Why is the Dominance Theory of Dog Training Still So Darn Popular?

Wolf Communication.

Wolf communication. Click the image to learn more about the photographer.

The Dominance Theory of Dog Training is Hooey

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers considers dominance training harmful to your relationship with your dog.

The researcher whose early wolf research inspired dog trainers to explain dog behavior in terms of dominance hierarchy now explains why that model is wrong for most wolf packs.

And operant conditioning has been recognized as an effective way of teaching animals, all animals, since 1937. (If that phrase doesn’t mean anything to you, it’s the principle behind clicker and other force-free training methods.)

So why are dog trainers using outdated, ineffective, and sometimes, cruel methods, still getting television shows, book contracts, and magazines with their names on the cover?

First, let’s make sure we all understand what we’re talking about.

What is the Dominance Theory of Dog Training

Dr. Sophia Yin concisely defines traditional, dominance hierarchy training as “the idea that we must become the dominant leader and rule our pets the way a wolf would rule a pack.”

How does a human assert her dominance over her dog?

  • Eating before the dog.
  • Making the dog follow through doorways, not lead.
  • Forbidding the dog access to furniture or beds.
  • Making all decisions about the dog’s actions for him.
  • And the most dangerous method of all, forcing a dog onto his back and holding him there until he “submits.”

In theory, once the dog recognizes you as his pack leader, he will do what you want. Disobedience is a sign he no longer respects your leadership and you must reassert your dominance over him.

It doesn’t sound like a satisfying relationship to me. So just what gives this method such staying power?

4 Reasons Dominance Theory is Still Popular

The news isn’t all bad.

Because there are signs it won’t be around forever. Here are my speculations on why it’s hanging on.

1) Dominance theory is kinder than its predecessor

Dominance theory is a huge advance on old style compulsion training.

Wolves fighting in a zoo.

Don’t try this with your dog. Click the image to learn more about the photographer.

Even older methods expected dogs to obey because their trainer “said so.” A trainer would choke his dog until she would do anything to avoid the pain that followed her disobedience.

But the dominance hierarchy is trying to understand dogs by relating their behavior to that of their near relative, the wolf. By suggesting dogs will fit into our families better if  we are strong leaders, dominance trainers are attempting to meet dogs half way and see life from their point of view.

Dominance theory is one step closer to understanding the nature of dogs.

Unfortunately, the research it is based on is no longer current. Which leads us to the second reason dominance theory is still popular.

2) Knowledge filters down slowly

Dominance hierarchy theory relies on research done on captive wolf packs in the 1970s.

The endangered canines were brought together into artificial packs from throughout the United States. The behavior scientists saw, where a strong alpha male and female would enforce leadership on the group, was a result of the artificial pack structure—a way of dealing with the stress of many, unrelated wolves being forced to live together.

By the 1990s, scientists got to observe naturally formed packs as endangered wolves began to repopulate new ranges. They observed that wolf packs were actually families. And that the alpha male and female were the parents, not random wolves enforcing their dominance on the group.

Scientific literature can be dull to the lay person. It takes time for writers to convey technical information in ways that make sense to those of us who aren’t ethologists. And not everyone pay attention to cutting edge research.

Knowledge trickles down. And even when it’s in front of us, our brains work against challenging our assumptions.

3) We believe what we expect to be true

Did you ever buy a blue Honda just to discover that everyone else in the world is driving a blue Honda too?

It’s a result of confirmation bias—the term brain scientists use to explain that what humans observe confirms what they already believe to be true. We go looking for information that confirms what we know.

If you insist your dog stay behind you when you walk through a doorway and find him looking up at you on a walk, you believe it’s because he respects your dominance more. So you do more to enforce your dominance and find your dog paying more attention to you.

It could just be that your behavior puzzles your dog and he’s trying to figure you out. Or he’s watching you carefully so he can decide when he’ll be able to get back onto the furniture. But to a dominance hierarchy true believer, it’s confirmation that what you’re doing is working. And no one will ever tell you differently.

After all, you’ve seen it with your own eyes.

And it confirms with what that nice man on television has told you.

Wolf pack howling.

Pack behavior. Click image to learn more about the photographer.

4) It’s the Messenger, not the Message

“A lot of money went into producing this show. It must be true, right?” “Gee, he’s so confident. He must know what he’s talking about.”

It’s hard for many of us to critique a charismatic person talking with great surety.

Someone with the confidence and desire to become a household name can accomplish a lot. Unfortunately, the smartest people preaching about the beauty of relationship-based training don’t want to become famous. I can’t blame them.

If we want a wider audience for the idea that dogs and their people will be happier if they form a positive relationship, we need to support the people with the best chance of spreading that message.

Yes, we all know that a weeks long training plan and a philosophy of positive training doesn’t fit well into a half hour television show. But we have to start somewhere.

Otherwise people will flock to the most entertaining training information, whether it’s helpful or not.

Understand More; Fear Less

Many of you reading this today understand that what most see as dog aggression is often fear.

But do you try to understand human aggression the same way?

Honey the Golden Retriever and Layla the foster dog relax at home.

Better keep an eye on us. First we sleep on the couch then we take over your bank accounts.

The internet drips with the virtual blood of dog lovers who disagree on the best ways to live with them. Blogs and fora have erupted with hatred over differing training methods or tools.

What if all that aggression is just fear?

Dog people firmly in the positive only camp attack someone using an e-collar because they’re afraid that if they don’t, they’re responsible for a dog getting hurt.

Dog people who feel dominance hierarchy is right fear being told they don’t love their dogs as much as someone armed with a clicker and treats.

Let’s face it. Not one dog’s life has been improved by a fight on the internet.

I firmly believe the best way to train your dog is by building a relationship with her. Training is just one part of building that bond.

But I want to understand why people I disagree with believe the way they do. And hopefully my understanding will help me

  • fear them less
  • appreciate the positive aspects of their beliefs (see #1)
  • and perhaps, someday, figure out how to convince them to agree with me.

With all the time I spend trying to understand my dog better, it would be a shame if I couldn’t do at least as much for my fellow dog loving humans.

Why do you think some training ideas stick around while others fade away?
photo credits: Laenulfean,  Tambako the Jaguar,  and Tambako the Jaguar via photopin cc

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  1. Sue at The Golden Life says:

    This is an EXCELLENT post, Pamela! I like the way you presented the information without “attacking” the dominance theory folks, or those who are slow to let their brains understand something new. Believe me, it’s not easy going against nature — questioning one’s own beliefs after decades of believing one thing or another — especially as you age, past 55 in my own case.
    If I have time later, I’m going to “‘re-blog” your post over on WordPress for friends who aren’t part of our little dog blog community. Or, maybe just use part of it and include a link to your own. Being part of the Dog Whisperer online community, I know some folks who definitely need to at least read what you have to say. But we are a good bunch of folks, who love our dogs and want what’s best for them. And we don’t necessarily agree with everything Cesar says/does, but we don’t spew hatred toward those who disagree with us either.

    • Unlike some of my dog friends, I think Cesar has done a lot of good just by recommending people regularly exercise their dogs.

      But I believe that his ideas fall short so I’d love to see us all move forward into new ways of thinking about our relationships with dogs.

      I’m glad you’re willing to share my post. Thanks.

      • Sue at The Golden Life says:

        Definitely willing — just haven’t had time….

        Callie had her CCL surgery today, after our appointment with the surgeon. Poor Shadow misses her older sister very much right now — this is the first time they have ever been separated for more than a few hours — so hubby and I have been giving her as much extra attention as we can without making Ducky feel left out.

  2. I used to do the old-fashioned method of dog training (not the 5th one you mentioned at the top, though). It wasn’t until I got Maya that I learned a method that is almost entirely positive reinforcement. Of all the dogs I’ve had, Maya has taken the longest to potty train and to walk on a leash. However, it is difficult to say whether it is because of the new way I trained her or because of her personality. Other than those two things, Maya is a very happy and well-behaved dog. Pierson too and he is also trained almost completely with positive reinforcement.

    • I also looked to dominance trainer, Jan Fennell, for help with Agatha and Christie years ago.

      I loved them very much and just wanted to figure out how to help them. So I don’t hate people for turning to dominance training for help. I was one of them too.

      But relationship-based training has been so much more effective. I’m very thankful to be finding new ways of communicating with dogs.

  3. Great post! Such an important topic for the masses to continue to see over and over again.

    Since moving to MT, I’ve seen quite a bit more dominance theory in action. It’s actually really hard to watch, so joining the local club (who uses and recommends unfriendly methods with a quickness I’ve never seen before) is looking like a worse and worse idea. I think the reason it sticks around here is because *everyone* (and I really do mean EVERYONE) is doing it. It’s what friends will recommend to new puppy owners, and that’s what they take at face value. Almost nobody shifts from the norm. And people credit Elli as the reason why she’s such a responsive girl. Must have something to do with her genetic code because it DEFINITELY couldn’t have been all the time I’ve put into reinforcing good behaviors, right?

    I’ve recently found a handful of people who use entirely R+ methods, but I’m wondering if sticking to that group will cause change at all. The club will continue doing and recommending what they do and recommend despite my presence, essentially.

    • I have a similar puzzle. Our local dog training club also promotes some force methods. But I recently found that a positive trainer also teaches for them. I’m considering joining to have the accountability while using my preferred methods to teach.

      Will it change anyone else? Who knows? But it might be fun to show off what we can do with our own techniques while still learning what I can from others.

  4. Great post Pamela. I hadn’t given too much thought to training methods for years. Our dogs at the time were really easy – almost no training necessary. Then they passed away and we’ve been doing some fostering and have rescued three dogs. All have been ‘seniors’ so they usually come with some baggage, so it’s been a RETRAINING effort. I’ve had to expand my horizons to see what else is out there and I truly think each dog responds a bit differently to different methods. SlimDoggy is a big lug and just wants to please us so he’s pretty easy and had some natural ‘submissive’ behaviors like going out the door, etc. when we got him. Maggie though is much more of a challenge – she’s so fearful, training HAS to be positive – you can’t use harsh techniques or she’ll just shut down. I think your efforts to help educate are great and we will spread the word however we can!

    • Your point that every dog is different is why I prefer the term relationship-based training to positive training. The key to training comes from the relationship, not from the method.

  5. I tend to stay away these days from all dog training groups on the Internet because the emotional highs and lows frighten me and I no longer have the sanity points to take it all in. I used to be a member of several anti-dominance groups on Facebook, for instance, and the violent hatred I read about even had me questioning my own beliefs about R+ methods. While I understand where they are coming from, they aren’t doing themselves or the dogs they love, any service.

    I used to wish that the two sides could come to an agreement, that there was some sort of middle ground. Now I see that this isn’t possible when one side is based on incorrect science.

    Largely, I think these ideas prevail because most dogs are just awesome. Humans are busy. Unless it interests us specifically, we don’t take the time to do separate research or question things we hear in the media. If popular, well-known, “easy” methods seem to work and our dogs are well-behaved, we don’t seek out alternatives. Since most dogs are naturally pretty good, we’re not forced to question our beliefs. The only reason I sought out different advice was because with my dog, dominance-methods weren’t working and if we didn’t solve her problems, we may have had to return her to the shelter. I was motivated to find something else. The average person with the typical dog they brought home as a puppy probably isn’t.

    However, I do share in your hope. Regardless of the methods, it is great so many people are talking about it these days. It’s only going to get better.

    • I love your thesis: Dogs are just awesome.

      And you’re right that dogs do an amazing job of fitting into our lives despite our muddling attempts to “train” them to do what we want of them.

      It was Agatha and Christie’s bad behavior that got me reading about dominance hierarchy methods. And that led me to consider other methods too.

      Thanks, Kristine. Let’s raise a glass to challenging dogs. :)

  6. Mike Webster says:

    From the Husband:
    Forcing a dog onto his back and holding him there until he “submits” is completely inappropriate in dog training. This technique should be used only on husbands.

  7. I just couldn’t imagine using dominance training with our dogs. I want them to follow my lead, because I’m Mommy and it’s fun. I want them to be secure with us as dog parents. I love that Rodrigo lets me walk through the door first, but it’s because he’s a gentleman – he’s always done it. I love that our dogs snuggle with me on our furniture.

    In our house, an alpha roll over is the dogs rolling on to their back and we’re rubbing their tummy and giving them zerberts. That’s how we roll. :)

  8. I love this post. I haven’t figured out yet how to fear dominance-theory folks less, and I think that’s because everything I’ve seen firsthand is the opposite of what you’re saying in #1. 99% of the people I know who believe dominance theory are also using compulsion methods. And what scares me almost more than what is happening to the dogs is the fact that I’m almost immediately brushed off by these folks when presenting any kind of other options or theories. I think one of the big problems also is that these older methods “work”, so it can be very hard to convince someone who uses them and sees nothing wrong with them why they should not. I want to be as hopeful as you are! All we can do is spread the word, right? I’ll be sharing your post a lot. :-)

    • Well I’m one of those people whose early forays into dog training included dominance theory. For me it was a door that led to new ways of thinking about dogs.

      We all have to arrive at the truth in our own time.

      If I were you, I’d try to remember actions speak louder than words. Just keep up the good work and give the people around you something interesting to watch. :)

      • Oh yes, I come from the same experience. It’s the compulsion trainer we hired to help us with Desmond after we adopted him that led me to enroll in Animal Behavior College. The whole experience with him was uncomfortable and confusing and left me feeling there just had to be a better way, so I looked into it. I think Kristine has a really good point, too, that if you’re never faced with a challenging dog, these kinds of things may never come to light either way. I’m glad I have level-headed people like you to look up to for a less-hysterical point of view. :-)

  9. Guess I’m out of the loop here cause I’m not familiar with the violent disagreements being discussed…I don’t subscribe to any particular method of training, but I respect my dog’s intelligence and expect him to behave in an appropriate fashion…If he doesn’t I discuss with him why I’m displeased…I know this sounds pretty strange, but here’s an example…Giz starts barking like a fool for no particular reason…I don’t command him to stop…I ask him in a conversational tone what he’s barking about and tell him it’s unnecessary…He watches me when i speak to him so that breaks his cycle of barking and he moves on to something else…It works for us

    • In other words, you have a relationship with Gizmo. :)

      If everyone had such a relationship with their dogs, we’d need a lot fewer trainers.

  10. I will Say embarrassingly that I called and spent big bucks on a trainer two years ago who followed the Cesear Millan type training. This was before I started getting into dog training and becoming part of my local dog community. I was/am having issues with my jack russel mix with aggression towards people. A person recommended him and when I spoke to him he guaranteed that he could help me and I was sold. Let’s say I had a lot of bad experiences and I was desperate. The trainer did not put him on his back but did use a choke like collar and tugged at him. It did work temporarily, but not permanently which is how I got involved in other types of training (luckily). I can’t tell you how gracious I feel that my dogs still love me. Going to your questions, dominance training is still around because there are owners who do want to help their dogs and may be desperate so they will do whatever “appears” to have the greatest and quickest results.

    • Good point. And, if we remember that most people are trying to figure out how to live easily with their dogs, maybe it will lessen some of the animosity between the camps.

  11. I have had dogs most of my life. I am happy to say that consistency, love and kindness are my choices for training my four legged family members…and my two legged ones also.

  12. Julie Blackwelder says:

    I do not fit into either camp on this. I find some things I can use and do use in each. I tailor everything I do to the individual dog. All of us know that things have to be different for a very fearful Chihuahua, a mild but timid Bernese Mountain dog, a very intelligent but sensitive standard poodle, a bold, hyperactive and bored Cattle Dog, and very strong willed and dominant Rottie. The owners gave me mixed messages at times, so a lot of what I heard from them I had to confirm with their dog. (Actually, I generally did more training of the owners than I did with the dogs.) When I used to do a lot of training for my board clients, I had a retired professional trainer who I called to discuss problem cases, and sometimes I sent the client and dog to another trainer I really trusted.

    Most of my own dogs have come to me as adults. My learning their personalities, seeing hints of their backgrounds, their learning styles, their natural instincts and personality traits, dictated how I handled them. Of course, I sometimes made mistakes and had to correct my tactics and training style but I have never had one that I was not able to turn into a well adjusted, happy, social pet that generally was easy to work with and live with.

    There were accommodations made for the ones with minor problems, like the Tibetan Terrier (who had AKC Shih Tzu papers). She could not get over her compulsion for an excessively exuberant greeting style, so she learned to run to her crate when the doorbell rang and wait for someone to bring her a treat and close the crate door. Proper introductions followed a short time later and she was her usual calm, happy, tail wagging self. The poodle that never got over being possessive of his bed had a small plastic picket fence (flower bed edging) around his bed. A large pillow in a banana box was what he was used to so I never changed to any other kind of bed. He was 12 when I got him, so I tried to make his life as consistent as possible. I had a couple of small signs on his “fence” – Do Not Disturb and Grumpy Lives Here. He was wonderful every where else, but his bed was his only and he guarded it well. Everyone, human and animals, got the message quickly and he was very content with me until he died of old age. The mix breed pup I raised from day 1 was so aggressive that at 3 weeks old I had to remove the runt of the litter or she and her much bigger sister would have killed him by using him for tug of war. (The mom was a 12# stray – looked to be Shih Tzu/Peke, and the pups were anyones guess.) I sent many hours that first 3 months carrying around that pup, keeping her belly up for 2 or 3 minutes at a time, until she stopped struggling to get away. I put her in with much bigger but very sweet adult dogs that put her in her place when she attacked their ankles and got so aggressive and angry that she drew blood. I taught her basic commands, but mostly I just loved her, petted her and talked to her. By the time she was 6 months old she was placid, friendly, social and well behaved. Today she is 11 years old and a perfect little dog. She still plays well with the stray cat I got for her when she was 5 months old.

    I don’t think there is anything more important than that you love dogs. I mean really, really love dogs. Once you get experience dealing with them and handling them, most behaviors are not that hard to figure out, not that hard to change or adapt to. If you need a professional, interview every trainer and watch them work with other dogs BEFORE you even consider letting them touch your dog. Do online research and watch youtube videos. Find one that works for YOU. Dogs lives are too short for them to go through life untrained and unhappy. And, I do believe untrained dogs are unhappy.

    • It’s all about listening to what the dog is telling you. Yes!

      I love the idea of a picket fence around the bed. What a clever and creative solution.

      • I love a lot of these ideas. I often say that what you train your dog to do or not do has to be based on the reality of your lifestyle. Not all “problems” need to be “solved”–sometimes management is the best option.

  13. Great post. Before I studied animal behaviour, I must admit that the dominance theory sounded logical. I no longer believe this at all. Hopefully more and more people will begin to realise that dogs are not, in fact, wolves and start looking more into reward based training

  14. Really, really great post Pamela. I have written about many of the same areas, but you summarized it very nicely and explained it better than I ever could. The one thing I have known for several years now is how wrong the wolf-dominance theory is and how few people know about it. I read the original researcher’s comments on it in an online publication and was struck by how sad he was that what they knew then (with the artificial wold pack) is still being used today to describe wolves and dogs. It makes me sad too.
    As far as dog trainers on TV, I make sure people know that one particularly popular one is NOT a dog trainer, has never been certified as a dog trainer and is not someone I would follow. I think your trickle down theory is correct. All I can do is help move the trickle along.

    Sharing this one with my page followers. Great piece.

    • Thanks for sharing the post, Mel.

      Science is fascinating. All the time we hear on the news about some study that makes good press–red wine prevents cancer, for instance. But science is a process. People learn one thing. It’s tested by others. Ideas change.

      Dave Mech’s research on captive wolves was so important. But it was the first step. Unfortunately, it’s been seared into people’s minds leaving little room for new research.

      I can’t imagine how frustrated he must be.

  15. Excellent post! This section is my favorite: “What if all that aggression is just fear?”
    I haven’t seen anyone else make that point, and it makes so much sense! I love the examples you give, too. This is a keeper. Will spread.

  16. There is a book called “The Dog Listener” by Jan Fennell, it’s a great book and is based upon her observations of the wolves in Yosemite Park. Her four principals are a) you eat before your dog (even a cracker) b) you walk thru doors before your dog c) you ignore your dog when you first come home until the dog remains calm d) Be the pack leader (I think.)

    I read the book, took a seminar and actually had one of her trainers out to the house for Delilah. I couldn’t do it because I just can’t ignore my dogs but I’ve heard people that will swear by this. It is not a dominance based training in terms of physical dominance, but it is ultimately a mind dominance thing.

    But I do know one couple with a very temperamental Corgi, who says this method has been a game changer for them.

    Jan was the one who first got me realize that physically dominating a dog was not the way to train. Even though I don’t follow her philosophy, I do appreciate that she steered me in a better direction.

    As for why this dominance based theory remains, it’s beyond me. I want a dog that runs to greet me, not trembles and cowers when they see me.


  1. […] “pack theory” approach to dog training. You can read my friend Pamela’s post Why is the Dominance Theory of Dog Training Still So Darn Popular? but you may also want to read what APDT has to say on this… “Dogs are not wolves and […]