The Problem with Dominance

Jason Cook

APL_logo_black [Converted]Our understanding of the domestication of dogs and canine communication have come a long way in the last two decades, and this has brought dramatic changes to dog training.  Whereas traditional dog training relied upon choke chains, prong collars, and corrections, today’s most advanced and sound training methods rely on an understanding of the science behind animal learning.  Dominance was once thought to be the root of all behavior problems.  However, this idea is based on mistaken beliefs about dogs’ behavior in relation to wolves.  We now know that dogs are not wolves, and that neither dogs nor wolves form linear hierarchies.

Wolf biologists today rarely use the term “alpha” to refer to the leader of a pack of wolves.  In the wild, wolf packs consist of the mating pair, or parents, and the different generations of offspring.  The older offspring help to raise the new offspring each season.  Because wolves live as a family unit, with the parents leading the youngsters, there is no need for adult wolves to constantly assert their dominance.  As the parents, they are the natural leaders.  On the other hand, wolves living in captivity are forced to form packs with non-relatives.  As a result, they do form linear hierarchies in which members fight one another for the dominant position.  However, this is not natural wolf behavior.  It pertains only to captive wolves living in zoos or other confined spaces.

Dominance is defined as a relationship between individuals that is established by force, aggression, and submission meant to gain priority access to valued resources.  Dominance is not established until one individual in the relationship consistently submits.  Thus, dominance refers to an interaction between two animals rather than to a personality trait.  Despite some false beliefs that persist today, dogs are not constantly motivated by a desire to gain higher rank over either their owners or other animals.  Most of the unruly behaviors we see in our pet dogs are NOT due to dominance.  Dominance theory is, thus, irrelevant for most behavior problems.

A Better Way of Training

Today’s best trainers understand that animals and humans behave in undesirable ways because these behaviors have been reinforced.  The newer approach to training is based upon the animal’s motivations for learning, what the animal can comprehend, and the incremental steps involved in learning.   In order to change such behaviors, we must remove rewards for undesirable behavior and focus on rewarding good behavior.  This kind of training establishes a relationship of trust between dog and owner, and makes training fun and effective.

Modern training methods make use of a large body of research on animal behavior, including experiments with rats, pigeons, mice, dogs, human adults, children, and people with behavioral disorders such as autism.  We have learned that behavior modification is simple.  Animals do what is rewarding for them, so behavior changes very quickly if existing behaviors are no longer rewarded and alternate appropriate behaviors are rewarded instead.  It is also important that we modify our own behavior when we are around dogs.

In training, “positive” doesn’t mean permissive.  Positive trainers still set strict rules and limits for behavior.  However, they convey the rules by rewarding good behaviors as they occur and by removing rewards for undesirable behavior.  Trainers do this consistently so that the good behavior becomes a habit.

Being a Benevolent Leader to Your Dog

Leadership can be defined as the ability to influence a follower to perform a behavior that she would not otherwise perform.  Dog owners do need to be leaders to their pets, but they must be benevolent leaders.  This means not leading in a dictatorial or forceful way, based on coercion.  Good leaders focus on providing goals and rewards that the dog wants and is willing to work for.  The best way to motivate your dog to do what you ask is through positive methods—by providing rewards for appropriate behavior and removing rewards for undesirable behavior.

Think of training your dog as a dance.  When the leader in a dance leads, his partner follows.  She can only follow if the leader decides ahead of time which steps to perform, and then offers clear guidance so his partner can follow.  Dancers do not rely on shouting or yanking to get their partners to perform well—doing so is not considered good technique.  Today’s dog training methods are also based on setting rules, having a clear picture of what we want from the dog, and consistently conveying that picture through our body language and perfectly time rewards.  When the dog performs an unwanted behavior, the rewards for that behavior must be removed immediately or that behavior will be accidentally reinforced.  Dog training, like dancing, relies on perfect timing.

Why Punishment Doesn’t Work

Punishment is far too overused.  In addition, it is most often performed incorrectly.  At best, this makes the punishment ineffective.  At worst, the punishment can have adverse effects and result in behavioral fallout.  Humans tend to fall back on punishment because it requires less thought than considering how we are contributing to the problem and how we can proactively prevent it.  In order to train your dog well, you must first be aware of your own reactions to your dog’s behavior, and how they reinforce that behavior.  Punishment-based training methods can make an animal seem stubborn or willful when in reality they are frustrated, confused, or have no motivation beyond avoiding fear and pain.  Punishment does not take motivation into account, and it doesn’t tell the dog what he should be doing—it only tells the dog what he shouldn’t be doing.

Consider what would happen if your boss came up to you at work and yelled “No!” then walked away.  You may or may not understand what you were doing wrong.  All your boss’s reaction told you was that he didn’t like what you were doing.  Now, you have no idea what you should be doing instead.  You might sit there frozen, unable to do anything for fear that your boss will reprimand you again.  You don’t understand, and all you want to do is avoid getting yelled at.  But you are not at all sure how to do this.  This is not the kind of leader that inspires confidence or provides motivation, and it is not the kind of person that most of us would enjoy working for.

To be a good leader to your dog, you must be calm and confident.  But, you must also develop your own training skills.  Part of your training program should be a clear plan for your own behavior.  Updated training methods are based on the psychology of learning.  They consider the dog’s motivation and the emotional state driving the behavior.  In addition, they account for the everyday reinforcers that are driving that behavior, such as gaining attention.

The old method of training focused on punishing bad behavior while accidentally rewarding it as well.  It also did not encourage owners to reward appropriate behavior often enough.  The dog was called “dominant” if he didn’t behave, and the trainer used force until the dog simply gave in.  Punishment may suppress behavior temporarily, and this might look like a cure to the untrained eye.  However, your dog’s body language will tell you if he is happy to be listening to you or if he is simply being suppressed and fearful because he is trying to avoid punishment.  Happy dogs hold their ears forward, keep their heads and tails up, and have a relaxed body and face.  On the other hand, fearful dogs carry their tails down, have tense bodies, avoid eye contact, keep their ears back or out to the sides, and move slowly or look as if they are sleepy.  A trainer who desires the latter is simply being a bully.

Punishment is especially counterproductive when you are dealing with a fearful or aggressive dog.  Coercive training methods are associated with more behavioral fallout and adverse effects because people do not know how to employ them effectively or how to recognize what ineffective use looks like.  It is essential that we identify the adverse effects of punishment so that we can determine whether our training methods are sound.

It is clear to today’s best trainers that attributing bad behavior to dominance is both incorrect and counterproductive.  Solid training is best accomplished through positive reinforcement.  This kind of training may require a bit more effort on our part, but the bond that we will build with our dogs is worth it.