The Dominance Theory of Dog Training is Hooey
The Association of Pet Dog Trainers considers dominance training harmful to your relationship with your dog.
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So why are dog trainers using outdated, ineffective, and sometimes, cruel methods, still getting television shows, book contracts, and magazines with their names on the cover?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.
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Unfortunately, the research it is based on is no longer current.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.
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?
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.