Friday, February 4, 2011

Why the dominance theory in dogs is a bunch of antiquated crap

Dominant? Nah. Spoiled? Maybe. Deserving? Sure.
For decades, the way we treat our dogs has been based on a theory that is complete and utter crap — dominance theory.

Recently, I had two dog trainers whose jaws dropped to the floor when they heard me say that. Unfortunately, that’s not surprising.

Even more recently, I’ve become aware of a whole training program that is ruining several young puppies because it is rooted in dominance theory.

And just earlier this morning, I saw a news report on TV warning that if you let your dog sleep in the bed with you, dominance problems will run amuck.

Now, there’s lots of reasons not to let your dog sleep in the bed with you — a good night’s sleep, being first and foremost — but I’d say dominance is not one of them.

So folks, let me scream from the rooftop: STOP BUYING INTO DOMINANCE, IT'S A DISTORTED THEORY OF CRAP!

Remember hearing that if your dog runs through doorways before you, it will think it’s more dominant? Wrong. It’s running through doorways because it’s excited and you haven’t trained it to do otherwise.

Regarding the bed, let’s get something straight — if your dog hops on the bed and growls at you when you try to get on it, then you’ve got a problem. Otherwise, you’ve got a dog who wants to lay in a comfortable spot with his pack members. That’s totally dog. Not dominant dog, just regular ol’ dog.

Or, what some dog trainers told me recently, that they don’t like using food rewards because it makes the dog think it’s more dominant than you. What? There is no correlation. The only reason anyone can even try to make that correlation is because dominance theory has been so distorted for so long that we attribute all sorts of crazy and kooky stuff to “dominance” issues.

We take just about any dog behavior we don’t like — barking, jumping, pawing, being on furniture, chewing human possessions, refusing to come when called, you name it — and blame it on dominance. What’s really asinine is that often, we’re punishing submissive behaviors or behaviors motivated by fear and anxiety simply because we wrongly assume they’re dominant behaviors.

And you know what they say about assuming things. It makes a you-know-what out of you and me.

Just exactly what do you think happens when you punish a dog for doing something submissive or out of fear? You get the opposite effect of what you were looking for. You confuse your dog. You frighten your dog. You and the world become scary, dangerous things to the dog. And that causes REAL behavior problems.
Oh no, he's sleeping on the couch. Is taking over the house next?

We justify doing cruel things to our dogs — ear pinching, throwing a dog on its back, choking and shocking and pinching and pulling — by saying we’re correcting dominant behaviors or, we’re employing these things to teach our dogs not to be dominant in the first place.

It’s absolutely ridiculous. We are ruining our dogs and we don’t even know it.

Why are we so hung up on this dominance fallacy? Mostly, because of the hierarchical structure of a wolf pack.

“So, you don’t think wolf packs have a hierarchy? You don’t believe the whole alpha-omega thing?” a dog trainer asked me.

I didn’t say that.

Wolf packs do have a hierarchy. There’s generally an alpha male and female and one unlucky soul lands the omega gig. In between, the wolves will have a rank, but it’s a near constant jostling for a better gig.

We’re still learning about wolves, and what we’ve learned in recent years is that the hierarchy is quite fluid. I watched a documentary called Living With Wolves where the alpha male chose the omega female to become his mate, elevating her status to alpha female. Throughout the documentary, you can see the jostling and fluidity of the pack’s hierarchy.

And here’s the thing — wolves depend on the pack, on their family and friends, to survive. That pack needs leadership, which necessitates the alpha wolf gig. It needs order, like we have in our society through government and laws, so that pack members don’t just (excuse the pun) run wild.

Packs can be large, 10 wolves or more. What this says about wolves, in general, is that most wolves are born followers. Very rarely is a natural alpha born. Why? Because most wolves won’t become the alpha, there’s just not a whole lot of alpha jobs available in the wolf world, so why would mother nature produce a bunch of them?

Conversely, wolf packs understand the need for leadership. If the alpha were to suddenly die, another wolf would step up to the plate. It might not be a “natural” alpha, but it’ll do its best because it’s all about preservation of the pack, and that requires leadership. If a new pup is born the next spring and is a “natural” alpha, chances are that when it reaches maturity, it will assume the role. Age doesn’t matter, it’s about energy, personality.

Fast forward to dogs. What logical conclusions can we make, considering that dogs are now dynamically and drastically different from their ancestor, the wolf?

We can conclude that dogs are not inherently dominant individuals. Afterall, even their predecessors don’t yield high quantities of dominant individuals, so why would the dog? Consider too that human influence probably led to more submissive characters being chosen as our early pets.

Secondly, we can conclude that a dog with a submissive nature will naturally seek to fill a leadership role when it doesn’t see anyone else in its pack stepping up to the plate. And yes, I’m talking about dogs now, not wolves, which means when I say “pack” I now mean humans — you. If you’re not providing leadership to your dog, it will awkwardly attempt to fill the role. This can lead to a lot of dangerous behaviors on behalf of the dog, who really is not cut out for that position and is probably experiencing high levels of anxiety about having to fill it.

So what have humans chosen to do?
Chewing toys is a normal dog thing, not a dominant dog thing.

We’ve taken that theory of dominance in dogs and exploded it into something it never should have grown into. The hierarchy of a wolf pack may be complex, but yet the idea is quite simple. And what we should have learned, in the first place, is that dominance is not an inherent quality in most dogs and most dogs are uncomfortable and anxious when put in that position.

But nonetheless, we assume just about everything we don’t like about a dog can be in some way attributed to the idea that it is a dominant animal seeking to overthrow your household and impose some sort of dog-law on your family. It’s ridiculous. So ridiculous.

The sad part, though, is that we:
1) Don’t know a whole lot about our so-called best friend, so we don’t know what our dog needs in terms of leadership, so we don’t provide adequate leadership, forcing a submissive dog to feel as though it has to be the alpha,
2) The submissive dog is highly anxious about having to fill this position and very uncomfortable with it, and then we
3) Punish the dog for trying to fill the leadership role, hereby increasing the dog’s anxiety (”Now we have no leadership AND anyone who tries to lead gets punished? How is our pack going to survive?” the dog wonders, leading to more anxiety), and then we
4) Throw our hands up in the air and give up on ever solving the behavior issue, writing off our dog as some dominant dingo trying to take over the household and resign ourselves to a lifetime of manhandling the beast, leading to very intense, psychological traumas that manifest as massive behavioral issues.

Do you see what all this dominance theory crap is doing to our dogs, and to our relationship with them?

It’s just another reason why it’s long overdue that humans take some responsibility in learning a thing or two about the beast we call our best friend.


  1. Well said, Karen. I shudder to think what would happen to a person who treated their child the way many folks treat their dogs.

  2. Karen, you are absolutely right. This dominance nonsense got fashionable as "expert" opinion. And in spite of numerous and obvious reasons for dog owners not to believe it, they have bought into it. Instead of using their heads and being a leader/boss/parental figure to their dog, they accept this utter foolishness.

    P.S. One of my dogs sleeps in my bed and has for thirteen far he has not done anything "dominant". Dare I continue this dangerous practice?!! Am I tempting hierarchical fate?!!

  3. Karen:

    You have absolutely no idea what your talking about. Dominance is happening through the cognitive via influence. This permissive and emotional psychology has invaded and contaminated the context of the dog and human dynamic. I am about to release an 18 year study in which I break all this foolishness apart as it aligns with behaviorism and psychology. Dale Mccluskey

  4. Dale,

    I'd love to learn more about your credentials and education, your theory on dominance and about your 18-year study. What does "cognitive via influence" mean?

    Feel free to contact me,