Updated: Jun 23
The term 'dominance' can be used by a number of pet owners and pet professionals, but under some circumstances this theory can be used in a misleading way leading to incorrect training techniques.
The word ‘dominance’ actually describes a characteristic of a relationship: one dog can have a dominant relationship over another. However, in the dog world it has become a way to describe an individual personality trait - this can lead to problems.
Challenging canine behaviour has been on the rise; over a quarter of owners say their dog has developed at least one new problem behaviour during lockdowns. Furthermore, one study found that dogs under three years of age are at a proportionately high risk of death due to undesirable behaviours.
The theory of 'dominance' as a corrective technique has led to an increase in punishment-type behavioural corrections. This punishment training style is both concerning to evidence-based behaviour professionals who note recent literature highlights the negatives and damaging effects these corrections can have on dogs.
Not surprisingly, the quality of relationship and bond the owner has with the dog can also be severely impacted. If your dog is growling, barking or doing any behaviour you label as “dominant” seek help to find the underlying cause and you will be able to move forward.
Dogs are not wolves!
Whether we are talking about diet or behaviour we constantly have to remind people: dogs are not wolves. As dogs are descended from wolves tens of thousands of years ago, it is often assumed that their social groups and behaviours may well be similar. The alpha dog ‘wolf pack’ theory has been challenged for many years now. Wolves in captive packs, which most early research is based on, do seem to have a loosely hierarchical social structures but aggression does not appear to be related to the behavioural dominance of pack individuals.
One article suggested that owners may endorse and enforce a particular dominance hierarchy because of this 'wolf pack' or 'alpha dog' idea. However, this hierarchy does not always seem to occur in the wild suggesting that the strong dominance hierarchy that has been described for wolves may be a by-product of captivity. Furthermore, feral dogs do not exhibit the classic wolf-pack structure. Again, questioning the social dominance hierarchy theory and suggesting that the use of dominance in our pet dogs is obsolete as they do not conform to this 'wolf pack' theory.
It goes without saying that our domestic dog is now so different from the behaviour, genotype and phenotype of their predecessor that they require different care both dietary and behaviourally.
He bit out of nowhere?
Aggression such as snarling, snapping or growling is all too often misinterpreted as an attempt on pack leadership. However, a dogs decision to react in this way is actually often born out fear. This can include being in a stressful situation, fear, anxiety, learning and social confusion. This is the way the dog feels the need to communicate in a certain uncomfortable situation, to portray their fear, worry, anxiety and discomfort.
If at this point the 'dominance theory' is put into action we could make the situation much more dangerous. By partaking in aversive techniques this means fearful, anxious dogs are subjected to scary and painful experiences aimed at making them 'submit'. This is when bite risk increases. This results in dogs being forced into defending themselves by showing aggression. These dogs may also become 'emotionally shut down', this is a very dangerous state to be in, these dogs may stop expressing the tell tale signs of discomfort and could become more dangerous as may appear to bite 'out of no where'.
Sadly, engaging in the theory of dominance with your dog doesn't make you an 'alpha' that they respect - it may negatively impact the human animal bond and trust in your relationship with your dog.
If your dog is growling, barking or doing any behaviour you label as “dominant” always seek help to find the underlying cause from a evidence based behaviourist.
Dominance theory is debunked and we should not encourage aversive techniques to be implemented by behaviour professionals.
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