“He thinks he’s alpha.” “We have to establish the dog’s rank in our family.”
Let me persuade you what scientists have known for a while – it just ain’t so! No misunderstanding harms our relationship with our dogs more than “dominance theory.” Poorly done research in the mid-20th century mistakenly concluded that wolves fight to establish a pack-leader who rules with an iron paw. In the last few decades, much better science has shown wolves live as families – with parents leading based on experience, NOT tyranny. Thorough research has also shown neither do our dogs harbor a desire to show anyone “who’s boss.” The very concept of hierarchy is almost certainly beyond our dogs’ ability to comprehend, let alone act out.
Explaining what dominance actually is goes beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say it is not a stable, political hierarchy by which groups of wolves or dogs organize. The important point for our purpose is that there’s nothing to gain (and much to lose) using a heavy hand to show a dog you are the higher-ranking pack member. Does Duke resist getting off the sofa? He’s not showing you up; it’s just comfy there. Does Duchess walk in front of you, pulling the leash? She has no political agenda; she’s just faster and eager to check out interesting smells at the next shrub.
Sadly, a bad idea is hard to lose. Many old-school trainers, and even some veterinarians, still recommend force-based training to establish “rank.” Thankfully, trainers and veterinarians well-educated in behavior know to use gentle, reward based training to teach good manners and cooperation. So do yourself and your best friend a favor – leave dominance training back in the dark ages where it belongs!
Bob Ryder, CSAT, PMCT-4, CPDT-KA