their effectiveness and fairness. Leaders who continuously try to dominate are announcing their insecurity and ineffectiveness.  Also, the way most people try to dominate their dogs is through intimidation, physical coercion, and punishment.  Those methods have harmed thousands of dogs, and have actually created fear and aggression in perfectly nice dogs. I don’t fault people for believing the myth of dominance—I fell for it too and used it with some of my previous dogs. I deeply regret that. In my work as a canine advisor I show people better, more effective ways to teach their dog and build that stable, confident relationship that people and dogs want. 

The second reason I don’t like being called a “dog whisperer” is because it implies I have a special unique power that other people don’t have. Although I have more experience working with dogs and understanding them, most of what I do can be easily learned. That’s what Learn to “Speak Dog” is all about—learning to become your own canine advisor.

Q: What do you feel are the most crucial first steps in learning to better communicate with your dog? 

The most important step to better communicate with our dogs is to be aware that our dogs are constantly trying to communicate with us.  We usually don’t recognize that because our dogs communicate in ways that are effective with other dogs, not with people. And often dogs don’t understand what we’re trying toImage tell them because we communicate in ways that are effective with people, not dogs. Once we learn to communicate in ways that dogs understand, communication becomes much easier and more satisfying.

Q: What do you hope your students will take away from Learn to “Speak Dog”? 

I hope my students will leave Learn to “Speak Dog” with a new appreciation for the ways their dog is constantly trying to connect with them, some skills to accurately understand what their dog is thinking and feeling, and to respond in ways that deepen their relationship with their dog.  The result will be happier people and dogs, and a more satisfying human-canine relationship.

Learn more about Learn to “Speak Dog."

Photo credit #1: Courtesy of Suzanne Engelberg
Photo credit #2: Jonathan Fredin_cc_2.0
Photo credit #3: Mirko Seghezzi_cc_2.0