If you own a dog, at some stage you may have been told the following…. That your dog is a wolf in dogs’ clothing, and that your dog is always watching you for signs of ‘weakness’ so that they can elevate themselves to the position of top dog- or alpha. Admittedly, I used to also believe this. However, now the trend is moving away from this dominance theory of dog training because of new research that all dog owners need to be aware of.
There have been two notable studies conducted that I think are worth a mention. One was on free roaming dogs, the other has been a longitudinal study on domestic dogs in a domestic setting. Both of these studies highlight how different our dogs are from wolves, and because of this, I believe that dog training based on similarities of the two, is now outdated and we need to move on.
Daniels and Bekoff (1989) studied dogs that had been at one stage bred by humans, but had become ‘loose’. What this study found was that these dogs spent most of their time as solitary scavengers. Free roaming dogs live off human dumps. Hundreds of years of human influenced breeding has led dogs to loose the ability and need to hunt for their own food source. This is very different from wolf behaviour.
The study also found that free roaming dogs often come in to contact with other dogs, but have no need to remain together. They come together fleetingly for breeding, and occasionaly do spend time together, but would probably best be referred to as open groups, rather than packs. The groups are so open that individual dogs come and go as they please, and the female is able to mate with different males. Again, this is very different from the way wolves operate.
These free ranging dog groups are usually made up of unrelated dogs and the female dog will often raise her pups by herself. There seems to be no reason for free ranging dogs to run in packs. Food is readily available at the dump so there is no need to hunt, there is also no need for protection against other large wild animals. Further proof that dogs and wolves are very different.
This study has debunked the myth that dogs are strict pack animals and hunters. Dogs’ scavenge, we see it all the time in our own dogs, especially when they try to eat rubbish in the park. This presents a very different picture to the wolf- a pack animal, born to stalk, kill and eat, and rear it’s young within the safety of the pack. Wolves and dogs are not the same.
The second study by Semyonova (2003) is a first of it’s kind (as far as I am aware) on domestic dogs in a domestic setting. The study began in 1994 and is still continuing. It follows a group several dogs living with humans in a group of two or more dogs, and has been video recorded 24/7, this ensured that no behaviour, or pre-cursor to a behaviour, was missed.
This research discovered that aggression was a sign of system disintegration, dogs prefer stability in their relationships, and would avoid confrontation. It was also found that dogs who live together do not organise themselves in a linear hierarchical structure.
If you live with more than one dog you can see evidence of this non-linear structure in your own home. Often one dog will value a resource more than the other, and thus becomes ‘domianant’ in that specific situation, but with another resource they show indifference. For example, some dogs love their bones and will not allow the other resident dog near them while eating it. However, when it comes to toys or sleeping arrangements the other dog may become the more ‘dominant’ dog.
Dogs with behavioural problems are often labelled as ‘dominant’ dogs, and people believe they must reassert their authority as alpha or top dog. In the past, most dog trainers used the umbrella of dominance aggression and the ‘dominant’ dog to explain away problems, and that a general leadership program will make everything OK. Understandably this stuck, because it made sense, and there was nothing to suggest otherwise. This is what a leadership program looks like….
Always eat before your dog, even pretend to eat from their bowl before feeding them.
Never let your dog through a door before you
Always move your dog if it is in your way, never go around them
Never have your dog on the couch or on the bed with you, the best spaces and highest spaces, are reserved for the alpha.
If your dog has their paw resting on you they are displaying dominant behaviour- don’t let this happen.
You must always win a staring contest, even if you need to growl at your dog to make them turn away.
Never loose a tug of war contest, in fact don’t even play tug.
Your dog should always walk beside or behind you on a walk. You can let them stop twice only during the walk to smell a scent.
If your dog challenges you, roll them on the ground and hold them down until they stop resisting, otherwise known as an alpha roll.
If your dog challenges you, grab the scruff of their neck and give them a good shake, get in their face and say “NO!”. You may even like to use you hand to close their muzzle.
This kind of leadership program, in my opinion, is far too general and can be harmful to your dog. Specific problem behaviours in dogs should have specific answers, be based on canine (not wolf) behaviour, and should also have a scientific solution based on the science of learning- all of which a progressive trainer should be able to help you with.
Using dominance theory exclusively as a way to run our dogs’ lives is all about exerting control. You will often read that your (dominant) dog is ‘challenging’ you by jumping, mouthing and barking at you- now dog ownership becomes adversary. We all know it feels good to win, but at what cost? How does dominating our dogs effect the dog-human relationship? How does it make us feel?
Ben is sitting with me on the couch now, is he being dominant? No, he just likes the couch (and me). Ben walks in front of me on walks, is he being dominant? No, he’s just happy to be going on a walk. Ben instigates lots of play with me, is he being dominant? No, he just wants to play. Ben often wins tug of war, does he think I am weak? No. Ben heels when I ask him to, comes when I call him, and sits when I ask him. I always feel better when Ben is with me, and I have fun training him- this is what sharing my life with a dog is all about….. for me.
Daniels, T.J and Bekoff, M (1989). Population and Social Biology of Free-ranging Dogs, Canis Familiaris. Journal of Mammalogy 70 (4), 754-762 Resourced from:
O’Heare, J. (2008). Dominance Theory and Dog: An in-depth examination of social dominance and its insidious consequences and an alternative. 2nd Ed. Dog Psych, Canada.
Semyonova, A. (2003). The Social Organisation of the Domestic Dog: A Longitudinal Study of Domestic Canine Behaviour andthe Ontogeny of Canine Social Systems. Can be found at…..