When I was asked to write an article , I was ecstatic! Well, actually, at first I didn’t notice. You see, I’d posted a comment about how I disliked dominance theory (It’s really more applicable to human/human interactions, and I’ll tell you why later) and I was afraid that the e-mail I received in response was a defensive one. So I ignored it. After I finally read it, I was ecstatic! I’d get to share my views, opinions, and experiences with other dog owners.
So here they are: dominance theory- that stuff touted by hundreds of dog trainers across North America- is a farce. Dominance theory is based on research from the 1940s, that was initially conducted incorrectly. Do we still believe human psychological research from that time period? Of course not. So why do we continue to follow information about wolves, and apply it to our dogs?
That’s another thing. No matter how primitive his breed, how physically he resembles a wolf, your dog is not a wolf. They have at least 12,000 years of adaption- perhaps as much as 100,000 – to live in human society. Dog evolution has favoured animals that follow leaders, even going so far as to adapt to understand a human pointing gesture (Which wolves, and even chimpanzees, cannot understand), not the animals that would fight a human master tooth and nail every day.
If you look at a wolf pack model, they are a family. Mom and dad are the alpha position, a breeding pair of adult animals who have majority control of resources. Below them are their offspring, and perhaps some “stranger” animals. It’s a strict life, because mom and dad aren’t going to let you get away with mouthing off, or stealing breakfast from them, or claiming their favourite spot on the rock as your own. At some point in their lifetime, a subordinate/child member of the pack will leave, and become alpha/parent of their own pack. With this logic, if your dog is spayed or neutered, he or she can never hold an alpha position. Also with this logic, if your dog isn’t spayed or neutered, one day he or she will run away to be alpha, and you will have fought them to prove your leadership for nothing.
Since that’s a pretty sad way to look at your relationship with your dog, look at how a real dog pack lives. A dog pack is a social group, not a family group. Social groups fluctuate and change, they grow and shrink, and not everyone has the same position all the time. Think how you and your group of friends act together. Dogs are non-monogamous animals, and any dog in a pack has the right to breed and attempt to raise young. They are also foremost scavengers, and not hunters, so it’s not so much leading a hunt to a food item as happening upon one and trying your damnedest to eat it fast.
Having “dominance” or a space in a dog pack hierarchy involves resources: who is willing to do what, when, and for what resources. This is why, say, you see a pair of dogs go after a ball at the park, and when they reach it, only one gets to pick it up. After that, a number of things may happen: the other may leave him alone (The resource is not worth enough to them), the other dog may try to take the ball and be reprimanded (The resource is worth more to the carrier) or the ball may be dropped (The resource is worth less to the carrier) or a fight may break out over it (The resource is worth an equal amount to both dogs). That same dog who won’t give up a ball he is carrying, may not try to take a ball someone else is carrying. The ball may only be worth fighting for when he owns it, not when he has to take it from someone else.
Because dog hierarchy is based around resources, it is a very fluid hierarchy. A wolf hierarchy is based around survival. It is the human hierarchy that is based around power. The more power a human has, the happier a human is. This is why canine dominance theory is most flawed: it’s based on observations of unrelated wolves fighting over limited resources for survival, and approached with a human mind. These wolves were perceived as fighting for power, not to survive.
So now that you know a little more about dog dominance, maybe you’ve already thought of a way to train a bad behaviour out of your dog. Is your dog dog-aggressive or reactive? Now you know that his reactivity is caused by him trying to protect himself or you, not because he feels he has to gain power over another dog or you. Aggression, something often attributed to a dog seeking dominance, is more often caused by fear, anxiety, or pain.
It’s hard to think that we may cause a lot of our dogs’ problems by laying the blame in their dominance, but it is true. Dominance is probably one of the things that fouls up dog/owner relationships the most. So next time your dog does something you think may be him exerting his dominance over you… think again, about why he is doing that, and adapt your reaction positively. I’m not saying encourage your dog to be reactive, resource-guarding, rude, or aggressive: encourage him to trust you. There are plenty of wonderful positive trainers, many of which even have blogs and most of which have books and classes, who can attest to the power of operant conditioning as opposed to dominance training.