Where did the idea of dominance come from?
The outdated concepts of dominance and pack theory were based in large part on 1970’s research performed on a group of unrelated, captive wolves.
These early studies suggested that there was a rigid hierarchy in which alpha animals had priority access to all resources, forcefully maintaining group structure through displays of aggression. However, what was not appreciated at that time was how ‘unnatural’ this study group was.
Housing an unrelated group of wild wolves in a confined environment with limited resources led to extreme stress within the animals resulting in excessive (abnormal) aggression. The study was not representative of what is now known to occur in naturally formed groups of wolves; even the lead scientist who conducted the early research has since conceded this point.
Unfortunately, results of this flawed study were extrapolated to our canine companions with the assumption that similar violent ‘pack’ dynamics existed within domestic dogs.
It was believed that all dogs were driven by an innate desire to achieve alpha status leading to adversarial relationships between dogs and their owners.
This theory became popular despite the obvious and very important facts that dogs and wolves are separated by thousands of years of evolution and that dogs and humans are completely different species. It lead to an entire dog training movement that focused on humans asserting power over dogs, often by force.
While dominance is still a valid concept used by scientists in certain situations, the term itself has been widely misunderstood within the general population.
It should not be used to describe the temperament of a particular dog, nor should it be used in any way to support the belief that dogs want to achieve alpha status, especially given that this misbelief can result in abusive training methodology.
Subsequent research concluded that a natural wolf social group is actually composed of a mother and father (breeding pair) and their offspring; with relationships based more on deference than aggression.
Groups behave rather like a human family, with the ‘parents’ taking leadership roles and the ‘children’ following.
A good animal leader is fair, consistent and protects those around it.
As in human families, there are rules that should be followed and predictable consequences that occur if they are not. These consequences, however, rarely involve overt physical aggression.
Aggression is costly as it involves a risk to all parties, even to those that ‘win’. It is regarded in (emotionally stable) animals as a last resort.
Therefore it is more accurate to base an owner/pet relationship on the model of a parent/child relationship rather than a dominant/subordinate one.
We should lead rather than dominate and avoid the use of physical force.
It’s important to realize that positive does not mean permissive. Regardless of the species you’re dealing with, there must be rules and guidelines for behaviour.
Do we need to provide leadership for our dogs? Yes
Do we need to dominate with force and make them ‘submissive’ to us in order to prevent them taking over the household? No
Dogs, like children, need clear, consistent cues to follow and outcomes they can understand. We owe it to them to be fair and predictable leaders. They don’t chose to live with us and they can’t leave if they don’t like the way we treat them!
Dr Emma understands that living with a pet with behavioural issues can be stressful and emotionally demanding.
It is often frustrating and can lead to the temptation to use force or take advice from ‘traditional’ trainers promising a quick fix to the problem.
Unfortunately, in reality, there is seldom a humane ‘quick fix’ for a behavioural problem that will improve your animals’ quality of life as well as its behaviour.
At BBVS our focus is not just on changing the outward behaviour; we aim to improve the internal emotional state of the animal.
In doing so, your pet will become happier and be more emotionally resilient, providing it with the ability to perform better behaviour.
Contact us to learn more
Don’t just take our word for it!
Below are links to the position statements held by various professional associations regarding what is currently known about dominance and your dog.