Dominance vs. Leadership in Dog Training

Given the popularity of the Dog Whisperer, many dog lovers have many questions about the concept of “dominance”.

Most of us who have championed positive methods of dog training are up in arms about Cesar Milan’s fame and continued use of the term “dominance” and its justification for physical corrections in dog training. We are thrilled that someone has gone public with the idea that dog behavior can be modified. But, where we diverge is on the dog’s motivation for its behavior. Is it truly dominance that is motivating the dog?

For years, dominance was believed to be the cause and solution for canine behavior problems, including accidents in the house, pulling on a leash, getting on furniture and not coming when called. This belief is now being furthered with the popularity of the Dog Whisperer.

Methods such as alpha rolls and physical corrections (via the leash and a choke chain or by smacking the dog on the nose or by shaking their scruffs) were often recommended as a way for humans to establish dominance over their dogs. The Dog Whisperer continues to offer these corrections and teaches dog owners to be the dominant “animal” who rules the pack.

Advocates of the dominance theory often support their argument by citing scientific evidence that dogs are pack animals.  They often compare them to wolves .    But, dogs are not tame wolves. The domestic dog is a separate species that evolved from wolves approximately 14,000 years ago. Dogs exhibit behaviors that wolves do not, such as taking directions from humans.  In village dogs throughout the world, dogs are social animals and tend to use ritualized displays of dominance and submission to prevent conflict and keep peace. Dogs in the wild rarely form packs, and when they do, they are loosely structured and have few of the traits seen in wolf packs.

And, humans are not dogs. We do not have the timing that dogs have nor do we always accurately interpret dog behavior well enough to act like a dog.

Most importantly, those who work with wolves and wolf-dogs have learned that these animals do not tolerate aversive handling from humans. There are non-adversarial ways to set rules and boundaries for your dog that doesn’t involve force or intimidation.

Any given dog may be dominant or submissive at any given time depending upon the situation. It is true that some dogs may have more assertive personalities than others, but for training purposes it does not help to classify such a dog as “dominant.” The dog with the strongest personality might in fact be the most compliant with training as well as the most willing worker. Likewise, asserting physical discipline is likely to be perceived by the dog as a physical threat, triggering an aggressive reaction.

The mark of a true leader is the ability to control without force. The true leader is in control of the resources. What you need to understand is that status is flexible it changes depending upon the dog’s motivation, the context, and the situation at the moment.

Many dogs previously considered to be dominant have are simply unruly and have not been taught basic skills or given structure and consistent rules.  They have learned that annoying, attention-getting behaviors get them what they want.

So, what is a leader, then? It means establishing yourself as someone your dog defers to, looks for guidance, trusts and follows. Leadership does not take force, violence or aggression. True leaders are quiet, confident, benevolent, fair and consistent. They rarely have to establish their position. Their attitude communicates leadership.  There is no need for physical corrections or to use dominance as an excuse to get physical with our dogs. Recognize that most misbehavior on the part of dogs is due to the fact that their (mis)behavior has been rewarded somehow and they are repeating it.  It is a rare dog who uses behavior as a method of gaining the upper hand over their human.

How can you establish yourself as your dog’s leader?  Try this: ignore pushy behaviors, don’t respond to your dog until he does something for you first (make him sit or offer a trick before he gets what he wants), control resources (make your dog say “please” by offering a behavior before you feed him), set your dog up to chose to do the right thing rather than become involved in power struggles when pushy behavior occurs (reward deferential, polite behaviors and ignore pushy ones), and prevent mistakes (don’t let your dog run around unsupervised if he chews or has accidents).  It is fine to make your dog wait for you to go through the door first as that is only good manners and shows respect, but don’t do that because you think that you are asserting dominance, because it just isn’t true.

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