30th August 2023

"Dominance'' Theory

First let’s start with a simple statement of fact: 

Dominance theory has no place in the human-animal relationship. 

You can’t dip your toe into dog training without coming across expressions like “alpha dog”, “pack leader” or “dominance”. Most people that have searched for dog training videos online, looked for help with a problem behaviour or consumed popular media will have heard these terms used with confidence and assurance by trainers around the world. The theory of dominance in dog training is pervasive and incredibly damaging to both the animals involved and the people training them. 

So where did it come from?

In 1947 a scientist, Rudolph Schenkel, studied captive wolf packs and published a paper describing a dominance relationship between the wolves. This was then taken and applied to domestic dogs. There are a number of flaws in this: firstly dogs are not wolves, and secondly animals in captivity do not act naturally. Further studies into wild wolf behaviour have shown that instead of forming strict linear hierarchies maintained through violence, wolves live in cooperative family groups. These newer studies were published in the 1990’s, and yet dominance theory is still incredibly prevalent today. 

What is the truth?

Advocates of dominance theory will have you believing that your dog is sitting on the bed to dominate you. Maybe they’ll tell you that your dog walks through doors first to show you that they are the boss. They might tell you that your dog is lunging on the lead because it is trying to dominate all the other dogs in the world. 

The truth is dogs are opportunists, their behaviour is driven solely by the desire to make themselves feel happy. Your dog is probably sitting on the bed because it is warm and comfortable. Doorways are an abstract concept, your dog probably just wants to get to whatever is on the other side because it is exciting. Dogs lunge at other dogs on the lead to make them go away, this behaviour is not led by dominance, but rather fear and anxiety about the unknown dog approaching them and a desire to make them go away. 

Dominance training often results in the use of physical force and punishment techniques to compel the dog to behave. By using these harsh methods, dog owners risk destroying the relationship they have with their pet, and losing any trust they have developed. Instead of using force to resolve problem behaviours, owners should look at the motivation behind the behaviour and work from there.