Dominance (“Alpha Dog Syndrome’3)

In order to understand dominance theory, you will have to first learn what dominance really is. This is where you start wading in murky waters, as many so-castled “experts” label dogs as dominant without even truly understanding what this term really entails. You will often hear that dogs who behave in certain ways are acting dominant or trying to achieve dominance.

Here are just a few examples of circumstances where dogs are often labeled as dominant:

If your dog pulls on the leash he is acting dominant because he wants to lead you.

If your dog jumps un at and licks your face he is trying to achieve a “higher” status. If your dog rest assured he is trying to assert dominance.

If your dog, he is telling you he is the boss.

The fact is, all of the above are labels that often btur the real intentions of the dog. For example, dogs who on the leash are simply pulling

because they want to explore and meet other dogs, dogs who jump on you and lick your face are really just tryine t•  Ely °hello,” guarding food and toys is mostly a trust issue, humping can have several causes such as frustration, anxiety and play etc. More on this can be found on the APDT website here: Dominance and Dog Training.

So not only does labelling dogs as dominant blur the reat intentions of the dog, but it also causes owners to feel that they must harshly correct their dogs because they’re at stake of being stepped all over by them and becoming victims of “door mat syndrome.” On top of that, the real meaning of the term dominance is misunderstood and those who label dogs as dominant for acting in certain ways haven’t gone in depth on understanding the real meaning of the term. So what does dominance really mean? Let’s take a look at what the real experts in the field have to say…

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) defines dominance as not a personality trait but rather as “a relationship between individual animals that is established to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates.” It’s important to note that in order for a dominant/submissive relationship to take place, there must be that one individual who consistently submits.

What’s the purpose of this relationship? It’s to maintain order. In the wild, too much energy would be spent on fighting over food, resting spots and mates. This would end up being counter-productive as energy must be conserved for more important things like searching for food, mating and basic survival. A hierarchy helps to keep things running smoothly, since it helps determine which individuals will get priority of access to resources, especially when limited. This leads to a reduction in conflicts that may lead to aggression. For instance, the AVSAB describes how in a group of bulls, fights over mating are minimized because subordinate males avoid conflict by allowing only the dominant bull to mate.

How Did Dominance Theory Relate to Dogs?

One must dig into history and studies in order to determine how the belief that dogs are continuously trying to establish dominance was crafted. A major role was played by the tendency to base dog behavior on the behavior of wolves observed in studies. One of the first studies was conducted in 1947 by Robert Shankel, who observed a pack of wolves at the Zoological Institute of the University of Basel in Switzerland. His observations brought forth the conclusion that the dominant alpha wolf status was established through violent rivalries. Back then, dog behavior was believed to be closely related to wolf behavior; therefore, it was quicMy assumed that dogs who misbehaved did so

because they were trying to attain a dominant position. The solution for owners and trainers was to correct such attempts through the use of force, leading to an era of dominance-based training for the purpose of keeping the dog in check.

  Is your “dominant dog taking charge of your credit ard?  

Luckily, better, more extensive studies conducted on wolves in a natural setting revealed a totally different perspective. Wolf expert David Mech provided significant contributions by observing a pack of wolves in 1986 on Ellesmere Island, Canada. These wolves in a natural setting behaved in a totally different way compared to Shenkel’s captive wolves. Mech soon noticed that the pack of wolves behaved more like a family unit composed by a breeding pair and its offspñng. Mech, therefore, compared Schenkel*s captivity studies as the equivalent of studying humans in refugee camps. This, along with the publication of Karen Pryor*s book “Don*t Shoot the Dog,” and the APDT’s promotion of reward-based training seemed to temporarily put to rest the “alpha wolF dominance theory.

However, a resurgence in dominance theory was later observed with the airing of Cesar Millan’s “The Dog Whispered” show. Dog behavior was once again based on wolf behavior along with the belief that dogs were constandy attempting to attain the “alpha” role. However, the show soon obtained lots of criticism from acclaimed dog trainers, respected behaviorists and dog owners.

Why Dominance Theory is no Longer Valid

In modern times, a better understanding of dogs has provided us with many valid points as to why dominance theory is considered outdated and no longer valid. For starters, let’s debunk a few myths that still seem to prevail, but are now fortunately being debunked by many educational organizations, books, position statements and articles.

  “Dominant dog” using my credit card to go on a shopping spree online.  

Dogs are not Wolves!

Yes, dogs seem to share many similarities with wolves, but also many differences! Classified as “Canis familiaris” by Linnaeus in 1758, the domestic dog was later reclassified in 1993 as a subspecies of the gray wolf, and therefore, re-named “Canis lupus familiaris” by the Smithsonian Institution end the American Society of Mammatogists. This reclassification may suggest that dogs are closer to wolves than we imagine, yet, even though they are a subspecies of the grey wolf, it would be misleading to assume that dog behavior emerges from wolf behavior.

Despite sharing the same amount of chromosomes and the capability of giving life to offspring, let’s not forget the thousands of years (about 14,000 or 15,000) that separate one species from the other. Alexandra Horowitz in her book °Inside of a Dog” sets the differences apart by claiming: the key to a dog*s success to living with us in our homes is the very fact that dogs are not wolves.” A further effective comparison is made by lan Dunbar: “Trying to train dogs by studying wolf behavior is like learning how to raise a child by watching chimps.”

Dogs Don’t View Us as Their Pack

If dogs and wolves are different in many ways, imagine how different dogs and humans are! Yet, many still believe that dogs are pack animals and when they come into our homes, they behave as they would in a “wolf pack,” trying to assert their dominance over us. As we have seen in the previous paragraphs, this model is outdated and still based on the old Shenkel studies. But even if we compare to David Mech*s family packs, this doesn’t match our domesticated dogs, because domestic dogs have a history of scavenging more than hunting. And even feral dogs don’t usually fom traditional social packs. Perhaps a more appropriate tern to depict a group of dogs living together is a “social group.” Indeed, perhaps the only “packish” trait dogs have inherited from wolves is the desire to be social beings with a strong interest in being around others — other dogs or humans alike — though this varies between individual dogs and breeds.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Dominating isn’t on Rovefs Agenda

As we have seen earlier, dogs aren’t constantly trying to assert dominance over us as some shows want to make us believe. To debunk this myth, all that is needed is to better understand what motivates dogs to act in certain ways, and more likely than not, it’s because of totally different reasons. For instance, as a dog trainer/behavior consultant I can attest that the great majority of behavior problems owners complain about have nothing to do with dominance. Indeed, I can solve them easily by just identifying what drives certain dogs to behave in certain ways. Many times, dog owners inadvertently reward certain behaviors. Once we identify what fuels the behavior, we work on refining the owner’s ability to influence their dog so we can stop fueling the behavior and replace it with something else.

The truth is, dogs are opportunists. They behave tn ways that bfings something rewardin9 to them or removes them from an unpleasant situation. You*ll see dogs who pull because they get to smell lamp posts, dogs who lU•9e because it sends the maitman away, da9S who bark because they get the aQention they crave after being alone all day, dogs who growl because growling moves that pestering child away, dogs who jump and lick you because they get doser to you to say “hello” and get a«ention (even if negative, which is better than nothing at times).

Dogs Don’t Need Harsh Trairuoq

Dominance theory gave life to harsh and dangerous training methods involving alpha rolls, collar grabs and leash jerks. It also involved harsh training tools such as choke collars, prong collars and shock collars. Still, as of today, you may hear people say that “you must pin your dog to the ground to show him who’s boss,” or that a “prong collar mimics the correction a wolf mom gives to her pups.” These outdated tools and methods are unfortunately still popular.

I often deal with aggression cases, and I must say that I have yet to see a real case of a dog acting out of dominance ag9ression.Even popular dog behaviorists who have worked on thousands of cases have found that aggressive behavior is mosdy due to fear. The dog is simply trying to get out of an uncomfortable situation, and is therefore giving distance-increasing signals (in other words, signals which say “stay away from me!).

Ken Ramirez, animal behaviorist and chief animal trainer at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, claims that dog owners need to learn how to better observe and understand dog behavior so they can reward wanted behaviors, while ignoring or distracting them from repeating unwanted behaviors. That’s reinforcement versus enforcement. The truth is, the cause of most behavioral problems in dogs is miscommunication and not dominance issues,° as Patricia McConnell, associate professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin explains.

To the surprise of many, I solve challenging cases through the use of behavior modification that doesn’t involve any use of pain, fear or intimidating tools. And so far, these methods have oPered a a win-win situation for all.

To find out how to solve your dog’s bad behavior with force-free techniques, check out the rest of the archive. or the Behavior Training for Qggy bonus course.

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