Dominance theory is outdated

The debate about the right and wrongs of dominance theory as a methodology for dog  training appears to be gathering momentum. The terminology can often cause confusion and so we decided to clarify where we stand on the issue.

The word dominance has a scientific meaning. Dominance can be understood as social aggression. The understanding of aggression put forward by Konrad Lorenz is still the most useful way of looking at aggression. He describes aggression as a drive aimed at eliminating competition. Competition is anything that poses a threat to the health and well being of an individual. For example, a strange wolf near anothers lair poses a threat to its young and so they must be chased off. Even straying onto another wolfs territory means competition for resources and is therefore a threat, albeit indirectly.

In a social context it isn’t about eliminating the competition, more a case of controlling or suppressing it, albeit only temporarily. It is about relationships and as such they aren’t fixed in stone. A relationship is about a series of encounters and some things will be more important  to some individuals than to others and this will dictate how hard an individual pushes to get their own way.

Some individuals(any species) are just pushier, stronger characters than others and although it may be fair to describe them as dominant, we must bear in mind that it is the result of individual encounters that matters. A dog that is primarily dominant towards one dog may be largely subservient to another and because relationships aren’t fixed, this can change with time and circumstance.

On that note, submission is best understood as social fear. A drive to avoid conflict from social aggression. Not permanent fear of another individual, merely a reaction to a threat or challenge that signals submission. This signal, in a well balanced individual will result in the cessation of the threat.

The aim of any social animal is to live in a safe, stable environment where individuals cooperate to the greater good of the group. The rules of engagement must be clear and known to all. This is the process of socialisation where the young learn from their elders all the things they need to be able to live constructively within the group. Social animals have evolved with the ability to learn these skills and are pre- programmed to be social if the proper introductions are carried out. To this end, conflict should be limited.

The fact that parents are older and more knowledgeable, puts them in a position where it their responsibility to teach, guide and care for their young. The young slowly learn the skills required to become useful members of the group. Yes, there will be conflicts along the way, but this is part of the learning process, and how the young learn about boundaries. It is how disputes are resolved. Conflict is not how overall dominance is gained. Dominance is a by product of a system whereby someone needs to lead and others need to follow.

In a relationship between man and dog, it is the human who knows the rules and controls the daily routines and so has to take on the role of leader or teacher if you like. Our job is to teach the dog the house rules and how to behave with others. We have responsibility for ensuring the dog is correctly socialized and habituated to allow it to live happily in the human environment. By leading and teaching, our dog will generally allow itself to be guided by us. Yes there will be times when the dogs exercises its will but it is for us to make it more rewarding for the dog to follow our rules and not do its own thing.

Nowhere in this process is it necessary for us to use harsh, violent or painful methods. We need to be clear about the rules we wish to teach and ensure we have the skills and abilities to teach them. This will avoid frustration which is what usually results in trainers using punitive methods. The fact that you are confident and taking control will result in what is often referred to as being dominant. A good teacher has control of the class but also has respect. The students are also confident and with police dogs this is imperative. You could be one of those domineering, scary teachers but you wont have confident, happy students.

So, no need to alpha roll your dog. I have a good relationship with my dog and as long as I wasn’t being aggressive to him, I could tip him on his back and pin him down. It would serve no purpose and he would probably wonder what the hell I was doing.  If you have a bad relationship with your dog the alpha roll will make it worse and because it will inevitably be done in anger, any dog worth his salt will fight back. All you will end up doing is worsening the bond, making him more wary of you and run a very real risk of getting bitten which will in turn make you more weary of him. If your dog threatens you for any reason, heed the warning and back off. Do something to distract such as call him away from the area and then take a long hard look at what it is that you did to make your own dog feel so threatened by you that he felt the need to warn you off.

In terms of all those other thing s that are often advocated like walking through doorways first and eating first, I think they are just ways to get an owner to start making decisions and working on taking the lead. They are a means to an end not the end in themselves.

In conclusion, you do not have to be domineering or aggressive to be in control of your dog (or wife or kids). You merely have to take responsibility for what needs to be done and ensure you have the skills and conviction to do it. It makes no difference how young, old, boisterous or aggressive your dog is. Operant conditioning provides the tools to teach in a calm, systematic way. Anyone that tells you different is lacking those skills.


3 Responses to “Dominance theory is outdated”

  1. Just to let you know you have won a Versatile Blogger award. See here for details:

  2. What a great post- thank you! Hopefully this trend will continue and commonsense will replace shock collars. [Also, as a teacher, I am driven to point out that you probably meant to use “wary” (i.e. worried about, fearful of), not “weary” (i.e. sick of). Although, perhaps not- if my dog growled at me I think I’d eventually get weary of him!]]

    • guy2932 Says:

      Thank you for your comment (and the free English lesson). I have corrected the error. I also hope this trend continues. Spread the word!

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