If I had a penny for every time the words ‘Dominance’, ‘Dominating’, ‘Alpha’ et al came up in conversation since working with dogs I would be, if not rich, certainly well-off!
Seriously though, it breaks my heart that there are still trainers, even here in South Wales, using this as the basis for changing dogs’ behaviour and peddling it as an approach. It’s outdated, inaccurate, and most importantly, ineffective at best and downright dangerous at worst.
So what is Dominance Theory?
It’s the premise that animals define their relationships to one another by using force / aggression. The outcome of this is that one animal will be dominant and the other submissive, primarily in relation to the resources available to them, i.e. food, water, and mating rights.
In the wild, inter-species, this does indeed exist. However, we’ve jumped on this theory and decided that us humans need to use force / aggression to assert our rank over our dogs. In training terms it’s essentially the practice of forcing dogs into submission as a means of preventing and modifying behaviour problems. The huge elephant in the room here is that we don’t need to fight our dogs for resources. It’s a totally moot point. They don’t want our Play Station and we presumably don’t want their Pedigree Chum. The principle makes no sense in the owner / dog relationships.
Also, dogs do not form hierarchies in the wild like wolves. While they are very closely linked in terms of sharing 98% of their DNA, dogs and wolves actually live very differently when left to their own devices. Dogs do not live in cohesive packs with Alphas, but actually spend a lot of time on their own, scavenging rather than hunting strategically in packs. Also, the so-called Alpha Roll is not a thing in the wild. Alpha wolves do not roll lower-ranking wolves on their backs. The lower-ranks might roll onto their back of their own volition to show deference, but again this doesn’t even exist in wild dog groups.
What people actually want to do is modify unwanted behaviours such as jumping up, counter-surfing, demand barking, fear responses to other dogs or people and so on. These are NOT dominance behaviours. They’re just behaviours that have likely developed because we’ve unwittingly reinforced them. Dogs do what works, and if they get attention from jumping up (high-pitched vocal response, touched on their heads and so on) they will do it again. If they get food from the table they will try and get it again. So instead of shouting and thinking of it as ill-will, turn your back silently on your dog if he jumps up, and don’t leave food on the table so that the dog doesn’t start to see the table as a place where there is always lovely food. If they get shouted at or hit for jumping up they might not do it again, but (a) they won’t understand why and (b) it is likely that the fear that’s been instilled could one day turn into frank aggression.
It is scientifically-proven that the most effective way to modify behaviour is through positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, desensitisation and counter-conditioning. What all of these basically mean is that we reinforce the dog by showing them how brilliantly they’ve done when they behave in ways we enjoy, and when they behave in ways we don’t enjoy we distract them, and/or time them out so they are not reinforced. This way the behaviour becomes extinct because it doesn’t work for the dog. They don’t get anything they want such as time with us, praise and treats.
I could write reams about this, and I’m very happy to expand on it in future posts, but for now please try to remember that your dog is not interested in usurping you, staging a coup and taking over your household. They are not fighting you. They just want food, shelter and love, and the way to have the dog you want is to be their kind, patient and consistent ambassador.