Well the simple answer to that is yes! Of course we know that, if anybody asked you that question nowadays you’d probably be very amused.
Why do I ask this on a dog training blog I hear you say? Well I have been asked this question so much lately on social media, training consults and class…..what is the question? “Do I need to be a pack leader?” “Do I need to be alpha?” and dare I say it “Do I have a dominant dog?”
Let’s look first of all at why some owners/trainers believe that the only way to get your dog to pay attention and have it function correctly in society is to be “pack leader”.
So first what is dominance? Well the correct meaning for dominance is: – High status in a social group, usually acquired as the result of aggression, that involves the tendency to take priority in access to limited resources, as food, mates, or space.
Ok so before we go any further a couple of problems here from the outset, “limited resources” jumps out at me, do most pet dogs live in “limited resources”? Are you kidding me? Well by doing a little maths on this I have come up with a figure of approximately £27,000.00 in a dog’s lifetime ,based on one of my dogs and this wouldn’t include unforeseen vet costs & accidents ( I hope my husband doesn’t read this!) and this is limited resources? So with most pet dogs not living in an environment where they have to compete for essential resources why would you base any training on this definition?
The second thing that pops out is “usually acquired as a result of aggression”, would that not mean then if you treated your dog with non-aversive techniques, never exposed them to aggression, understood their basics needs, realised that a dog will only repeat a behaviour it finds rewarding and focus your attention on rewarding acceptable behaviours there would then be no need to be dominant? I really don’t think you need a PhD to work that one out. So I would definitely say that dominant based training/treatment will only lead you into a relationship that was centred around aggression on your part, and we all know aggression only breeds aggression and eventually someone has to back down and become oppressed. Hardly paints the picture of man’s best friend does it?
Look at it from another angle, are you a dog? Do you resemble a dog? Can you clearly communicate in a dog like manner? Do you have large floppy ears? A tail? Do you walk around on all fours? Do you scent mark on trees? (Please don’t try this last one whilst walking like a dog I can guarantee a wet leg!) I can answer all these for you. NO! So then why would you think that your dog would clearly understand that you are “Alpha” dog without actually being a dog first? Sounds a bit silly huh? And so now you may begin to realise why poor Fido is so confused!!! I watched a documentary recently where it explained just how clever dogs are at reading human body language, looking to the side of our faces that show emotions. Humans display emotions on the right side of the face so when we look at one another we have a left gaze bias. Remarkably dogs do the same. Dogs don’t observe other dogs in this way. So is it then not fair enough to say that as the more intelligent species we are seriously lagging behind?
I think it’s also fair to say that if a dog doesn’t view you as a dog then it will not view a human as a pack. Dog owners often refer to “pack” behaviour to either train their dog or to resolve issues. Dogs aren’t wolves; dogs have evolved from the same ancestor as the wolf but have evolved in a very different way. Comparing dog behaviour to wolf behaviour is much like using ape behaviour when dealing with a human. When you start to use pack theory towards your dog you will inevitably go down the road of rank reduction, showing the dog who’s the boss. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are using violence or aggression but it could be eating before your dog or walking through doorways first. These methods have been proven to have no influence in the dogs overall perception to your relationship, instead it only teaches them what to expect in these specific situations. You could maybe find yourself on the further end of the spectrum and be using techniques such as alpha rolls, scruffing, using your heels at the bottom of the ribs or the touch aiming to replicate the correction of another dog, this will only lead to your dog being anxious about you and other humans and could potentially lead to aggression. Inevitably all you are going to teach your dog to do is comply or else. Again this isn’t in my opinion the bases for a mutually respectful relationship.
When doing research for this piece I found myself looking into what is described as dominant behaviours, what to look for, and to be rather honest I was shocked at the list. Here are most of the ones I could find.
- Headstrong & wilful
- Pushing a toy into you or pawing in order to get you to play
- Nudging to be petted
- Sitting in high places
- Guarding a human
- Barking or whining at humans
- 11. High pitched screams in protest if the dog doesn’t wish to do something
- Jumping or putting paws on humans
- Persistence about being on a piece of furniture
- Refusing to walk on a leash
- Nipping at peoples ankles when they leave
- Not listening to known commands
- Dislikes people touching their food
- Standing on a humans lap
- Persistence about where they sleep
- Annoyance if disturbed whilst sleeping
- Likes to sleep on a human
- Licking (giving kisses)
- Carrying themselves with a proud gait
Now I must have a serious issue because there are a lot on this list that my dogs do. It seems that any behaviour a dog does it is labelled as dominant. And what was the advice given if you have any of these dominant issues- Be the pack leader and always be calm and assertive. Is it just me or is anyone else clueless to what this means? The other advice given is “Training is conditioning and it creates a surrendering state of mind or calm submission”. Well that one blew me over the edge, when training a dog you are merely rewarding acceptable behaviours to increase the likelihood of those behaviours occurring again. Then you are adding a cue and teaching your dog the human word that goes with the behaviour. Shoot me if I’ve got that wrong. I mean you aren’t even teaching the dog the behaviour, they already know how to walk, sit, stand, lie down, offer a paw, play bow, bark etc. You aren’t really clever if your dog sits, you are however really clever if your dog sits on cue in all environments in any situation first time you ask for a sit. This doesn’t come with “eating first” this comes with teaching your dog first the word that goes with the behaviour and then taking your dog to a variety of places and asking for it again and again and rewarding them for doing so. And if you are looking at this list and perhaps have an issue with your dog not liking you touching their food then contact a professional that uses animal learning theory and force free training to help you get on the right track so as not to effect the bond that should exist between owner and dog.
So what are my thoughts on what a dog wants out of their life? On observing my own dogs and the hundreds of clients I have a year I would conclude a happy, peaceful and fulfilled existence. Where they feel safe and free from abusive treatment both physically and mentally. I look at my relationship with my own hounds and view it the same as I view any other relationship I have with my family and friends. I want them to do things because they want to, because they know I have their best interests at heart, they can come to me for anything because I care not because I am their leader.
So to finish this off if you still consider using “pack theory” to interact with your dog please be careful next time you go for a walk, you may just fall off the edge of Earth.