Yesterday I returned from Detroit, where I attended a one-day course instructed by Mark R. Johnson, DVM, of Global Wildlife Resources and Feral Dog Weblog. Sadly, my schedule did not allow for a visit the Motown Museum, which looked pretty rockin’. Maybe next time.

The course, offered by Humane Society University, a branch of HSUS, was geared toward shelter workers and focused on humane capture and handling of fearful and feral dogs. I don’t work in a shelter, but do deal with fearful dogs in the context of training and kenneling. I’ve also followed Dr. Johnson’s blog for a bit and been impressed by his philosophy and handling techniques, particularly his use of Y poles in non-chemical capture and sedation.

Plus, the train ticket from Chicago to Detroit is dirt cheap.

Y pole use with feral dog in India

Listening to Dr. Johnson discuss the similarity between dogs and wolves, the reality of pack dynamics and hierarchy, and the value of what he terms “compassionate dominance” in humane handling of fearful dogs, reinforced several strongly held beliefs (and shocked a few in the audience).

While his focus is very specific, and does not pretend to touch upon training per se, the ideas he promotes are entirely relevant to dog training.

One of these is that food is not always a feasible tool in establishing trust and control. (Food may carry little or no weight in the case of a dog too fearful to take it, for example.)

Another is that dominance may be compassionate and submission beautiful. Moreover, he argues that accepting these concepts, regardless of the language used to describe them, is in many cases critical to handling dogs knowledgeably and humanely.

With so much anxiety and confusion surrounds those terms, dominance in particular, it is instructive and refreshing to hear them used accurately and unapologetically.

Many equate dominance with either force or intimidation, when in its purest form it involves neither. In fact, one of the most essential elements of true dominance is the avoidance of unnecessary conflict.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Johnson has a martial arts background, which informs his handling on multiple levels. For example, the focus on both internalizing and telegraphing the right energy and intention, and the relevance of correct breathing and posture. He also stresses the importance of staying in the moment and maintaining a tight psychological connection to the animal one is handling.

Dr. Johnson is a passionate promoter of the Y pole as a more humane and practical alternative in many contexts to catch poles, chemicals, and nets. He instructs worldwide in its proper use, which he describes as non-threatening, and which involves wielding the tool as an extension of one’s body. Here is some fascinating footage of their use in subduing a Mexican wolf.

Not sure what I’ll do with my diploma from HSU, given my opinion of that organization’s political and legislative mission. But I found Dr. Johnson’s thoughts on dominance, compassion, and humane handling no less valuable for who had engaged him to share them.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.