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The Dominance Myth: why it has no place in modern dog training

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I realise this may be a controversial post to many, given the number of conversations I’ve had in the last month or two about this subject. That said, I can’t bite my tongue any longer.

Sometimes I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness that is France, surrounded by well-known local dog ‘trainers’ who recommend giving dogs a swift kick to the rump to ‘check’ it, who flood dogs with overwhelming stimuli in order to ‘make them submit’ and provoke dogs to bite, who recommend pinning (or “alpha rolling” a dog) and then recommend dogs to be euthanised if they do not ‘submit’, who recommend and use yanking, choke chains, prong collars and shock collars to ‘train’ dogs to walk to heel, stop barking or any other behaviour that they deem unacceptably ‘dominant’. What has made me particularly angry and sad is to see very nice and generally well-educated people nodding sagely at this ‘wisdom’ in ways that I’m sure they wouldn’t nod right now when they see it in black and white. It all feels very wrong to animal lovers when you look at dominance theory in all its splendour which I’ll do in this post.

Worse still is the proliferation of armchair experts who believe in the dominance myth. This last month, the word ‘dominance’ has been on the lips of all but a handful of people I’ve spoken to. It’s like a tidal wave of nonsense. I’ve been unable to have a sensible discussion with an ever-increasing number of people about canine behaviour in a scientific and objective way. It’s the answer to everything. Dogs humping your leg? Dominant. Dogs barking? Dominant! Dogs guarding? Dominant! Dogs trying to get a treat from your pocket? Dominant. Dogs growling? Dominant. And so it goes. According to the dominance theorists, dogs will quickly revert to their wolfish behaviour and will try to establish a rank as soon as they can, even with humans. They say we need to stop thinking of dogs as little people (which I agree with totally) and remember that they are essentially wolves (which I don’t agree with at all.)

And before you say that most people involved with dogs, who have a dog or who meet dogs on a daily basis don’t need to know about training, you’re dead wrong. If we have a dog, we need to know how they learn in order to help them fit into our families. We’re all training, every day. Whether we mean them not to jump up at strangers or for them not to eat off the table, we’re all engaged in a relationship to help our dogs learn and understand how they function in life, unless the only thing our relationship consists of is leaving them up in a yard outside and feeding them every so often.

It’s time for an honest post about how I feel about this word. And before you tell me it’s all semantics or that “it’s just a word”, it’s a word that leads to a fundamental misunderstanding about our relationship with dogs, a misunderstanding underpinning a view of dogs that leads to “strong leadership”, “being the Alpha” and “being the leader” (or any other words you’d like to substitute based on a power balance) and a view that leads us to correction and punishment as a treatment for this behavioural ‘diagnosis’ that it seems that every Tom, Dick and Harriet are experts in making.

What is the cure then for this dominance? The treatment? What does it mean if you’re “the Alpha”? Opinion ranges from jerking their leads and using choke chains, or not letting them on the sofas and “treating them like dogs” to advice so utterly bizarre, threatening and intimidating that it’s almost laughable someone would suggest it.

A friend was told to approach her rottie with behavioral issues from behind like she was going to mount him and “Show him who’s boss”. Another person was advised to sit on her puppy to show it who was boss, as that’s what mother dogs do. Apparently. Some other ‘advice’ included not to play tug of war (or to win at it if you do) as you will lose the respect of a dog. Because dogs are capable of higher reasoning that leads to respect. And make sure you eat before the dogs eat as that’s how wolves do it to show who’s boss. Don’t let them put a paw on you or lean on you as they’re dominating you. Bite or twist your dog’s ear to show them you can hurt them if you like as this is what Momma Wolves do… not passed your comfort zone yet?

Other advice includes spitting in a dog’s food, or even in its mouth. Seriously. Apparently, mother dogs do this with their baby dogs and it establishes you as the “dominant leader”. Are you absolutely off your rocker?? Spit in the dog’s mouth? Apparently it’s calming. Or complete crap. But hey, my neighbour’s friend watched a guy on a Youtube video was told to do it by a long-dead dog trainer of dubious credentials, and so it’s something I should do with my dogs. That is actually the train of ‘expertise’ that was quoted to me about why someone spat in one of my foster pup’s mouths. I didn’t let him have the dog on account of him being a complete knob. I didn’t actually believe he was telling me about some genuine dog training technique until I read a little on the subject. I just don’t have words. I did however, want to roll him on his back, hold him by his neck and make him submit. I used to do competitive jiu-jitsu, so it’s always a possibility with me. In lieu of that, I told him that I couldn’t possibly let him take the dog until he had read Dr Ian Dunbar’s “Before You Get Your Puppy” book. He told me it was too long, at 65 pages, and there was too much in it. I told him to forget the dog. I guess he probably went and bought one from a breeder who didn’t care less if he spat in a pup’s mouth or rolled it to show it who’s boss.

Unfortunately, although dominance theory does not relate to punishment-based training directly, the two often go hand in hand. All of this ‘advice’ came from so-called ‘trainers’ who all use ‘dominance’ as the reasoning for their methods. And it really does come from dog trainers. I wish it just came from ignorant neighbours and their friends who watched crazy guys on Youtube. I suspect it would be less pervasive.  Worse still, this word is now bandied about by so many people that it’s horrifying to hear it infiltrate virtually every conversation that I have about dogs’ behaviour. Sadly, being a dog trainer in France or the UK is not a regulated industry. Anybody can say they are a dog trainer. You need years of training to call yourself a hairdresser or a plumber and set up in business by yourself, but anybody can make a living  as a dog trainer. This is one way so many of these myths are percolating into society. Couple that with a lot of well-meaning advice from people who once watched an episode of The Dog Whisperer and you’ve got a reason for the huge numbers of people blithely diagnosing dogs with personality disorders.

It’s time to put a few myths to rest for the sake of our dogs.

This is the reality.

In the last month, two dogs that I know of have been surrendered to our refuge “because they are dominant”. SOm dominance is a reason to surrender a dog. Worse. In that month, two dogs that I know of from one local ‘trainer’ have also been euthanised on their recommendation. You’d think we were talking about Cujo, but we were talking about family pets! Dominance is now a reason that dogs are euthanised and why they are surrendered to shelters.

The most pervasive – and pernicious – idea informing modern-day dog training techniques is that the dog is driven to set up a dominance hierarchy wherever it finds itself.

This quote from John Bradshaw, author of the MOST excellent dog book In Defence of Dogs touches occasionally on dominance and hierarchy and is a book I recommend every dog owner or lover should read. But the ironic fact remains: despite the huge growth of science-based knowledge about dogs and learning, we’re relying on a myth dating back to disproved data from a couple of captive wolf studies in the 1940s to inform our 21st Century relationship with dogs.

So what does a dominance-based human-dog relationship look like according to this principle?

Kind of the exact opposite of my house. So I’ll describe my house.

My dogs sleep in my bedroom if they like. They also sometimes sleep in the living room on the couches. Tilly sleeps on my bed. (We’re single girls… it’s allowed!) Sometimes Heston or Amigo get on the bed too, if they feel like it. When we wake up, they usually come to greet me which is pretty damn good in dominance training, as I should never go to greet my dog according to them.

When we get up, I let them out for a pee. I pee in the human toilet. They pee in the great outdoors. Then I give them their breakfast, which I let them eat peacefully without interruption from me (although I do make two of them sit before they get their bowls). After this, they go to sleep on the couches until it’s walkies. Sometimes Heston pulls when he’s on the lead. He always jumps up at the door and goes out through the door before I do. He barks and shouts although I do insist on him sitting at the gate quietly before he goes out (before me). He gets in the car before me, as do all of my dogs. I get in last when they’re all secure. When we’re on the walk, more often than not, he’s in front of me. When we get back, I have my breakfast, some two hours after they have had theirs.

I play tug of war with Heston for a while, and often I let him win. Sometimes I play fetch with him and he brings the ball back. I never take Tobby’s toys off him and he wanders around the garden with them. When I work, they sleep on the couch. Sometimes Tilly taps on the door as I’ve taught her to, and I let her out for a pee. Yes, I’m a doggie toilet attendant. She goes out of the door before me. I go for a pee in my own toilet. I do some training and heelwork with Heston at lunchtimes, using treats as a lure. I know. I’m putting him in a cookie coma according to the dominance experts.

I give them their tea at 4pm before I ever have my own. Then in the evening, they all climb onto the couches and I squeeze in with whoever is on the big couch. Sometimes when they’re snoozing, I go and give them a cuddle and a greeting. When we go to bed, Amigo hops on the bed for our cuddle fest, often pinning me down and nuzzling me for more.

According to dominance advocates, every single bit of this is wrong (except for the getting-up greeting bit – although I confess if Ralf was ever still snoring on the sofa, I’d go and greet him and give him a kiss first thing in the morning) and according to these ‘experts’, I must have a houseful of dominant dogs who are stressed and badly behaved. Allowing them such liberty, I’m not doing what’s right for my dogs. Luckily – and I’m not sure how, since I break all the dominance rules – this rag-tag bunch of ex-refuge dogs, pups who were abandoned at one day old, and pedigree dogs with personality defects actually rub up together pretty well. None of them bite my face in my sleep. Tilly might if it smelt of burger. But not because she wants me dead. Who’d handfeed her cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks?! And none of them bully or dominate each other.

So what should I do if I want a peaceful household, according to the experts in the know?

I should never let dogs on the couch or the bed. These are Alpha privileges. I’m making them think we are equal beings if I let them do this, and the only reason they want to get on the couch is because it’s an Alpha privilege. It’s their first step to world domination. It is nothing to do with the fact that it might smell of me, or heaven’s above, that it might be comfy. No. I shouldn’t eat after them either. Wolves apparently, according to a load of self-appointed experts, let the Alpha take the food first. Some dominance experts even suggest I eat out of my dogs’ bowls before they do. Just. Gross. Letting them eat before me, I’m prioritising them and giving them privilege, and they won’t respect me. Outside, I should never let them pull on the lead as they are dominating me. Forget the fact they’re excited and it smells amazeballs outside, they’re just pulling to take me where they want to go. Thankfully on no given day does Heston ever pull me where he usually goes off the lead, as I have an aversion to rooting in bushes myself. He must be granting me a bit of slack as he always walks in front on a walk (though he can walk to heel) and I’m a fool for letting him. I shouldn’t let dogs through doors first, either. I don’t know about wolves, but I’m pretty sure their Alpha goes first there too. No, that’s silly, I know. There must be a good reason about privilege and space domination. Well, not a ‘good’ reason, per se. Just a reason. Don’t play tug. Wolves that play tug of war always surrender the toy to their pack leader and if they don’t, they’re plotting a Kong-related coup. Or something.

Does it sound ridiculous enough yet?

And that’s the ‘sensible’ bullshit! Excuse my French, but there’s no dressing up this crap. When you get to sitting on puppies, humping your rottie, mounting your bulldog, spitting in their mouths and their food, peeing where they’ve peed (or saving it in a well-cleaned Fairy Liquid bottle) so that I can mark my scent higher and more thoroughly than theirs once they’ve been, we’re into some crazy-arse bullshit. Excuse the language. But that’s what it is. You shouldn’t teach your dogs stuff either, and if they offer behaviours, they’re giving YOU the command to give them a snack. This is why you shouldn’t throw a ball either, since the conniving sons of biscuits will bring the bloody thing back again and make you throw it… and it’s 0-1 to the dog. If they sit, they want something. If they sit and you’ve not asked them to, they’re just subtly dominating you into giving them affection or a treat.

If that sounds logical to you… I’m worried. Usually, most dominance-based trainers don’t sound quite this Looney Tunes.

Some of the ‘trainers’ put a pretty, sensible and rational-sounding spin on their bullshit. They have great websites and lots and lots of positive feedback. Take the Monks of New Skete who popularised a lot of this nonsense. I thought they were like some phenomenal dog training family from the name, like the Lees of Lowercroft. Nope. Some actual religious monk nutbags – with, guess what, zero actual science-based training knowledge – 40 years of experience with zero-science training nevertheless – who CNN called “trainers sent from heaven” who have a “holy bond” with dogs, who tell you “to learn about dogs, learn about wolves”. Cos monks, they know about dogs. I’m not sure why there isn’t a single piece of negative feedback about their books on the interweb, given that they kind of invented the Alpha Roll (you should routinely pin your dog to the floor and make it submit, they said, in 1978… only to retract this method by the mid-90s as “not something your average dog owner could do”… so, still do it IF you are an above-average dog owner, I guess) but it’s the same for that other zero-science “trainer”, Cesar Millan. If the Monks of New Skete gave birth to the dominance theory in the mainstream, Cesar Millan gave it wings. It’s okay though. They’re all dog whisperers and they have special relationships with dogs and/or God. But hey, they make great books and videos and it makes AMAZING television. And never mind that the bit of the Monks’ stuff I could bear to watch without paying for it actually seemed to be using positive reinforcement to train the dogs. But hey, if they can wrestle the floor back from the dogs after positive reinforcement, all power to them. As they say though… learn about wolves if you want to learn about dogs.

Now, John Bradshaw gives a lengthy, scientific and somewhat waffly section of his book to explaining why dogs are not wolves, and why the wolves that formed the basis of original “wolf studies” were not typical wolves since they were captive and their behaviours weren’t typical, and why we shouldn’t be basing modern animal training on wolf “packs” and what happens between a constructed pack of captive wolves who may or may not have last shared a common heritage with the modern dog some 40000 years ago in order to disprove the nutbags. I’ll give you a short section explaining why dogs are not wolves.

Dogs ARE NOT wolves, nutbags.

Besides, the behaviours that we say humans should do to teach a dog its place are not things that wolves do to each other anyhow. The famous “Alpha roll” for instance. Well, there’s no 20-minute pinning of unruly teenage wolves by their elders and betters until the little beggars submit. Sometimes, younger wolves with less status will voluntarily roll on their back and let other wolves have sniff, but Daddy Wolf doesn’t spit in his kids’ brisket and he never holds them in a pin position. Dogs may offer you their bellies too like captive and non-captive wolves. Sniff if you like, but I don’t think there’s any danger that your Tricky Woo will think you’re not Alpha enough if you don’t.

“Saying ‘I want to interact with my dog better, so I’ll learn from the wolves’ makes about as much sense as saying ‘I want to improve my parenting — let’s see how the chimps do it.’” Dr Ian Dunbar

I watched where the so-called Dog Body Language “Experts” were talking about dominance in play, where it was quite obvious to most that the ‘dominance’ between the two puppies was a fluid, moveable feast and that when they were talking about dogs’ hackles rising, well, they kind of miss the point that many modern pedigree dogs don’t even have hackles any more. Sadly, what makes good television doesn’t make good training: watch Barbara Woodhouse and cringe as she talks about how you can telepathically communicate with dogs and you might just laugh out loud once you’ve stopped cringing. “If I had a little choke chain on him, I’d have given him a jerk…”

But forget the dominance bit and the television presenters. Nobody ever said that punishment doesn’t work as a method for training dogs.

Oh, wait a minute. They did.

“A 2009 study by University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences showed that methods of handling that relied on dominance theory actually provoked aggressive behaviour in dogs with no previous known history of aggression.”

It’s just bizarre to see how a term describing “a relationship between two individuals at a particular moment in time” has come to be so widely bandied about, as Bradshaw says, “sometimes even used – incorrectly – to describe a dog’s personality.” and “widely used in descriptions of dog behaviour.”

How is a term that has so little evidence for in terms of dog-dog hierarchies (a thing that scientists and scientific-based trainers say is “fluid” if evident at all) ever come to be seen as impacting on dog-human relationships to the point where we’re endowing dogs with personality traits that make them at least as clever as some adult humans? A dominant personality implies that you have some kind of end-goal and overarching plan (and are therefore capable of envisaging a future or having a long-term goal)

“There is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs, either in their relationships with other dogs or with their owners.”

Finally, Bradshaw says even the descriptions of dogs’ dominance behaviours from dominance trainers really indicates an “unruly, untrained, yet somehow charming, dog.”. I’d agree with that.

None of this is to say that dogs SHOULD pull on the lead, SHOULD sleep on the couch, SHOULD go through doors first, SHOULD bark at other dogs or SHOULD be allowed to be possessive over resources. Just because you don’t feel like you need to be “Alpha Dog” and hump your rottie doesn’t mean you can’t teach your dog to sleep where you want it to, to eat without begging or snatching food from your plate or to play games in a mannerly way with humans or with other dogs. Apart from the barking at guests, my dogs are exactly how I love them to be. They don’t rule me, or each other. And even the barking at strangers thing… I’m kind of a fan. Everybody thinks I’m very well-guarded, at the very least. Alerting me to people on my property and stopping those people getting past the gate… well, that’s a perk, not a behaviour defect. And if it were something I didn’t like, I’m pretty sure I could train them to stop without spitting in their mouths, over-peeing where they’ve peed, rolling them on the floor or hitting them with a fly swatter. I trained Heston to Alpha Roll his own self so I don’t even need to bother, so it’s feasible he might be trained to stop barking at ogres outside the gate. Other than that, my dogs are calm, quiet, lazy and cuddly, despite their hang-ups and reject status.

That’s what saddens me the most. If I took the advice about dominance in dog-human relationships, I’d wreck my relationship with my dogs.

Perhaps if we took the word dominance out of circulation, we’d stop seeing our dogs as cunning villains who’ll bite you if you let them sleep on the bed. Then perhaps we’d fall in love with them again. We’d stop feeling that prong collars, choke collars, pinch collars or shock collars are okay. We’d stop feeling that our dogs are somehow flawed by their evil genius and encourage them up on the couch in the storms if they’re feeling nervy and we’d remember what amazing animals we have as our companions, who share our adventures, bring us love and laughter, who are strong enough to take down burglars and gentle enough to play with our babies, who are smart enough to detect fits and diabetes crashes and dumb enough to love us, and who have so far done a spectacular job at adapting from the field to the home when we decided their roles had changed.

“We know now that this conception [of hierarchy] is fundamentally misguided.”

If you believe even a tiny bit in dogs dominating human beings, but you love dogs anyway, PLEASE watch this video.

It’s 30 minutes, but it may make you see why John Bradshaw went out of his way to say that, no, dogs are NOT wolves, and why I felt like I needed to let off steam. I must warn you, you may end up feeling emotional.

Because this is such a common idea now in dog relationships in France, with so many owners and trainers (and their neighbours) talking about “being a leader”, “taking control,” and because this idea has literally infected virtually every conversation about dogs this week, there will be follow-up posts about:

  • The D word: what dominance really is and pack fluidity within dog-dog relationships
  • The carrot or the stick? Positive (R+), Punishment or Dominanced-based training and “Balanced” training. Why we can’t learn under stress
  • Assessing your dog’s behaviour objectively without the D word

The most common reason people say a dog is dominant is in their own lack of understanding. If you want to know how dogs and humans function, read any of the excellent books by John Bradshaw, Karen Pryor, Jean Donaldson, Dr Ian Dunbar, Gwen Bailey, Patricia McConnell or Dr Sophia Yin among others, and I promise you, you’ll never again say that you need to be the Alpha to your dogs.

If everyone read a little – just a little – before they got a dog, then maybe I wouldn’t be photographing beautiful dogs who have been so sorely misunderstood. And then I wouldn’t find myself on a 10000-word rant because I’m so sick of people ‘diagnosing’ their dogs in ways that are damaging and saddening and trainers who rely on euthanasia when they can’t break a dog’s spirit in this way. Dogs don’t dominate people. There isn’t one single shred of scientific evidence that has ever suggested that dogs do that. To take a pack of damaged captured wolves who may pin and bully one another and then suggest that dogs may do this with humans… a leap too far for this girl. That’s not ethological research. (If you insist on reading about wolves to “learn about dogs” and you think I’m crazy wrong about the whole dominance thing, read L. David Mech and you’ll hear what I’m saying from the wolf experts too.) But in the meantime, if anyone tells me their dog dominates them, be aware that I’m likely to start shouting out “what a load of horseshit” in the future.

Next week: dog/dog behaviours that could be called ‘dominance’ and how the theory of pack hierarchy is fundamentally flawed.