He is very dominant. Of all the words used to describe the goofy dog that was vying for my heart on the adoption floor, these are the ones that stuck with me. I inherently knew what the shelter manager was talking about even though Buddy was my first dog since childhood and I had never studied anything about dominance theory during my university career.  “He won’t start any fights but he won’t back down,” he informed me. Well, I can live with that I thought in my adoption afterglow.

Over the next couple of years I used dominance to explain many of Buddy’s undesirable traits that appeared as he entered social maturity without the assistance of obedience classes to learn appropriate manners. With a wave of the dominance wand I was able to explain all of his inexplicable behaviour problems – counter surfing, bullying puppies, humping, occasionally destroying the recliner and getting into scraps with unneutered male dogs. Everyone seemed to agree and all understood what I was talking about without a detailed explanation. He is just being dominant, I would explain and everyone would nod in agreement.

I was offered plenty of free advice that ran the gamut of using a choke chain to control him, to humping him if he humped another dog. I thought surely these secrets of dog training would help me and my pooch. I had put any memories of the tedious learning theory courses I had studied in university out of my mind and grabbed a hold of dominance theory. It was easy to understand and could be used to describe why a problem was happening and how to solve it. Long ago I had blocked the rules of reinforcement and punishment from my mind that are the foundation to understanding how all animals (including dogs) learn and respond to their environment. It was boring and none of my friends at the dog park ever talked about it.

Since those early days with Buddy, I have heard dominance used to excuse separation anxiety, dog-dog aggression, aggression towards humans, rambunctious play styles and inappropriate greeting rituals. Dominance has become a fixture in dog culture but few understand its true meaning or how to apply it when safely training their four-legged companions.

 According to a number of dog trainers regularly featured in mainstream media, it is important for people to assert their dominance over pet dogs in a style that mimics wolves. They encourage clients to alpha roll unruly pets and otherwise force them to submit in order to correct or prevent problem behaviours. Often, these methods result in immediate “results” because the animal is frightened and temporarily stops the offensive behaviour. However, they do not learn an alternative, appropriate behaviour and often get into the same trouble when they feel it is safe, usually when their caretakers aren’t watching. Some dogs will even stop the unwanted behaviour permanently but may be difficult to train in the future because they fear the consequences of their actions.

What the dog training celebrities seem to have forgotten is that being dominant in the animal world means you have control over resources. These resources include food, preferred resting places and mates. As humans with opposable thumbs and big brains, it is easy for us to be dominant without ever touching, hurting or intimidating dogs. We already control access to our dogs’ food, water, sleeping area, outdoors, affection, friends and toys. By asking our dogs for a desirable behaviour, for example a sit, before we give them access to these resources, we become important in our dogs’ lives and earn their respect in an unaggressive manner.

There is a reason the celebrity trainers who focus on “dominating” dogs warn people not to try their techniques at home. What makes for entertaining television doesn’t always make safe training. Often, they will use force or flooding to change dog behaviour but in essence they are suppressing the problematic behaviour by shutting the dog down. When you suppress behaviours by scaring a dog, you have done nothing to change the behaviour and it may be lurking, waiting for an opportunity to rear its ugly head. Further, when dogs start to distrust their humans, the risk for dog bites increases exponentially.

The easier, scientifically proven way to train a dog without any fallout is to reward behaviours you like and withhold rewards when a dog presents a behaviour you don’t like. When we control access to our dogs’ resources, we control our dogs. Dominance trainers are right when they say not to give everything to your dog for free. They explain that this makes us the alpha. However, the success most people experience with this technique can also be explained by learning theory. Any time a dog is rewarded for an action, they are more likely to repeat it in the future. For example, if you get your dog to sit and wait until you exit a door first (a technique normally prescribed to gain rank), your dog will learn that to get access to the outside, they need to sit until you tell them otherwise. They are not respecting you as dominant, they are earning a powerful reward for sitting and waiting – getting to go outside and explore the world!

Another flaw with training philosophies that focus on dominance theory is that they are based on studies from the 1940s that looked at captive wolves, taken from various packs. The wolves were not part of a natural pack that typically consists of a breeding pair and their offspring from the previous two to three years. The wolves that were observed by the scientists of the time were in an unnatural situation that resulted in increased aggression and fighting.

Modern research of free-roaming dogs has found submission displays are much more important than dominance displays to maintain the peace. Because wild dogs are scavengers and opportunists, not typically predators, they generally live more solitary lives than wolves without structured hierarchies. If you observe an “alpha roll” between two dogs, try to note whether the dog on top forced the bottom dog there or whether the submissive dog actually offered his belly up.

Next time someone tells you a dog is behaving a certain way because he is being dominant, see if you can identify what might be rewarding the dog’s behaviour instead of accepting the dominance diagnosis. Consider the bouncy dog that jumps up on everyone despite being pushed down, kneed or grabbed. Is the dog trying to dominate everyone he meets or does he find human touch so rewarding that it doesn’t matter what form it takes? This approach also works for the growling dog in the safety of his owner’s arms. Is he trying to dominate approaching strangers or does the growling usually cause people to go away and leave him alone with his favourite people?

When you are watching dogs and trying to figure out what could possibly be encouraging an unwanted behaviour, remember rewards are as varied as the personalities of our four-legged friends. Food, playing, cuddling and praise are obvious rewards but dogs can also be rewarded by their own actions. A barking dog may enjoy alleviating feelings of frustration through their vocalizations or they may like the attention it gets from their human companions.

It is important to provide your dog with a clear understanding of what they are required to do to live peacefully within the rules of our society. Given that approximately 90% of aggression in dogs is fear-based, it is critical to provide structure and feedback without using scare tactics. Alpha animals (ie: the parents) act in a calm, relaxed way, leaving aggression to the insecure and defensive. People who work with wolves are quick to point out that they do not tolerate forceful humans. We are unable to communicate with the accurate timing and types of signals dogs and wolves use to converse within their respective species.

Dogs give many clear but subtle signals when they are stressed. Once you know what to watch for, it is easy to pick up on the red flags that indicate when a dog is upset. Test your dog communication skills the next time a dog training show is on TV. Pay close attention to the dog’s mouth, eyes and ears. Is the dog yawning frequently but doesn’t seem to settle? Does the dog repeatedly lick his lips? Can you see the whites of his eyes? Are the ears pinned back? If you look at the dog’s body, is it tense and moving slowly or staying close to the ground? Is the dog panting heavily without having done any physical exercise? Is the dog sniffing the ground frequently in an attempt to avoid eye contact? Each of these clues will tell you a dog is feeling insecure or even frightened. A frightened dog is a potentially dangerous dog depending on whether it chooses fight or flight.

Other not-so-subtle signals that dogs use to communicate with their humans include growling, barking, baring teeth, hard stares, air snapping and actually biting. Of course we try to keep our sensitive skin from experiencing a dog bite but many of the popular trainers also insist on shutting down the other signals dogs use to communicate, again accusing the dog of trying to dominate their owners with aggressive displays. When a dog growls or bares their teeth, they are sending out a loud and clear signal that they are not comfortable. Stopping this form of communication without addressing the root cause and helping your dog feel more comfortable, results in the dog trying to communicate more clearly. A dog that tries unsuccessfully to warn their people with a growl may progress to a snap. If the snap doesn’t get the message across then the dog may resort to making contact with skin.

Establish yourself as a leader by controlling access to resources and you will have a dog that works happily and confidently for you. If your dog is doing something you don’t like, take the time to train a new, incompatible behaviour and use the resources your dog wants or needs to instil new habits. Not only will you have a well-behaved pet, you will have a dog that loves, respects and trusts you.