Approaches to dog training based on dominance rely on the idea that you have to be the ‘alpha’ or pack leader.
Unfortunately, this type of dog training is not just out-of-date and potentially risky, but modern approaches to dog training are also a lot more fun – for you and the dog.
What is dominance in dog training?
We sometimes hear the phrase ‘my dog is being dominant.’
‘Your dog is being dominant’ can even be an insult because it implies you are not confident enough.
What people mean by ‘dominant’ can be anything from your dog walking through a door in front of you, to jumping on you, or relaxing on the sofa, growling at you or winning a game of tug.
For that reason alone, it’s not a very helpful description.
Let’s unpack these examples for a moment, because using a framework of dominance is taking away the person’s choice about things. It’s perfectly fine for your dog to walk in front of you, and it’s up to you if they jump on you to greet you or are allowed on the sofa (some people like it, some people don’t – of course strangers probably don’t like to be jumped on).
If your dog growls at you, it’s important not to punish them because this is their way of telling you they are uncomfortable; instead you should stop what you are doing and reconsider how you can fix it so you and your dog are both happy. A dominance-based approach would potentially put you in danger of getting bitten.
As for tug… dogs who win at tug are more involved in the game (suggesting they enjoy it more) and show more playful attention-seeking afterwards, such as nuzzling and pawing at their owner (Rooney & Bradshaw 2002).
Games of tug can be fun for you and the dog, and are a useful way to entertain your dog at times when walks are limited. Arbitrarily saying people should not play tug or should not let the dog win is doing a disservice to both dogs and people.
Problems with dominance in dog training
When people apply dominance to dog training, it usually results in them using aversive methods, such as alpha rolls, because they think they have to make their dog submit. This can cause a range of issues.
Here are just a few examples:
There is a risk of an aggressive response with the use of confrontational methods (Herron, Shofer & Reisner, 2009).
31% of people who did an alpha roll, 39% who forced the dog to let go of something from their mouth, and 43% of people who hit or kicked the dog reported an aggressive response.
If people use aversive training techniques, their dogs are 2.9 times more likely to be aggressive to a family member and 2.2 times more likely to be aggressive to a stranger outside the home than if the dog had been trained using reward-based methods (Casey et al 2014).
Greater frequency of punishment is associated with an increased prevalence of aggression and excitability (Arhant et al 2010).
Dogs trained to sit and walk on leash using leash jerks or tugs and pushing the dog into a sit position showed more signs of stress (mouth-licking, yawning, and lowered body posture) than those taught with reward-based techniques. They also gazed less at their owner, suggesting the human-canine relationship is not as good (Deldalle and Gaunet, 2014).
What do scientists think about dominance and dogs?
“Dominance” as applied by so many people in dog training is not the same as “dominance” when used by scientists, which is a much more nuanced term.
Even so, it does not adequately describe the relationship between dogs and people.
Writing in his Psychology Today blog, John Bradshaw, author of Dog Sense, explains that for dogs to think about dominance would actually require some important cognitive abilities – knowing that other creatures can think about us – which we have no evidence that dogs have.
He says,“It is more parsimonious to interpret dogs’ behaviour as if they were simply trying to maintain access to essential resources, perhaps the most important being, uniquely for this species, access to one or more human attachment figures.”
So how does this relate to dog training?
In the same post, Bradshaw says,“Both for their own safety and to be acceptable to society, companion dogs need to be kept under control, but that can be achieved by reward-based training, without reference to their position in some illusory “hierarchy”.
”Now, you can find some scientists who think dogs have dominance hierarchies between themselves, and Marc Bekoff summarizes some of them in his blog. But he also says,“I don’t think that dogs need to be forced into submission to train or to teach them how to live harmoniously with other dogs, with other animals, or with humans. I favor positive training/teaching methods and they have been shown to be highly effective in achieving these goals.”
Let’s be clear about this: these two scientists have very different views about dominance and dogs, but they both say it’s not the way to train a dog.
It’s unfortunate that some people mistakenly believe the dominance or pack leader approach to dog training is based in science, especially since it has negative consequences.
Luckily, there is an excellent alternative to the dominance approach: reward-based dog training.
Casey, R., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G., & Blackwell, E. (2014) Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 52-63. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.003
Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014) Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(2), 58-65. DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.11.004
Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009) Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117(1-2), 47-54. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
McGowan, R., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., & Keeling, L. (2013) Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs. Animal Cognition, 17(3), 577-587. DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x
Mellor, D. (2016) Moving beyond the “Five Freedoms” by Updating the “Five Provisions” and Introducing Aligned “Animal Welfare Aims”. Animals, 6(10), 59. DOI: 10.3390/ani6100059
Rooney, N., & Bradshaw, J. (2002) An experimental study of the effects of play upon the dog–human relationship. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 75(2), 161-176. DOI: 10.1016/S0168-1591(01)00192-7
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Author: CAPB, Companion Animal Psychology Blog