Myth Busting: Dominance and Dogs

This is a topic i am extremely passionate about. I still remember when i got my first dog at 13 years old and a trainer came to our home to help me with training my new puppy. It was all about “uh uh!!” and “no!!” and most importantly about establishing myself as the “alpha” dog.

dominance dog trainerA long time ago, some research was done on a group of captive wolves. The researchers observed that there seemed to be a whole lot of conflict in the group leading to there being an alpha male and female and a group of subordinate wolves. The dog community liked the term “alpha” and, figuring that dogs descended from wolves, decided that to train their dogs they would have to be “alpha” too. This led to trainers instructing people to go through a range of routines, such as being first through doors, never letting dogs on furniture, always eating before their dog, etc, all in an effort to be “alpha” in the “pack”. In extreme situations people were even instructed to pin their dogs on their back until they “submitted”.

Since this original research was done, zoologists and others in the scientific community have spent time observing wild wolves and have found that these wolves actually live in family groups. Just like in a human family the breeding pair (parents) are naturally the leaders, and the offspring from previous litters live cooperatively to help hunt and raise the new litter. Eventually the older offspring will leave to find their own mates, and they will then become the leaders in their own pack. They are not vying for “dominance” or to be “alpha”, they are living and breeding cooperatively in a way that improves species survival.

Watch David Mech, original researcher who coined the term “alpha”, explain why it is no longer relevant.

It is important to note that wolves don’t usually physically fight amongst their pack/family over things like “status”, and even scuffles over resources are highly ritualized – meaning the wolves use their well developed range of body language to diffuse conflict before it becomes physical (it is a waste of energy, and a survival risk, to get physical with your own family in the wild). This raises questions about the validity of any kind of checking, tapping, or other “bite” substitutes traditional trainers use “to mimic dog behaviour” when correcting a dog.

dog body languageWe have also got a lot more information on how wild/feral dogs live in various parts of the world. Rather than working cooperatively in a group, or pack, they tend to live independently in areas rich in resources (such as at tips, or in villages). Rather than hunting to take down large prey, they scavenge alone. They come together to mate, and even that is random – not based on who is “alpha”.

So we know that wolves don’t waste energy vying for alpha status, and we know that despite common ancestry, feral dogs behave and live in completely different ways to wolves. So why are we still “dominating” our pet dogs?

Dominance, as it applies to dogs, is not about status but rather about resources. If you have two dogs, one might always be first to get to the food (or perhaps it can take food from the other). This dog is dominant in that context. When it comes to play the other dog might get the ball first, and so it would be dominant during play. It is a description of behaviour in context, not a description of personality type, and it is a fluid state.

Describing certain behaviours, such as jumping up, stealing food, and rushing through doors, as the dog being “dominant” is not only flawed, but it instantly puts us in a confrontational state of mind. We have to show the dog who is boss!! Actually, dogs jump up to get closer to our face, a natural dog greeting, and because we often accidentally reinforce behaviours such as this. They steal food because it tastes great, and we haven’t taught them not to. And they rush through doors because there is something good on the other side. These are training problems, not personality problems.

We need to stop using dominance as an excuse to bully our dogs. Rather than pushing them around and engaging in pointless routines, we can be good leaders by showing our dogs what we want them to do in ways they can understand, such as through positive reinforcement training, and motivate them to do it again next time. Try it, your dog will appreciate it!


4 thoughts on “Myth Busting: Dominance and Dogs

  1. Nice post Belinda, a topic close to my own heart as well. I had a similar experience with my first dog who started to develop reactive behaviour when on-leash in large part due to check-chain based training. I finally realised that kind of training was making him scared and confused, not submissive, and neither of those things were going to build the kind of relationship I wanted with my dog anyway. We changed to positive reinforcement training and five years down the road he’s a much happier and more secure dog for it. Looking back, putting him through that is one of my biggest regrets but I just didn’t know any better – dominance-based training was all I’d ever heard of.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Liz. I tried to train my own dog through leash corrections too. Looking back i am very thankful he didn’t become leash reactive…though he never stopped pulling!! I would love to have the opportunity to try again with positive-reinforcement, because i’m sure the results would be different!

  2. You need to do research on the difference between dominance and alpha. Alpha as Dr. Mech said is about FIGHTING for dominance. Meanwhile dominance is simply being in charge in a situation. My point being that by being a leader you are being dominant.

    1. G’day cozwolf! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog.

      The term “dominance” has been so muddied over the years, especially as it applies to our pet dogs. I’ll link you to the AVSAB position statement on Dominance, if you haven’t seen it before. In short though, dominance particularly applies to who gets priority access to resources (such as food, resting spots, and mates). This is not often an issue in human-dog interactions because we have the opposable thumbs, we certainly control the resources. Leadership is the ability someone has to influence the behaviour of others. Now this is more relevant to how we want to interact with our dogs! You can influence others through coercion and punishment, but plenty of studies on humans and dogs show that using positive methods is far more effective.

      Here is the link to the AVSAB article, i hope you find it full of useful information!

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