The Baby in the Bath Water

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If you’ve been around me you know that I bristle at the use of the term “dominance” when explaining a dog’s behavior.  Often I hear dog trainers say that dominance doesn’t exist.  This isn’t exactly accurate.  So why do so many trainers refuse to use the term?

There is a theory in some circles of the dog training world that dogs behave in certain ways because they are trying to be pack leader.  This results in dog handlers and trainers attempting to put a dog in his place by using firm tactics and often harsh treatment.  All is done with the welfare of the dog in mind.

The roots of these theories can be found in early studies of wild canids – specifically wolves.  But there were flaws in these studies, and in their application to dog training.  The wolves in the studies were not members of a pack.  They had no relationship to each other, and when put in a territory together much fighting ensued.  In addition, dogs are not wolves.  They are genetically related with an common ancestor, and it is possible for them to mate, but physiologically and behaviorally they are very different.

Dominance is a thing but maybe not the thing you think.  When it comes to behavioral psychology, dominance is by definition the relationship one has to the resources around you.  The problem with using this as a way to label a dog’s personality is that dominance is very fluid in dogs.  One dog may have all the toys, but defer to his housemate when it comes to attention from humans.  The dog who has the resource is usually the dog who is dominant over it. He has it, and he keeps it because his housemates leave him alone.  In dog culture, as in human, it’s rude to come up and snatch anything I have in my possession.  It’s rude behavior, not dominance, that starts most fights when it comes to resources.

Image you and a group of friends go out to a nice restaurant.  You order your favorite dish, and it arrives.  Maybe you get a bite or two in your mouth before one of your friends grabs your plate and starts eating your food.  If you have worked with me you know I’m frugal.  I rarely eat and restaurants, and it’s a huge treat to eat delicious food that has been cooked by a professional.  I’m likely to stab you with a fork for this behavior!  I certainly won’t be going out to dinner with you any time soon.  But my personality hasn’t changed nor is it defined by my reaction.  In fact, it’s incredibly out of character for me to so much as raise my voice at someone.  Would you eat with someone who grabbed food off your plate, or took your entire plate?  The next time you went out you would probably leave them off the invitation list.  It’s just rude.  Regardless of the species, it’s not socially acceptable and it’s understandable when our dogs don’t want to put up with it.

I’m going to get into trouble with some people for saying this, but dominance exists.  And positive punishment sometimes works.  But using either in your strategy to modify your dog’s behavior is asking for trouble.  You might get away with it.  You might find zero side effects, and go forward recommending these methods to others.  But many times you end up with issues, and sometimes serious issues.  They CAN work, but it doesn’t mean they are the best, most expedient, and most humane ways to bring about behavior changes.

Dominance is not a personality trait, and it’s not particularly useful in addressing a dog’s “dog-ness”.  I urge you to take the time to do it right, and to train your dog what you would like for them to do so they don’t choose behaviors that you don’t like.  Your dog is going to be a dog.  Your dog’s dog behavior is probably going to get under your skin sometimes because they are a totally different species with totally different values.  But with time and good training using positive reinforcement, you’ll find you have a happy, healthy companion.  Your dog should not just be a joy to deal with because he doesn’t misbehave, he/she should be full of joy.

Train your dog and don’t worry about dominance, because it’s not important.  If not with me, then go search for a trainer at APDT.org, PPG.org, or IAABC.org.  Your dog will thank you with his tail.

About Dawn Sims

I am a graduate of Animal Behavior College, have been a Certified Professional Dog Trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), a member of the Pet Professionals Guild (PPG), and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). I am also a freelance writer for dog related publications. I have been training dogs since 1997, promoting force-free, science based training methods, instructing group classes and providing private in-home dog training. I have worked extensively with dogs with behavioral issues, including those suffering from anxiety, aggression and other stress related disorders. I have dedicates much of my free time to rehabilitating and re-homing shelter dogs with a variety of rescue organizations. As part of my passion for advocating science based dog training methods, I have had the privilege to lecture at Virginia Tech’s School of Veterinary Medicine. In 2014 I returned to Arkansas after 12 years in rural North Carolina, where Happy Hound Pet Services began in 2007. I live in Rudy, Arkansas, with my husband, seven dogs, a cat, and occasional foster dogs.
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