Dominance vs. Leadership

Given the popularity of the Dog Whisperer, I thought the issue of “dominance”  should be addressed.  For years this issue has been dividing dog lovers all over the world.  Most of us who have championed positive methods of dog training are up in arms about Cesar Milan’s new found fame and continued use of the term dominance and its justification for physical corrections in dog training.  Most of us agree he gets some things right:  too few dogs receive enough exercise and stimulation, and too many are treated like babies and not the dogs they truly are.  We are thrilled that someone has gone public with the idea that dog behavior can be modified.  But, where we diverge is on the dog’s motivation for its behavior, i.e. is it truly dominance that is motivating the dog or is it some other motivating factor?

For years dominance was believed to be the cause and solution for behavior problems in dogs, including greyhounds. Does you grey pee in the house?  Does he pull on the leash?  Does he refuse to come when called?   Does your grey prefer couches to floors?  The belief that these behaviors were caused by the dog thinking he was dominant over his humans originated from studies of captive wolf packs in the 1940’s and was popularized by the Monks of New Skete in 1978.  This belief is now being furthered with the popularity of the Dog Whisperer. 

The Monks of New Skete were the first modern day trainers to articulate a clear theoretical basis for the use of compulsion in training.  They used as their model the wolf pack as they understood it.  Their interpretation of dominance theory was that dogs see themselves as living in a pack with humans.  Therefore, humans have to emulate pack behavior and assume the Alpha position within the pack.  Dominance to them was seen as more of a psychological disorder rather than a set of behaviors exhibited by the dog that can be identified and modified.
Methods such as alpha rolls and physical corrections (via the leash and a choke chain or by smacking the dog on the nose or by shaking their scruffs) were often recommended as a way for humans to establish dominance over their dogs.  The Dog Whisperer continues to offer the alpha roll and physical corrections as the proper way to assert dominance and correct behavior.    Humans have been taught to do this as it was thought that dominant animals ruled the pack with an iron fist (really paw).   Humans were also taught to not feed your dog until after you have eaten, to let him go through doorways only after you go through, to forbid access to furniture and to forbid the playing tug of war.  All of these exercises were widely recommended to prevent your dog from taking over the entire household.  

Advocates of the dominance theory as the answer to dog behavior problems often support their argument by citing scientific evidence that dogs are pack animals.  They often compare them to wolves.  I could write pages upon pages about this comparison, but what ethologists (scientists who study animal behavior in its natural environment) have realized is that dogs are not wolves and even if they are related, the early studies of captive wolves were seriously flawed.  The wolf studies have been determined to be flawed because the behavior of captive wolves who were captured from differing wolf packs is vastly different than the behavior of wolves in the wild (packs in the wild are typically made up of a family:  the breeding animals and their offspring). 

But, more importantly, dogs are not tame wolves.  The domestic dog is a separate species that evolved from wolves approximately 14,000 years ago.  Dogs exhibit behaviors that wolves do not, such as taking directions from humans.  In observations of village dogs throughout the world, it was revealed that while dogs are social animals and have ritualized displays of dominance and submission that are used to prevent conflict, it is primarily rituals of submission that keep peace, not displays of dominance.  Plus, these village dogs are more scavengers than predators and live much more solitary lives than wolves.  Dogs in the wild rarely form packs, and when they do, they are loosely structured and have few of the traits seen in wolf packs.  Dr. Ian Dunbar once said “Saying, “I want to interact with my dog better, so I’ll learn from the wolves’ makes about as much sense as saying “I want to improve my parenting so let’s see how the chimps do it.” 

But, most importantly, applying the data of captive wolves to dog-human interactions was hugely flawed.  Humans are not dog.  We do not have the timing that dogs have nor do we always accurately interpret dog behavior well enough to act like a dog.  We also do not always distinguish the differences between how dogs and humans interact. For example, when dogs meet, averting eyes is considered good manners.  Yet, when humans meet, averting eyes is considered shiftiness or a lack of openness.  If a human meets a dog and the dog turns his head away, the human most likely will try to get the dog to look him in the eyes.  To the human, this is friendly, to the dog it is antagonistic. 

Most importantly, those who work with wolves and wolf-dogs have learned that these animals do not tolerate aversive handling from humans.  There are non-adversarial ways to set rules and boundaries for your dog that doesn’t involve force or intimidation.

Dogs’ social hierarchy is not a fixed linear dominance hierarchy in which the dominant dog maintains order by threatening and intimidating underlings.  Experts now agree that wolves and dogs form an appeasement hierarchy in which subordinate animals maintain order through active displays of submission and deference rather than displays of forcing others into submission.  Jean Donaldson offers the Army as a human analogy.  Lower ranking soldiers salute their superiors with a flourish and then get a cursory salute in return.  The general does not enter the room and start throwing his weight around:  he simply appears and everyone starts saluting.

Any given dog may be dominant or submissive at any given time depending upon the situation.  The apparently subordinate dog may in fact control many of the  interactions.  It is true that some dogs may have more assertive personalities than others, but for training purposes it does not help to classify such a dog as “dominant.”  The dog with the strongest personality might in fact be the most compliant with training as well as the most willing worker. Likewise, asserting the type of physical discipline recommended by the Monks and the Dog Whisperer, is likely to be perceived by the dog as a physical threat, triggering an aggressive reaction. 

The vast majority of high status dogs lead benevolently.  They do not use physical domination to make their points. They lead through subtle psychological control, such as confident posture, withering glances, staring, stalking, barking or growling.  My own departed greyhound Pharaoh was the perfect example of a high status dog. He was a very high status dog.  Yet, to the uneducated observer, he seemed quiet and timid.  He rarely became aggressive yet dogs always respected him. 

The mark of a true leader is the ability to control without force.  The true leader is in control of the resources. Leaders initiate, followers react.   What you need to understand is that status is flexible – it changes depending upon the dog’s motivation, the context, and the situation at the moment.  A truly high status dog might give up a prime sleeping spot because he’s not sleepy, or he might relinquish a wonderful bone because he’s lost interest.  Pharaoh picked his battles.   He did not throw his weight around.

Another problem with dominance theory is the term itself.  It is not a precise unambiguous definition.  What does dominance mean, truly?  As Patricia McConnell says, social hierarchies are complicated things that allow animals to live together and resolve conflicts without having to use force every time a conflict comes up.  Social status is but one of many factors that influence an animal’s behavior and it only relates to an animal’s behavior in specific circumstances. Patricia McConnell is of the opinion that social status is relevant when dogs greet one another, when there is potential conflict over who gets the bone or who goes out first.  Interestingly, Pharaoh’s only fights occurred during introductions.  Maybe once a year he would meet a dog – usually an unaltered adolescent golden retriever – who he instantly responded aggressively to.  But, it was over in a second.  No harm done.  Just a quick reminder to a youngster to respect his elder. 

To McConnell, studies on many different social species have made it abundantly clear that relationships between individuals are based as much on individual personality and learning as they are on social status.  Thus, quoting McConnell, “using dominance as a foundation of a training program ignores all that ethologists have discovered about the nuances of communication and social interaction, and all that psychologists have come to understand about the learning process.” 

Many dogs previously considered to be dominant have are simply unruly and have not been taught basic skills or given structure and consistent rules.  They have learned that annoying, attention-getting behaviors get them what they want. 

So, what is a leader, then?  It means establishing yourself as someone your dog willingly defers to, looks for guidance, trusts and follows.  Leadership does not take force, violence or aggression.  True leaders are quiet, confident, benevolent, fair and consistent.  They rarely have to establish their position.  Their entire attitude communicates leadership and everyone knows it.  There is no need for physical corrections or to use dominance as an excuse to get physical with our greys.  Recognize that most misbehavior on the part of dogs is due to the fact that their (mis)behavior has been rewarded somehow and they are repeating it.  It is a rare dog who uses behavior as a method of gaining the upper hand over their human.

How can you lead your grey better?  Try this:  ignore pushy behaviors, don’t do anything for your grey until he/she does something for you first (make him sit or offer a trick before he gets what he wants), control resources (do not free feed and make your grey say please by offering a behavior before you feed him), set your grey up to chose to do the right thing rather than become involved in power struggles when pushy behavior occurs (reward deferential, polite behaviors and ignore pushy ones), and prevent mistakes (don’t let your grey run around unsupervised if he chews or has accidents).  It is fine to make your dog wait for you to go through the door first as that is only good manners and shows respect, but don’t do that because you think that you are asserting dominance, because it just isn’t true. 

For more reading on this fascinating subject, I have listed some good books.  While I would like to take credit for what I wrote in this article, nothing was a new idea.  It was all borrowed from these books:

Coppinger, Ray and Lorna:  Dogs – A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution, 2001.
Donaldson, Jean:  Culture Clash, 2005.
Dunbar, Dr. Ian:  Dog Behavior:  Why Dogs Do what they Do, 1979.
Linday, Steven R.:  Applied Behavior and Dog Training, 2001.
McConnell, Patricia B:  The Other End of the Leash, 2002.
Monks of New Skete:  How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend, 1978, 2006.
O’Heare, James:  Dominance Theory in Dogs, 2003.

Lilian Akin, CPDT

Top | Close


Site designed and maintained by JLP Graffix. ©AFDT 2009