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Unmasking Dominance Theory: Rethinking Canine Behaviour and Training

23/08/2023 - Dog Training Advice

The internet is a wonderful place for accessing information – unfortunately, it’s also a wonderful place for accessing misinformation! While this isn’t unique to the internet (people have discussed and shared incorrect and outdated information since well before its creation!), the internet does make it much easier for this kind of inaccurate and potentially harmful information to continue to spread. Perhaps the biggest example of this in the dog training world is the idea of an “alpha,” or “pack leader” – this is commonly known as “dominance theory.”
Many professional trainers base their entire methodology on the premise of a pack leader, often explaining that this is how a wolf pack is structured – with a “dominant alpha” wolf or mating pair leading the pack and disciplining the rest for stepping out of line. Did you know that this is actually not correct? The term was popularised by Dr L. David Mech, founder of the International Wolf Centre, when he quoted a study by Rudolph Schenkel in his book.
Did You Know?
The study mentioned above has since been debunked – it was based on captive wolves who fought over resources when put in an enclosure together. This caused the scientists studying them to theorise that wolves establish a “hierarchy” by means of aggression, with the most dominant wolf coming out on top and having priority access to resources. In reality, wolf packs don’t function in this way at all – a real wolf pack is a family unit, with the parental pair of wolves leading the group by default.
What Does This Mean for Dogs?
It’s important to remember that dogs actually aren’t wolves – while they did descend from them, they are a separate, domestic species. Of course, there are similarities and things the two species have in common but they should be viewed as the two different creatures they are. What we can say for sure, though, is that there is NO evidence that dogs need to be dominated or that they try to dominate us.
“Dominant” Behaviour
So, what about those cases of “dominant” behaviour in dogs, that many of us have either personally experienced with our own dogs or seen in other people’s dogs? Many behaviours labelled as “dominant” are actually due to fear, insecurity or even just not knowing our human rules! 
Behaviours such as jumping up at us and being physically domineering are often signs of an untrained dog simply expressing their excitement and trying to play and interact – they have never learnt how to do this in a way we humans find appropriate.
Dogs growling and guarding objects, space or food are not looking to be the “alpha.” They are probably resource guarding due to insecurity or fear.
Dogs who may grumble or even snap during handling scenarios, such as putting on a lead or grooming, are not trying to rule the roost – they may be in pain or simply scared! We need to rule out medical problems and take the time to teach these dogs how to feel safe and relaxed.
Anthropomorphising Dogs
“Anthropomorphising” means to apply human thoughts and feelings to non-human animals. This includes things like calling our dogs “stubborn” when they don’t recall or saying they are peeing indoors when we leave the house out of “spite.” In terms of “dominance theory,” we often hear people discussing dogs who are “disrespectful.”
It is difficult for scientists to find empirical evidence of many of the emotions we as dog owners know our dogs experience, because they can’t ask them how they’re feeling and can only observe their outward behaviour – we fully agree that our dogs have more emotional depth and intelligence than they are sometimes given credit for! That being said, things like “respect” and “spite” are very human concepts and we do our dogs a disservice when we dismiss problematic behaviours in this way – things like soiling in the house when we leave could be a symptom of extreme stress in a dog with separation anxiety and our dogs not recalling may simply mean we haven’t put the time into training that is needed if we want our dogs to know what to do and be capable of doing it in any situation. 
How Does This Impact Our Relationship with Our Dogs?
Far from a benign myth, “dominance/alpha theory” is incredibly harmful to the training world and many people’s relationships with their dogs – not to mention the dogs themselves. With the notion that we need to become the “pack leader” and battle for superiority with our dogs, comes the justification for using unkind, punishment-based training methods to keep our dogs under our thumb. Training based on this outdated concept tends to employ methods from simple “corrections” such as a “lead pop” (jerking the lead suddenly to jolt the dog when they do something wrong, such as pull), to more severe examples of physically punishing a dog by hitting or using tools such as prong or shock collars. 
It's not that this training never works – behavioural science tells us that it certainly can change our dogs’ behaviour and, sadly, we still see it employed to stop unwanted behaviour on a regular basis. The problem is that it does this by suppressing behaviour – rather than teaching our dogs what to do instead, punishment-based training relies on using fear, discomfort and pain which our dogs try to avoid. It’s not difficult to imagine how this way of communicating with our dogs can easily harm our relationships with them, as they associate us with the very things they are trying to avoid. I really like this video, which shows how training with punishment vs rewards can impact a learner’s confidence, learning ability and emotional state.
Not only can this type of training turn us into the big bad monster in our dogs’ lives – something no loving dog owner really wants to be – it can also have huge ramifications on our pups’ welfare. Many unwanted behaviours are normal dog behaviours and it’s important we offer our dogs appropriate outlets for them, as simply suppressing these behaviours can lead to frustration, anxiety and an overall increase in stress levels both short and long term.
Suppressing behaviour also stops our dogs from feeling safe to express themselves – punishing a dog for growling, for example, only teaches the dog not to growl. It doesn’t help us to address what is causing them to feel the need to growl (a natural way for a dog to communicate their discomfort with a situation). Punishing the dog can increase the dog’s negative association with something they were already uncomfortable or fearful around and effectively “takes the batteries out of the smoke alarm.” The dog no longer growls to ask for space and people think the problem has been resolved and then the dog escalates to biting “out of the blue.”
What Can We Do Instead?
Behavioural science tells us that the most ethical, kind and effective way to train any learner – dogs included – is to use positive reinforcement-based training! Training with rewards means setting dogs up for success, making it easy for them to do the right thing and reinforcing good behaviour. This doesn’t mean ignoring or allowing unwanted or problematic behaviour, but using our incredible human brains to set up the environment so things go the way we’d like them to! Training with positive reinforcement results in happy, confident, optimistic dogs who love to learn and actively seek to do the things we want them to do. It creates good associations, strengthens our relationship and is enriching to our dogs’ lives (as well as benefitting us!).
We are so lucky to be raising dogs at a time when positive reinforcement training is better understood and more popular than ever – when we have the knowledge to do better by our pups, why wouldn’t we?! The fact that studies have also shown this to be the quickest and more effective way to train is just the icing on the cake! 
Get Training Now!
Now that you know how much fun training can be for both you and your dog, why not get booked into classes? Whether there you’d like to work on something specific, such as lead walking or recall, or just want to have fun together, build a stronger relationship, learn how to communicate with each other more effectively and see what you and your pup can achieve – classes are the place to be! 

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