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WHY WE SHOULD DO AWAY WITH DOMINANCE THEORY


Dominance/Alpha theory is one of the biggest myths, and probably the most damaging, in the dog training industry. It continues to be perpetuated, despite being thoroughly debunked several decades ago.




Unfortunately, the meaning of “dominance” in dog training has been blurred and misunderstood. Dominance theory is commonly thought to be based on the belief that a dog behaves in the same way that a wolf would; this belief stems from early, flawed studies carried out on captive grey wolves, to demonstrate how they live and behave within their family unit. One of the first, most influential studies occurred in 1947 under Rudolph Schenkel, from the Zoological Institute of the University of Basel, in Switzerland.


Although Schenkel’s study was very detailed, it was flawed; the wolves studied were not, in fact, a family unit, but adult, individual wolves that were contained in a small enclosure outside of their natural environment. As the wolves were unrelated, the dynamics and interactions between them differed greatly from those of a family unit living in harmony; the close proximity of other unknown wolves would have been a source of great tension. Schenkel interpreted this tension as competition for rank within the “pack” and, unfortunately, this soon transferred into dominance theory for those dealing with and handling dogs.


The results of this study are still drawn on today in order to justify certain dog training methods, and much poor advice is given. This includes, but is not limited to:

*Always eat before your dog

*Do not let them go through doorways before you

*Do not allow them to walk ahead of you

*Do not allow them on your bed or furniture

*Affection and attention should be earned, rather than freely given

*Do not allow them to win during play, as they will gain the upper hand

*All dogs want to be the “pack leader” and are in constant battle with you to attain this role


 And so on. These outdated beliefs are very damaging to the relationship you share with your dog and can lead to fear, anxiety, and even aggression.




However, since Rudolph Schenkel’s study, further research was carried out, and in the 1980s, another influential study emerged from American biologist David Mech, which highlighted the flaws in the earlier pack and dominance theory. This study was substantial; it was carried out over the course of thirteen summers, and reflected the true nature of the wild wolf pack being a family unit which lived peacefully, more akin to a human family.


We now know that:


*There is no reason to eat before your dog, as it makes no difference to them.


*Going through doorways before your dog is only encouraged from a safety point of view and for the sake of manners, but has no bearing on how a dog views himself or his “status”.


*It doesn’t matter what position he assumes on a walk, although it is useful to see what he is doing and to engage fully with him, so it is helpful for him to be beside or in front, rather than behind.


*Ignoring your dog when returning home can cause him to feel stressed; it is much kinder to teach an acceptable behaviour such as a sit, or hand them a toy and then make a fuss.


*Play can be initiated by either you or your dog. It is important to let him win so that he doesn’t become bored, or no longer wishes to interact. Playing tug and allowing him to win frequently can help to build confidence and resilience. It is also a great way to teach him to return a toy to you or take it from you, which can also help build pauses into play to regulate arousal levels.


Behaviour issues have frequently been attributed to “dominance,” but when investigated, they often stem from fearfulness. An example of this is the reactive, barking and lunging dog who at first glance appears to be aggressive towards others, but he is simply behaving in this way as a distance-increasing tactic to put space between him and the thing that he is frightened of. It could not be further from the label of “dominance,” and would be very damaging to the reactive dog for him to be regarded in this way, in terms of dealing with their fear effectively and kindly.





Dominance is not a personality trait, it is a fluid state dependent upon the value of a particular resource at a given moment. Beware of anyone calling themselves a professional, yet refers to "dominant dogs". Run like the clappers!


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