After reading Barry Eaton’s new Book “Dominace in Dogs: Fact or Fiction?” we were inspired to update our essay on the same topic.
When the profession of dog training started taking off in the 1960s, people thought of dogs as domesticated wolves and believed they had to train them as if they were wolves being raised by their human “pack.” When L. David Mech first studied captive wolf packs in the 1970s, he concluded wolves operate in a hierarchy, generally dominated by alphas through aggression. From there, many dog trainers concluded that since dogs are related to wolves and order is maintained within a pack by dominant or alpha wolves, the same must be done in the domestic dog’s home with the human taking on the role of alpha.
Further research has since shown us although dogs are indeed descended from wolves, they are more like distant cousins who, due to evolution and selective breeding by man over the course of 14,000 years, are now very different creatures. Dogs have smaller brains, weaker jaws, altered motor patterns and many breeds are no longer able to communicate in the same way wolves do. The wolf meanwhile has remained unchanged over the span of the dog’s evolution. Consider that a wolf has 60 distinct facial expressions while a German Shepherd, one of the most wolf-like dog breeds, only has 12. Pugs and similar breeds have even fewer facial expressions.
More importantly, Mech and many others have since studied natural, free range wolf packs and have discovered that unlike the captive wolves, there are very few if any battles for dominance. The reason for this is that a natural pack generally consists of a mating pair, that year’s offspring and perhaps a couple of stragglers from previous litters. The “dominant” wolves are the parents. They protect and provide for their young, dependent cubs. Similarly, humans usually protect and provide for the domestic dog, resulting in the human naturally being the dominant creature in the relationship. Humans control access to all of the things dogs want or need, from food and water to access to exercise and mental stimulation. Just as there is no struggle in a natural wolf pack for dominance, there should be no concern that the modern domestic dog is trying to plot to take over the household.
So if behaviour problems don’t stem from dominance, where do they come from? Dogs are opportunists. This is what first contributed to the evolution of the domestic dog from wolves. The ones that were less fearful of humans saw opportunity in the garbage the humans threw away. Dogs simply perform behaviours that benefit them. If you are seeing a behaviour increase, whether you like the behaviour or not, it is somehow rewarding to your dog. This can include the dog that learns to sit in front of a closed door to get the human to open it, to the dog that learns if they snap at people who approach their food bowl, the people will retreat (if even for a moment).
Why should we dismiss dominance theory when it comes to dealing with our dogs? When we think our dogs’ actions are performed in an attempt to gain rank or status, it sets us up for a relationship full of conflict and we don’t get to enjoy our dogs for what they are – dogs! This does not mean that your dog should live without rules or boundaries. Dogs need to understand how we would like them to behave just as our children also need to learn what is expected of them. However, if we get away from dominance theory we can stop wasting our time applying rules that really have no relevance or meaning to our dogs. Consider the following rules that are usually associated with establishing yourself as the “alpha.”
- Always eat before your dog does. Wild wolves from the same group or family often eat from the same kill at the same time. If food is scarce, the parent wolves will actually feed the cubs first. If we always have to eat before our dogs, does this mean every member of the family must gather and eat before the dog does so no human in the house is seen as the dog’s subordinate? This could be very challenging given the busy schedules of most families today.
- Do not allow your dog on the furniture or bed. Your dog does not see itself as the leader because it is on your couch. Your dog may learn that the sofa or bed is more comfortable than the floor and if access is suddenly denied, they may begin to resource guard the furniture. If you don’t want your dog on the furniture due to cleanliness concerns, provide a comfortable dog bed instead. If you do want your dog on the furniture, it is OK. Simply train the dog to get on or off the furniture when you ask so they are easy to move when necessary.
- Never let your dog pull on leash. Although this is a good rule to live by to help prevent injury to you and your dog and to make your outings more enjoyable, it does not result in you gaining status over your dog. It was believed the alpha wolf always led the pack from the front. However, more thorough observations have shown that the alpha doesn’t always lead the pack and it is more likely the young, exuberant wolves are the ones out ahead when they travel as a group.
- Do not play games of tug and never let your dog win. It was believed that alpha wolves would wrestle and tug food out of subordinate wolves’ mouths. However, upon closer examination it was discovered that wolves usually tug on meat for a very practical reason – to more easily eat their prey. They work together as a team and each wolf eats whichever piece they end up with. This does not mean that you shouldn’t have guidelines for your dog when playing tug or that you shouldn’t teach a release command. You still need to make the game enjoyable for both parties!
- Alpha roll your dog to correct unwanted behaviours. One of the most commonly misunderstood element of dog communication, the alpha roll would be more accurately called the submission roll. Normal, healthy, socialized dogs do not force others onto their backs and pin them there to correct unwanted behaviours. Rather, submissive dogs will often display the posture of rolling on their back as a signal of appeasement. When humans alpha roll their dogs, they run the risk of eliciting defensive aggression.
So how do we live happily with dogs if pack rules don’t apply? First, do your breed research and make sure you pick one that suits your family’s lifestyle whether you are adopting or buying. If you are buying, select a good breeder who breeds stable adult dogs and socializes their puppies from a young age. Teach your dog what is expected from them in a fair manner using access to the resources they want or need to reward the behaviours you like. Finally, learn to read canine body language and postures so you can start to have a conversation with your dog instead of being a dictator.