Debunking a Dog’s Dominance

An owner’s job is to minimize unwanted behavior through prevention and redirection

When desperate pet owners experience an increase in behavioral issues, it is not surprising to see them turn to television or the Internet for help with their dogs. Unfortunately not every trainer is a qualified or certified professional. Some employ methods that encourage owners to be dominant over the dogs by pinning them to the ground, correcting unwanted behavior, or using pain inflicting tools to achieve results. The theory that dogs gain control via dominance status has been disproven since the ‘90s. Here’s a look at some of the myths about dominance.

So how does canine dominance work? Basically it is a relationship based on context of a given situation between dogs. For instance, a dog which claims the bone first is circumstantially dominant. The dog which gets to reproduce and breed before others in the pack has temporary dominant status. The dog which is spatially aware and claims an area as their own is acting dominant in that particular moment. An important factor to note is dominant status is acquired through performing a sequence of ritualized behaviors with minimal force or effort. Dogs successfully navigate conflict through posturing, facial expressions, positioning, and motion.

Original dominance theory was based on observing pecking orders in captive wolves, under very stressful conditions. The idea of fighting for alpha status to remain in control was not visible in these packs. In the wild, wolves will form family structures, similar to ours. Wild dogs have packs, but they have a more fluid dynamic when it comes to rank, primarily based on resources and circumstance. The process of domestication has further altered our pet’s behavioral repertoire with specialty skills (such as pointing, retrieving, and herding) that are not visible in the wild. Dog’s were genetically modified to work WITH people, not take control or dominate them; look at the variation of breeds and their jobs.

Since dog training and behavior is an unregulated professional field, anyone is allowed to publish information and share insights without a second thought to the legitimacy of the content. There seems to be too many experts these days – from the stranger at your local dog park, to the neighbor who had a dog 10 years ago. Although other pet professionals may have their own insight it is best to talk with a specialist regarding your dog’s behavior. To find a good trainer make sure they use reward-based, force-free methods that do not employ fear, intimidation, or avoidance. Ask them about their approach, whether they use punishment or rewards, and what their position is on training methods. Be inquisitive, be intrusive, and be thorough before choosing a professional. You are advocating for your dog’s education, and there’s a lot of misinformed theories on training you need to be aware of.

A better approach to correct unwanted behaviors is to focus on teaching your dog what is expected of them, rather than focusing on the things being done incorrectly. Reward them for self-control, choosing good behaviors, and redirect your dog onto more appropriate activities where applicable. A dog which is rewarded for good behavior is motivated to learn and repeat good behavior. And when it’s not convenient or feasible to actively teach your dog, use prevention and management to minimize unwanted behaviors until your dog has practiced more. Build on success rather than micro-managing failure, as it will cause less anxiety, heartache, and frustrations for both ends of the leash.

So, your dog is not out to get you, or compete with you; they are simply selfish, opportunistic beings, who will repeat behavior which is successful. Truly it is about motivating your pet. If there’s something in it for the dog, they will pursue a behavior. Owners are responsible for minimizing unwanted behavior through prevention and redirection. Do you have a dog that jumps? Teach them to “sit” on approach. Does the dog try to squeeze out the door before you? Work on “wait.” Most training becomes common sense in terms of manners and etiquette rather than control for status.

Besides, who wants to micromanage their dog on a constant basis just to control them? We have more humane and force-free alternatives that will motivate both dog and handler in the learning process.

Charlotte Harvey
About Charlotte Harvey 8 Articles
Charlotte Wagner, BSc owns and operates K9ology LLC in Warrenton where she teaches group and private training classes for pet, competition, and working dogs. She holds a Bachelors of Science with honors in Animal Management from the University of Essex with a special interest in behavior. She regularly competes with her furry family members in breed confirmation, tricks, obedience, rally, and dock diving events.

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