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Debunking Dominance Theory

Understanding how dogs learn is vital in understanding the best way to train them effectively. To do this I need to tell you all a big secret that will change how you view your dog completely. There is no such thing as dominance.

You’ve probably at some point heard that if your dog growls at you when you take his food away, walks through doors ahead of you, pulls ahead on the lead or sleeps in your bed that he’s asserting his dominance to become top dog, leader of the pack and all that jazz. This simply isn’t true. It is this assumption that formed the foundation of all traditional dog training methods. And this assumption works on the basis that dogs place the same value that humans do on identifying who is higher in rank. And it is infact this belief that has given way to this massive growth in dog owners rehoming and euthenising their pets due to an increase of bites and attacks because of punishment based training methods.

Traditionally we believed that dogs that lived in multi dog house hold or with other humans typically had an alpha, be it human or dog, followed then by the other people and dogs underneath. I’m sure you’ve probably heard the sentence ‘be your dogs pack leader’. And ‘although social hierarchies do exist among dogs and certain dogs are more controlling than others, studies have shown that such dynamics are constantly changing’ (MENDL, 1999). What then determines a dogs’ decision and how they behave comes down to what that individual dog places value on. ‘For example, some dogs might place more value on a food resource when it comes to feeding time, where as others may desire first choice for a preferred sleeping location. One dog does not usually control access to every single resource but will control those he deems to be of highest value to him.’ (STILLWELL, 2013). So if a fight broke out say between two dogs over a tennis ball, the fight would have happened because both dogs place a high value on this resource and not because they are both trying to climb the dominance ladder to achieve a higher position over one another.

So, with this new knowledge in hand we can then apply this ‘value on resources’ idea to our training tactics. By understanding what our dogs value the most we can use this to get our dogs to do what we want, from the position that they want to learn because they want the reward more than anything else on the planet. This is when learning for dogs becomes fun, they want to work for you, they want to do what you say because getting the jackpot every time they do something you ask for is the most fun thing in the world for them. So with this in mind, have a think about what your dog treasures the most.

There is so much misinformed and out of date information that it can almost become dangerous when put into inexperienced hands. A lot of dog trainers today still use these old methods, even one of the most famous dog trainers of our time, Cesar Milan. He has a multitude of books and TV shows, the most famous being ‘The Dog Whisperer’. Dog trainers and owners all over the world use his methods even today, claiming to get instant results. But at what cost? His methods are based on the theory that a dogs world is based on that of a hierarchy. Where by dogs want to be ‘pack leader’ or ‘top dog’. The foundation for these views was formed in the 1970’s when a behavioural study was performed by scientists on a pack of captive unrelated wolves at a zoo. The results of these early studies suggested that there was a hierarchy in which 'alpha' wolves had priority access to resources, forcefully maintaining the group structure through displays of aggression to others. Because dogs were believed to have descended from wolves, it was then assumed that similar social groupings and violent 'pack' dynamics must therefore exist among domestic dogs as well. This theory became so popular that despite the obvious fact that dogs and wolves are a completely different species, the concept was attributed to explain not only the social interactions between dogs, but also between people and dogs and how dogs should be trained.

But dogs are NOT wolves and since then the very scientists that originally performed this study have since revoked these theories. In fact the study didn’t even show a true reflection of wolf behaviour because these wolves were completely unrelated and thrown together meaning the behaviours they showed were aggressive and unfounded due to the stress of living with unrelated wolves, being in an unnatural setting and not being able to perform natural behaviours like they would in the wild. Unfortunately it wasn’t until recently when new studies were performed that people still believed dogs lived by this hierarchy system and so it seems this study from the 1970’s has caused many of the major behavioural problems seen today in our pet dogs as amateur ‘pack leaders’ attempt to carry out these punitive dominance based training techniques. This interpretation of dogs has been used to explain behaviours ranging from aggression, attention seeking, destruction, and even failure to return on recall. People still use this original theory as their basis for training dogs, and it all comes down to a lack of knowledge and education. It didn’t take me long to realise this, but I pride myself on taking a personal interest in theory of behaviour, I enjoy studying, reading and broadening my knowledge, but I know of a whole load of people who class themselves as “professional” Dog Trainers who still use these dominance based methods. To me these people have jumped on the bandwagon, they see these methods have worked to a certain extent and see no reason for stopping, but I think that if they really informed themselves of the mental repercussions that training this way has on dogs surely they would stop? I hope they would.

If one assumes that the behaviour of a dog is motivated by a desire to control or ‘dominate’ its owner, it tends to lead on to the conclusion that in order to deal with the problem, the owner needs to establish ‘dominance’ over the dog. This interpretation of dog behaviour, therefore, has tended to encourage the development of training techniques that use punishment or force to ‘show the dog who is boss’ and it is these techniques that impact the welfare of our dogs negatively in terms of mental well being.

The idea that dogs live through a pyramidal structure based on competitive success presumes that dogs have the ability to plan ahead in order to raise their status, but this is a very human concept and the fact that dogs don’t have language and an enlarged frontal cortex in the brain like humans do that enables us to form abstract ideas means that dogs aren’t able to plan ahead . For example, when an owner returns home to destruction or a soiled floor, many people assume the dog displays signs of guilt and that he may have even done it as a protest, but research shows that dogs have simply learnt to respond this way in certain contexts, in response to say an angry facial expression, rather than an actual awareness of the misdeed itself.

Ultimately though, dominating a dog by wrestling him to the ground, into an ‘alpha roll’ and declaring ‘”this dog has submitted, he is rehabilitated” just isn’t my cup of tea. ‘Think about how you learn. When you’re emotional, it’s difficult to think rationally and clearly because your “thinking” part of your brain shuts down. Once you calm down, your body activates the “thinking” part of your brain again so that you can listen, digest and learn… The same principles are in play with our dogs” (STILLWELL, 2013). For me training is about building confidence, making positive, happy associations whilst being relaxed and having fun. Because lets be honest would you want to learn based on the fear of the consequences?

So what do we need to know about dogs and how they learn? The way dogs learn depends on genetics, instinct, hormones, senses, early experience with their mothers and litter mates and ending ultimately with us. Learning can be compromised by poor health, solitary or overwhelming environments, forceful training methods, abuse, fear, inconsistency and lack of knowledge. Dogs learn through conditioning, this is a behavioural process whereby a response becomes more frequent or more predictable in a given environment as a result of reinforcement, with reinforcement typically being a stimulus or reward for a desired response. Operant conditioning for example is when I ask a dog to sit and he is rewarded with food or a toy for doing so, he is then motivated to sit again in anticipation of the reward. Dogs also learn by association, this is called classical conditioning. My dog gets excited every time I open the shoe cupboard because he has learnt to associate me putting my shoes on is often followed by me going to then get his lead to take him out for a walk. Counter conditioning is where I counter act the unwanted behaviour. For example Loki likes to run directly for the door when someone knocks and will often try to get outside, which could be dangerous should there be any traffic. I counter the running behaviour by teaching him to sit and stay some distance from the door whenever it is opened to keep him safe. Classical counter conditioning works in a similar way, it is a learning process used to teach a dog a different emotional response towards a certain stimulus. So say Loki lunges aggressively towards an oncoming dog he see’s in the distance because he is fearful, using classical counter conditioning I pair the sight of an oncoming dog with something he likes such as food or a toy, helping him associate the approaching dog with good things rather than fear or harm. So I would teach him to sit and look at me that way he is focused on me and not the approaching dog. With time and many repetitions the dogs learns that when he see’s another dog he immediately chooses to sit and look at me until he receives his reward.

Teaching our dogs to listen to us can only happen when there is an understanding of how they learn. It will become impossible to create a two way line of communication if you don’t understand each other. The key to teaching dogs to listen to us, particularly out of the home when there are lots of distractions around is to become important to your dog. To do this you need to be exciting and a source of good things in his life like food and play so that you can get his attention whenever you need it. By teaching your dog cues and pairing this with great rewards your dog will quickly learn to associate you with feeling good and therefore produce the desired behaviours you want even in the most distracting environments.





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