Wednesday, September 21, 2016

“Dominance” in Dog Training and Behavior, Explained



Guest post by Nancy Frensley, CPDT-KA, CAP2, CNWI, CGC Evaluator, Senior Behavior and Training Manager, Berkeley Humane


Dog trainers sometimes still talk about a dog being dominant or dominating. This terminology has affected how people behave toward their dogs and is thankfully, falling out of use. The term is common among biologists who primarily study species in wild settings. It has a use and a precise definition in that context. It describes how a specific species or sub species controls resources in a domain and it can describe population dynamics.

People sometimes excuse their dogs' rude behavior toward other dogs by saying, “He’s alpha.” And some famous trainers have recommended ways to get dogs to change their behavior by “dominating them in physical ways. These are moves that all too often get used for every behavior an owner doesn’t like such as not coming quickly enough or barking at another dog.

Dog trainers, many of whom had been military dog handlers during World War II, were quick to pick up early theories about the dog/human relationship, which were loosely based on observations of captive wild wolves and how they behaved toward each other. This led observers to the believe that “dominance” was a personality trait.

It was thought, at the time, that if we just mirrored a wolf pack with our own dogs, We could solve all behavior and training problems. Dog owners were instructed to go to the mat with their dogs and always win, no matter how exhausting it might be, and people dutifully did so, pinning mystified and frightened dogs to the ground until they gave up (or bit the owners)

Using these theories put both trainers and pet owners into conflict with the dogs they loved. The whole misguided movement resulted in the widespread use of abusive training techniques which have rapidly been replaced with dog friendly training through positive reinforcement and games. These are much more palatable to both the dogs and the people involved and gets better results in the long run.

There is a very easy way to view dominance when referring to companion dogs and their people. Dominance, in biology, is the control of and access to resources. We humans control most of our dogs’ resources and control access to just about everything our dogs want. We determine when and where the dog eliminates, what resting surfaces he can use, when and what he eats and how he greets strangers. That makes us, by default, the dominant species.

We can decide how we use this status and don’t have to do anything extra to prove that we are, indeed, the dominant species in this relationship. We can choose to be kind, to train in a dog friendly way and be gentle & compassionate while setting the boundaries needed for our dogs to live with us in a human society.

And have you noticed, nobody talks about dominating cats?


Berkeley Humane's training philosophy and testimonials are on our website, as is a list of upcoming dog training classes.

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