For many years, we’ve been told that we need to be the leader of the pack to gain our dog’s respect. Many training programs have led us to believe that our dog’s undesirable behavior is due to them asserting dominance, essentially making dominance a personality trait in our pups.
Dog trainers around the world have begun to question these methods in the last five years, arguing that positive reinforcement is the way to go. So how is dominance training harmful to the human-animal bond? Let’s dive in!
What Is The Dominance Theory?
The dominance theory is a model that’s centered around the behaviors of our dog’s wild ancestor, the wolf. This theory states that because wolves rely on certain hierarchies within their pack, that this is a natural relationship our dogs seek to this day. Unfortunately, there are a few issues with the original research on wolf behavior.
Most early studies on hierarchies within wolf packs were performed with captive wolves. These studies showed that there is typically a dominant male and female in each pack, but this could be a forced position due to their unnatural environment. Many of these wolves were unable to escape from the presence of other wolves they were housed with, forcing them to follow a pack structure to prevent conflict.
When studying wolves in the wild, researchers found that wolves prefer to live in families instead of arranged packs with hierarchies. These families often consist of a main breeding male and female, and a few generations of juvenile wolves. These families rarely have alpha leaders, but are still able to maintain peace.
Do We Need To Be The “Pack Leader” To Earn Our Dog’s Respect?
Many of us are familiar with the well-known “Dog Whisperer,” Cesar Millan. Millan teaches the need to establish dominance over our domestic pups, stating how important it is to be the pack leader within your home. This pushes the understanding that our dogs must fear us to be obedient and that a dog requires stern boundaries to be happy.
As we mentioned above, the “pack leader” mentality leads us to believe that any undesirable behaviors in dogs are due to them trying to assert dominance over their owners. This is not only untrue in most cases, but it ignores the many underlying social and behavioral struggles that our pups are trying to navigate.
The dominance theory relies on stern cues and consequences when bad behavior occurs, which has been shown to instill fear and worsen canine insecurity. With this new understanding, many dog trainers today do not believe that fear equals respect or obedience.
What Are The Issues With Being The Alpha Leader?
The most common difficulties with this training method are that it:
- Increases fear and anxiety: Aversive methods have been shown to further increase fear and anxiety in many dogs. Rather than working to build their confidence within their own skin, this style of training can simply add new anxieties to their list of struggles.
- Assumes that all aggression is dominance-related: Many dogs that display aggression are doing so as a result of frustration or fear that they are unable to work through. Aggression is a dog’s defense mechanism in stressful situations, and not a belief that they are more dominant than others. Many times, aggressive dogs are actually extremely insecure in their current setting. By using stern consequences in these situations, we may increase their current insecurities.
- Forces a response rather than teaching it: Many dogs will respond to their owners when their leashes are tugged on or they are met with consequences, but does this really address the bad behavior at the core?
- Ignores the true behavioral struggle: By ignoring the underlying behavioral cause and simply establishing dominance, you are not necessarily fixing the problem. For example, if a restless dog that is not receiving enough daily exercise is practicing destructive behavior, stern cues and consequences may only be a temporary fix.
What Method Of Dog Training Works Best?
Positive reinforcement and reward-based training is now the leading method among most dog trainers. This training style is shown to avoid undesirable behavioral side effects and strengthen the bond between you and your pup throughout the process.
Reward-based training techniques show your dog that they are rewarded with something they enjoy when they behave well. This prevents any fear-based results and rather teaches your pup to become a well-rounded and confident furry family member.