Deconstructing Dominance: The Science Behind Wag The Dog

Is Your Dog Fighting For Dominance?

Perhaps one of the most commonly touted tenets of dog training is “be the leader”.

Whether the family dog is jumping up, growling, biting, or tugging at the leash, owners are advised by professionals and dog hobbyists alike to “lead the pack”.

It sounds good, and it’s an easy line for lay people to take – “Oh, your dog is misbehaving? You need to be the pack leader and be more dominant.”

Advice for how to do to do this usually involves things like going through doors first, eating first,  or turning your dog upside down, all of which are supposed to mimic the behaviour of wolves in the wild.

People think that they shouldn’t sleep with their dog, shouldn’t let him on the furniture, and shouldn’t share their table scraps.

When we meet a new client, we often listen to embarrassed confessions of doing all these things… and then we surprise them by telling them the truth: If you don’t mind your dog on the bed, it’s not a problem. You won’t create a struggle for power if your dog cuddles with you on the sofa in the evenings.

Yes, if you want your dog listen to you and respond to you, you certainly need to be the leader in the relationship. But that doesn’t mean you need to dominate your dog.

The Science Behind Dominance

It would be nice to live in a world where all dog behaviour problems were solved with a quick alpha roll and careful organization of eating order first. But unfortunately science doesn’t back up these commonly quoted pack-based mantras.

Scientists studying street dogs in Europe have discovered that dogs don’t always have the wolf-style, tightly organized hierarchy that you would expect. In fact, their relationships with each other are quite complex.

“Intraspecific agonistic behaviour of feral dogs seems to be restricted primarily at the individual level without extensive effects on the social organization of the group, such as forcing a hierarchy and building a robust cohesiveness among group members.”  – Behavior And Social Ecology of Free Ranging Dogs, Boitani et al

That means that every dog has his own individual relationship with each dog in the pack, which is unrelated to the relationships of other dogs. Dog A may dominate dog B, and dog be may dominate dog C, but dog C could dominate dog A!

This corresponds to what you see in kennel situations where the dogs are allowed to run around and play with each other on a daily basis. There is no obvious ladder of power – just dogs who are bossy, dogs who are submissive, dogs who get along and dogs who do not. Their relationships form complicated webs, not a single cohesive pack mentality.

It’s not that dogs can’t form strict hierarchies. Of course they can. But they don’t have to, and they certainly don’t feel driven to do so.

The same thing was found in a research study by the University of Bristol at a Dogs Trust rehoming centre. They found that individual dog relationships were based on their unique experiences with each other, rather than a constant drive to assert dominance.

In fact, it turns out that even wolves don’t have the strict dominance hierarchies that everyone thinks they have. Long-time wolf researcher David Mech is now saying that the wolf packs he studies are mostly contented families – a mom, a dad, some big brothers and sisters and some baby brothers and sisters.

Mom and Dad tend to be in charge, but there is no constant war for dominance within the pack, no coups for power that need to be pre-empted with elaborate rituals.

Your own family probably works the same way – the parents are in charge, but the kids still get to give occasional input. Families are about give-and-take, loving interactions, and one or two agreed-on leaders who keep things running smoothly.

It’s a family, after all, not a military outpost.

Dogs work the same way.

Yes, you should be in charge of your dog, but not because otherwise he will try to take over the house. You should be the leader because you are older, smarter, and more competent than your dog. But you don’t need to physically or emotionally dominate your dog in order to do it.

Science is basically done with dominance theory. Literature reviews have resulted in a rejection of dominance in favour of associated-learning models. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers has also issued statements making it clear that it does not consider the dominance model to be a valid training theory.

“Since other models appear to provide better explanations for the complexity of social relationships between dogs, there is no reason to suppose that ‘‘trying to achieve status’’ is characteristic of dog–human interactions.” – The Journal Of Veterinary Behavior (2009)

Does That Mean That Dominance Theory Doesn’t Work?

The funny thing is, dominance theory often does work.

It just doesn’t work for the reasons that people think it does. If you thought that flicking a light switch made the lights come on by magic, you would be wrong – but that wouldn’t alter the fact that flipping a switch does turn on the lights.

A large amount of dog training involves teaching the dog to respond to the owner, and since much of dominance based training involves a lot of just that, it can sometimes have very effective results.

But when you are doing the right things for the wrong reason, you take the risk of misunderstanding your dog’s cues and motivations, and dominance-based training can go very wrong when used by someone who isn’t experienced with dogs.

At its best, dominance theory results in doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. More commonly, dominance theory can create a frightened, aggressive dog and a frustrated and abusive owner. In fact, research has found that dominance-based training methods actually increase the chance that your dog will be aggressive.

The problem with dominance theory, even when it works, is that it sets dog and human up as adversaries who are battling for power. You end up with great dogs and great owners who are angry and frustrated with fighting each other, or simply a dog who has given up on even trying to please.

We know how to help.

Wag Your Dog!

When you understand the real science behind how dogs learn and behave, then you know how to set dog and human up as what they really are:  best friends.

We can help you lead your dog without bullying him.

When you throw dominance and pack theory out the window, you discover a whole new world of fun ways to get control over your dog in a loving, respectful and exciting manner that makes your dog eager to please you, without feeling like he has lost some kind of power struggle.

We teach owners how to be positive, encouraging, consistent leaders and how to get their dogs in the habit of relying on them, trusting them, and obeying their directions. We call that Wagging The Dog.

At Wag The Dog, you may find us using some of the things you have seen The Dog Whisperer use… and you may find us contradicting some of the things that The Dog Whisperer has said. That’s ok.

Dominance Theory sounds good, and some parts of it even work when applied correctly, but we know the difference between a technique that works and a theory that doesn’t.

We know how to use positive, fun ways, effective ways to get your dog’s respect, get your dog’s attention, and get your dog on your side. Our methods are based on scientifically sound theories, and a wide range of personal experience.

It’s Fun. It’s Fast Paced. It’s Fetching.

To set up a free consult with Wag The Dog, call us at 778 841 8448 or email us at team@wagthedog.ca

-Carol Millman has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a diploma in Animal Health Technology. You can read her bio here