Dominance theory is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the dog world. As a bit of a wordsmith, the phrase itself bothers me. Dominance describes the relationship between two individuals at any given moment in time. One is alpha, one is beta. Five minutes from now it could be reversed. It is not a constant state of affairs or a constant battle, it is not a statement of personalities. One wants first pick at food, the other acquiesces. The other wants first choice of sleeping locations, the other acquiesces. These things go on without your knowledge and this is dominance. You probably do this with your significant other and don’t even realize it. Furthermore, dominance is different than hierarchy. I believe that these words are used, unknowingly, interchangeably.
Hierarchy then gets muddled and confused when used in conjunction with wolf pack ancestry. Dogs are related to wolves, yes. We are related to chimpanzees, yes. Are we the same? No. Are dogs the same as wolves? No. Domestic dogs are a different species. Just as humans are a different species than a chimpanzee. There is worthwhile information to learn form the study of wolves (chimpanzees) about social structure, genetics, breeding, etc. but THEY ARE DIFFERENT. You would no more say, “well the chimpanzees do it/have it/need it” so we do too, than you would for the wolf/dog.
Hierarchy is a group of two or more individuals, with each pair having a dominance relationship, and those pairs linearly constructed so that each is subordinate to the one above it. Wolves kind of follow this. They structure themselves into a family. There is an alpha male and female (usually the oldest members of the pack), their cubs, and a hierarchal family structure on down. Lone wolves (no mates, no cubs) are the lowest ranking members of the pack. A great, much more intelligent discussion than I can muster is in Dog Sense by John Bradshaw, specifically Chapter 3 “Why Dogs Were- Unfortunately- Turned Back Into Wolves.”
Traditional thinking assumes that the domestic dog’s hierarchal behavior in the home comes from the wolf, but there is little evidence to support this. In fact, some previous theories have flat out been discredited (refer again to Dog Sense, pg. 83). A common belief among some trainers is that dogs are always trying to attain dominance over their “pack”, trying to be the alpha of the house. Again, there is no evidence to support this. There is no evidence to support that domestic dogs have any interest or need to establish hierarchies. They need structure and guidance much the way a child would, but that is not the same as dominance or a hierarchy. The fact is, if you have a dog that is acting “dominant” the reason is probably much more simple. You.
Research has shown that dogs respond most positively to training with rewards, specifically lure-reward methods. Punishment methods only reinforce fear, anxiety, and eventually aggression. From Patricia McConnell’s blog, punishment methods could labeled as such:
“Aversive: Direct Confrontation” (alpha rolls, leash corrections, “dominance down,” hit or kick, neck jab, putting on a muzzle, etc.),
“Aversive: Indirect Confrontation” (Yell “NO,” Say “Schhhtt,” stare down, growl at dog)
Have you done some of these things? I have. There are celebrity dog shows that promote some of these things, as well as “dog commandments” such as
- Don’t let the dog on the bed- she is claiming your space (i.e., dominance)
- Don’t let the dog walk out of the door in front of you (i.e., dominance)
- Don’t let the dog walk ahead of you on a walk (i.e., dominance)
- Don’t let the dog win a tug-of-war (i.e., promotes dominance, aggressiveness)
Reggie was “raised” on the methods of a very popular TV show, and held to the commandments above. He is a great dog, very well trained and very well behaved. But now that I research and write this blog I have learned so much about the things I didn’t know. I let him win tug-of-war now. The idea is simple- dogs that are forced to lose every time don’t want to play with you. He loves tug-of-war because I let him win half the time. Duh. And the alpha roll? I’ve done this when he has done something wrong, something I perceived as deserving. Turns out the alpha roll is from wolves whereby the lead pack member would roll a misbehaving pack member. Hey guess what? Dogs do not do this to each other. They’re not wolves remember? You do this to a dog and it is seen as aggressive and threatening- not as asserting “dominance.”
Old school trainers hold on to these theories because it is tradition (“it’s how we’ve always done things”, “I have 30 years of perfectly behaved dogs”) and think dogs need to learn their place in the pack. Unfortunately, these theories won’t die with TV shows that still support misguided (and sometimes blatantly false- do the research) training.
Modern trainers, supported by scientific evidence and motivated by how dogs actually learn, are trying to change the perception that is out there. Why don’t they get airtime? Read Patricia McConnell, Dr. Sohpia Yin, Dr. Ian Dunbar, John Bradhsaw, Emily Blackwell, Meghan Herron, and many others. These people are doing scientific research on dog behavior and are leaders in the field. I trust their opinions and training methods more than a TV show.