It happens all the time in my work as a professional dog trainer. I seldom finish a day at Cascade Pet Camp without hearing someone mention the words “dominance” or “alpha” in a conversation.
I’m talking about the widespread idea that dogs are pack animals programmed to fight for leadership and either emerge victorious or submit to the winning “alpha dog.”
So if you want your dog to behave, the theory goes, you’ve got to let them know you’re the boss. As a result, many people think harsh, punitive and even downright abusive treatment is the only way to train and manage their dogs.
But as my doctoral studies in animal behavior and my professional experience have confirmed, positive training methods are not only more humane, but also much more effective.
Dominance is a myth.
Despite what you may have heard from prominent TV celebrities claiming to be expert dog trainers, dominance theory, as it relates to domesticated dogs, has been discredited for decades.
It’s a myth—a pervasive myth—but a myth nonetheless.
In fact, if you want to believe the idea that force and intimidation are essential to dog behavior and training, you might as well believe the world is flat. Harsh? Maybe. But they’re both outdated notions that science has disproven.
Dominance in pet dogs is not even a matter of opinion or discussion in the scientific community. Numerous studies have proven conclusively that the dominance concept is not only worthless, it’s dangerous.
So then where did the dominance myth come from?
It started in the 1930s with a series of observations on captive wolves held in zoos—hardly an ideal study group for determining natural wolf behavior in the wild. And certainly a huge stretch to apply to our best friends, domesticated dogs.
But researchers who observed unrelated groups of zoo wolves living in highly unnatural environments noticed they fought a lot.
They kept track of which wolves won the fights and concluded that all wolves—and, no doubt, their dog cousins, too—must be constantly competing to become the pack leader or “alpha.”
First of all, groups of wild wolves aren’t packs of unrelated individuals at all. They’re families—usually a breeding pair and their kids and grandkids. They don’t fight much, and they don’t compete for control.
Secondly, while dogs and wolves may share a lot of DNA and even be able to interbreed, in terms of behavior they are light years apart. Dogs aren’t wolves.
Dogs are not pack animals, either. They don’t even hang out in family groups like wolves do.
Studies of feral dogs show that after a litter is raised, all the pups go their separate ways. When feral dogs do group together, it’s because they’re clustered around a source of food. Spread out the food, and the dogs spread out, too. Not so with wolves.
Here’s the truth.
Dogs are highly social animals. They want to live with us humans. But they aren’t trying to dominate us.
Dogs don’t have an agenda to take over the family, starting with the toddler, moving on to the older kids, and then the parents, and next, look out, world!
Dogs just do what works. Period. They don’t pull on the leash or sneak up on the couch to show us who’s boss. They just want to get to that next interesting sniff faster, or enjoy a comfy nap.
So when it comes to dog behavior and training, let’s focus on what works best—rewards, consistency and a trustworthy relationship with their humans. Let’s forget dominance theory, fear and force. That’s the positive approach to training we take with each one of our campers at Cascade Pet Camp.
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> Read my follow-up blog post.