THEORY - CONVOLUTED & CONFUSING
a dog "dominant" has become a very used
and abused term and tends to be applied to any dog
that shows less than perfect behaviour. It has become
very popular amongst dog owners, behaviour enthusiasts,
uninformed trainers and amateur behaviourists, as
it provides a convenient answer to all evils and
in some cases an opportune disguise for ignorance.
use of the dominant label is one of the biggest
problems facing the domestic dog today. It is very
easy to apply a dominant label, but in the words
of Alexander Pope: "A little learning is a
dangerous thing; Drink deep or taste not the Pierian
Spring". The subsequent use of blanket approaches
to "stop Fido from trying to take over"
has caused many dogs to be victims of non-contingent
punishment, which ironically ends up worsening the
situation. The resulting deterioration in behaviour
entrenches the belief that Fido was indeed being
a dominant dog and he is now resisting this challenge
to his status.
main reason that dominance theory is such a problem
is that it is taken straight from wolf pack theory.
There are two problems with this approach:
of Parsimony (Occam's Razor)
When dealing with the dynamic and highly interpretive
science of canine behaviour we are often making educated
guesses. It is impossible to know exactly what another
animal's motivations and thoughts are without the benefit
of spoken language. We can thus only make knowledgeable
assumptions at best.
such we should adhere to the principle of parsimony,
which is a scientific stance that states criteria for
deciding among scientific theories. And it states, "One
should always choose the simplest explanation of a phenomenon,
the one that requires the fewest leaps of logic".
In essence: The fewer the leaps of logic, the fewer
the possibilities of being incorrect.
instead of assuming a dog to be "dominant"
which is a very complex concept, we should rather first
have a look at more straightforward potential causes
for this behaviour such as health, diet, environment
etc. It is critical to assess these areas first, as
they may give insight into the problem, which could
then be easily addressed/managed by adapting the husbandry
(so to speak) instead of "putting them on the behaviour
every single alternate avenue was clearly unfeasible
then one could perhaps consider applying the wolf pack
theory, BUT this theory is often applied without properly
exploring the simplest concepts first. It is thus unparsimonious.
Dogs are not wolves, and extrapolating and applying
interpretations of wolf behaviour to dogs is unscientific
at best and woefully ignorant at worst. New research
suggests that dogs did not evolve directly from hunting
wolves (an article on this is to follow soon) but instead
from often-solitary feral dogs. Applying the highly
specialised behaviour of hunting pack animals to a scavenging
and incidental pack animal is thus technically incorrect
when we look at interpreting domestic dog behaviour
we should base our facts on studies on domestic dogs.
This is perhaps not as romantic as the Wolf Pack Theory,
but it is certainly with more scientific merit.
Below follows an excerpt of an article on this concept
written by Dr. Ian Dunbar.
"Dr. Frank Beach performed a 30-year study on dogs
at Yale and UC Berkeley. Nineteen years of the study
was devoted to social behavior of a dog pack. Some of
dogs have a rigid hierarchy
dogs have a hierarchy, but it's more variable
you mix the sexes, the rules get mixed up. Males try
to follow their constitution, but the females have
puppies have what's called "puppy license."
Basically, that license to do most anything. Bitches
are more tolerant of puppy license than males are
puppy license is revoked at approximately four months
of age. At that time, the older middle-ranked dogs
literally give the puppy hell -- psychologically torturing
it until it offers all of the appropriate appeasement
behaviours and takes its place at the bottom of the
social hierarchy. The top-ranked dogs ignore the whole
is NO physical domination. Everything is accomplished
through psychological harassment. It's all ritualistic
small minority of "alpha" dogs assumed their
position by bullying and force. Those that did were
vast majority of alpha dogs rule benevolently. They
are confident in their position. They do not stoop
to squabbling to prove their point. To do so would
lower their status because...
Middle-ranked animals squabble. They are insecure
in their positions and want to advance over other
animals do not squabble. They know they would lose.
They know their position, and they accept it
does not mean physically dominant. It means "in
control of resources." Many, many alpha dogs
are too small or too physically frail to physically
dominate, but they have earned the right to control
the valued resources. An individual dog determines
which resources he considers important. Thus an alpha
dog may give up a prime sleeping place because he
simply couldn't care less
So what does this mean for the dog-human relationship?
physical force of any kind reduces your "rank."
Only middle-ranked animals insecure in their place
be "alpha," control the resources. I don't
mean hokey stuff like not allowing dogs on beds or
preceding them through doorways. I mean making resources
contingent on behaviour. Does the dog want to be fed.
Great -- ask him to sit first. Does the dog want to
go outside? Sit first. Dog want to greet people? Sit
first. Want to play a game? Sit first. Or whatever.
If you are proactive enough to control the things
your dogs want, "you" are alpha by definition
your dog. This is the dog-human equivalent of the
"revoking of puppy license" phase in dog
development. Children, women, elderly people, handicapped
people -- all are capable of training a dog. Very
few people are capable of physical domination
deferential behaviour, rather than pushy behaviour.
I have two dogs. If one pushes in front of the other,
the other gets the attention, the food, whatever the
first dog wanted. The first dog to sit gets treated.
Pulling on lead goes nowhere. Doors don't open until
dogs are seated and I say they may go out. Reward
pushy, and you get pushy
job is to be a leader, not a boss, not a dictator. Leadership
is a huge responsibility. Your job is to provide for
all of your dog's needs, food, water, vet care, social
needs, security, etc. If you fail to provide what your
dog needs, your dog will try to satisfy those needs
on his own. (Notation 1)
Roy Coppinger (a biology professor at Hampshire College,
author and an extremely well-respected member of the
dog training community) says in regards to the dominance
model (and alpha rolling): "I cannot think of many
learning situations where I want my learning dogs responding
with fear and lack of motivation. I never want my animals
to be thinking social hierarchy. Once they do, they
will be spending their time trying to figure out how
to move up in the hierarchy." (Notation
1: This is a very telling paragraph and illustrates
how so much "dominant" behaviour can be addressed
by providing better leadership through effective husbandry
skills. A pack leader controls resources and this simple
strategy is highly effective in terms of affirming leadership
without resorting to physical aggression. One
could even argue that the results gained from such an
approach are a straightforward application of basic
learning theory and have nothing to do with any kind
of hierarchy, status or leadership whatsoever!
2: By using these techniques of brawn over brain we
erode trust and teach dogs that force solves problems.
We also encourage "no-brainer" responses from
our dogs. We take a potential Harvard graduate and teach
him how to fight bar-room brawls.
We need to apply the principle of parsimony when dealing
with any aspect of canine behaviour and we also need
to work within species-specific behavioural parameters.
The blanket "Dominance Theory" is a typical
example of how an unparsimonious approach (based on
the behaviour of a very distant relative) can easily
aggravate a situation.
Why look for a romanticised atavistic or ancestral rationale
for domestic canine behaviour, when the answer is more
than likely to be 1 + 1 = 2?
Interview with Dr. Ian Dunbar
Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) newsletter: Dr.
Dominance, Status and Rank Reduction Programmes: Lotte