Cesar Millan places a heavy emphasis on dog dominance and pack leadership in his dog training show, The Dog Whisperer. The Dog Whisperer airs on the National Geographic Channel and is currently the most popular dog training program.
Often, there is much confusion and debate surrounding the concept of dog dominance. Some people cannot stop talking about it, and attribute all the ills of their furry friend on the dreaded d-word. Others, ban the mention of the d-word from their forums, claim that there is no such thing as dog dominance, and continually decry that the so-called dominance theory has been debunked.
Here, I want to consider dog dominance – what is fact, and what is fiction.
- Is dog dominance a myth? Has dominance theory been debunked?
- Does dominance cause most bad dog behaviors?
- How do we deal with a dominant dog?
- Who is right and who is wrong in this dog dominance debate?
Is Dog Dominance a Myth?
Some people claim that dog dominance is a myth that is only perpetuated by television trainers to improve ratings.
What is dominance?
There are two meanings that apply when it comes to dogs.
2. Dominance – the state that exists when one person or group has power over another.
4. Dominance – the power or right to give orders or make decisions.
In a dog pack, for example, the alpha male and female has the power to give orders and make decisions, thus they have dominance over other members of the pack. Dominance however, is not tied to only pack animals.
For example, lions are powerful predators that have dominance over most of the animal kingdom. When they stop at a water hole, all the animals clear out.
We also have dominance over animals, not because we have sharp claws and powerful bodies, but because of our brains. Our dominance comes from building tools and structures, as well as controlling resources and territory, rather than from our physical attributes.
Does dominance exist between dogs? Yes, sometimes.
Does dominance exist between dogs and people? Yes, sometimes.
However, there are multiple ways to achieve dominance. One way to achieve dominance is through threat of punishment or violence. This type of dominance is often referred to as absolutism, despotism, and tyranny.
Another way to achieve dominance is through persuasion and the manipulation of resources. Human institutions today gain supremacy mostly through the control of resources and diplomacy.
In fact, we have laws against using physical punishment and violence to gain power and control over other people, especially those who cannot protect themselves.
Has “dominance theory” been debunked?
Based on the studies that I have read, what has been debunked is the concept that a group of wolves get together, and have Thunderdome style fights with each other to establish physical dominance. At the end, the last one standing is King or Alpha.
This is a myth.
Rather, it has been discovered that most wolf packs are family groups where the alpha male and female are simply the parents of the family. The alpha pair still has dominance over its members (i.e. they are in a position of authority) but that position is *not* gained through physical aggression.
Animal Behavior. high status in a social group, usually acquired as the result of aggression, that involves the tendency to take priority in access to limited resources, as food, mates, or space.
It is this concept of high status through physical aggression, that has been proved to be inaccurate.
Does dominance cause most bad dog behaviors?
Recently, it has become popular to attribute almost all bad dog behaviors to dominance. If a dog walks ahead of us, it is because he is trying to dominate us. If a dog growls when we approach his food or his toy, it is because he thinks he is the boss. If a dog jumps on us, it is because he is trying to show us that he is leader of the pack.
Frequently because he is excited and wants to get to the next bush to smell and mark. Dominance has nothing to do with it.
Because from experience, the dog has learned that when people come near his belongings, he loses it forever. As a result, he starts to protect his stuff before it gets taken away by force.
Sometimes, dogs jump because they want to lick us on the face which is an appeasement behavior. At other times, dogs jump because they are excited and want to play.
Dominance can cause bad dog behavior, including aggression. However, most of the time, bad dog behavior is a result of mis-communication between us and our dog. Often, we inadvertently reward our dog for his bad behavior, which encourages him to keep repeating it.
For example, when a dog jumps, our most common reaction is to push back with our hands and arms. From our dog’s point of view, this is a fun wrestling game where he gets a lot of attention. This rewards the dog for jumping, and gets him even more excited.
Most bad dog behaviors occur because we respond incorrectly or with inaccurate timing. As a result, our dog learns the wrong lessons and the bad behavior worsens.
For example, if we keep using force to take things away from our dog he will learn to associate people approaching him or his belongings as a negative event. In the future, he may decide to start protecting himself and his stuff with his teeth.
How do we deal with a dominant dog?
When I say a “dominant dog”, I mean a dog that is more likely to show dominant behaviors.
Independent and more primitive dog breeds will generally show more dominant behaviors. The Shiba Inu, for example, is a very independent and primitive dog breed.
My Shiba Inu challenged me a lot when he was young. Even today, he comes up with many new and often humorous behaviors to test his boundaries. A Shiba Inu is also extremely stubborn. If I try to force Sephy to do something, he will dig in and really not do it.
How do we deal with a dominant dog?
- More rules and structure. Providing a consistent routine allows a dominant dog to quickly learn what his pack responsibilities are, which will lead to less stress and frustration.
- Frequent obedience training sessions. Try to make obedience training a part of our dominant dog’s home life. This is easily achieved through the NILIF program. I first ask my dog to do something for me, before I do something for him in return.
- Reward training. Contrary to what some people may say, physical force is a poor way to deal with dominant dogs. A dominant dog will always fight back when faced with a physical threat. The more dominant and stubborn the dog, the more he will fight. In the end, we will need to use a lot of physical force (i.e. pain) to break our dog’s independence and stubbornness. Instead, by using reward training and controlling the dog’s resources, we are teaching our dog that the best way for him to get what he wants, is to do what we want first. This builds a strong bond and keeps our dog’s spirit intact.
- Management and supervision. Do not expose a dominant dog to more than he can handle. A string of failures will not only encourage our dog to practice bad behaviors, but also be demoralizing for everyone involved. It is important to challenge a dog and give him a rich and interesting life. However, do it at a pace that he can handle and enjoy. If we carefully manage our dog and set him up for success, he will be confident, balanced, and ready to meet new challenges.
- Always be calm but firm. Dogs are very good at sensing our emotions. Not only are they good observers, but they can hear and smell changes in our bodies. If we get tense, frustrated, or fearful, our dogs will pick up on those emotions, get stressed, and act out even more. When dealing with bad dog behavior, it is important to remain calm but firm. In this way, our dog will also stay calm and look to us for direction.
Who is right and who is wrong in the dog dominance debate?
There are many heated debates about dog dominance on the internet, and often, we let our own egos get in the way.
When I first got my Shiba Inu, I started with aversive training methods. Once I went down this road, I became resistant to any changes in strategy, even though using dominance and physical force techniques was causing greater aggression, more stress, and a low quality of life for everyone.
Through this experience, I learned that it is dangerous to blame everything on dog dominance. However, it is also counter-productive to deny the existence of dominance in dogs.
Ironically, the same people who want to ban the word dominance, from even being mentioned on certain forums, are themselves using their dominant position in the social group, together with negative and dominant language, to silence anyone that does not 100% toe the party line.
Ultimately, I learned that it does not matter who is right and who is wrong on the internet. It does not matter what my neighbors think about me or my dog parenting skills. What matters most are my dogs, and making the best decisions for them. Once I realized this and put my own ego on the back burner, things got a lot better. I was more open to new techniques, I got as much information as I could, and most important of all, I listened to my dogs and let them tell me what works best.
Sometimes, I am the boss. Sephy must go to the vet for yearly check-ups and that’s that. Sometimes, Sephy is the boss and he gets to pick where we go on our walks. Most of the time, we work together; we give and we take.
Dominance is not in black or white, and our dogs are not our enemies. There is little need to carry on an antagonistic “I win or he wins” relationship with our own dog.
“If you love something let it go free. If it doesn’t come back, you never had it. If it comes back, love it forever.”