Before you navigate away from here (“I thought this was a dog training blog, why are we talking about abstract complicated concepts like empowerment?”) know that this blog is indeed about dog training, it just happens that dog training is indeed about abstract concepts like empowerment.  I got to thinking about this concept while wondering why it is that Grisha Stewart’s BAT protocol for fear and aggression actually creates social and friendly responses in dogs while using social distance as a reinforcer.   

First, let’s define empowerment.   Empowerment (as defined by is the noun of the verb, to empower.  To empower is to enable, permit, equip, or supply with ability.  There seems to be some debate over the use of the verb, but in general, it is used mostly in legal terms, as well as in pop psychology.  The noun “empowerment” was first popularized by the civil rights and women’s movements, speaking of empowering suppressed parties for the greater good.

While we’re talking about definitions, let’s define “power,” shall we?  Now that’s a big word, it turns up 16 dictionary definitions from and I’d be willing to bet that if you asked 20 different people to define it for you, you’d get 20 different answers.  Most of the official definitions refer to ability; if you can say that one has the ability to do something, you can also say that one has the power to do so.  The definitions also refer frequently to authority, and occasionally to force.  So for the sake of this blog, let’s say that power, like empowerment, is pretty abstract and not easily defined, but it generally refers to ability and authority.   

So what the heck does this have to do with dog training?  A lot of dog trainers (especially in this country, which is interesting but not surprising) are currently referring abstractly to power in their discussions with dog owners.  Dominance theory is all about power, so for trainers (like that guy on National Geographic, you know his name) that utilize this theory it would seem that if your dog has a behavioral issue like aggression, house soiling, or excessive barking, the dog’s got the power and not the human.  According to these trainers, the balance of power must be restored, the human must once again become the “alpha” in the relationship, and once this is achieved all will be right again.  Seems credible, especially to the harried dog owner who really just wants their sweet dog to behave again.  Empower the human, weaken the dog’s ability to carry out X, Y, or Z behavior problem, and balance is returned to the universe. 

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  If you’ve read my stuff before you know that I am not a member of the camp I refer to as “dominance mumbojumbo,” so what could I possibly be getting at?  Well folks, it’s like I said to my friend Sasha a few weeks ago, “power is not a pie.”  Power is not a pie?  Sasha laughed wildly at this statement, as you may also be doing right now, but read on, I have my reasons.  A pie is finite, and if you have 7 people and 6 slices someone is missing out.  If I get a big piece, you get a smaller piece.  If I want to eat the whole thing, you don’t get any.  If power is a pie then dominance theory works; the human gets the whole pie and the dog gets the crumbs (for which he better be grateful) and everything is in its rightful place.  But power is an infinite abyss, if anything.

Most of the world’s problems exist (in my humble-I’m-just-a-dog-trainer-what-do-I-know opinion) because most of the world’s people think power is a pie.  We wage war on other countries in order to keep our bigger slice.  We deny the rights of suppressed people (Jews, blacks, women, immigrants, the GLBT community, need I go on?) because we fear that if we empower these groups our slice will get smaller.  But the lesson that history needs to continue teaching the world for some reason is that actually, the more power a person grants, the more powerful a person is.  The greatest leaders in history knew this rule, and the greatest dog trainers are well aware of it also. 

Ah, yes, finally, back to dog training.  The greatest methods for behavior modification empower the dog to make a better choice than the one she previously chose.  In separation anxiety, we empower the dog to feel less anxious about being alone, teaching her that she will not necessarily have a panic attack when you leave, thereby teaching her to keep her cool.  Now the dog has the power to enjoy her life, and you have the power to enjoy your dog.  In aggression we empower the dog to act in a non-threatening way. We allow him to experience the feeling of controlling his environment in less stressful, less violent ways. We empower him to become a safe member of society; therby empowering his owner to keep his dog and not feel afraid. 

This is where this long, boderline rant of a blog comes full circle.  When a dog owner empowers the dog on the end of her leash to make his own choice, and rewards that choice with the exact reinforcement he was seeking in the first place (as in BAT), both experience empowerment.  The dog now has the power to control what happens to him in a social situation, helping him to feel more comfortable in that situation, eventually leading to his actually seeking these situations in the future.  The human has the power to take her dog for a walk in peace, knowing that he is no longer afraid.