Dog dominance? Why it’s time to ditch this outdated idea
Back in the day, the ‘dominance’ theory quite literally dominated dog training. The theory assumed that dogs are motivated to achieve a higher social ‘status’ relative to other dogs or people in order to achieve control. The conclusion was that, in order to deal with a problem, dog owners needed to establish ‘dominance’ over the dog. Today, canine behaviour experts and trainers agree that the foundations on which this theory was based are flawed, and the ‘dominance’ theory should be consigned to the dustbin of outdated ideas.
Rachel Casey of canine rehoming charity Dogs Trust says: “If one assumes that the behaviour of a dog is motivated by a desire to control or ‘dominate’ its owner, it tends to lead on to the conclusion that in order to deal with the problem, the owner needs to establish ‘dominance’ over the dog. This interpretation of dog behaviour, therefore, has tended to encourage the development of training techniques that use punishment or force to ‘show the dog who is boss’. Lots of behaviourists and trainers used to think in this way, but with the advancement of science, we now know that the foundations on which this theory was based are flawed (see explanation below), and the majority of trainers and behaviourists have changed their practices as a result.
“We also have a much better understanding of how the brain works, and how animals learn, which has enabled us to develop a better understanding of why behaviours such as aggression do develop in dogs. It is therefore important to re-evaluate the techniques we use in the training of dogs, and make sure we use techniques that are not only effective but are least likely to compromise the welfare of our pets.”
"Most canine behaviour problems stem from insecurity and/or a desire to seek and maintain safety and comfort – not from a desire to establish higher rank and be the ‘alpha’ over you"
Dogs are not on a quest for world domination
Canine expert and presenter of It’s Me or the Dog Victoria Stilwell states: “Dogs are not on a quest for world domination. They are not socialised wolves who are constantly striving to be ‘top dog’ over us, and they are not hard-wired to try and control every situation. Most canine behaviour problems stem from insecurity and/or a desire to seek and maintain safety and comfort – not from a desire to establish higher rank and be the ‘alpha’ over you. Therefore, teaching dogs ‘who’s the boss’ by forcing them into some mythical state called ‘calm submission’ is precisely the opposite of what they actually need in order to learn effectively and overcome behavioural issues.”
Rachel Casey agrees: “If people believe that a dog does something to ‘achieve status’, ‘control them’ or ‘be the boss’ it naturally tends to lead people to use coercive training techniques. This relies on using techniques that will intimidate or scare a dog in order to inhibit an unwanted behaviour, and unfortunately these techniques are not only detrimental for the bond between person and dog but may result in the exacerbation of issues. Because we now know that in most cases, behaviours formerly believed to be caused by dominance, such as aggression, are actually motivated by fear, using techniques that rely on scaring the dog further can make the problem worse in the long term.”
"Your dog doesn’t need to view you as more dominant than them, but they do need to learn to trust you and understand your commands"
Rewarding good behaviour is what works
Thankfully, today, the ‘dominance theory’ has soundly been replaced by reward-based training techniques, also known as ‘positive reinforcement’. Veterinary care charity PDSA defines it as this: “By rewarding your dog with a treat when they do what you want, they’ll want to behave that way again. Repeat this several times. So, if you want them to sit, give the command and give the treat either during the good behaviour or immediately afterwards. Your dog will eventually respond to your command without needing the reward. Your dog doesn’t need to view you as more dominant than them, but they do need to learn to trust you and understand your commands.”
Where did the ‘dominance theory’ come from? Dogs Trust provides an enlightening explanation…
- Dominance came to be used to describe dog behaviour through very early studies of wolves. This research was based on observations of captive groups of unrelated wolves forced to live together. Scientists found that there was a lot of aggression within the groups as the wolves formed a ‘dominance hierarchy’ to decide which wolves had first access to resources and mating rights.
- Since the wolf is the ancestor of the dog, some people suggested that the same pattern must be true of dogs, with each individual driven to be the ‘leader’ or ‘alpha’ of the group.
- However, recent research on natural populations of wild wolves refutes the early evidence of ‘dominance hierarchies' and suggests that the groupings are more based on co-operative family groups, where one breeding pair produce puppies and other members of the family assist with rearing them. These groups are based on co-operation, where the parents ‘guide’ their offspring in developing social and hunting skills and there is no ‘alpha’ achieved by strength or aggression, Aggressive behaviour is very rare in these stable groups, as the wolves are free to disperse if there is conflict, rather than being forced to live together.
- The next assumption of the ‘dominance theory’ is that since wolves are the ancestors of dogs, their behaviour will be the same. However, dogs are likely to have been the first species of animal to ever be domesticated (perhaps as long as 60,000 years ago) – not only would the species of wolf that dogs originate from be very different from today’s wolves, but we have also changed the behaviour of dogs considerably during that time.
- Dogs, having evolved from a highly social species, have the ability to read each other’s behaviour, establish how each other are feeling and flexibly change their behaviour accordingly, depending on individual relationships and experiences. This is very different from the old ideas where dogs were considered to have a single purpose of wanting to ‘dominate’ other individuals.
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