Updated: Feb 7, 2019
The Dominance Fallacy and Our Obsession with Pack Leadership
In a Facebook poll...
I recently asked my Facebook followers to list their favorite dog training myths. That same day, I asked them to share the greatest lessons they've learned about dog training and/or dog ownership. To my surprise, there was a large overlap. That is, many of the "myths" also appeared among the "greatest lessons." That sure demonstrates a lot of disagreement among my followers and quite possibly the remaining prevalence of some of these myths. So over the next few blog posts, I want to dissect some of the mythology surrounding dogs. And since this is my first blog post, lets just go smashing through one of the biggest and most influencing myths ever believed in the world of dog training: The myth of Dominance or Pack Leadership.
"But I See Dominant Behavior!"
We have been told for decades that dogs are pack animals. A certain prominent reality television host attributed almost all undesired behavior from dogs to dominance and claimed that the solution was that owners project calm, assertive energy. When we already embrace the perspective of dominance and pack hierarchy, we tend to see behavior through that lens rather than objectively. Why does my dog mount other dogs? Dominance! Why does he steal toys from the other dogs? Dominance! Why does he growl at me when I try to take something from him? Dominance! Why does he pull on leash? Dominance! Why does he bark and lunge at other dogs while on a walk? Dominance! Why does my dog jump on me? Dominance! We've all heard it. Many of us trainers even taught it at one time (*sheepishly raises hand while ducking behind desk*). But then, we learned. And now, I'd love to show you what it is that we actually learned. Hang in there.
The Dominance Origin
Have you ever described your dog as wanting to be "alpha"? You're not alone, and that term did come from somewhere. But it had nothing to do with dogs. A scientist by the name of David Mech coined that term several decades ago. He had been studying wolves in captivity. These were wolves from a variety of different packs that had been forced to live together in one enclosure. The result was that they fought until they established a dominance hierarchy, the toughest wolf got first dibs on the resources. When he was done with them, the next wolf down the pecking order got dibs and so on. The weaker wolves found the threat of starvation less risky than fighting a stronger animal, and the stronger animals found the risk of starvation greater than that of fighting. And behold, we had an "alpha," and we had "dominance."
But that isn't actually what happens in a wolf pack. In fact, this unique situation isn't even representative of how a wolf pack is structured. With a few exceptions, wolf packs consist of a mom, a dad, and the offspring. The offspring tend to show deference to their mom and dad. Often, when the young grow up, they become independent, snarky teenagers who don't always get along with their parents. When this happens, they leave the pack and strike out on their own in search of a mate in order to start their own pack. Mom and Dad are always the boss of the packs. Does this structure sound familiar? The word "pack," in most cases could just as easily be replaced with the word "family." There is no fighting for dominance. Wolf communication does involve a lot of teeth and vocalization, but rarely do wolves injure one another. While one wolf may roll over and show their belly, it's a voluntary behavior, not something forced by a dominant wolf. Wolves are also very territorial. They tend to go to great lengths to avoid the territories of other wolves. Their survival depends upon their ability to avoid injury and unnecessary danger, so there is no fighting between packs. The situation with the captive wolves is not a good example of wolf behavior because it involves wolves in an environment they would avoid in nature. You can learn more from Dr. Mech himself here.
Dogs are Not Wolves
So we know that "dominance" and "alpha" aren't really words that accurately describe relationships within a wolf pack. But there's more.
Dogs aren't wolves. And they don't behave like them. Dogs were bred, on purpose, to work with people. They were bred to hunt for people, to retrieve for people, to guard for people, to herd for people, to rescue people, and to sit on people's laps and look cute. Some were bred to be able to work well with other dogs, but even these were also selected for their ability to follow the instructions of their humans. Others were bred to work independently of dogs. A few were bred to work with other animals. But all breeds were artificially selected to work for and with humans. They are not pack animals. They are family animals; and you, Human, are their family.
So Why Does My Dog Do That?
Why does your dog mount? Why does she jump? Why does she growl or bark or dig or counter surf? The same reason we all choose to do the things we do.
Because it works. Huh? What does that mean, you ask? It means, dogs perform behaviors because those behaviors are reinforced.
No, of course I don't think you told your dog what a good boy he was when he went digging through the trash or when he turned your front room into a Christmas snow scene from the innards of the decorator pillow. But your dog did get something out it at some point, even if not this one time. Maybe your dog was alleviating boredom by destroying the pillow. Perhaps your dog jumped up on the counter to satisfy his curiosity over what you were doing up there. Perhaps it was to see if he could enjoy a tasty morsel, the smell of which had been tantalizing him. Was he successful in licking up a few crumbs? Did he snatch that lunch meat? This isn't dominance; this is opportunity!
When your dog growled at you because you were reaching for his toy, did you take your hand away? Good! You should have. But your dog wasn't growling at you to show dominance. He was growling because he has reason to believe you take stuff (Perhaps you have before.), and growling or snapping causes you to retreat. We will talk about resource guarding in another post, but for now, I'll just summarize by saying that asserting your dominance by taking the toy in spite of your dog's communication only proves to your dog that you are a thief and that if they want to keep their toy, they had better escalate their behavior in the future.
Mounting can occur for a variety of reasons including but not limited to lack of confidence, over-stimulation, and under-developed play skills. Dogs jump because they are excited, because usually it results in getting attention from us. They bark and lunge on leash toward other dogs because it results in distance from the other dogs.
All dog behavior can be broken down into three parts: Antecedent (something in the environment that makes the dog aware of an opportunity to receive something she wants), behavior (the thing she does to get what she wants), and consequence (the reinforcement, or thing she wants, that makes the behavior more likely to repeat in the future). Behavior professionals refer to these as the "ABC's of behavior."
Be a Reinforcer, Not a Pack Leader
So how should that change how we interact with our dogs when they do something naughty? Rather than using intimidation as a training technique, we've now opened up a much larger toolbox. We can teach our dogs what behaviors we like by reinforcing those. We can prevent undesired behaviors by changing the environment so that the antecedent seldom if ever occurs, and we can become more aware of what consequences are reinforcing those behaviors, removing those consequences whenever possible. If your dog jumps to get your attention, start showering her with attention and treats every single time she approaches and puts her bottom on the ground. If your dog alleviates boredom by stealing and destroying, spend the time to puppy-proof your home, and give your dog plenty of toys and chewies that are meant for puppy teeth. Additionally, you can teach your dog that they can trade a stolen item for a yummy treat. This often results in dogs picking up stuff around the house that you failed to put away and bringing it to you. Good job, puppy!
If your dog barks and lunges toward other dogs when on leash, let's keep him far enough way from other dogs that he doesn't feel the need to practice that behavior. Then, we can begin reinforcing more desirable behaviors and ever so gradually begin building confidence in closer proximity to dogs.
Solving the Puzzle
Sometimes figuring out how to change the environment to be more conducive to behaviors you want to see is no easy task. Sometimes even figuring out what behaviors you'd rather teach instead or figuring out exactly how to reinforce your dog is easier said then done. If you are feeling overwhelmed by your dog's behavior and aren't sure how to go about changing it, you are in good company. Please reach out to your local rewards-based trainer. In the cases of resource guarding, leash reactivity, or other potentially dangerous behaviors, know that these behaviors, while undesirable, are normal and can be greatly improved if not resolved completely, but you will likely need to seek out the assistance of a professional.
Consistent Reinforcement Results in Bonding
To say that a dog's love for their person is entirely dependent upon the reinforcement history may be an oversimplification. However, it certainly has a lot to do with it! If your dog can understand their world, if there are predictable positive outcomes that result from their choices, and if you are the primary source of those positive outcomes, the bond between you and your dog will grow as a natural consequence. Sure, we can call that leadership. Leading through reinforcement is a wonderful and effective form of leadership. But it has nothing to do with assertiveness, dominance, packs, or energy. Your dog was bred to work with you. Canis familiaris was unnaturally selected for their ease of being reinforced by what we humans have to offer. So go ahead. Reward and reinforce all the things that you like. And relish in the wonderful relationship that naturally develops.