I am here to let you in on a little secret, despite what you might have heard on, you do NOT have a wild animal just waiting to unseat you as the leader of your pack sleeping in your living room floor. Your dog is not pulling because you have not “established dominance”. You do not need to throw your dog on its back for stealing your sandwich off the table. Your dog is not a wolf, and even if he was, NORMAL WOLVES DON’T ACT THAT WAY!
Most of the ideas that dominance theory is based upon came from those who were observing mixed packs of wolves in captivity. These animals were placed in an artificial community with wolves from many different back grounds without the standard organization of a natural wolf pack. There were definitely struggles for power in this set up, but to judge wolves based upon this behavior would be the equivalent of formulating theories on normal human behavior after watching an episode of the bachelor.
Wolves in the wild generally do not gain their high rank by fighting their way to the top. Instead a male and female breed and the pack is a family unit comprised of the parents and the offspring with the older siblings helping to raise the youngest pups. The parents naturally become the leaders. The offspring naturally follow their lead. As a result of this discovery regarding pack structure, wolf biologists no longer even use the term alpha with wild wolf packs and the author who originally proposed the theory has written many articles and books correcting this misguided idea.
Dominance is not a personality trait. It is merely where the animal falls in rank within a particular social structure. If you take 4 dogs ranked at the top of their social groups and combine them into a new group, they will establish a different order with only one of them holding the new top position. A dog cannot be born dominant, because dominance is merely an observation about an interaction between two individuals.
So why do we still hear so much about dominance theory if it has been scientifically proven to be an inaccurate approach? Unfortunately, it is commonly said that it takes approximately 20 years for new scientific research to filter into the common knowledge of those who do not happily sit down to read academic journals. For that reason it is up to trainers and other pet professionals to educate themselves on current findings in the field of behavioral science and not just what the most popular television trainer said on their recent episode. Many pet owners simply do not know that we have new and exciting knowledge about how to build their relationship with their pet without the potential for harm that dominance theory contains.
So what does this mean for the future of training? Much of the behavior we see that is misguidedly marked as “dominance” is the natural behavior many of our pet dogs were originally bred to exhibit. Why would you be surprised when your working breed dog shows a strong tendency towards thinking for themselves and questioning your commands? These dogs were bred to be able to think quickly and make life or death choices for the livestock they guarded, they were not designed to be docile and do party tricks, they were bred to go to work with minimal effort required by the handler. They will be strong and independent, and if we want to keep them as beloved house pets we have to give them an outlet for this part of their temperament. This is where positive training comes in.
Instead of simply correcting your dogs negative behaviors, we teach them alternatives that are more conducive to a happy life with your family. We give them a job, even if that job is as simple as herding up their toys at the end of the night or carrying a pack for you on your hike. We put that intelligence to work for you in positive ways so the dog doesn’t have time to think of their own ways to burn off energy, like eating your couch. And we do all of these things without using force or fear based techniques! You get to enjoy a stronger bond with your better behaved dog who is having ALL of their needs met, does it get any better than that? This trainer doesn’t think so!