The Truth About “Alpha Dogs”
Alpha Dogs, a new series on Nat Geo Wild, has all the elements of a successful reality series. The show focuses on the intense working environment of Vohne Liche Kennels, a rural Indiana training facility that produces a large portion of the country’s police and military dogs. The dogs are trained for life or death scenarios, including tracking suspects, drug discovery and bomb detection.
While Alpha Dogs has the potential to be a hit, the Feb. 8 premiere was met with criticism, largely because of the methods used to train the dogs. The trainers at Vohne Liche Kennels employ punishment-based methods, including shock collars, in their training and frequently use the controversial label “alpha dog” to describe the handlers’ relationship with their animals.
I disagree with the training methods used on Alpha Dogs, primarily because a good portion of the training shown on the series focuses on the need for the handler to be the alpha dog in the relationship. To achieve this, the trainers at Vohne Liche Kennels mix positive reinforcement with aversive methods, such as choke chains. Although it is often assumed that aversive methods are required to train a tough working dog, research has shown that working dogs can be successfully trained using positive reinforcement, with little need for punishment.
The Consequences of Punishment-Based Training
Currently, the training used to prepare a dog for government work varies depending on the trainer and can span the spectrum from primarily punishment-based to primarily reinforcement-based. Kenny Licklider, the star of Alpha Dogs and the founder of Vohne Liche Kennels, uses a training method that includes a positive reward once the dog finds the object of a search. But he also uses aversive methods, including choke chains and shock collars, both to teach certain behaviors and to deter others.
I have a great respect for Licklider and for the dogs he trains. But I strongly believe that most of this training can be done using less aversive methods. Properly done, positive reinforcement training reduces the risk of emotional damage to the dog and minimizes the negative associations caused by repeated punishment. But my biggest concern is that viewers will try to replicate the training methods they see on Alpha Dogs with their own pets.
One of the main problems with using punishment — a rattling can, a raised voice, a choke chain — to train any dog, is that it reinforces the punisher’s behavior, not the dog’s. When a handler uses punishment, the problematic behavior stops, but only temporarily. Over time the dog’s tolerance for the punishment builds, and he becomes tougher and more resistant to that same punishment. In order to elicit the same behavior, the handler has to increase the punishment. Punishment also inhibits unwanted behavior without replacing it with an acceptable alternative; this can result in the unwanted behavior reappearing later, or in another unwanted behavior taking its place.
The notion of a handler or trainer being the “alpha dog” in the relationship is also an area of concern for me. Licklider believes that a dog needs to have a strong desire to be with his handler, and that he needs to see that human as the “pack leader.” For this to occur, the handler must become the dominant personality, or the alpha dog, in the relationship. In this situation, failure to dominate a dog can cause problems for the handler — and for the dog. In the series premiere of Alpha Dogs, a training situation ended with a dog aggressively biting his handler; the dog was overwhelmed by the chaos and the sound of gunfire, and the result was that he turned on the handler. There is no scientific evidence to support the notion of the need for an alpha dog in a handler-canine relationship. Instead, asking a handler to dominate a dog can push that dog out of his comfort zone and result in the type of redirected aggression that was displayed in that first episode.
The Dangers of Shock Collars
Another controversial aspect of the Vohne Liche Kennels approach to training is the use of shock collars. I asked Licklider about this particular training approach; he told me that he is hesitant to use shock collars as a training tool, and that he has never used them on his own dogs, but that there is a demand for them from the handlers and agencies he deals with. Licklider believes that if he didn’t include shock collars in his training, his customers would find the training elsewhere after graduating from his program, often from unprofessional sources. “I couldn’t stick my head in the sand,” he told me. “If people were going to use them, it was my responsibility to teach them to use it correctly.”
Although shock collars are a powerful tool, they can have serious repercussions for dogs and handlers. Dogs trained using shock collars are at higher risk of developing negative associations with people or places, increased anxiety and avoidance behaviors. According to Steve White, a police sergeant canine trainer in Seattle, a trainer has to have “ice water in their veins” in order to use a shock collar correctly. By this he means that a handler can never administer a shock out of frustration or heightened emotions, which is a hard skill to teach someone. If shock is administered by an emotional handler, the dog learns to associate that emotional state with adverse consequences.
Positive Reinforcement Works — Even for Working Dogs
Punishment-based training isn’t the only option for police and military dogs. It is entirely possible to use positive reinforcement to train these highly skilled canines. Steve White went to the same military dog training school as Licklider, but he told me that his methods have changed over the years. For White, being a good handler is not about being alpha and ruling over your dog with an iron fist. It’s about instilling discipline and creating a relationship with your dog. White likens training to turning your dog into a disciple by making yourself worth following. This means choosing a training approach that makes the handler more interesting to a dog than the environment around them. Rather than pushing the dog around, a successful handler develops a relationship with his dog, who views him as a partner.
Steve White has a deep respect for Kenny Licklider, but chooses training methods for his clients that are distinctly different. “I will tell most pet owners that what you see on this program is not the way you should train your dog at home,” White told me. "Though positive reinforcement training may take a little longer on the front end than aversive methods, in the long term, the maintenance is less and the dogs maintain their willingness to work." I couldn’t agree more.