The Dominance Theory Myth


Our knowledge of dog training and behaviour has come a long way in the last twenty years but outdated theories and techniques still exist, and have even been popularized on television. Dominance Theory (as it pertains to human-canine relationships) is one such example.

So, what is the notion of 'dominance' and how does it apply to the relationships we have with our dogs? To put it into fairly simple terms, it's a combination of two different beliefs:

  1. The belief that the natural social hierarchy of a wolf-pack is comprised of an 'Alpha' wolf and his mate that use physical dominance and even outright aggression to keep the rest of the wolf-pack subservient to them.

  2. The belief that, because dogs are descended from wolves, they will have the same 'Alpha/Dominance' social hierarchy as their wolf ancestors.

Based on the combination of these two beliefs, it is felt that in order to have a successful human-canine relationship, the human must assert his/her dominance or 'alpha' status over the family dog in order to keep the dog subservient and 'in line' within the human family.

Where Did Dominance Theory Come From?

The origination of Dominance Theory came from studies on captive wolves that were done in the 1940's. To learn more please read "The Flawed Alpha Wolf Theory".

But Aren't Dogs Dominant and Submissive With Each Other?

In behavioural terms, dominance is commonly defined as "a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates." (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993)

The important thing to note is that the definition relates to a relationship between individuals of the same species, and while dogs can (and do) display dominant/submissive behaviours with each other, it is a far more fluid and nuanced relationship than the rigid top-down hierarchy that is suggested by Dominance Theory.

Dominance Theory In The World of Dog Training and Behaviour

Generations of dog trainers have been taught methods and techniques that were born from Dominance Theory as it was the standard and supported belief system of the day. This 'traditional' training tends to be synonymous with aversive/punishment-based dog training methods and tools.

~ Example of an Aversive training technique:

If a dog is pulling on the leash, a sharp yank on a choke chain is applied to 'correct' the dog from the inappropriate pulling behaviour. Through consistently 'correcting' the dog in this manner, the dog is supposed to learn (ie: be conditioned) not to pull on the leash in order to avoid the physical punishment of the correction.

~ Example of a Dominance technique:

Let's say a dog becomes over-excited about something in its vicinity (which could be another dog, a person, a squirrel, etc.), and the dog isn't responding to its owner's cues or efforts to calm down. To assert his/her authority or 'alpha' status over the unruly dog, the owner flips the dog onto its side (or onto its back) and then pins the dog down until it has relaxed. This technique is based on Dominance Theory and is meant to copy what an 'alpha' wolf would (supposedly) do to an unruly member of the wolf pack.

Of course there are certainly many more examples of dominance-based and aversive training methods which span the gamut from completely non-physical (example: staring a dog down with direct eye contact), to abuse (example: kneeing the dog in the chest when it jumps up to greet you), to outright cruelty (example: using the dog's leash and collar to hang the dog in the air until it blacks out).

Why Has Dominance Theory Been Discredited?

As explained in "The Flawed Alpha Wolf Theory" article, the research and conclusions that were the basis of the alpha/dominance theory were found to be flawed and, ultimately, invalid.

In addition, ongoing scientific research has advanced our understanding of the behaviour of wolves and dogs, which brings their similarities and their differences into sharper focus.

Based on modern research and studies; applied animal behaviourists, veterinary behaviourists, leading trainers and behaviour consultants, and professional organizations from all over the world are now strongly advocating training methods and behaviour modification strategies that do not involve the dominance/aversive practices of the past.

Doesn't Dominance/Aversive Training Work?

The argument is not that dominance/aversive training techniques and methods cannot work. Instead, professionals are saying that there are other techniques and methods which are more effective, more humane, and far less risky.

Generally speaking, dominance/aversive techniques cause the suppression of problem behaviours through fear of subsequent consequences. While these techniques often give the appearance of being quick and effective solutions, due to the fact that the behaviour is merely being suppressed the 'solution' often ends up being temporary because the underlying cause of the behaviour has not been addressed. In addition, it is common for dominance/aversive techniques to result in unintended negative behavioural side-effects.

In contrast, the use of behaviour modification programs that employ least intrusive and minimally aversive methods work to solve the motivations that drive unacceptable behaviours, but they do so without physical or psychological intimidation or confrontation. It should also be stated that there are no unintended negative behavioural side affects associated with these progressive methods.

On the surface, this may seem to be a longer process than dominance/aversive methods, but when done properly it provides effective and long-lasting results, eliminates negative side-effects and enhances the relationship you have with your dog.

AVSAB Position Statement

In 2008 The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviourists (AVSAB) published a "Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behaviour Modification of Animals". Here are some excerpts from that report:

  • "AVSAB is concerned with the recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behaviour problems."

  • "Despite the fact that advances in behaviour research have modified our understanding of social hierarchies in wolves, many animal trainers continue to base their training methods on outdated perceptions of dominance theory."

  • "Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993). Most undesirable behaviours in our pets are not related to priority access to resources; rather, they are due to accidental rewarding of the undesirable behaviour."

  • "The AVSAB emphasizes that animal training, behaviour prevention strategies, and behaviour modification programs should follow the scientifically based guidelines of positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, desensitization, and counter conditioning."

  • "The AVSAB emphasizes that ... dominance theory should not be used as a general guide for behaviour modification. Instead, the AVSAB emphasizes that behaviour modification and training should focus on reinforcing desirable behaviours, avoiding the reinforcement of undesirable behaviours, and striving to address the underlying emotional state and motivations, including medical and genetic factors, that are driving the undesirable behaviour."

  • "The AVSAB clarifies that dominance and leadership are not synonymous."

  • "The most common cause of aggression in dogs is fear. Pinning a dog down when he is scared will not address the root of his fear. Furthermore it can heighten the aggression."

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