I thought I would start off my blog with a subject that a lot of dog trainers are talking about – dominance. Unfortunately, they are talking about it for the wrong reasons. In the 1930s and 1940s, an animal behaviourist named Rudolph Schenkel conducted studies on a captive wolf pack in a zoo. His study concluded that wolves would fight aggressively to maintain their rank or social status. The winner was called the alpha. (1)
The findings from this study were then applied to wolves in the wild, as well as domestic dogs. Since wolves were very difficult to study in the wild, due to their natural avoidance of humans and the lack of technology available at the time, it was assumed that this was how they operated as a social species. The notion of dominance in domestic dogs then sparked a whole new way of training – to be the alpha dog. Training techniques were then invented based on this idea, from confrontational and aggressive alpha rolls (forcefully rolling the dog onto its back), to the more passive “always eat before your dog”. Although the latter does no real harm, the former had much more potential to induce fear, and subsequently aggression, in a pet dog. During this era, positive punishment was a commonly used quadrant in dog training and was the norm, so to speak.
Fast forward to 1999 – L. David Mech, an internationally renowned wolf expert, releases a paper titled “Alpha Status, Dominance and Division of Labour in Wolf Packs”. In this study, he concludes that wild wolves live in families, with two parents and various offspring.
“Labeling a high-ranking wolf alpha emphasizes its rank in a dominance hierarchy. However, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none.” This means that the idea of wolves continually fighting for social status is incorrect and was likely caused by the stress of living in captivity with unrelated wolves.
“As for high-ranking animals asserting any practical control over subordinates, the nature of the interaction is highly conditional. For example, with large prey such as adult moose (Alces alces), pack members of all ranks (ages) gather around a carcass and feed simultaneously, with no rank privilege apparent (Mech 1966; Haber 1977).” This means that there is no fight to access food (although with smaller prey, the parents will feed first). This was very important research to establish the true nature of social interactions between wolves and to finally disprove the notion that wolves would fight aggressively to assert social status.
Regardless of the research concerning wolves, there is another huge flaw in using the original study by Schenkel to describe dog behaviour. Dogs are not wolves. Although the two species are genetically similar enough to breed together, it has become apparent that dogs took a very different evolutionary path. Studies on feral dogs have shown that their social relationships are not consistent and rigid like wolf families, but rather, they form temporary, loose relationships with one another (3). This is likely because their environment is not one that demands teamwork in order to survive, unlike the wolves’ habitat. Feral dogs scavenge as opposed to hunt, therefore it is not necessary or beneficial to form groups. Research has suggested that dogs would take advantage of human scraps and food waste, therefore creating a relationship that eventually led to domestication (6). If dogs have been scavengers for thousands of years, then it is fitting to explain their behaviour using the aforementioned model.
Dog training has come a long way since the idea of dominance in domestic dogs was formulated. We now know that another quadrant, positive reinforcement, has very little potential for adverse side effects, unlike positive punishment. Reward training can be highly effective and strengthens the bond and trust between dog and human.
However, a recent TV personality has commonly been described as having “set back dog training by 50 years” (2). The TV programme would show dogs being alpha rolled, intimidated into “submission” and being flooded with aversive stimuli. It even came with its own “do not try this at home” warning. The popularity of this TV programme soared, particularly in the USA. The aftermath of its rising popularity was a nation of dog owners who believed in using dominance in dog training and behaviour modification. For many professional behaviourists, it has been a never-ending fight to change the public’s perception of their dogs, as well as a lot of hard work spent reversing the damage of so-called “dog whisperers”. A common technique of the dog whisperer is to use flooding, a dangerous method which has high potential for a condition called learned helplessness – when an animal ceases to attempt escape because it has learned its attempts are useless (4). Flooding can be dangerous because it involves fully exposing the dog to an aversive stimulus, without gradual introduction, therefore causing a great deal of stress for the dog. It has been known to exacerbate fear rather than help it.
Positive punishment is another technique that is favoured. Owners have the impression of a well behaved dog, however, positive punishment suppresses behaviour and does not deal with the root cause (unlike more conventional methods such as counter conditioning and systematic desensitisation). This can cause the dog to create another outlet for its emotions, i.e. a different “bad” behaviour. Research suggests that positive punishment can also cause aggression problems in dogs. (5)
Despite the large amount of contradictory research, dominance is still a popular training method among dog owners and certain dog trainers. Although, viewpoints are beginning to change. Position statements were issued from a number of professional dog training and behaviour organisations, such as the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour (7) and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. (8)
For dog trainers like myself, it is disheartening when people support these outdated ideas. The only thing we can do is continue to use humane methods of training, promote a trusting relationship, educate about dog behaviour and spread the word that you don’t have to dominate your dog.