You may have heard or read about dog trainers suggesting that owners should be the ‘pack leader’ or that problem behaviours are caused by the dog believing himself to be ‘dominant’ over its owner. But where do these ideas come from, and, more importantly, are they correct?
Where did ‘Dominance’ come from?
Traditional dog training based its theories and techniques on wolf behaviour because wolves are ancestors of the domestic dog. Early research indicated that wolves arrange themselves in a hierarchy, with an ‘alpha’ wolf at the top who gets privileged access to food, resting places and mates. The ‘alpha’ would assert his position using ‘dominant’ body language and aggression towards subordinate wolves. According to dominance-based dog training, dog owners should claim this alpha role in order to prevent or resolve problem behaviour. It is suggested that this can be achieved by using physical techniques such as forcing dogs to lie down or to lie on their side, hand jabs to the dog’s neck in a mock ‘bite’, a foot to the abdomen and lead jerks. This theory may also recommend observing strict household rules such as eating before the dog, going through doorways first and not allowing the dog onto beds or furniture.
What is wrong with dominance theory?
Thanks to more extensive and up-to-date scientific research into the social behaviour of dogs, we now know that the observations of wolf behaviour that led trainers to develop their theories of dominance and pack hierarchy were incorrect. The wolves observed were unrelated to one another and kept in captivity. The behaviour they showed was therefore unnatural because they were forced to compete with unrelated wolves for access to food, water and resting places. Scientists studying wild wolf behaviour have shown that wolves in their natural setting operate more like a family group. Packs usually consist of a breeding pair and offspring from several seasons who work cooperatively to hunt and raise young. The parents naturally ‘lead’ the family as they are mature adults so are the most experienced.
We also know that domestic dogs do not behave like wild wolves. Dogs have evolved from wolves over thousands of years and are now a distinctly different species in terms of their physical appearance, biology and behaviour. Domestic dogs evolved more directly from a dog-like intermediate species between the wolf and the domestic dog. This early ‘dog’ lived around human settlements, scavenging from dump sites. This species, like feral dogs today, had a looser social structure, with females seeking mates at breeding times, but raising pups on their own. This difference in the social behaviour between wolves and feral dogs occurs because of how each species obtains food. Wolves work together to hunt large prey so they need to live in co-operative family groups. Feral dogs can obtain food on their own by scavenging, so can live more independently.
Domestic dogs do form social relationships with other dogs and people (and sometimes other animals). The outcomes of social interactions are based on each individual’s motivations, preferences and past experiences. They will change over time according to the circumstances of each situation, rather than adhering to rigid rules based on each dog’s perceived ‘status’ in relation to each other.
If we want to know how dogs behave, we must study dogs. The use of dominance-based training methods is a serious welfare concern as they can cause stress, fear and pain to dogs, aggravate problem behaviour and can create new behaviour problems.
What does this mean for my relationship with my dog?
Dogs do not need us to be their ‘pack leaders’. However, they live in a human world they cannot understand so they do need to learn behaviours which will help to keep them safe and happy. We can teach our dogs these behaviours through good socialisation and training. We can ask our dogs to show behaviours such as sit, stay or come, in exchange for the things they like best, such as food, toys and praise – they’ll be more likely to listen and respond because there is something good in it for them!
How do I resolve my dog’s behaviour problems?
Behaviour problems in dogs can develop due to, or be influenced by, many different factors such as pain, illness, fear, anxiety and frustration. The key to resolving behaviour problems is to understand the underlying emotions and motivations for them by consulting with a qualified pet behaviour counsellor on veterinary referral. A pet behaviour counsellor can take a detailed history to determine the causes of, and influences on, the problem behaviour. They will then develop a realistic and achievable treatment programme designed to suit you and your dog, using evidencebased, effective and welfare-friendly techniques of behaviour modification.
Where can I go for more information?
‘Dominance: fact or fiction’ by Barry Eaton
‘In Defence of Dogs’ by John Bradshaw