What is dominance?
Dominance in dogs is the idea that your dog is, yes, trying to dominate you. He’s trying to be in control. He wants to have control over the food, the water, the toys, and the couch. He wants to be “alpha dog”.
Are dogs dominant?
The short answer to this is a big, fat, no! The idea of dominance as the cause of behavior problems in dogs is an idea that has long been debunked. It is now nothing more than a myth.
Then why do so many trainers say dogs are dominant?
Chances are, you’ve heard of Cesar Millan, AKA “The Dog Whisperer”. His training techniques are based on the idea that dogs that are misbehaving are trying to dominate their owners. They’re pulling on the leash? They’re trying to dominate you. They’re coming up on the couch uninvited? They’re trying to dominate you. Aggression? Dominance, they say. Watch out, your dog wants to be in control!
The idea that dogs are dominant creatures comes from a study done on wolves. Yes, wolves. In the 1940’s a study was done on a family of captive wolves of mixed families. You can see how this study was flawed from the foundation, right? Well, this study focused mainly on the hunting behavior of the wolves. What does this have to do with dominance in dogs, you ask? Well, this is where the idea that dogs are dominant creatures comes from…an extremely flawed wolf study. As my trainer says, “Dogs are not tame wolves”. We should not be learning about dog behavior from studying wolves, we should be learning about dog behavior from studying dogs! Studies done on dogs show that dominance is not, in fact, the cause of behavior problems in dogs.
If it’s not dominance, then what causes these behaviors?
Behaviors that were long though of as “dominant” behaviors have much simpler explanations.
Leash pulling – the dog is simply excited! You’re going somewhere new, of course he wants to pull on the leash. He wants to get there faster!
Jumping up on furniture – if you were a dog, where would you rather take a nap? The comfy, squishy couch/bed, or the dog bed on the floor? Often times dogs will jump up on furniture simply because that’s where his people are, and he wants to be close to them.
Aggression – this one is important. People always argue that “red zone” dogs are dominant, and that positive reinforcement training CAN NOT work for these dogs. Please check out this video of a food-aggressive dog being trained using nothing but reinforcement. Was the dog what some people would consider “red zone”? No. There was no biting, no lunging, no growling. However, a behavior can be trained the same way no matter if it’s minimal or extremely severe. I trained a “red zone” dog to stop wanting to kill other dogs using nothing but positive reinforcement.
Is there such thing as a dominant dog?
I had a discussion with my trainer about this, and she made a good point – a truly dominant dog would not be aggressive or possessive. It would be confident that it has control over the resources, and therefore would be willing to give them up. However, the short answer is “no”, dominance is not the reason your dog is misbehaving. This article is HIGHLY recommended reading.
What’s wrong with dominance training?
The main problem with dominance-based training is the fact that it is flawed from the ground up. Dominance as the cause of behavior problems in dogs is a myth that has been scientifically debunked over and over. Trainers who use dominance-based methods most often use techniques and tools that are not only outdated, but cruel. Hanging dogs by choke collars, squirting with a squirt bottle, yanking on a prong collar, alpha rolling, and scruff shakes – just to name a few – are dominance-based training techniques. The most important thing to know about aggression in dogs, which is usually what is being trained by these trainers, is that all aggression is rooted in fear. Dog-dog aggression, dog-human aggression, it is all rooted in fear. The dog is trying to attack you when you take away his food? He is scared that you’ll take away his food! You know that he’s not going to starve, but he doesn’t. You know that there’s more where that came from, but he doesn’t. Instead of using the techniques above, which only instill MORE fear in the dog(and consequently often only mask the problem or even make it worse), you can use positive reinforcement techniques which will instead teach the dog that he doesn’t need to be afraid of having his food taken away, because he will always get something in return. Instead of masking the problem by making the dog too scared to defend himself, you teach him that he does not need to defend himself. You teach him that he is safe, and loved, and that training sessions are fun because you mutually trust each other. He trusts that you will not hurt or scare him. Don’t betray that trust.