Q: Is it true that a person needs to be dominant in their relationship with their dog so he’ll obey them?
A: The definition of dominance is “who controls access.” Using physical force is not necessary to accomplish this. If a three-year-old child has her hand on the doorknob, she is dominant because she controls whether the dog goes in or out. If she is holding a ball, in the dog’s eyes, she is dominant because she controls access to the ball. So dominance doesn’t mean who is bigger or stronger …although that sometimes plays a part. It simply means setting up your environment so that you control access to things your dog wants and he has to look to you to get what he wants. You control the food, affection, toys, social freedom, climate control, and everything else in his universe. There is no negotiation. In effect, you are saying, “I’ll give you the world, but you’ve got to do something for me first.” When the dog figures this out, you simply ask the dog to do something before providing the reward, whether it be food, chasing a ball, going outside, etc.
For many years, concepts about hierarchy within the canine world led to the idea that one dog in the pack is the top ranking “alpha dog” and that that dog is dominant in all situations. In recent years this concept has been researched extensively by leading animal behaviorists who now consider it to be outmoded and simplistic. Still, the perception that dogs look up to the alpha in the pack as some sort of tyrannical dictator and that humans should take on this role has been perpetuated by the authors of many mainstream dog training books and trainers on television. They use this theory to teach you to mandate your authority as the physical-force leader of your dog’s pack—the boss, the head honcho, the big cheese, the numero uno. Woe to him if he doesn’t obey. Unfortunately, this outmoded idea has some trainers perpetuating the myth that humans should use physical displays with the family dog including physically forcing dogs to walk behind them, standing over them, pinning them to the ground, always entering a room first, and so on, supposedly to mimic the behaviors of packs in the wild. Well, none of these things actually exist in the wild except around food or procreation issues.
The most frequently repeated phrase by trainers who endorse this outdated “dominance” theory is. “You must always win when training your dog.” If you think about it, the phrase “you must always win” conveys that there is a competition going on. And a competition means there is a “win-lose” mentality. How can you and your dog become a behavioral team when you are caught up in an environment of having to compete and win at all costs?
Dogs are social animals but there is no “one dog rules all” pack mentality. L. David Mech, one of the world’s leading experts on the pack behavior of wild wolves, prefers to associate the term alpha with parenting. Parents understand the importance of protecting and educating their children. After all, the parenting role requires not just providing food, shelter, and clothing, but also setting boundaries. What you want the dog to do and the child to do is to take their cues about the appropriateness of their behavior from you and that is the context within which you guide and protect them. A child can’t just run out into the middle of the street or steal a toy from another child in the schoolyard without consequences. In the best of circumstances, the parent acts as a loving, nonviolent guardian; he is the source and provider of safety and comfort, and he educates the child through the use of examples, boundaries, and limits. In the same way, you must educate and act as a loving, nonviolent, benevolent guardian in your dog’s life.
Mech says: “In natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all.”1 Mech continues, “Breeding wolves [only] provide leadership because offspring tend to follow their parents’ initiative …. The point here is not so much the terminology but what the terminology falsely implies: a rigid, force-based dominance hierarchy.”2 Mech’s research shows that, while breeding wolves provided the most leadership, wolves who had subordinate roles also provided leadership during travel. He says, “No ‘alpha’ [emphasis mine] would suddenly run to the front of the pack and force the subordinate to get behind him.”3
The following excerpt is from the book Ain’t Misbehavin’ by John C. Wright, PH.D (2001)
“Well, I hate to admit this—since I was one of the handful of people trying to correctly understand and document real behavioral characteristics of dogs and cats in the 1970s—but we had it wrong.
The theory was that people should behave like members of the pack, and the animal needed to be controlled by its dominant member. So I was among those behaviorists gripping a young dog by the fur on its neck to hold the too-assertive pup down in a moment of discipline, just like the mother wolf was supposed to do. This technique turns out to be infrequent even for mommy wolves, and it is clearly not an appropriate method of instruction for a dog or cat owner. You won’t hear that from many gung-ho ‘alpha animal’ trainers because the word hasn’t really gotten out yet. But now it’s time to move on to the next level of behavior training … our role is not to dominate, but to lead and enable pets in our household to fulfill their needs.
Over the last decade, this wolf-envy among dog owners has become the ‘in’ theory, tossed around by everyone who could tune in a daily talk show. This concept became so popular in recent years that the phrase ‘alpha male’ came to replace the earlier ‘macho man’ as the trendiest concept in the social fabric of our culture. Unfortunately, thinking of our male dogs-or cats-as alpha animals can stir up a lot more trouble than the original behavior problem.”
According to Dr. Karen Overall, many animal behaviorists believe that although each member of a group works in his own self interest, that self interest manifests in shared responsibilities. It would be abnormal for one animal to constantly have to demonstrate through force that he was dominant. In reality, each situation in the group dynamic entails a collaborative effort. In the wild, these social interactions are dependent on what’s going on in the environment because success for the group is dependent on working together. Studies suggest the only situations that trigger an absolute rank hierarchy are around disasters or stressful situations relating to resources like food and sex (procreation).
So the question arises, why do some trainers seem to elicit almost miraculous results in getting dogs to do what they want through what they call “dominance” training. The truth is, it isn’t miraculous, nor is it related to dominance. The results are due to using physical force in order to suppress behaviors, which is done by using positive punishment and physically forcing fearful dogs into overwhelming situations until they “shut down,” which is called flooding, leading to, depending on the situation, behavioral suppression and learned helplessness. Calling this dominance training is simply incorrect and its practice can be dangerous for both dogs and humans, especially when aggression is involved. It’s pure abuse when used with fearful dogs.
Animals defer to one another to keep their group safe, strong, and healthy. If one individual threatens the group’s collaborative efforts by asserting himself in ways contrary to the group’s well being, he is thrown out. There are many examples of animal packs ousting members who tried to rule by brute force. Wolves have banished individuals who constantly used undue physical force to exert their authority. Monkeys also have been shown to attack and oust brutish members who used their strength and size against other members of the group.
Asking your dog to lie down before releasing him to go up the steps or out the door presents terrific everyday training opportunities. So does asking him to sit before being fed, or asking him to jump off the couch so he can be rewarded by getting back on the couch to sit with you. But asking for these behaviors and rewarding your dog is much different than “showing him who’s boss” and physically forcing him to sit, lie down, and obey you in all things under the threat of punishment.
So when you read about or hear about how important it is to control your dog by showing him who’s boss through physical force or punishment, I ask that you reconsider. Don’t compete; instead educate. Show him how the world provides his food, affection, and freedom—and ignores him when he behaves inappropriately. (Of course, use common sense here—don’t ignore him when doing so would cause harm to him, to others, or to the environment.) Educate your dog about the appropriateness of his behavior. Create an environment in which you can guide and protect him, yourself, and the environment.
“If our goal is peace, our means must be peaceful.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
1Mech, L. David. 1999. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online. http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/mammals/alstat/index.htm (Version 16MAY2000).