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Dispelling the Dominance Dogma

Oh boy, today we're going to ruffle some feathers...

Let's start with a thought exercise:

Can you tally up how many times have you read, heard or otherwise seen someone say something like this when it comes to dog training (or just dog advice in general!)

“it’s how the mother would discipline her pups,” or “it’s what another dog would do” or "you have to show them who's in charge".

I'd guess it's quite a few, right?

Well, I'm a behaviourist, an expert in dog behaviour, and here's the thing, I have some groundbreaking, earth-shattering news for those people who told you that:

You are not a dog.

Your dog does not see you as another dog.

Your dog does not interact with you like they do with another dog.

Once again for those in the back: You are not a dog.

So then, let me pose another question to you, and please - comment away with your thoughts: why do we keep insisting on following advice that supposes we should act like dogs?

Here's my take, the one I've come to through my various studies, classes and conversations with others in this field. It comes down to the outdated notion of dominance theory/alpha dog theory. I'd normally provide a link to it here, for those interested, since I absolutely love this stuff and nothing would please me more than to see others taking an interest... But in this case, it's so outdated, debunked, disproved and hell, even disowned by the writer himself, behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel, that it doesn't even deserve that.

Our four-legged friends have been with us for over 10,000 years at this point, and in more recent history they have been the subject of so much study - by behaviourists, biologists, and the scientific community as a whole, that a theory with even the faintest cracks in it falls apart very fast. Dominance theory? It didn't get debunked or found flawed. It got destroyed.

We've been doing this for a really, really long time


Of course, anyone can claim anything is disproved or debunked. Heck, have you been on Facebook recently, seen what some people claim? So let's get scientific and pull some verifiable facts into this story.

First, what actually is Dominance theory? It started with the idea that our dogs are identical to wolves and compete to be “Alpha” (a fact that is as untrue of wolves as it is of dogs, as it turns out) This comes from a study of captive wolves back in the 1930s - by behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel - that took several unrelated male wolves, put them in a pen together and observed as they fought each other. Thing is, in the wild, wolves are nuclear: they are made up of a family that revolves around a breeding pair, with the sole goal to survive and raise the next generation. Much like our Traditional Nuclear Family.

Pictured: Not a dog


But let’s look at your dogs: we have spent roughly 10,000 years selectively breeding dogs to look very different to wolves, but also to behave very differently too. You wouldn’t see a wolf out in a field pointing at a bird to flush (Pointers) and you wouldn't want one nipping at the heels of cattle to drive them long distances (like Heelers, Collies, Corgis). A wolf would make a terrible protector for livestock from its fellow predators. Can you imagine one simply barking to alert the flock (Like Maremma’s and some Mountain dogs of various breeds do), or even lone guarding (Like big, protective dogs such as Transmontano Mastiffs)? These are all jobs that we have selectively bred for, changing the basic behaviour and predatory motor patterns of dogs so they bond with, rather than predate on, our livestock. Our dogs are not wolves.

Pictured: You guessed it, not a wolf.


Studies (Peer reviewed, published papers, not our wonderful Facebook friends and group admins!) have shown that dogs act differently around people than they do other dogs, having learned the skill over those 10,00 years to read our body language, facial expressions and even recognise emotions (such as sadness) and to respond appropriately. They are incredible animals, right? They do not view us as dogs, nor can we ever hope to act in the same way as dogs (I mean, and this should be stating the obvious, we are Homo sapiens, not Canis familiaris!).

Pictured: Also not a dog.


When we “do as another dog does” by using methods such as alpha rolls, lead checks, jabs with an open hand (to supposedly mimic a dog bite/snap), or use a prong collar (yes, sadly there are people out there who claim these monstrosities of dog “training” mimic the mother dog’s teeth on your dog’s neck), all we are doing is using fear and intimidation, based on outdated theories, to shock and scare our dogs. Our best friends. Tell me, does that sound okay to you? To top it off, it almost certainly won’t be as effective as you think.

Studies (Yep, you guessed it: Peer-reviewed, based in science and behaviour study, with none of the old "it always worked for me" logic) have also shown that reward-based training is faster and more effective when compared to older, more traditional methods. Or, in a nutshell: If I threaten you to do something, sure, you might do it. But you won't like it, right? Now... If I pay you do to that very same thing, every time you do it, bet you're a lot more willing, no?

So think again when you hear someone justify their training method, or piece of advice, with the caveat “it’s what another dog would do” or “it’s how his mother would have disciplined him”. Then run for the hills and seek out proper scientifically founded advice from an accredited professional dog trainer. There's a lot of us out there, and most of us are lovely, wonderful people who only want you and your best friend to have the best, happiest life possible together. If you ever look into joining a training class, or seek support on a one to one programme, please: Check their methods first. Are they accredited? Do they follow R+ training? Do they follow the science, keep up to date, and only offer you positive reinforcement-based advice? If any of these are a no, please, for the sake of your dog and you, seek out someone else.

P.s, if you ever see a mother grabbing her pups around the neck (not by the scruff) with her teeth - never breed from her again. That’s not normal behaviour.

Image credit: Author, Harald Krichel. Source Link:

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