Chances are pretty good that if you’ve ever shared life with a dog, somewhere along the way someone has instructed you about the importance of learning how to dominate your dog. Most dog parents have heard the lingo: alpha dog, pack leader, top dog, dominant, submissive.
The problem is, dominance theory (which has enjoyed an unfortunate resurgence over the last 10 years) is, at best, deeply flawed – and at worst, can actually do serious damage to our relationships with our dogs.
They May Appear Similar, But Dogs Are Not Wolves
Dominance theory is based on a study conducted in the 1930’s and 1940’s by a Swiss animal behaviorist named Rudolph Schenkel, who studied the behavior of wolves in captivity. From his observations, Schenkel concluded that wolves were in constant competition to see who could outrank the others in the group’s social hierarchy. The “winner” was the alpha wolf, who commanded the most respect and aggressively held everyone else in check.
The problem is, wolves in captivity behave very differently from wolves in the wild. Wild wolf packs usually consist of a mated pair and their offspring; the pack may also include 2 or 3 other wolf families. Rather than being competitive, the pack works together to hunt and care for the offspring, and there is very little aggression within the pack. When young wolves grow up, just like human children they eventually leave the pack to start families of their own.
Wolves in captivity behave very differently. When mature wolves are forced to live together for years at a time, unable to get away from each other, they experience a great deal of stress. The tension and competition over resources causes aggressive fights, and some of the strongest wolves become “bullies” who maintain the group hierarchy through displays of aggression.
Unfortunately, the results of this research were then applied to domesticated dogs. But here’s the thing: dogs are not wolves. They are, in fact, quite different species. Eventually the results of Schenkel’s studies were disproved, but by then, the theory of dominance in dogs had become mainstream.
The Theory Behind Dominance-Based Training
Dominance-based training is based upon one simple school of thought: dominate your dog before he has the chance to dominate you. Because all dogs spend their entire days just looking for signs of weakness in humans, so they can… do what? Psychologically manipulate us and mess with our heads? Practice telepathic mind control? Steal the keys to the car?
Let’s think this through for a minute. What’s in it for our dogs to dominate us? What more could they take that they don’t already have? We provide them with food; a warm, safe place to live; medical care; toys; playtime, walks outside, and mental stimulation; and (hopefully) all the love they can handle. The reason why humans and dogs get along so swimmingly is because we are not in competition with them for social status, and they know it.
Unfortunately, the misguided behavior modification techniques behind dominance-based training that are supposed to prevent dogs from elevating their status over humans usually consist of using punishment, intimidation, and fear – exactly the opposite of what dogs really need to be happy, healthy, well-behaved and well-adjusted companions.
These “training” techniques include the use of:
- Alpha rolls (rolling a dog onto his back and pinning him to the ground to show him “who’s boss”)
- Grabbing his muzzle and holding it tightly
- Shaking him by the scruff of the neck
- Cuffing him under the chin
- Aversive tools such as choke, prong, or shock collars for training
- Poking him hard in the chest or side to “get his attention”
- Aggressively staring into his eyes for long periods of time
- Not letting the dog go through doorways ahead of you (I’m still trying to figure out where that one came from)
Sadly, most behavioral problems in dogs don’t stem from a desire to exert power and rank over us; rather, they come from insecurity, fear, and a need to seek safety and comfort. Muzzle grabs and alpha rolls do nothing to assure our dogs that we are in control. Rather, they just make us appear more aggressive, out of control, and untrustworthy, which only increases our dogs’ stress.
Studies have shown that dogs who are punished by being pinned to the ground on their backs or sides experience a sudden flood of the stress hormone cortisol. When this happens, a structure in the brain called the amygdala activates, preparing the dog for fight or flight. When the amygdala is engaged, the brain becomes focused purely on survival, which immediately shuts down all other rational thought, including the learning process.
When this happens, the dog can become so anxious or fearful that he may literally shut down. Those videos you see of dogs being held on their sides “submitting”, or who appear to be calm, are dogs who are actually anything but calm. In reality, they are so insecure, angry, or frightened that they literally freeze, waiting for the threat to go away. If they are continuously pushed beyond this point, they can lash out and bite, which is why so many trainers and dog owners who try to use this training method end up getting bitten.
Positive-Reinforcement Training: A Better Way
Research shows that dogs who are subjected to dominance-based training methods suffer higher levels of stress and anxiety than dogs who are trained using positive reinforcement methods. The theory behind positive reinforcement is simple: Give your dog a reward (food, praise, or play) when he does something that you like, and he quickly learns that good things happen to him when he repeats that behavior. The key here is that the dog is given a choice: if I do “X” (or stop doing “X”), awesome things will happen. The dog is permitted to make that decision on his own, rather than being forced into doing something, which is far less effective. Setting him up to succeed in this way keeps his trust in you intact and strengthens the bond between you instead of eroding it.
Positive-reinforcement training first came on the scene in the mid 1980’s through the work of a marine mammal trainer named Karen Pryor. Later in the early 1990’s, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, whose guiding principle was: “We promote the use of reward-based training methods, thereby minimizing the use of aversive techniques.” (The definition of “aversive” is anything that causes someone to want to get away from something because it is unpleasant or painful.)
But here’s the really cool thing about using food rewards during training: it actually works to help rewire the brain by raising levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which regulates emotional response. Research shows that these chemical changes in the brain cause dogs to actually learn more quickly and experience less fear and anxiety. It’s a win for the dog (who loves the treat), and a win for us (when he learns more easily what’s expected of him)!
Why You Simply Don’t Need To Dominate Your Dog
There’s a reason why the title of this article is “Why Trying To Dominate Your Dog Will Backfire.” Not “may” backfire, or “chances are pretty good that it might” backfire, but “will” backfire. Here’s why:
- Dominance-based training is disrespectful to your dog. If you’re convinced that your dog is a sneaky little subversive hell-bent on world domination, can you ever truly let yourself love him and bond with him the way that you should?
- Dogs are, by nature, scavengers and opportunists; it’s in their genes. Harshly punishing your dog for engaging in normal “dog” behaviors (like raiding the trash, jumping onto your bed, or climbing onto the kitchen counter to search for food) will most likely only confuse him. Take the time to figure out how to prevent the behaviors you DON’T want from being reinforced (keep food off the counters, put the trash up, limit access to your bed), and reward him like crazy for the behaviors you DO want.
- Punishment and heavy-handed, coercive training techniques only serve to create fear, anxiety, and a negative emotional state in our dogs. It’s far healthier to establish a loving relationship with them by clearly communicating the rules and allowing them to abide by these rules because they choose to – not because they are afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t.
Don’t Dominate – Communicate!
Unfortunately, there are still some dog trainers out there who stubbornly refuse to let go of training methods based on dominance theory. Even though evidence is abundant that positive reinforcement is a much better solution, they argue that some dogs are just more stubborn, harder to control, aggressive, or need a heavier hand to get them to do what you want them to do. They think that trainers who use positive-reinforcement methods are coddling their dogs, and that as a result those dogs don’t truly “respect” them.
Let’s be clear: all dogs should be trained. Clearly and consistently teaching your dog the house rules will not only make both of your lives better, it will also take a great deal of pressure off your dog if he isn’t having to constantly guess about your expectations of him. No one wants a badly-behaved dog, but you don’t have to sacrifice your relationship with your dog to effectively teach him what is, and is not, acceptable behavior.
Famed veterinarian and animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin’s website put it very eloquently: “Every pet needs a human who can lead. Not like a boss, but like a partner in a dance—someone who gives clear signals, rewards desirable behavior as it occurs, removes rewards for inappropriate behavior immediately, and sticks to the plan consistently until the new, good behavior is a habit.”
If our dogs are taught to see us not as “alphas”, but as leaders, they will look to us for guidance to help them make the right choices, and in turn, we will be able to experience a fully-developed and satisfying relationship with them based on mutual respect.
What do you think? Do dogs learn better with positive training methods, or with being taught “who’s boss”? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!