04 August 2016

BEHAVIOUR - Does Dominance as a Dog Training Method Work?

Research into dominance and social hierarchies in domestic dogs is ongoing, and has grown from an imperfect understanding of wolf behaviour to a much more nuanced understanding of both wolves and domestic dogs.

Has training kept up?

This question is important, because developments in dog training have lasting effects in homes, vet clinics, boarding facilities, shelters, and even pet stores. Particularly when owners look to vets and other pet professionals for training advice, knowing current best practices in dog training can have a significant impact on professionals’ ability to help owners and on owners’ ability to assess the information given by professionals.

It’s a nuanced relationship and the end result is felt most keenly between the pet dog and their owner.

When it comes to pet dogs, dominance still forms a foundation for some training protocols. But the stability of this foundation is dubious.

Dominance is also often misinterpreted as a characteristic of the animal rather than a dynamic of the relationship.

Many training practices associated with dominance involve humans mimicking dogs, and the assumption that dogs understand this.

Practices such as the Alpha Roll are a perfect example of this. The practice originates from observations of wolves in captivity, where the assumed-dominant wolf was seen apparently forcing the assumed-submissive wolf onto its back. This was translated into owners forcibly rolling dogs onto their backs.

In fact, this “rolling” in wolves was misunderstood when first observed. Although it is a discredited training technique, it is still used by some trainers.

Intimidating physical postures and always eating first are both examples of dominance theory leading to owners trying to mimic dog behaviour. They’re labour-intensive for owners, and are sometimes ineffective.

Jean Donaldson, founder of the Academy for Dog Trainers, told InfoStream, “The most effective trainers and behaviourists in practice do not make use of [the theory of dominance in training]. The ones who are mimicking what we all used to do in the 1970's and 80's are the ones who tend to be invoking dominance as a description for what they’re doing when in fact what they’re doing is a series of physical punishments.”

Dominance training is usually also punishment-based training, as Donaldson points out.

And unlike the murky and poorly defined concept of “dominance” and the incomplete research into the role of social hierarchies in domestic dogs, humans have studied the effects of punishment at length.

Punishment-based training can be effective, but carries significant risk of bringing along some unpleasant side effects such as avoidance, aggression, conditioned suppression, and injury.

The positive outcome of changed behaviour can usually be found through positive-reinforcement training, without the same risk of negative side effects.

Dominance, as a theory that informs the relationship between pet dogs and people, is not entirely irrelevant (after all, social hierarchies remain an important part of how both dogs and people interact with each other), but studies have shown it is not as useful as a foundation for training practices.

The next article in this series will look at alternatives to dominance/punishment-based training.

By Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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