I’m aware of a lot of talk about how dominance doesn’t exist in dogs today. I don’t agree – I believe the dominance theory does exist and denying your dogs dominance is wrong. Here is why.
A Few Words to Begin with…
I would like to make it clear that this post is not about how we should label dogs – labels are of no importance to me – but about my belief that we must look carefully at the idea that dominance does not exist because of the way in which it influences our behaviour.
I have worked with working dogs and pets of all kinds of breeds for many years. I have trained dogs for all sorts of concerns and dealt with a multitude of different behavioural issues. My system has enabled me to effectively train dogs, eliminate their issues and consistently help them lead happy, fulfilled lives without harshness.
To me – or any other person who has ever observed or worked with dogs – the idea of dogs not being dominant simply makes no sense. I feel it is important to note here that this idea is actively promoted by positive training advocates, as it in turn promotes their idea suggesting that it is never necessary to correct a dog.
The Positive Training Movement and the No Dominance Theory
As far as advocates of positive training are concerned, there is no such thing as dominance – and subsequently, there is also no hierarchy. And if there is no hierarchy, then all dogs obey without fail and you will never be faced with bad behaviour or conflicts. The problem with this is obvious.
Dominance vs. No Dominance
No, I am not writing about dominance because I somehow feel the need to prove to you that it does exist. I am writing this because the lies told by dominance deniers cause me a great deal of concern. These people are not only suggesting proof of dog behaviour that is in no way based in the real world, they are denying domestic dogs’ fundamental nature – and by doing so, they are doing lots of harm.
So, what exactly do I mean when I talk about dominance? Being methods of communication that allow groups of dogs to live together in harmony and without aggression by giving structure to their relationships, dominance and submission are neither good nor bad.
Dominance is not much different when it comes to human relationships. We, too, tend to lean towards hierarchy-based structures. Businesses, for example, cannot function properly if there are no bosses and employees, and most organisations have both leaders and followers.
Similarly, while some individuals are assertive and ultimately occupy positions of authority, others are less assertive and do not rise to such positions. We rarely think about this – it is simply how we work. Dogs work like this, too. They need a leader, not only within their own packs/groups, but also within the relationships they have with us.
Our Relationship with Dogs
We have lived and worked with dogs for the last 15,000 to 30,000 years. During this time, we have manipulated their drives to suit different types of work at hand and bred them to comply with our wishes. There may be many different breeds today, but fundamentally, they are all still dogs. Think about it: does it not make perfect sense to think that, after working together with us for thousands of years, dogs’ understanding of their pack may just include humans?!
I firmly believe domesticated dogs gradually evolved to look for leadership from us, humans. They are dogs for one reason only: because they cooperate with us. If they did not cooperate with us, they would be wolves.
Arguments Against Denying Dogs Dominance
Some people would argue that dogs do not exhibit dominance. Ever. This is both fundamentally against everything I have seen in terms of canine behaviour and a potential recipe for disaster, because it leaves owners without insight when facing behavioural issues.
I believe the best way to follow this through is to first look at some of these dominance deniers’ reasoning:
Dogs are scavengers, not animals that live in packs with a hierarchy
Yes, dogs occasionally scavenge. I would, however, argue that this by no means suggests that there is no hierarchy. If, for example, two feral dogs find a single scrap of food, they will invariable do one of two things:
Fight over it or Display rituals of submission and dominance
Dogs do not assert any dominance over people.
I would question anyone making this argument on the knowledge they have concerning dogs’ body language. Yes, dogs choose to follow their humans in most situations – truly dominant dogs are extremely rare. They will, however, frequently test boundaries and, when given half a chance, attempt to ‘take charge’ if that position of authority has not been claimed.
Dogs will only try to dominate with food or resources.
I disagree, As mentioned earlier, there are some dog behaviour elements here that mirror elements of human behaviour. Just like some humans, some dogs are inherently more authoritative/dominant than others. How a dog displays this dominance depends very much on the situation, any other dog/s and/or the human. When two dogs meet for the first time, you may, for example, see their tails raise. Allowing them to present themselves as stoutly as possible, this display is not negative behaviour – it is a dog’s opportunity to “stand out”.
Our only concern is a dog’s emotional state. Dominance is irrelevant.
This increasingly common idea ascribes our own understanding of emotions to the behaviour of dogs. This focus on emotions not only makes no sense but, from my experience, gives dogs less confidence and causes them to be more timid/fearful.
Acknowledging dominance means your methods of training must be aggressive & cause harm.
Anyone believing this has done far from adequate research. Understanding dogs’ motivations enables us to develop much clearer boundaries – and with command & correction, there will never be a need to cause harm.
I would, at this point, also like to acknowledge that there are many other ways in which myths are generated by misunderstandings of dominance. Many of the things people blame on dominance have, in fact, nothing at all to do with dominance.
People sometimes take advice like “always eat before your dog”, “never let your dog go out through the front door before you” and “never allow your dog on your bed/couch” to heart. I would answer this with:
When humans and dogs eat is irrelevant to establishing pack structure.
Most well-behaved dogs can walk out through front doors before their owners without any problem (although this does depend on a dog’s breed – especially when dealing with guarding breeds)
Many dogs simply love being close to their humans – including on their couch or bed – and this is in no way related to dominance.
In short, there is nothing wrong with these behaviours.
Essentially, what is considered acceptable behaviour depends on the situation, as well as the dog and the human in question. If, for instance, a dog growls at you when approaching the sofa, this may be an expression of dominance – but it may also be an expression of fear, uncertainty or one of many other things. To know what motivated him to growl with any certainty, you would have to consider many different factors, including the dog’s breed.
Is Leadership Required?
Domestic dogs predominantly live in households consisting of humans and maybe other animals – and they recognise their household and the humans/animals therein as their pack.
To ensure our dogs are happy, healthy members of our group – or pack – we must provide them with competent leadership. Being a master or alpha, a parent or leader is, despite the feelings of some people, not something bad. It is the structure dogs want and need. Denying dominance & submission places everyone on the same level.
A leader is required for the good of the group, family or pack – but to be a leader, you must take that authority.
The worry that asserting their authority makes them abusive, horrible, mean people who do not believe in “science-based, modern” training methods is probably THE most common concern I see in clients today.
So how does not having a leader work out? My experience shows that a dog then trying to lead is not unusual. This is not due to them wanting to dominate, it’s due to their inherent need for leadership coupled with their owner’s failure to take that position.
Allow me to clarify this: I do not mean showing dominance via “dominance training techniques” – like an alpha outstaring a dog, rolling him or similar ‘tactics’. I mean SHOWING DOMINANCE THROUGH CLEAR, CONCISE COMMUNICATION.
In a nutshell, living with & training your dog is about making sure your dog understands:
‘Yes’ means you want more of something (i.e. a behaviour, response)
‘No’ means you want less of something
Correcting Misbehaviour Does NOT Constitute Abuse
There are some people who think correcting dogs amounts to mistreatment. This belief can restrict use of invaluable training tools and – in extreme cases – even forbid you to ever say “No” to your dog.
This makes absolutely no sense. Communicating your needs by stating “No” or “Yes” means you are providing your dog with feedback, setting boundaries and creating the structure your pet needs. These simple instructions help you and your dog build the kind of pack environment that gives him the security he thrives on.
Before moving on, we must consider how we as humans assert our dominance in our relationships with dogs. Over the years, I have seen many people calling themselves “force-free, positive” trainers use the kind of dominating body language dogs find more intimidating by far than simple prong corrections. I have also met positive trainers who would never use corrections but will use an NILF (“Nothing in life is free”) approach every hour of the day, every day of the year
In all the years I have trained dogs, I have found that the people who worry most about the potential consequences of correction simply do not know (most likely because they have never done it) how to correct a dog. And because they don’t know this, they may rely on a variety of tools (like head halters, for example) to do the job for them. Quite frankly, these people are deceiving themselves.
You may at some point have come across so-called “crossover trainers”. These people seem to be individuals who used often heavy-handed corrections before but never said “Yes” – and now they will not say “No”.
The basic problem with the increase in positive reinforcement is that many of us have started associating all and any correction with “bad”. Today, the lengths people will go to in order to avoid correcting their doges are reaching downright ridiculous levels. As for me, I wholeheartedly reject the notion that properly done correction is abusive, harmful and at all costs to be avoided.
CORRECTION IS COMMUNICATION and it may be nothing more than quickly snapping your dog out of a fixation (a little like calling to get a friend’s attention when they are staring blankly into space) or a drive.
Another new trend I have come across is teaching incompatible behaviours instead of correcting behaviours to be avoided. Here, the thinking is that if you teach your dog to sit when meeting visitors instead of jumping all over them, he will eventually stop jumping and sit instead.
My issues with this approach are as follows:
You haven’t actually communicated to your dog his jumping is wrong. Getting him to not jump at all will subsequently be both time-consuming and difficult.
Your dog is not clear as to what he is supposed to do or not to do. By never providing your dog with clear guidance and feedback, you fail to provide him with the leadership he needs. With this approach, you could quite possibly end up with an anxious, fearful dog in need of medication.
It is my experience that you can correct the behaviour of a dog very easily and without any harm or damage at all – and then your relationship with him can move on.
Providing Boundaries Strengthens Your Relationship
Trying to understand dogs using human feelings and emotions is one of the most colossal mistakes people make. Yes, I am sure that can and do experience love, happiness and fear – but they are not people. Dogs do not think or feel the way humans do.
To a dog, having a leader and his need to follow this leader are very important. This is how dogs operate within their pack and their position is defined by these relationships. Most dogs want a leader, someone in charge, a person they can turn to and look to for feedback and guidance when they are not sure what to do.
It may sound severe, but respect matters. Think about it: if people do not respect a person, they will resist working for them – and so will dogs. If all you ever say is “yes… yes… yes…”, your dog will not respect you. He needs balance and clarity – “Yes” AND “No”.
Without that clarity and balance, you will have to rely on your dog and your dog’s temperament to determine how he behaves – because you will have no control.
Your dog may end up pushy, a dog that will challenge you whenever possible. Dogs regularly challenge people and while that is not a great deal as such, it can turn into a serious problem unless dealt with. Again, I do not suggest here that your dog wants to be his pack’s alpha dog – he is simply trying to fill the void where a leader should be.
Dogs are also opportunists and – in my daily experience – will do whatever they can apparently get away with. One simple correction can often fix things – because you are speaking your dog’s language. All too many dogs come to me totally out of control – yet they are snapped out of their bad behaviour with a single quick correction. Once a dog has the clarity, hierarchy and structure he needs, things will begin to fall neatly into place.
Without building and strengthening this relationship, you could end up with your dog not caring about you at all. Basically, if you do not speak your dog’s language, he believes you are telling him that he is not a member of your pack. Tibetan mastiffs, Shiba inus and other breeds that were traditionally kept separated from their families are excellent examples of this.
Finally, you could all too easily end up with a dog that is fearful and neurotic. This sadly happens a lot and the number of pets on anxiety medications has risen to shocking proportions. Some positive trainers appear to hand this kind of medication out like treats, while others have their dogs on medication. Obviously, these trainers do not seem to think that this is weird – but I do. When we train our dogs properly, we can throw the medication away.
Does Denying Dominance Benefit Dogs?
The answer to this question is a resounding “no!”.
As in all things, there are trends and fads in dog training. Many of these trends and fads make matters far more complicated than necessary – and they certainly do not help the dogs distraught owners bring to us every day with problems including anxiety, reactivity and aggression; fence fighting, window barking and lead pulling and many, many other issues. You know the most upsetting thing about all of this? The fact that these dog owners are being convinced following these so-called positive training methods means they are being oh-so kind to their pets.
People frequently come to me following experiences with a multitude of positive trainers. They were told to train their dogs without “fear, intimidation and pain”. Frankly, no self-respecting, good trainer will train dogs like that anyway.
Some owners are given counterconditioning techniques for reactivity problems – techniques that may take months to produce results (if they produce results at all). In such cases, people are often told to “work on impulse control” – typically by balancing a treat on their dog’s paw. They are also warned that they must always keep their pet “under threshold” – although this could mean never walking their dog. Other people are told to simply put their dog into another room when visitors arrive. The list is endless.
The one thing all these dogs and situations have in common is this: they all come from groups of individuals who would rather muzzle (24/7!), medicate, manage or euthanise dogs than use correction.
If these people tell you there is no such thing as dominance, should you listen to them? Don’t be afraid to say “No”!
Is Your Dog’s Dominance Causing You Problems?
I would always recommend working with a knowledgeable trainer with a proven track record, check out their references and question his or her philosophy before you get started. To find out more about how I handle these situations look at Fear and Aggression.