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Dominance What the Heck

09/05/2018 - Latest News

Our stance on dominance theory;

This post isn’t designed for debate or controversy but just to answer a few questions and let our clients and followers know where we stand on this particular ‘hot potato’ of a subject.

We often get clients concerned that their dogs are being ‘dominant’…. But what does this actually mean?

Dominance theory was a popular concept 30 plus years ago and has been popularised by a particular Tv dog trainer over the years.

Dominance theory gained momentum following on from a study of a captive wolf pack in the 1940’s which concluded that wolves fought for dominance and had a very hierarchical structure (Schenkel, 1947). The dominant wolf was defined as the Alpha. This stuck and then seemed to gradually transpose itself onto our domesticated pet dogs.

One of the main criticisms is that its not overly logical to use information about wolves to explain the behaviour of our domesticated dog? Humans are closest genetically to chimpanzees, however, our differences are very clear, in fact humans also share 90% of their DNA with mice! And we share 50% with bananas (bet you didn’t see that coming).

Another criticism is that comparing a captive animal species is completely irrelevant in trying to  explain the ‘normal’ behaviour of that species, groups forced to exist together in a confined space are more likely to demonstrate displays of aggression. I guess it’s a bit like sticking a bunch of hand picked humans in a confined big brother house type set up and studying their behaviour as an example of what’s normal!

Anyhoo! LOTS has happened since the original 1940’s studies and more recent studies have proven those early dominance studies are wrong (e.g Mech, 1999). In fact more recent studies have demonstrated that wild wolf packs are a family group and that many behaviours previously defined as being alpha/ dominant are in fact fluid according to the particular situation and based on the individual strengths of each wolf meaning they live harmoniously avoiding the need for aggression and then the lead of the pack will change depending on the situation needed, for the good of the pack.

Aside from this though, dogs are not wolves! There are huge differences in their behaviour, ecology and physiology. Wolves have not evolved to live with humans in the same way that dogs have.

So how does this relate to pet dogs?

Hmmm, good question!

Dominance theory suggests that dogs use aggressive behaviour to try and dominate humans and take their place in the house as pack leader or ‘Alpha dog’. The dominance based solution to counteract such problems are often scary or aversive to the dog and involve intimidating or manhandling the dog until they ‘submit’ to the human as their pack leader. This has included, placing dogs on their back and/or pinning them to the ground, staring into their eyes to make hem submissive etc)

The problem with this approach as we at Jackador see it (and indeed as most reputable trainers, training organisations and welfare organisations) is that firstly, it makes assumptions about dogs wanting to control an entirely different species (believe me the amount of time we hear ‘but their mother would have done this to the pup’). Dogs are intelligent sentient beings. Do people really think they aren’t clever enough to notice we aren’t dogs? Dog communication consists of nuances and subtleties that we as humans are completely unaware of, communication between dogs is not something we can replicate or should want to. We have our own unique relationship with our dogs.

In dominance theory Aggression is often misinterpreted as an attempt at pack leadership and often completely overlooks the fact that aggression can be born out of fear, anxiety, learning, social confusion and stress. This means fearful, anxious dogs are then subjected to aversive techniques aimed at making them submit to a higher power resulting in dogs forced into even more defensive aggression or completely emotionally shut down/damaged.  

Our worry is that these methods are also dangerous for pet owners, leaving them vulnerable to being bitten or attacked. The quality of relationship and bond with the dog can also be severely impacted.

For advice and support on more modern, proven training techniques using reinforcement and not rank, look for appropriately accredited trainers and behaviourists from organisations such as the IMDT, APDT, PPG, APBC, ABTC.