Dominance! FAQ.

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.

A Difficult Decision

Today, I have made the decision to stop allowing my personal dog, Nelly, around anyone but my immediate family.

Nelly has always wanted her personal space from both people and dogs, and has always been great about giving warning signals such as growling and teeth showing. Warning signals such as these are a GOOD thing, but that is something I will dedicate a post to in the very near future, maybe even my next one.
Nelly has always communicated very well with people and dogs, letting them know when she was uncomfortable with the situation she is in. She has never liked people getting in her face, hugging her, or making her feel trapped in any way; it is considered rude to do this to a dog and she has very little tolerance for it. She also has an especially low tolerance for people doing this when she’s herding something. However, she has always given warning signals, so I am able to immediately remove her from a situation that she is uncomfortable with.

Lately, though, we’ve been having problems. She has been biting without giving any warning – or if there is a warning, it is way too fast for me to notice. I don’t know why she suddenly stopped, I have never corrected warning signals. As I said before, warning signals are a good thing!
Twice in the past few months she nipped someone who got into her personal space while she was herding – the solution to that was easy enough, I simply stopped letting people be around her while she was herding. Problem solved, no more nipping. But then the a couple weeks ago she nipped a person that was in my house. He was simply walking by her and she turned and nipped. And today she was having her belly rubbed by someone I know well(this was after she begged to be pet, she was very happy about getting her belly rubbed), he went to gently push her just a little bit, to scoot her away, and she immediately turned and nipped his arm.DSC_0198

None of these nips have drawn blood or left a puncture mark, but that does not make it okay. It is extremely concerning to me – not only that she’s nipping, but that she’s not giving noticeable warnings. Warnings are such an important part of canine communication and if she’s not giving me any chance to remove her from a situation she doesn’t like, what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to prevent bites when they’re so sudden and unpredictable?

I don’t know.

DSC_0197And that is why I have decided that I will no longer allow anyone except immediate family to touch or be near her. I am not going to risk having her bite someone that will then sue to have her euthanized for it.

I feel like a failure, as her owner, handler and trainer. So, until I work with a professional trainer, there will be no more contact with people for Nelly.

It saddens me to have to do this, because Nelly loves people so much. Every time we’re with a group of people, she goes from person to person with a happy smile on her face, begging to be pet. Sometimes when we’re in public, if there’s a person she can reach while on her leash, she’ll scoot up to them, sit, and give them her best “pet me?” face. Being around people makes her so happy!

I just can’t believe it’s come to this. Of all the dogs I’ve fostered(22 at this point) I have never had a dog with as many problems as Nelly did the day that I adopted her. I’ve been able to fix most of her issues, but it seems like it’s just one thing after another. There’s no end to her problems. I don’t what could have caused her to be so neurotic and crazy that nobody but me wanted to keep her.

When I imagined my first dog, it was one that liked kids and other dogs, one that would play fetch with me, one that I didn’t have to worry about biting. But of all the dogs in the world, I fell in love with this one. And all I want to do now is cry, because I can’t even trust my best friend to be around people.