2017-09-08 / Pets

Fact checking the dominance myth

By Phyllis Beasley, CP DT-KA Owner/Lead Trainer, Praise Dog! Training, LLC www.praiseyourdogtraining.com


If your dog pulls on his leash, he is not trying to be dominant. Either you have not trained him to walk nicely on lead, or he is simply excited and you are slow. 
Adobe Stock Photo If your dog pulls on his leash, he is not trying to be dominant. Either you have not trained him to walk nicely on lead, or he is simply excited and you are slow. Adobe Stock Photo When I accept a new client, either for helping them teach their dog obedience skills or modifying their dog’s difficult behavior problem, I first sit down and set the facts straight about why their dog behaves the way he does.

Our society has advanced in medical knowledge, technology, and other sciences, but there remains a huge amount of misinformation about dog behavior and training. Sadly, much of this inaccurate information can hurt our relationship with our dog and sometimes even make the dog’s behavior worse.

Popular television shows have promoted these outdated beliefs. A persistent, lingering theory is the Dominance Theory and the concept of being a “pack leader.”

The original short-term studies in which the ideas of dogs and dominance originated were conducted in the 1940s. There were several flaws in these studies.


Dominance? No. This dog is jumping on this child because he is impolitely trying to grab the stick. This dog should be trained to Sit before the stick is tossed for him. 
Adobe Stock Photo Dominance? No. This dog is jumping on this child because he is impolitely trying to grab the stick. This dog should be trained to Sit before the stick is tossed for him. Adobe Stock Photo They were short-term studies that focused primarily on the hunting aspect of wolves’ lives, a very small part of their lives. The studies misinterpreted the observed ritualistic displays. Then, the results of the studies were casually applied to dog behavior.

Later, Dr. Frank Beach conducted a 30- year study at Yale and UC- Berkeley, most of which focused on the social behavior of dog packs and disproved these misconceptions.

The outdated belief that you should “alpha roll” your dog to show him who is boss was based on the early wolf studies. The study incorrectly stated the male alpha wolf was “alpha rolling” a pack member.

Wolf packs are family structures. The behavior that was observed was a totally voluntary behavior on the part of the younger or lower-ranking wolf family member called an “appeasement ritual.” The younger or lower-ranking wolf voluntarily offers his nose to the alpha wolf, then rolls over. The behavior is instigated by the lower-ranking wolf, and there is no fighting.

Somehow, a long time ago, trainers translated this ritualistic behavior into telling owners that they should “alpha roll” their dogs when the dogs misbehave or show aggression. In addition to frightening our dogs, this technique can increase or create aggression.

The dog becomes defensive and scared and may become more aggressive in defense. The dog can become fearful of his scarily, unpredictable ( in his eyes) owner.

You do not need to be “alpha” in your relationship with your dog; your dog knows you are not another dog. Dr. Patricia McConnell, ethologist and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) and author of many books focusing on interspecies communication, coined an excellent term for our relationship with our dogs. She said we should be “benevolent leaders.” This means we can manage our dogs and encourage cooperation by asking for polite behaviors to provide the resources they desire.

For example, want to keep your dog from dashing out the door? Teach a Sit-Stay before he can go out. Want to stop your dog from jumping on you? (He is not being dominant. He’s just really excited to see you and wants attention.) Have your dog sit before you will pet him. Provide a set of rules that are consistently reinforced so that the dog understands what he needs to do to get what he wants.

Many other dog training myths grew from the old Dominance Theory model. There are two I hear regularly. One is that you should eat before your dog eats to show him you are alpha.

I repeat, your dog knows you are not a dog. When you eat makes no difference to him, except he may stare at you while you eat because he wants some of YOUR food! If you don’t like this, crate him or put him in another room, teach him the “Settle on a Mat” command or never feed him from the table, so he doesn’t learn to beg.

Another myth I hear is you shouldn’t allow your dog to sleep on the bed or he will think he is dominant. Dogs want to be close to us. They love us, and the bed is super comfortable. If you want your dog to sleep on the bed, feel free to let him. However, a dog should not be allowed on the bed when he is not house-trained or if he growls at you when you move or try to move him off the bed. ( That is a form of aggression that should be addressed by a reward-based trainer.)

There are many other misconceptions about dog behavior. In most cases, if a dog does not obey your cue or does something you don’t like, it is because he has not been taught, or there are too many distractions in the environment he has not been trained to ignore.

Fido won’t come when called? He’s not being dominant or alpha. You have probably never taught him to come or trained him with distractions or rewarded him adequately.

Before you punish or assume your dog is trying to “dominate” you, try to understand why he is acting that way and teach him how he should respond!

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