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Down with the Dominance Dog Theory

Why trying to "dominate" your pup won’t end well.

by Patricia McConnell, PhD
September 19, 2011
Smiling woman sits on the lawn with her dog in the city
bodnarphoto / Adobe Stock

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As a pet parent, you’ve probably heard about ‘dominance dog theory’: Advocates often support their argument by citing scientific evidence — especially data from ethologists—that dogs are pack animals. As such, they argue, dogs don’t need love from us — they just need to know their place. Sigh. About the only thing that’s true about this argument is that dogs are indeed highly social animals. We explore the dog dominance theory and put it down for good.

Understanding Dominance Dog Theory

Here are some “rules” under dominance dog theory:

  • Don’t pet your dog unless they works for it first.

  • Don’t let your dog move their head so that it is higher than your own.

  • Don’t feed your dog until after you’ve eaten.

  • Don’t step around your dog if they’re in your path; make them get up and move, even if they’re sound asleep.

  • Don’t let your dog sleep with you or cuddle with you on the couch.

  • Don’t clean up after your dog while they’re watching you.

But, never fear. Here’s what you can do:

  • Spit in your dog’s food.

  • Wipe your baby’s dirty diapers on the wall.

Why, you might ask? Because each action is said to either cause your dog to think they’re dominant over you, or — in the case of the spitting and the wiping — tells your dog that you (and your baby) are dominant over them. Seriously. There are people out there telling us that these tips are critical to our own happiness as well as that of our dogs.

Are we really still having this conversation? As I and many other trainers and behaviorists repeat endlessly in books, blogs and seminars, dominance is simply a description of a relationship between two individuals who want the same thing.

What Does Dog Dominance Mean?

One animal is said to be “dominant” over the other if they always have primary access to the pork chop that falls on the floor, or the favorite toy, or the cozy lap of a dozing pet parent. Thus, it’s about the resolution of situations in which there might be competition for a resource. It is not about coming when called, or sitting when told to sit, or accepting unfamiliar dogs into the yard.

We’re not even sure how the concept of dominance relates to interactions between dogs, much less to interactions between two entirely different species like humans and dogs. At present, thoughtful ethologists and behaviorists are re-evaluating the concepts of “dominance” and “social status” as they relate to the domestic dog. Although there are questions and quibbles about some of the finer points, experts almost universally agree that the concept of “getting dominance” over our dogs is, at best, not useful, and more often is harmful to our relationships with our pets.

The Myth Of The “Alpha Wolf” Lives On

Yet, the idea that we must “dominate” our dogs lives on, zombie-like, in spite of years of research and experience that demonstrates “being dominant” over our dogs does not improve obedience. In fact, we know that using positive reinforcement results in the best behavior, the fewest behavioral problems and the richest relationships. Given that, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: why is the concept of achieving dominance over our dogs so seductive? Why is it so hard for people to give up?

This is most likely not a question with one answer. Given that humans are complex animals, I suspect there are many answers. And, of course, all we can do is speculate. Perhaps thinking about what might motivate us to hang onto this age-old concept can help us finally give it a respectful burial.

Surely one reason that so many people are enamored of the concept of dominance dog training is that social status is highly relevant to our species. No matter how egalitarian we are, the fact is that in restaurants, some people get better tables than others, and most of us can’t call up Bruno Mars to have him perform at our birthday party.

However, we don’t seem to make the mistake within our own species that we make with our dogs, confounding social status or control with teaching or conveying information. Dogs are supposed to come when called, refrain from jumping up on company and walk at perfect heel just because we tell them to. Each of those actions requires learning; they are not natural to dogs and have to be taught.

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Perhaps another reason we are so susceptible to the fallacy of “getting dominance” over our dogs is that it makes dog training seem simple. One-stop shopping — just get your dog to accept you as “alpha,” and voilà! Your dog will stop jumping up on visitors and will quietly walk through the neighborhood at your side, ignoring all the interesting stuff, like squirrels and pizza as they pass by.

No training required, either for your dog or, as importantly, for you. No need to learn timing and reinforcement schedules and how to know when your dog can learn and when they're too tired or distracted to understand what you are trying to teach them. In a world of instant messaging and instant everything on demand, no wonder a simple, black-and-white concept is attractive.

No matter that dominance has no relation to these issues, or that the way it is presented often equates more to bullying than to social status. Sure, it’s appealing to think that one overriding concept will take care of a host of behavioral issues. And hey, how hard could it be to talk your dog into believing that you are the alpha? You’re the one who can open the door, you’re the one who brings home the dog food and you’re the one with the opposable thumbs. Of course, opening doors has nothing to do with sitting when the doorbell rings, but surely being “dominant” will mean that when you say “Sit!” they do. What else would they do?

Well, actually, there are many reasonable responses that a dog can make to a noise coming out of a person’s mouth, such as: have no idea what “sit” means because they haven’t been taught to understand what they were was supposed to do when they heard the word; or be unable, without training and practice, to control their emotions and sit down when they are overwhelmed with excitement.

Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, the concept of dominance with dogs feeds into our desire for control. Let’s face it: we all want control, at least over some things. Influencing the behavior of others is crucial to members of a social species, and is most likely one of the driving forces behind language, facial expressions of emotion and the importance that movie directors pay to the musical score. We are awash in events that we read about, hear about and post blogs about but have little or no control over. How satisfying then to say “Sit” and have our dogs hear us, do it, and look up with a grin.

The idea that all we need is respect (cue Aretha here) and our dog will behave perfectly is understandably seductive. Too bad it’s incorrect. Far worse, it can lead, at best, to a dog who performs because they are intimidated, and at worst, to a dog that  is abused. The fact is, dogs will respect us only if we are consistent, clear and fair. They will love and trust us only if we are loving and patient and are able to communicate to them in ways that they understand. That does not mean we need to “spoil” them and allow them to behave like rude and demanding house guests. However, we need to teach them how to behave in the society of another species, rather than expecting them to do what you say just because they “want to please us."

Ah, we all love a good fantasy, don’t we? However, separating fantasy from reality is an important part of being a grown-up. Let’s make it an important part of being a good pet parent too.

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Patricia McConnell, PhD

Patricia McConnell, PhD, is an animal behaviorist and ethologist and an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as the author of numerous books on behavior and training.