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  • Alyssa Cary, LVT

It's not smart or safe to be dominant

Updated: Nov 10, 2018

When I was 8, we got a golden retriever puppy. I named him Benny, or Ben for short, and he was the best dog. He taught me responsibility, kept me active (they did warn us that he’d probably start to calm down at age 6), and helped me through the grief of losing my dad. I remember the good times, the funny memories, and all the joy he brought to our lives, but I also remember things that I regret. We took Ben to training like most good pet owners do. We were taught to use a choke chain, yank on it when he misbehaved, and yell “OUT” to mimic the bark of a parent. Rub his nose in his mess when he peed or pooped inside. So we did. And I cringe when I think about it. I was young, times were different, and dominance theory and aversive training techniques were widely accepted. They still are, which saddens me, and I hope to help change that.

There are three traits that everyone needs to understand about dogs before considering adding one to their family, and when choosing a training method:

  • Amoral — This is trait #1 that few understand. Dogs do not understand right and wrong! They understand safe and unsafe. For example, human-established standards might be that it is not ok to get into the trash. Dogs, having no concept of this, learn “when I get into the trash when dad is home, I get yelled at and smacked; but when I get into the trash when dad is not home, nothing happens to me.” Thus, getting into the trash is only safe when dad isn’t home. Dogs are pretty smart, but they’re not smart enough to understand the concept of right and wrong.

  • Opportunistic — People frequently tell their dogs, like their kids, “You know better!” But the truth is, no, the dog doesn’t know better. The dog has no morals, no conscience. Dogs will repeat the same “mistakes” (getting into the trash, stealing food off the counter, jumping on the couch) when given the opportunity. In order to prevent these behaviors, we have to be proactive. Put the trash can in a cabinet, closet, or other area where the dog can’t get to it. Don’t leave food on the counter where the dog can reach it. Close the door or block off the entrance to the living room with a baby gate so the dog can’t get to the couch.

  • Selfish – Dogs think they’re pretty great, and they like to do what makes them happy. Dogs are unapologetically selfish and hey, who can blame them?

So now that you know that dogs lack a conscience and self control, let’s move on to dominance theory and aversive techniques.

What is dominance theory?

Dominance theory has been scientifically disproven and is not accepted by behaviorists in many countries. It is based on the historic belief (we’re talking like, a belief with origins dating back to nearly one hundred years ago) that wolves fight for an alpha position in the pack. Thanks to scientists like Dave Mech, we now know that this is not the case, and even if it was, comparing the social structure of domestic dogs and wolves is like comparing the social structure of chimpanzees and humans. We are genetic relatives, but we don’t behave the same way.

Training based on dominance theory involves the instruction to “show him/her who’s boss” by doing things like pinning the dog down and forcing him to roll onto his side, growling or barking at the dog, etc. These methods are unsafe, unethical, and unnecessary. Dogs treated this way are more likely to bite and be aggressive. So, if you’d like to raise a dog with severe behavior problems, these methods are ideal.

What are aversive training techniques?

Aversive training techniques use the only kind of “positive” NOT approved of by Positive Paws. Aversive training techniques use positive punishment — the addition of something negative in order to deter a behavior. For example, a shock from an electric collar when he barks, or a pinch from a pinch collar when pulling against the leash. These methods don’t teach dogs anything; they use pain or fear to stop a behavior.

Training done right

So when you’re choosing a dog trainer, it is in everyone’s best interest — pet, owner, and general public — to choose one who is certified (CPDT-KA or CPDT-KSA) and uses positive reinforcement training techniques. And get them started early! Puppies are mentally equipped to start training at 8 weeks, and should begin training and socialization as early as possible. I offer Puppy Start Right Preschool classes to help get puppies and their families started out right from the very beginning – contact me to sign up!

Sources of Interest:

Association of Professional Dog Trainers - Dominance and Dog Training

Australian Veterinary Association - Debunking dominance in dogs

Dave Mech - Wolf News and Info