The Danger with Dominance Training in Dogs

The word ‘dominance’ will be taken in different ways by different people when it’s used in context of our dogs. Some people will be instantly horrified, the negative connotations of the word will make them run a mile. Others will feel strongly that it’s an important word and the fundamentals of dog training should be based on the concept. In reality, there IS a place for the word ‘dominance’ and it’s a concept that does exist in regards to our dogs, but the word is often misplaced and misinterpreted.

The danger with dominance theory is that it has historically been applied incorrectly and its given licence to using confrontational, aversive and fear-inducing training methods. Methods which ‘put the dog in its place’ and remind the dog ‘who is boss’ will typically use the concept of ‘dominance’ as the reason behind the methods. Our dogs are trying to dominate us, therefore we must dominate them too. This can include things like ‘alpha rolls’ (where the dog is pinned onto its side), using body blocking or physical ‘corrections’, or perhaps seemingly less harmful ideas like eating before your dog or never allowing them through doorways before you.

The truth is, dominance does exist between dogs, but it’s much more fluid and situational than we are often led to believe. Dominance is often linked to resources and which individual gains primary access of those resources. However, it isn’t a case of one individual being the dominant one, it can change depending on the situation and the resource involved. Where one dog may have first access to edible resources, another may have priority over sleeping places. It’s a fluid position.

More importantly though, there is NO EVIDENCE that dominance occurs across species. Research has never supported the idea that dominance takes place in human-dog interactions. It certainly exists in dog-dog interactions, but it does not cross species. So, just to be very clear, your dog will not be trying to dominate you. Your dog does not see your household as a ‘pack’, there is no ‘hierarchy’ and no behaviour your dog displays towards you has anything to do with dominance, hierarchies or who leads the pack. Trying to assert your dominance over your dog is much more likely to cause increased fear in your dog, and it will show them that you’re not responding to their attempts at communication. Ultimately, it’s a dangerous mentality in dog training.

To understand why the concept of dominance is potentially so dangerous to our relationships with our dogs, we need to consider how our dogs communicate with us. Dogs use signals which tell us how they’re feeling, some of these can be misinterpreted as displays of ‘dominance’ and this is where we risk some serious consequences.

Dominance theory can be an easier way to label a behaviour rather than taking the time to uncover the underlying reasons and address it in a more appropriate way. To some people, it comes naturally to associate bad behaviours with dominance rather than to understand the real reasons behind it, which often involve fear or more complex emotions. This may be due to a lack of knowledge or it may be because that’s what they’ve previously been told.

Take, for example, a dog who is barking at visitors, the dog might be described as dominant and trying to protect his pack, the plan of action in that case might be to ‘put him in his place’ which is likely to be done using some rather strong aversive training, essentially provoking fear in the dog and ultimately shutting the behaviour down.

Take the same dog and look at the behaviour for what it really is, most likely the dog is feeling worried by people coming into the house and barking is his way of communicating his fear and uncertainty. Now instead of adding even more fear by showing your ‘dominance’, you understand the dog is fearful and you take steps to manage the situation and build positive associations. The results may take longer to see, but you will be working with a happier, more relaxed dog who learns to trust you and maintains a good relationship with you. Most importantly, you have shown your dog that you are listening to their communication and you’re teaching them better ways to cope with a situation they find difficult.

In comparison, the dog who has been put in his place with fear-inducing methods, may appear ‘fixed’ very quickly but he’s also likely to now be a ticking time bomb of communication signals. You have shown him that you don’t care what he’s trying to tell you, you have forced him to shut down all attempts at communication and you leave him with very few choices: either use the strongest signals to convey his feelings next time (i.e. BITE), or remain shut down and in a state of helplessness. Your bond will be damaged and you are treading a fine line before he chooses to up his signals to something you can’t ignore … most people don’t ignore a bite!

The idea of dominance ultimately encourages people to approach aggressive behaviour with aggressive behaviour, it makes it seem okay to react to your dog in a confrontational manner because he needs to learn that those behaviours don’t work with you. When actually this is a total misinterpretation of dog behaviour and communication. Worse still, it’s not something which is harmless, but rather something which comes with a huge amount of risk.

Resource guarding is a behaviour which people often view as a display of dominance, perhaps because in dog-dog interactions, dominance may play a role, but in human-dog interactions, dominance IS NOT relevant. People can take resource guarding quite personally, like their dog is trying to control things that actually we, as humans, should be in charge of. These attitudes can unfortunately mean people are quicker to deal with guarding behaviours in a more confrontational, aggressive manner. It’s almost a natural reaction when your dog growls at you because he doesn’t want to get off the sofa, you react by making him get off, to show him that growling at you is unacceptable.

We might handle many guarding situations in this way, reacting to show the dog that we are in charge and they cannot behave like that towards us.

Now THIS approach is leading to serious consequences. It can’t be emphasised enough, just how risky it is to deal with guarding behaviours in this way. Go back to thinking about how dogs communicate with us, and remember they are never trying to show dominance, most likely those ‘dominant’ looking behaviours are coming from fear.

Resource guarding, ultimately, is the fear of losing a valuable resource, or perhaps a fear of conflict, or a fear of an uncomfortable situation. What is valuable to the dog can be very individual, but it could be food, toys, a sleeping place, a person, or all manner of random things. It’s a complicated behaviour which we won’t go into detail about, but just briefly mention that in a lot of cases there are strong genetic links, meaning some dogs will be genetically prone to displaying guarding behaviours, even with good handling and management, the behaviour may still exist. In many dogs, early warning signs will have been missed and it’s only when they start to growl or bite that we notice the behaviour is there. Thinking about it in a human situation can help us understand it better…

If every time you sat down to eat your favourite meal, someone came along and took it away, you’d soon start to protect your food, you might try to hide while you ate it, you might tell them to go away and leave you alone, and if they still persist, you might physically push them away or threaten violence. Likewise, if someone kept pushing you off the comfiest chair when you’re watching your favourite TV show, you’d probably begin to get defensive and warn them to leave you alone. You begin to become anxious or fearful that this situation will keep repeating and you’ll never enjoy your favourite things in peace.

Now put a dog in these situations, they’re happily enjoying their tasty chew and someone comes along and takes it away, or they’re sleeping on the sofa and suddenly they’re being forced off it. Dogs don’t resource guard to dominate you or to show they are a higher rank in the pack, they do it because they’re anxious about losing something important to them. They are simply trying to communicate and show us that they’re feeling threatened or uncomfortable.

If you were to deal with resource guarding by showing the dog you’re in control, taking things off them, telling them off or physically punishing them when they growl at you, all you will be doing is telling your dog that you’re not listening to their communication signals. You will be making them more fearful and more uncertain about how you’ll react towards them around their valuable resources. This can escalate the behaviour really quickly. A dog could go from a subtle signal, like turning their head away from an approaching person, to growling and then to snapping or biting, within just a few repetitions. Some dogs will take months or years before they finally use stronger signals, but others won’t need much practice. And this is where people often feel like the behaviour appeared out of nowhere, when actually the dog was trying to communicate long before they took any notice.

If your dog is showing any signs of resource guarding, it’s important to work with a professional trainer who uses force-free, reward-based methods. It’s a complicated issue that can be made worse very quickly, so working with a professional is beneficial. Management will always be key in resource guarding, in some cases, that alone will be enough or the safest way to handle the behaviour.

Guarding behaviours are a good example of where dominance theory can be dangerously and wrongly applied, but the theory unfortunately can be put into any context where dogs are displaying unwanted behaviours. People who believe in the concept will probably be very determined that it’s the right way to handle our dogs, but if you dig deeper into their understanding of behaviour and communication, you will likely start to see some holes in their theories.

Anyone who has an understanding of dog behaviour and communication signals will not be using ‘dominance’ based theories to resolve behavioural problems or to approach training methods, because if they truly understood, they would see that these methods are using fear to ‘train’ the dog and they disregard communication signals. And if they truly understand communication and behaviour and they still use dominance theory, then there’s something really wrong going on!

Steer clear of anyone who uses dominance theory to support their training methods, and instead look for a trainer who understands how dogs communicate and the real reasons behind their behaviours. Be aware, some of these trainers are skilled at the art of persuasion, they can give a convincing argument to sell their methods and theories so read between the lines and do your research. A good trainer will be aware of your dog’s emotional state and their needs, they will be able to use this to find the best methods to help you and your dog. If a trainer suggests something which makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to walk away. You must be confident in the methods they’re using because ultimately it’s about you and your dog, your training should always BUILD your bond, not break your bond.

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