Dominance can be a very controversial issue. Some trainers will tell you that you have to roll a dog over and growl in his face to exert your dominance. Others will act so negatively towards that idea, that they are afraid to mention it at all.
Canine ethology is pretty tricky because it is very difficult to study dogs. What is their natural habitat? Every family is different and dogs are used for many different purposes. There is no ideal setting to study dogs and putting them in a lab is out of the question. Studying wolves in the wild is very difficult. It’s hard to know which wolves are part of which pack and they move around too much to really study.
Some scientists thought they found the ideal solution: study captive wolves. Many of the thoughts of dominance theory came from these studies. The most famous would be the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction program and the Monks of New Skete observation in the 1970s, although scientists have been studying captive wolves since the 1940s.
Both studies introduced adult wolves and noticed that there was a lot of fighting over resources. “Alpha’s” would exert their dominance over lower ranking wolves and they were constantly fighting for that “top dog” position.
Because of this, some trainers will tell you that you should put chokechains or prong collars on your dogs to simulate the corrections of the alpha dog. You may hear that you need to pinch their necks or remain aloof because that is the way that animals in the wild behave.
The problem: Animals in the wild don’t behave that way. Almost never will a dominant animal use force to gain control. Real leaders are more subtle than that. There is an old saying in the business world “If you have to tell them you’re boss, then you’ve lost them already.” Real leaders are cool. Real leaders are calm. Real leaders lead because others want to follow. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Think of Mohondas Ghandi or Cesar Chavez. Emulate real leaders.
Earlier I used the qualifier “almost never” do animals rule by force in the wild. It does sometimes happen, but it is rare and when it happens, there is invariably an uprising. They kill that leader. And it has to be that way. Sadly, to see the human equivalent of this, you don’t have to look much further than Tunisia or Libya today. Unfortunately, there are many examples of this. Remember, leaders are cool and they are calm. It is very hands off. If you find yourself using your hands or legs then you are doing it wrong. Always use common sense. Ask yourself if this is something you would do to a child. Be a real leader.
Dogs are not tame wolves, even though they’re genetically similar. Dogs are closer to wolf pups than they are to adult wolves. Dogs and wolves differ by about 0.2% of their mitochondrial DNA. A dog is a wolf in arrested development. A dog is a wolf who will never reach full maturity.
Real wolf packs are not made up of competing adults, wolf packs are made up of the alpha male and female (AKA the mom and dad) the beta (older siblings who have survived) and the wolf pups. Most wolf pups do not survive to see their second birthday. Those that do survive go off and form their own packs. All wolves will become alpha if they live long enough.
The truth is that you have to be the leader of your pack. You have to be in control of your dog. Your dog is the wolf pup, he is the infant. This is our world and we know what’s best for dogs in our world. We know that they have to go to the vet or the groomers. We know that they have to have walks and baths and get their teeth brushed. We know what’s best for them because this is our world. Dogs who do not know who’s in charge end up very stressed out and unhealthy. Often they make bad decisions. Sometimes those bad decisions include biting.
I wrote earlier that if you wouldn’t do it to a child, then don’t do it to a dog. A child is not happy if they think their parents are not in control of any situation and dogs are no different. They need to know that you are in control in order to feel safe and secure.
The catch is that you have to be in control the right way. You have to be firm, you have to be fair, you have to be consistent and you have to control the resources. Dogs don’t work for free. Show them you’re the boss by controlling the paycheck. The simple act of cuing a dog to sit and then giving them a treat for sitting is all it takes to raise your status. It is unnecessary and sometimes even harmful to do anything else.
But don’t take my word for it:
AVSAB Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior ModificationPDF
Experts Say Dominance-Based Training Techniques Made Popular By Television Contribute to Dog Bites
What Were They Thinking? More Than We Knew
Behavioral Science Turns to Dogs for Answers