The Myth of Dominance Based Dog Training

First off…let’s be clear.  Your dog doesn’t think you are a dog.  He doesn’t think you lead the pack.  He knows you aren’t a dog.  People are very inept at canine behavior.  In fact, I think our dogs are probably secretly amused by our efforts to understand canine motivation.

The theory of dominance based training methods was based on a study done by a Swiss Animal Behaviorist named Rudolph Schenkel who studied wolves in a zoo during the 1930’s and 40’s.  He very carefully tracked every interaction between the wolves, and what he saw was a constant and violent struggle between the adult wolves.  He came up with the theory of the “alpha” male and female wolves.

From that study came the belief that all wolf packs had an alpha male and an alpha female who’s job it was to always keep the other wolves in check.  And somehow, along the way, someone said “well, dogs are descended from wolves….they must have the same natural behaviors”. The problem is…wolves in the artificial environment of captivity act nothing at all like wild wolves.  Captive wolves have as much in common with wild wolves as people living in prison have with people in society.

It wasn’t until David Mech studied free roaming wolves that the whole alpha theory disintegrated.  In the wild a wolf pack is made up of mom and dad, and their offspring for the past 2-3 years.  As the young mature, they disperse out to find their own mates and begin their own families.  There are no violent, bloody battles for dominance of the pack.

Even if the wolf “alpha” theory had been correct, dogs are not wolves.  They share very little behavior in common with their wild cousins.  Even if the wolf hierarchy theory had been correct, why would we think that one particular behavior would remain with our domesticated dogs, when so many others had not?

Up until 1985 most dog training was based on military dog training, the theories of which can directly from this debunked study.  This is when such maneuvers as the “alpha roll” and “scruffing” became popular.  Ex-military dog trainers dominated the dog training field, and they demonstrated that in many cases their training methods worked.  And in the cases where they didn’t, it must be the dog’s fault. The “alpha roll” is based on very faulty human logic.  Trainers took a behavior that submissive dogs will voluntarily offer, and tried to get the same result by forcing a dog into a submissive posture.

In actuality, dominance training can work.  You make the dog so uncomfortable that he decides not to do certain behaviors to keep himself safe.  The problem is, these methods work best on dog whose personalities fall in the middle of the spectrum of dog behavior.  Strong willed dogs can actually become violent when these methods are used against them.  Shy dogs can shut completely down, learned helplessness in the face of training methods that terrify them.

In 1985 a little know trainer named Karen Pryor wrote an obscure little book called “Don’t Shoot the Dog”.  The book became insanely popular, and her theories about using clickers and positive reinforcement swept through dog trainers across the country.  People who loved dogs were delighted to find a kinder, gentler way to train their beloved companions.  Many traditional, punishment based trainers became what are known as “cross-over” trainers.  They embraced the concept that dogs can be convinced to do things because it was more rewarding for them.  Pat Whitacre, the late, great dog trainer who first helped me work with Vicktory Dog Oscar explained it to me this way “Dogs don’t know they are doing it wrong.  It is our job to make doing it our way more rewarding than doing it their way”.

Unfortunately for the dogs that live with us, NatGeo decided to produce a show in 2004 called “the Dog Whisperer”.  Mr. Millan’s training methods are totally based on dominance theory.  The show is in it’s 11th season, and he spreads his alpha dog theory to whole new generations of dog lovers.  As I said before, these methods can work.  They actually tend to work faster than positive reinforcement methods.  But at what cost to our relationships to our dogs?

The Vicktory Dogs that came to Best Friends were all trained with positive reinforcement methods only.  I really believe that had the trainers tried traditional methods with them, they would never have been able to go home.  Most of the dogs fell into the shy/scared category.  And heavy handed methods would have caused them irreparable harm.

When trainer Tamara Dormer was helping me work with Layla, she used this example:  pretend that you are captured by aliens and beamed up into space.  They put you in this big empty space, and the only thing in the room is what looks like a toilet.  You are happy that there is a safe place to relieve yourself, so you make use of the facilities.  Instantly voices start screaming at you, hitting you, grabbing you by the back of the neck and shaking you…all in a language you do not understand.  That’s a pretty good comparison to how many people approach house-breaking.

Another excellent example works well for those of us who are older.  Do you remember when you sat down at a computer for the first time?  What if every time you made a mistake someone hit you upside the head?  Most people would react in one of three ways, depending on their personality: 1) a strong personality would take this once or twice and then turn around and deck the person hitting them.  2) person #2 is pretty easy going, so he will buckle down and try to do everything right, to make the hitting stop.  and 3) a shy quiet person will put up with it until they can’t any more, and they’ll throw their hands up and refuse to continue.  How much easier is it to learn when you have a teacher who is kind and patient, and helps you work things out for yourself?

I know many of you will disagree with me.  You’ll say that choke collars or prong collars are a necessary tool for some dogs.  And I would have agreed with you in the past.  But I too have decided to embrace a kinder, gentler way.  And I think it has made my relationship with Ray so much stronger and deeper.

This article has some excellent examples of problem behavior and how traditional trainers would address vs how positive reinforcement trainers would handle it.  https://apdt.com/pet-owners/choosing-a-trainer/dominance/

For more information on positive reinforcement training, Victoria Stillwell has an excellent site: https://positively.com/

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7 thoughts on “The Myth of Dominance Based Dog Training

  1. I think you do a big disservice to Mr. Millan. At least you could spell his name correctly. His methods are not “dominance theory” as you ascribe to the former Military style trainers. His method is what I would call “leadership” style training. He often says that his insights have more to do with the owners of dogs than the dogs themselves. I think it is unfortunate that you have to make your efforts seem more sympathetic, or reasonable by bagging on someone else. And mostly nobody would know who you are or spend a nickle on your methods if it was not for a Cesar Millan who broke the trail for what family responsibility for dog training has become…and yes, he has worked with many pitties–the two most famous, the badass Daddy who became his partner in training and now Junior, the new guy.

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    1. You were correct about the name spelling, and I have edited the post to fix that error. As for the rest, we will have to agree to disagree. The show you watch on NatGeo is extremely edited, and you are not seeing all of his training methods. He does indeed use many of the same military based training methods referenced above, including alpha rolls, scruffing, popping a dog under the chin and pulling a dog off the ground by his leash to force submission. As I said above, for some dogs his methods do indeed work. And I do agree with his contention that dogs need more exercise, and that the humans have a responsibility to meet those needs. But there are kinder ways of training your dog. You do not need to view every behavior as a struggle for dominance.

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  2. Agreed. My Westie was a rescue from an abusive and neglectful home. He was aggressive when he first arrived. Harsh reprimand made him cower and growl. Then he bit my roommate and drew blood. I decided to start over, like he had just walked in the door. Only positve reinforcement, plenty of specific instruction, soft voice, and lots of tlc. Three years later, he is the most friendly of pups. Thanks for the information.

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  3. thank you! This is very informative. I appreciate all of your history and detailed positive information. Hope that you post more blogs!!

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  4. Thank you for this. I had tried the Millan style of training with my rescue pittie, Blue. Some of it was fine as far as reading his body language and learning about him.

    But when it came to every little thing he was doing was some sort of him “claiming me” or “being dominant,” I just couldn’t work with it. What I saw was a playful and nervous pup who was wanting to be near me and climb up onto my lap.

    We’re now using a very positive approach and ignoring bad behavior while praising his good behavior. When I first got him, he was too scared to walk on a leash.

    Now he’s out there, sniffing and smiling, and it makes me smile when he does walk in front of me. It means he’s more secure and happier. He never pulls. He just wants to walk around, see things and sniff. He just wants to be a dog and that’s just fine with me.

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  5. When I was a kid doing math homework at the kitchen table, I could be a bit slow. My mom would pop me on the head and say through gritted teeth, “how can you be so STUPID?!” Fast forward a coupla years, I’d come home from school and my mom would pounce on me: “do you have any homework?” and I’d reply, “nope.” So I never did my homework, I essentially gave up on school, and barely got by with a straight C average. Even as an adult, I couldn’t get past the emotional hurdle that is college algebra.

    I would never treat anyone, human or animal, the way my mom treated me, as I know from personal experience it’s not only ineffective, but damaging.

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