Dominance in Dogs

Dominance in dogs

Dominance in dogs is a concept that I think most all owners (in the US at least) have heard of at some point in time. In short it states that a dog is constantly striving to climb up a social ladder against their owners and will assert their dominance through various displays. 

These displays could be as simple as wanting to get out of a door before you, putting a paw on you, not coming when called, not stopping their barking when told, walking ahead of you on leash, the list goes on. It’s almost like any infraction on the dog’s part could be seen as dominance……

For instance, this picture of Froot Loop sitting on my couch, dominance theory believers/practitioners would raise the alarm and shout that he is trying to dominate me by being on the furniture.

We’re going to unpack why dominance in dogs is a steaming pile, and how it has no place in modern training, nor should the idea take hold in the modern dog owners homes. Strap in for some learning!

The History of Dominance Theory

The whole idea of dominance theory and dominance in dogs is one that originated from really shitty science. Since its conception it has been twisted and tailored to fit into the more modern day and has been wildly popularized by televised dog gurus (with no actual dog behaviorist background) and lauded as brilliant, when the reality is that it’s highly damaging and untrue when applied to our canine companions.

So how did it all Start?

In the 1930s and 40s there was a Swiss animal behaviorist named Rudolph Schenkel who was studying the behavior of captive wolves in a Swiss zoo. He then published a paper called “Expressions Studies on Wolves” in 1947 based on his observations. At the time it was groundbreaking and the first study of its kind. The first window into the lives of wolves.

It was the best there was simply given the fact that there was exactly zero information on the sociology of wolves previously. There were many things wrong with this study that made the findings totally invalid and the study doesn’t hold water for either dogs or wolves.

The first problem, it was a study on captive wolves in a zoo. The only thing that these wolves had in common with each other is that they were similar ages. Real wolf packs consist of a breeding pair and their offspring. So right off the bat the behavior and interactions between the wolves in the study is not going to be accurate to wild wolves. 

Secondly these were wolves in confinement, which is highly unnatural for wolves and will inherently create stress. Wolves are used to ranging across long distances and maintaining large territories that simply cannot be replicated in captivity. So here is yet another very important factor that was influencing the behavior of the zoo wolves. 

In short we had a group of wolves unnaturally crammed together in a very artificial setting without the same outlets that a wild wolf has. It resulted in tension and a lot of competition for what resources there were, which in turn resulted in the observations reflecting this. Ending up with totally inaccurate information that can’t be applied to wild wolves.

Other studies were done by other scientists (following the same formula) which confirmed what Rudolph had found. Captive wolves like this will clash violently. And thus dominance theory was born.

Popularization of Dominance in Dogs

The study was not popularly known of and wouldn’t have even been much of a blip on the radar if it hadn’t had been for David Mech (American wolf biologist) mentioning it in one of his books. The popularity grew from there, as this truly was new information.

This was still during a period of time where there really wasn’t any study of wild wolves because of how flighty and difficult it was to actually study them. They are very suspicious animals and are known to flee for miles (even away from a kill) if they are startled or feel like something isn’t right. This trait is just one of a handful that makes them difficult to study properly, and at the time it simply hadn’t been done. 

Since then David Mech has fought to have his book removed from print because of the KNOWN outdated information found within its pages. The book unfortunately is still in print. David Mech is still very much an advocate for the wolves and if you’d like to learn more about wolves from a very trusted source take a look at the International Wolf Center. 

Next in the chain was the final nail in the coffin and where dominance, being the “alpha”, and teaching dogs with so called “pack leadership”, became the next big thing for dog owners. Enter TV dog gurus.

One of the most popular gurus had TV shows for over a decade preaching this false idea that a dog will be striving to work up the social ladder through exerting dominance in various ways. Simple and normal dog behaviors that can be attributed to a dog’s natural behavior or a general lack of understanding on the dog’s part were portrayed as dramatic and insidious attempts by the dog to become the pack leader of their human family. And of course this was all the fault of the humans because they were too soft with the dog and not dominating their dog into submission.

This concept has persisted like a bad smell in a tight space and in my opinion is one of the worst things to have happened to our dogs. Not only destroying relationships between dogs and owners, but also creating a culture of devaluation and disrespect to dogs and what they truly are.

I want to make it very clear that this is still going on (at the time of writing) and there are widely trusted TV networks who are heavily perpetuating dominance theory with the shows they put on even though it is damaging.

Your Dog is NOT Trying to be the Alpha

Dominance in dogs is not a thing. A dog’s behavior or misbehavior is not them trying to work up the social ladder with their humans. 

When a dog misbehaves, is stubborn, doesn’t listen, etc., there are only 3 reasons why this is happening and I assure you NONE of them are because your dog thinks you are a weak leader that they need to subjugate. These reasons specifically relate to when a dog isn’t doing what has been asked of them or what they have been told to do and excludes behavioral issues such as reactivity, fear, or aggression. 

Reason 1 – The dog is physically incapable of doing what is being asked (including in pain).

Reason 2 – The dog is confused and doesn’t understand what is being asked of them or has not been adequately taught or prepared for the task.

Reason 3 – The dog doesn’t find it valuable to do the task at hand or value in doing the task hasn’t be built. 

These are the only reasons that a dog wouldn’t do something or would behave “badly”. None of these reasons warrant dominating the dog or otherwise punishing them. Instead they require a little thought on the human’s part and a change in our behavior. But of course that’s not the information that has been popularized, and it’s not what a lot of owners want to hear (because it means change on their part!). 

Our dogs behave how they have been trained and using patterns that they have learned, with a healthy dose of genetics thrown in there. The code that runs our dogs is very simple and in any given situation they are reacting to the world with an internal value system and also acting based on how safe they feel at any given moment. That is it. It is that simple. There is no convoluted thinking about how to dupe, inconvenience, or dominate others. 

Dominance Theory Has No Place in Modern Dog Training

It has been very well documented that wild wolves do not naturally behave in the ways that was initially thought. We have so much more information about the subject now, and the scientific community has abandoned dominance theory (as it relates to wolves) as being outdated, inaccurate, and faulty. And like all good scientists, when new and more accurate information comes to light, things are adapted and we proceed on with better and more thorough understandings. 

Unfortunately pet owners have not been able to move on (due to the continued production of TV gurus teaching their own flavors of dominance), and there are even dog trainers out there who train using versions of dominance theory and pack leadership. They are not using modern science backed techniques, and frankly the lack of evolution of their training knowledge should be a massive red flag for owners.

I mean you wouldn’t go to a doctor who was still using trepanning to cure you of evil spirits, or one prescribing mercury for your longevity, and that is truly the level of knowledge that is being taught by trainers who teach that there is dominance in dogs.

I get it, dominance theory and thinking that there is dominance in dogs is handy and can easily be used as a blanket statement to explain away pretty much any behavior in dogs. It requires no critical thinking, and no real change for the owner aside from placing the blame on the dog and punishing them until they submit. Questions about dog behavior are easily quashed under the idea that “the dog is doing (insert behavior here) because he’s trying to be the alpha.”

Before I was a trainer I too believed in dominance in dogs. That was all the information I had at the time and it seemed to work. Then I went to an actual trainer school and my understanding of dog behavior and proper training dramatically grew. And then the magic happened. With the knowledge I had gained I knew I could not at any point justify the use of dominance theory, nor would any truly educated trainer do so.

I think that this also spills over to owners; no one wants to hurt their dogs. Dominance theory advocates and requires punishment, it requires escalation. It does not build partnership. It doesn’t foster understanding. It doesn’t build a single desirable trait in our dogs. It’s just convenient for humans. And that to me is the saddest part. 

Knowledge is power. It’s time to get with the changing times and as dog owners, start looking at our dogs differently and getting educated by trainers who have the right knowledge. I know I will forever be advocating for the ethical, humane, and most effective methods of training and raising dogs as our companions and teaching owners who are not afraid of learning something new and changing old views. 

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