The Dominance Myth in Dog Training

Q: Is it true that a person needs to be dominant in their relationship with their dog so he’ll obey them?

A: The concept of needing to be physically dominant in our relationship with our dogs is absolutely incorrect and long been disproved by the scientific community. True physical displays of dominance in the pack hierarchy only comes into play when food, sex, or emergencies are involved.

While it is true you want to be a leader of sorts for your human/canine family for safety reasons, physical force or punishment or the threat of force or punishment are not necessary. The definition of dominance is “who controls access.” In your everyday relationship with your dog, you want to be dominant but without resorting to using physical force. If a three-year-old child has her hand on the doorknob, she is dominant because she controls whether the dog goes in or out. If she is holding a ball, in the dog’s eyes, she is dominant because she controls access to the ball. So dominance doesn’t mean who is bigger or stronger…although that sometimes plays a part. It simply means setting up your environment so that you control access to things your dog wants and he has to look to you to get what he wants. You control the food, affection, toys, social freedom, climate control, and everything else in his universe. There is no negotiation. In effect, you are saying, “I’ll give you the world, but you’ve got to do something for me first.” When the dog figures this out, you simply ask the dog to do something before providing the reward, whether it be food, chasing a ball, going outside, etc.

For many years, concepts about hierarchy within the canine world led to the idea that one dog in the pack is the top ranking “alpha dog” and that that dog is dominant in all situations. In recent years this concept has been researched extensively by leading animal behaviorists who now consider it to be outmoded and simplistic. Still, the perception that dogs look up to the alpha in the pack as some sort of tyrannical dictator and that humans should take on this role has been perpetuated by the authors of many mainstream dog training books and trainers on television. They use this theory to teach you to mandate your authority as the physical-force leader of your dog’s pack—the boss, the head honcho, the big cheese, the numero uno. Woe to him if he doesn’t obey. Unfortunately, this outmoded idea has some trainers perpetuating the myth that humans should use physical displays with the family dog including physically forcing dogs to walk behind them, standing over them, pinning them to the ground, always entering a room first, and so on, supposedly to mimic the behaviors of packs in the wild. Well, none of these things actually exist in the wild except around food or procreation issues.

The most frequently repeated phrase by trainers who endorse this outdated “dominance” theory is. “You must always win when training your dog.” If you think about it, the phrase “you must always win” conveys that there is a competition going on. And a competition means there is a “win-lose” mentality. How can you and your dog become a behavioral team when you are caught up in an environment of having to compete and win at all costs?

Dogs are social animals. When they were domesticated way back when, we became part of their social order and along the way we also became their guardians, caregivers, protectors, and guides. There is no “one dog rules all” pack mentality. The best way to view your role in your dog’s life is as a member of his family—and the dog as a member of your family. Just as parents and children have different roles in the family, so, too, humans and dogs have different roles. But we’re all part of the same family. In nonviolent dog training, you are not out to compete or “win” anything. There are no “commands” and no threats. Instead, you give your dog “signals” and reinforce his correct “responses.” You are learning from each other how to work together.

Although not a perfect mirror, some similarities exist in the social orders between wolves and dogs. L. David Mech, one of the world's leading experts on the pack behavior of wild wolves, prefers to associate the term alpha with parenting. He says, "In natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all.” ¹ Mech continues, “Breeding wolves [only] provide leadership because offspring tend to follow their parents' initiative…. The point here is not so much the terminology but what the terminology falsely implies: a rigid, force-based dominance hierarchy.” ² Mech’s research shows that, while breeding wolves provided the most leadership, wolves who had subordinate roles also provided leadership during travel. He says, “No “alpha” [emphasis mine] would suddenly run to the front of the pack and force the subordinate to get behind him.”³

According to Dr. Karen Overall, many animal behaviorists believe that although each member of a group works in his own self interest, that self interest manifests in shared responsibilities. It would be abnormal for one animal to constantly have to demonstrate through force that he was dominant. In reality, each situation in the group dynamic entails a collaborative effort. In the wild, these social interactions are dependent on what’s going on in the environment because success for the group is dependent on working together. Wolves have a complex communication system; we are still trying to translate their subtle language. We do know, however, that studies suggest the only situations that trigger an absolute rank hierarchy are around disasters or stressful situations relating to resources like food and sex (procreation).

So the question arises, why do some trainers seem to elicit almost miraculous results in getting dogs to do what they want through what they call “dominance” training. The truth is, it isn’t miraculous, nor is it related to dominance. The results are due to using physical force in order to suppress behaviors, which is done by using positive punishment and physically forcing fearful dogs into overwhelming situations until they “shut down,” which is called flooding. Calling this dominance training is simply incorrect and its practice can be dangerous for both dogs and humans, especially when aggression is involved. It’s pure abuse when used with fearful dogs.

Animals defer to one another to keep their group safe, strong, and healthy. If one individual threatens the group’s collaborative efforts by asserting himself in ways contrary to the group’s well being, he is thrown out. There are many examples of animal packs ousting members who tried to rule by brute force. Wolves have banished individuals who constantly used undue physical force to exert their authority. Monkeys also have been shown to attack and oust brutish members who used their strength and size against other members of the group.

Behavioral scientists are helping us better understand ourselves and our world by their study of collaborative efforts within various species. The following story is a terrific example of how we humans can learn from nature—in this case, from geese:

The Goose Story

Author Unknown

Next fall, when you see geese heading south for the winter, flying along in “V” formation, you might consider what science has discovered about why they fly that way.

As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following.

By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock adds at least 71 percent more flying range than possible if each bird flew on its own.

People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going more quickly and easily because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone . . . and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front.

If we have as much sense as the goose, we will stay in formation with those who are headed the same way.

When the head goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing and another goose flies point.

It is sensible to take turns doing demanding jobs, whether with people or with geese flying south.

Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

What do we say when we honk from behind?

Finally—and this is important—when a goose gets sick or is wounded by gunshot or falls out of formation, two other geese fall out with that goose and follow it down to lend help and protection. They stay with the fallen goose until it is able to fly or until it dies. Only then do they launch out on their own or with another formation to catch up with their group.

If we have the sense of a goose, we will stand by each other like that

Parents understand the importance of protecting and educating their children. After all, the parenting role requires not just providing food, shelter, and clothing, but also setting boundaries. What you want the dog to do and the child to do is to take their cues about the appropriateness of their behavior from you and that is the context within which you guide and protect them. A child can’t just run out into the middle of the street or steal a toy from another child in the schoolyard without consequences. In the best of circumstances, the parent acts as a loving, nonviolent guardian; he is the source and provider of safety and comfort, and he educates the child through the use of examples, boundaries, and limits. In the same way, you must educate and act as a loving, nonviolent, benevolent guardian in your dog’s life.

Asking your dog to lie down before releasing him to go up the steps or out the door presents terrific everyday training opportunities. So does asking him to sit before being fed, or asking him to jump off the couch so he can be rewarded by getting back on the couch to sit with you. But asking for these behaviors and rewarding your dog is much different than “showing him who’s boss” and forcing him to sit, lie down, and obey you in all things under the threat of punishment.

So ask yourself why you are teaching your dog to sit, lie down, and come when called. For safety purposes? Ideally, we train our dogs to respond to our signals so we can help them and ourselves be all that we can be. Training stimulates growth and forms a bond between us because it involves communication and interaction. A synergy emerges allowing both our dogs and ourselves to grow and learn in ways that are unique and might otherwise be impossible. I have learned as much, if not more, about patience, honesty, compassion, and congruity—matching my words to my actions, thoughts, and emotions—in the companionship of dogs as I have in any other endeavor. In addition, I believe my dogs have also benefited in ways I can’t even imagine.

So when you read about or hear about how important it is to control your dog by showing him who’s boss, I ask that you reconsider. Don’t compete; instead educate. Show him how the world provides his food, affection, and freedom—and ignores him when he behaves inappropriately. (Of course, use common sense here—don’t ignore him when doing so would cause harm to him, to others, or to the environment.) Educate your dog about the appropriateness of his behavior. Create an environment in which you can guide and protect him, yourself, and the environment.

Dr. Karen Overall, director of the Behavior Clinic of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, sums up the path to a great relationship with our dogs with the following overview:

  • Practice deferential behaviors.

  • Do not use physical punishment.

  • Teach the dog that you are not a threat.

  • Reward good behaviors, even when they are spontaneous.

  • Don’t worry about minor details—none of us are perfect.

  • Always let the dog know he can have treats, love, or toys if he sits quietly first.

  • Never do something just because you can.

  • Talk to your dog. Use his or her name. Signal clearly.

  • Be reliable and trustworthy.

Mech, L. David. 1999. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online. Version 16MAY2000



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