I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!
Debunking Dominance Theory
April 30, 2017
As a dog trainer, I frequently encounter people in classes who express concern about being sure their dog is clear on who is the “alpha” in the home. Many fans of a certain dog training TV show have tried to apply that show’s techniques to their own dogs, believing that showing your dog who is the boss is how you get a well behaved pet.
While there are many books out there that describe how more current data and science have disproved that idea, I thought that I would, in a nutshell, explain a bit for those of you who may be considering those methods with your own dog. That celebrity trainer subscribes to what is called dominance theory - the idea that you have to dominate your dog and be the "alpha" to gain obedience. The scientist who originally created that theory - Mech - was studying adult wolves in captivity. This is not a natural habitat or relationship for wolves, with unrelated adults being thrown together in a small space. The behavior he witnessed as a result was not a true representation of wolf behavior or social structure. As he continued to study wolves in the wild, Mech discovered that this theory was very incorrect, that wolves exist in extended families, and that force and domination/intimidation are not used in the family unit. The alpha pair is simply the breeding male and female, and the pack is typically their offspring, current litters of pups and some juveniles who have not yet left to form their own packs. There is no competition to be the leader - submission is freely offered by younger members, as with children and parents/older siblings. Mech published several more papers dispelling dominance theory afterward.
People have unfortunately clung to this idea and it's unfortunate that as a result, dogs have suffered prong collars, choke collars, electric shock and worse all in the name of establishing "dominance." In addition, dogs are NOT wolves - they have a common ancestor, but to apply the same principles to dog behavior and wolf behavior is like saying we should be treated like chimpanzees because some of our DNA matches. Dogs evolved separately from wolves and are domesticated. The evolved to make humans their companions, but it is highly unlikely that they see us as other wolves and they certainly do not attempt to take over our households. Like bratty children, they need to learn manners. Consistency and firm rules are needed, and like children, I don't think you establish leadership, respect, or trust by using physical punishment. Just the opposite in fact - instead of building a relationship you rule by fear. We often forget, because they are so well adapted to companionship with people, that dogs don’t come knowing how to live in a human world automatically. Dogs have to learn what behaviors are appropriate in a human home and which are not, and so many behaviors that people point to as dominance are just dogs being dogs, not knowing or having been taught how to properly behave in a human home.
Dominance and punishment training always seem to go hand in hand, and unfortunately, many times people focus on punishing what is wrong without ever showing a dog what behavior they do want. The dog winds up confused and afraid to do anything for fear of punishment. This makes it appear sometimes that the dog is responding to the training and that the problem behavior is stopping. The reality is the dog still doesn’t know what you want, it’s just afraid of the consequences of making a mistake. When dogs shut down because they learn that no matter what they do they cannot escape punishment, it's called learned helplessness, and in my opinion it's one of the saddest things to see. Imagine if I wanted you to do something, but I didn’t tell you what or how to do it, I just punched you in the face every time you did something wrong, and did nothing if you did it right. How long would it take you to give up? People want a quick fix sometimes, and punishment certainly can deliver that, but at what cost?
Learning to train positively might take longer sometimes but it's kinder to the dog in my opinion. Many people get concerned that they will have to use food for everything forever. No one wants to have to treat their dog for every little thing forever, and it's not necessary to do so if you properly work at phasing it out, but for many people that is where they stop training or get stuck. Proper training includes learning how to wean off of food treats. Punishment and prong collars are a crutch too - if you take it off your dog will you still have a dog that walks well on leash? In most cases, not a chance.
The AVSAB (American Vet Society of Animal Behavior, (http://avsabonline.org/resources/position-statements) made three strongly worded statements that give me hope that changes are going to happen in the dog training industry and society at large over time:
The AVSAB recommends that veterinarians not refer clients to trainers or behavior consultants who coach and advocate dominance hierarchy theory and the subsequent confrontational training that follows from it.
Instead, the AVSAB emphasizes that animal training, behavior prevention strategies, and behavior modification programs should follow the scientifically based guidelines of positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, desensitization, and counter conditioning.
The AVSAB recommends that veterinarians identify and refer clients only to trainers and behavior consultants who understand the principles of learning theory and who focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors and removing the reinforcement for undesirable behaviors.
For more info on this topic, here are a couple books that I think are both scientifically accurate and easy to read.
The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs, by Patricia B. McConnell
Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, by John Bradshaw