The word ‘dominance’ has become a dirty word in the dog training world. It’s become emotionally charged and we usually can’t use it without stirring up a hornet’s nest. Even at university we were advised to talk in terms of socially competitive rather than dominant.
The problem is that the word ‘dominant’ has been used by many hundreds, if not thousands, of trainers as a label to describe dogs which the trainers thought were trying to be the pack leaders and rule over other members of the household; be it human or dog.
It’s often been stated that a particular dog is a dominant dog, like there’s a dominant gene and this dog has it. Even from puppyhood, certain dogs are often labeled as dominant dogs. The second misconception is that dogs, like their ancestral wolf relatives, are constantly looking to move up the pack hierarchy, with the ultimate aim of becoming the Alpha and ruling the household or pack.
The first problem with assuming that dogs will behave in the same way as wolves is simply that dogs are not wolves. They are not even nearly wolves, they are dogs. Expecting a dog to behave like their closest relative is rather like expecting humans to behave like our closest relative, the chimpanzee!
The second problem is that even if they were wolves (they are not), wolves are not trying to reach the mighty peaks of the hierarchical pack and rule the roost. The leaders of wolf packs are the parents of all the other wolves within the pack. Most young wolves stay with the family for a year or two and then wander off to find a mate and start a family. It’s actually not too far away from how human families work.
The whole idea of dogs trying to become the dominant member of the household was built on a misconception of how wolves live. Numerous rank reduction systems have been devised to prevent the dog from working their way to the top spot.
You may think I’m making it up, but here are some of the ‘so called’ preventative measures I have found in the rank reduction systems. WARNING: DON’T DO THESE THINGS WITH YOUR DOG; THEY ARE BATSHITCRAZY.
Only allow dogs to enter and leave the living room when invited to do so.
Always eat before the dog
Sit in the dog’s bed
Pin puppies down until they stop struggling
Human should initiate all attention
Growl at puppies if they struggle
Stare them in the eyes, shake by the scruff
Prevent dogs from going to the toilet until instructed
Prevent sniffing until instructed
Always remain higher than the dog
Act big and powerful
Make the dog stay in position for 30 minutes per day
Don’t allow dogs to walk ahead of you
There are hundreds of other equally nonsensical rank reduction instructions based on ensuring you maintain your position as pack leader. Dogs have been treated pretty appallingly, including being beaten, shocked and alpha rolled, because of this idea that we need to maintain our rank status and reduce theirs. These are nothing more than imaginary rank systems. Dogs simply have no way of understanding our misguided attempts to physically and psychologically dominate them. Despite whether these actions are well intended, they are likely to result in causing fear, learned helplessness, or aggression.
So what is dominance then smarty-pants?
Dominance (in ethology) is actually a pattern of agonistic interaction which repeatedly favours the same member of any given dyad (pair of individuals). Dominance is therefore a relationship between two individuals rather than a fixed behavioural trait of any single dog. No dog is a dominant dog. No dog is trying to climb a hierarchical ladder and rule the household. Dogs don’t need adversaries, they need advocates.
You are your dog’s best friend; if you want to hurt them, what hope do they have?
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read