Just wanted to post an article I wrote on a very misunderstood topic.
Yep, this topic has been beaten down like no other in the realm of dog training. It is a topic that raises the
hackles on many dog enthusiasts who want to put their horse in the race.
Oh ,if only our dogs could speak to us. I think they would be would be begging us for more than just their treats. They
would be begging us to forget about the preconceived idea that they are out to take over our way of life, our home and our
desire to be boss. They would be asking us, where in dog's green earth did you get the idea that I Want to challenge you for
authority? Why do you think that when I jump up on you , that I'm trying to be pushy, when I simply want to say hello ,I'm
glad you're home? Yes our dogs would have lots of questions for us. I think they would be pleading questions ,when in their
view , we are totally misinterpreting their motives.
So what is this thing called dominance? Some people believe that most behavioural issues with dogs can be related to
some sort of social hierarchy. And I think this is where the whole issue has gone wrong. Dominance in dogs does exist but it
is an infrequent and misinterpreted behaviour. People would define dominance as "control or command over others.” In another
note dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and
submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates
(Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993).
Twenty-five years ago what is termed as traditional dog training was typically the norm for most dog training methods.
At the heart of this type of training was the dominance theory which basically implied that dominance was the basis for most
dog behavioural problems. It consisted of prong and pinch collars , lots of corrections and generally a heavy handed, take
charge method of operation. Alpha rolls ,scruff shakes and coercive methods were used to show the dog who was boss and many
methods incorporated the use of flooding which was basically forcing a dog to face its fears. In the past two decades ,
behavioural science started to emerge, which strongly showed that the whole philosophy behind treating dogs like wolves was
flawed from the beginning. Studies revealed that wolves do not force subordinates onto their back. Rather subordinates
offer the posture as a sign of deference. Behaviourists agree that studies on the process of domestication and on canine
communication are making it more and more clear that a dog is not a wolf. While social hierarchies do exist between like
species, they are not related to aggression in the way it was thought in the past. Studies into canine behaviour have found
that dogs, while sharing some characteristics with the wolf, have many more significant differences. The romantic idea that
we have a domesticated wolf in our family has been engrained and therefore been maintained to this day.
The status of one dog over another is predictable. in other words, one dog may be the first to take possession of a
bone , but will defer to the other dog when it comes to choice of toys. Dogs that display aggression are not displaying
dominance, but rather anxiety-based behaviours. One of the biggest side affects of thinking our dogs are trying to dominate us is that it creates an adversarial relationship between the owner and their dog. The myth in the “dominance theory,” such as not letting a dog to sleep on the bed, or eat first, or go through doorways first, has no basis on whether or not the dog
will look to the owner for guidance. Many playful, and fearful gestures are misinterpreted as being aggressive, or dominant in nature.
Dr Rachel Casey, Senior Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Bristol University, said: “The blanket
assumption that every dog is motivated by some innate desire to control people and other dogs is frankly ridiculous. It
hugely underestimates the complex communicative and learning abilities of dogs. It also leads to the use of coercive training
techniques, which compromise welfare, and actually cause problem behaviours" . "The cause of most behavioural problems is
miscommunication and not dominance issues. Most behavioural issues can be solved by owners learning how to teach a dog what it is they want, and by using the science of classical and operant conditioning. . Although dominance is correctly a property of relationships, it has been misused to describe a personality type trait of individual dogs, and When used correctly to
describe a relationship between 2 individuals, it tends to be misapplied as a motivation for social interactions. Some dogs
are more assertive than others and try harder to control resources. Dogs that are submissive easily give up the valued
resource or don't attempt to control it in the first place.
The assumption in the old "dominance theory" that since wolves are the ancestors of dogs, the two species will form
similar social structures. The dog has changed considerably from its ancestral species since it has become domesticated and
the studies of feral dogs show that the social structure of feral dogs is completely different. For example, mating is
unrestricted in feral dogs and although appeasement behaviours do occur, it is both within family groups, and between
individuals of different groups, suggesting a general function of diffusing conflict, rather than being a specific
‘submission’ behaviour to maintain group hierarchical structures. Studies of feral dogs tend to suggest, therefore, that
domestication has significantly altered the social behaviour of dogs from their ancestral species. In free living groups,
feral dogs do not form structured packs, and there is no restriction of breeding, and hence no apparently hierarchy structure based on a single breeding pair and their offspring as is found in wolves. When domestic dogs were given free roam in the environment the interactions suggested that these dogs had a learnt pattern of behaviour with each other, which may or may not vary between different situations, but which could not be combined into any overall group. The domestic dog is not a pack animal in the true sense of the word.
Individual dogs can be bold or shy and that is true in all species. In shy individuals, behaviour that does not meet
our expectations is likely to be also marked with fear and in bold individuals behaviour is likely to be unrestrained. Most
dogs’ behaviour will be a combination of these two extremes. That complexity is increased because our dogs no longer live in
their original ways as scavengers. They have been transposed through selective breeding for specific purposes such as herding
hunting and guarding. Through selective breeding we have created dogs whose emotional balance depends on being able to
fulfil their desire to exhibit these inherited predispositions, at least to some degree. And it this diversion to perform
things deeply rooted in their nature that conflicts with the ideas we have for them being pets.
One quick look into multi-dog households quite often shows that “dominance” of one dog over another is not absolute.
There generally is no one dog that always controls all situations all the time. It appears that resources, not instinct,
dictates this behaviour we call “dominance". On a given day, your “food dominant” dog may not be hungry and will not push to
the front to maintain his “alpha” position in the “pack.” It seems the social dynamics of dogs are much more fluid and based
on access to resources, rather than any sort of hard-wired need for a position in a perceived social hierarchy system.
Most interactions we assume to be competitive are not always. We can play tug with our dogs and encourage them to
relinquish a toy on cue. Sometimes dogs can play tug with another dog and it can become competitive . In this case it is
deemed as a sign of dominance. Quite often though the toy is returned to the other without any challenge. So in this context
it proves to be insignificant and more of a play motive than anything. Most dogs are predisposed to taking a subordinate role
to humans. They have learned that we do indeed control all resources important to them and therefore are not motivated to
challenge us for these priorities. Dominance is a description of a relationship between two members of the same species,
not a personality of an individual. If two individuals want the same object , one individual would be described as “dominant”
if he gets the object all of the time.That's how ethologists define it. What’s often not understood, is that it is context
dependent.One individual might get the bone every time, but the other might get the sleeping place. Motivation and context
is everything, and behaviour in one context doesn't necessarily predict behaviour in another.
. Dogs are conspecific. That means they can only truly pack up with their own kind. Us pretending we can act like or try
to resemble them is preposterous. Being a "pack leader" is the call of those who really are only fooling themselves. Being a
benevolent trainer is what we should be trying to strive for.
Why does the dominance theory still survive even though we have new science and understanding to refute it? We, as a
species, are very concerned with who is winning and who is over or under who. Social dominance makes for a colourful story and humans are very story oriented. It is dramatic and also a lot easier for some to understand than the simple principles of learning. The whole wolf in the home vision is romantic and enticing. It is sexy and offers more drama than science. And in the last decade in particular has the excitement of television to resurrect it from the downward trend that was evolving. It is easy to see why people are fond of the concepts of “pack” and “dominance” in relation to dogs. A pack means we’re all part of the same group. “Dominance” explains our relative positions in that pack.And in this pack, they either dominate us or we dominate them. To be “alpha”, with all its powers, is what shows you are in command. This is a harmful meme. It prevents many owners understanding their dogs, causes unnecessary aversive training methods to be used for both and is perpetuated by
well-meaning but uninformed dog trainers around the world. It has a staying power that only we can change. It erodes our
dog's trust in us and brings on all the negative effects that come from an adversarial relationship.
"An accurate understanding of normal dog behaviour is at odds with the idea that dogs struggle for dominance.
•Dominance is a traditional ethological concept that pertains to an individual's ability—generally under controlled
conditions—to maintain or regulate access to some resource. It is a description of the regularities of winning or losing
staged contests over those resources. It is not to be confused with status and, in fact, does not need to confer priority of
access to resources.
•In situations in which the concept of dominance has been used with regard to status, it is important to realize that it is
not defined as aggression on the part of the "dominant" animal but rather as the withdrawal of the "subordinate."
•The behaviour of the relatively lower status individuals, not the relatively higher ranking one, is what determines the
relative hierarchical rank.
•Rank itself is contextually relative. Truly high-ranking animals are tolerant of lower-ranking ones.
•Dominance displays infrequently lead to actual combat. Instead, combat ensues when these displays are not effective." Karen
L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, CAAB
So when we decide to take off our alpha hats, what are we to do? Our first goal should be to communicate clearly with
our dogs. Dogs learn how to react to our cues by being rewarded for behaviours that we favour. We need to avoid circumstances that conflict with our dogs natural tendencies, and unnecessarily rewarding behaviours that we don't want. The good news is that desensitisation and (classical conditioning) that gradually helps the dog overcome fear and positive reinforcement (Operant conditioning) that rewards good behaviour are much more effective, and you get a bonus. Not only does your dog’s behaviour improve, but his view towards a whole range of things that he encounters in life does too.
“The dominance panacea is so out of proportion that entire schools of training are based on the premise that if you can
just exert adequate dominance over the dog, everything else will fall into place. Not only does it mean that incredible
amounts of abuse are going to be perpetrated against any given dog, probably exacerbating problems like unreliable recalls
and biting, but the real issues, like well-executed conditioning and the provision of an adequate environment, are going to
go unaddressed, resulting in a still-untrained dog, perpetuating the pointless dominance program. None of this is to say that
dogs aren’t one of those species whose social life appears to lend itself to beloved hierarchy constructs. But, they also see
well at night, and no one is proposing retinal surgery to address their non-compliance or biting behaviour. Pack theory is
simply not the most elegant model for explaining or, especially, for treating problems like disobedience, misbehaviour or
aggression. People who use aversives to train with a dominance model in mind would get a better result with less wear and
tear on the dog by using aversives with a more thorough understanding of learning theory, or, better yet, forgoing aversives
altogether and going with the other tools in the learning theory tool box. The dominance concept is simply unnecessary.”
? Jean Donaldson, The Culture Clash: A Revolutionary New Way to Understanding the Relationship Between Humans and Domestic
Dave and Molly
Ian Dunbar was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award from I.P.D.T.A. Here's a picture of me accepting the award on his behalf.
Member of IAABC ,International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants , Member of Pet Professional Guild