Features December 2011 Issue

De-Bunking the "Alpha Dog" Theory

Why every mention of “alpha dogs” or “dominant” dogs is dangerous to all dogs.

The alpha myth is everywhere. Google “alpha dog” on the Internet and you get more than 85 million hits. Really. While not all the sites are about dominating your dog, there are literally millions of resources out there – websites, books, blogs, television shows, veterinarians, trainers and behavior professionals – instructing you to use force and intimidation to overpower your dog into submission. They say that you, the human, must be the alpha. They’re all wrong. Every single one of them.

Is this powerful dog dominant? Acting like an “alpha dog”? No; he’s simply untrained. Pulling hard has enabled him to reach what he wanted to reach in the past, so he’s trying it again.

The erroneous approach to canine social behavior known as dominance theory (two million-plus Google hits) is based on a study of captive zoo wolves conducted in the 1930s and 1940s by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel, in which the scientist concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf.

Bad Extrapolation
Schenkel’s observations of captive wolf behavior were erroneously extrapolated to wild wolf behavior, and then to domestic dogs. It was postulated that wolves were in constant competition for higher rank in the hierarchy, and only the aggressive actions of the alpha male and female held the contenders in check. Other behaviorists following Schenkel’s lead also studied captive wolves and confirmed his findings: groups of unrelated wolves brought together in artificial captive environments do, indeed, engage in often-violent and bloody social struggles.

The problem is, that’s not normal wolf behavior. As David Mech stated in the introduction to his study of wild wolves (Mech, 2000), “Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots (Schenkel 1947; Rabb et al. 1967; Fox 1971a; Zimen 1975, 1982; Lockwood 1979; van Hooff et al. 1987) is particularly misleading.”

What we know now, thanks to Mech and others, is that in the wild, a wolf pack is a family, consisting of a mated pair and their offspring of the past one to three years. Occasionally two or three families may group together. As the offspring mature they disperse from the pack; the only long-term members of the group are the breeding pair. By contrast, in captivity unrelated wolves are forced to live together for many years, creating tension between mature adults that doesn’t happen in a natural, wild pack.

Enough About Wolves
But that’s all about wolves anyway, not dogs. How did it happen that dog owners and trainers started thinking all that information (and misinformation) about wolf behavior had anything to do with dogs and dog behavior? The logic went something like, “Dogs are descended from wolves. Wolves live in hierarchical packs in which the aggressive alpha male rules over everyone else. Therefore, humans need to dominate their pet dogs to get them to behave.”

Perhaps the most popular advocate of this inaccurate concept, Cesar Millan, is only the latest in a long line of dominance-based trainers who advocate forceful techniques such as the alpha roll. Much of this style of training has roots in the military – which explains the emphasis on punishment.

As far back as 1906, Colonel Konrad Most was using heavy-handed techniques to train dogs in the German army, then police and service dogs. He was joined by William Koehler after the end of World War II.

Koehler also initially trained dogs for the military prior to his civilian dog-training career, and his writings advocated techniques that included hanging and helicoptering a dog into submission (into unconsciousness, if necessary). For example, to stop a dog from digging, Koehler suggested filling the hole with water and submerging the dog’s head in the water-filed hole until he was nearly drowned.

Fast-forward several years to 1978 and the emergence of the Monks of New Skete as the new model for dog training, asserting a philosophy that “understanding is the key to communication, compassion, and communion” with your dog. Sounds great, yes? The Monks were considered cutting edge at the time – but contrary to their benevolent image, they were in fact responsible for the widespread popularization of the “Alpha-Wolf Roll-Over” (now shortened to the alpha roll). Reviewing the early observations of captive wolves, the Monks concluded that the alpha roll is a useful tool for demonstrating one’s authority over a dog. Unfortunately, this is  a complete and utter misinterpretation of the submissive roll-over that is voluntarily offered by less assertive dogs, not forcibly commanded by stronger ones.

The Monks also advocated the frequent use of other physical punishments such as the scruff shake (grab both sides of the dog’s face and shake, lifting the dog off the ground) and cuffing under the dog’s chin with an open hand several times, hard enough to cause the dog to yelp.

While professing that “training dogs is about building a relationship that is based on respect and love and understanding,” even their most recent book, Divine Canine: The Monks’ Way to a Happy, Obedient Dog (2007), is still heavy on outdated, erroneous dominance theory. Immediately following their suggestion that “a kindly, gentle look tells the dog she is loved and accepted,” they say “But it is just as vital to communicate a stern reaction to bad behavior. A piercing, sustained stare into a dog’s eyes tells her who’s in charge; it establishes the proper hierarchy of dominance between person and pet.” (It’s also a great way to unwittingly elicit a strong aggressive response if you choose the wrong dog as the subject for your piercing, sustained stare.)

Despite the strong emergence of positive reinforcement-based training in the last 20 years, the Monks don’t seem to have grasped that the “respect” part needs to go both ways for a truly compassionate communion with your dog. Perhaps one of these days . . .

Birth of Modern Training Era
Just when it seemed that dog training had completely stagnated in turn-of-the-century military-style dominance-theory training, marine mammal trainer Karen Pryor wrote her seminal book, Don’t Shoot the Dog. Published in 1985, this small, unassuming volume was intended as a self-help book for human behavior. The author never dreamed that her modest book, paired with a small plastic box that made a clicking sound, would launch a massive paradigm shift in the world of dog training and behavior. But it did.

Is this dog dominant or acting like an “alpha dog”? No; he’s been trained to jump up and bite on cue.

Forward progress was slow until 1993, when veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Dunbar’s vision of a forum for trainer education and networking has developed into an organization that now boasts nearly 6,000 members worldwide. While membership in the APDT is not restricted to positive reinforcement-based trainers, included in its guiding principles is this statement:

“We promote the use of reward-based training methods, thereby minimizing the use of aversive techniques.”

The establishment of this forum facilitated the rapid spread of information in the dog training world, enhanced by the creation of an online discussion list where members could compare notes and offer support for a scientific and dog-friendly approach to training.

Things were starting to look quite rosy for our dogs. The positive market literally mushroomed with books and videos from dozens of quality training and behavior professionals, including Jean Donaldson, Dr. Patricia McConnell, Dr. Karen Overall, Suzanne Hetts, and others. With advances in positive training and an increasingly educated dog training profession embracing the science of behavior and learning and passing good information on to their clients, pain-causing, abusive methods such as the alpha roll, scruff shake, hanging, drowning, and cuffing appeared to be headed the way of the passenger pigeon.

A Step Backward
Then, in the fall of 2004, the National Geographic Channel launched its soon-to-be wildly popular show, The Dog Whisperer. Dominance theory was back in vogue, with a vengeance. Today, everything from housetraining mistakes to jumping up to counter surfing to all forms of aggression is likely to be attributed to “dominance” by followers of the alpha-resurgence.

“But,” some will argue, “look at all the dogs who have been successfully trained throughout the past century using the dominance model. Those trainers can’t be all wrong.”

In fact, harsh force-based methods (in technical parlance, “positive punishment”) are a piece of operant conditioning, and as the decades have proven, those methods can work. They are especially good at shutting down behaviors – convincing a dog that it’s not safe to do anything unless instructed to do something. And yes, that works with some dogs. With others, not so much.

My own personal, unscientific theory is that dog personalities lie on a continuum from very soft to very tough. Harsh, old-fashioned dominance-theory methods can effectively suppress behaviors without obvious fallout (although there is always behavioral fallout) with dogs nearest the center of the personality continuum – those who are resilient enough to withstand the punishment, but not so tough and assertive that they fight back. Under dominance theory, when a dog fights back, you must fight back harder until he submits, in order to assert yourself as the pack leader, or alpha.

Problem is, sometimes they don’t submit, and the level of violence escalates. Or they submit for the moment, but may erupt aggressively again the next time a human does something violent and inappropriate to them. Under dominance-theory training, those dogs are often deemed incorrigible, not suitable for the work they’re being trained for nor safe as a family companion, and sentenced to death. Had they never been treated inappropriately, many might have been perfectly fine.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a very “soft” dog can be easily psychologically damaged by one enthusiastic inappropriate assertion of rank by a heavy-handed dominance trainer. This dog quickly shuts down – fearful and mistrusting of the humans in his world who are unpredictably and unfairly violent.

Most crossover trainers (those who used to train with old-fashioned methods and now are proud to promote positive reinforcement-based training) will tell you they successfully trained lots of dogs the old way. They loved their dogs and their dogs loved them.

I’m a crossover trainer and I know that’s true. I also would dearly love to be able to go back and redo all of that training, to be able to have an even better relationship with those dogs, to give them a less stressful life – one filled with even more joy than the one we shared together.

We’re Not Dogs – And They Know It
Finally, the very presumption that our dogs would even consider we humans to be members of their canine pack is simply ludicrous. They know how impossibly inept we are, for the most part, at reading and understanding the subtleties of canine body language. We are equally inept, if not even more so, at trying to mimic those subtleties. Any attempts on our part to somehow insert ourselves into their social structure and communicate meaningfully with them in this manner are simply doomed to failure. It’s about time we gave up trying to be dogs in a dog pack and accepted that we are humans co-existing with another species – and that we’re most successful doing so when we co-exist peacefully.

The fact is, successful social groups work because of voluntary deference, not because of aggressively enforced dominance. The whole point of social body language rituals is to avoid conflict and confrontation, not to cause it. Watch any group of dogs interacting. Time and time again you’ll see dogs deferring to each other. It’s not even always the same dog deferring:

Dog B: Hey, I’d really like to go first. Dog A: “By all means, be my guest.” Dog B passes down the narrow hallway.

Dog A: “I’d really like to have that bone.” Dog B: “Oh sure – I didn’t feel like chewing right now anyway.” Dog A gets the bone.

Social hierarchies do exist in groups of domesticated dogs and in many other species, including humans, and hierarchy can be fluid. As described above, one dog may be more assertive in one encounter, and more deferent in the next, depending on what’s at stake, and how strongly each dog feels about the outcome. There are a myriad of subtleties about how those hierarchies work, and how the members of a social group communicate – in any species.

Today, educated trainers are aware that canine-human interactions are not driven by social rank, but rather by reinforcement. Behaviors that are reinforced repeat and strengthen. If your dog repeats an inappropriate behavior such as counter surfing or getting on the sofa, it’s not because he’s trying to take over the world; it’s just because he’s been reinforced by finding food on the counter, or by being comfortable on the sofa. He’s a scavenger and an opportunist, and the goods are there for the taking. Figure out how to prevent him from being reinforced for the behaviors you don’t want, and reinforce him liberally for the ones you do, and you’re well on your way to having the relationship of mutual love, respect, communication, and communion that we all want to have with our dogs. 

Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CDBC, is WDJ’s Training Editor. Author of numerous books on positive dog training, she lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center, where she offers dog training classes and courses for trainers.

Subscribe to Whole Dog Journal

Comments (33)

It has been my experience that earning the respect and love of the dog first is the key... and they will literally jump through hoops to please...but that respect and love goes both ways. They are great at reading people and respond very favorably to a kind and gentle approach. My husband uses a stern voice and implied intimidation to make our dog listen. It takes him about three tries of giving a command before the dog will comply. I whisper and the dog listens to me immediately. Go figure~

Posted by: jeastevens | April 1, 2014 6:03 PM    Report this comment

I completely disagree. In your home, you and your family become your dog's pack, as do any other dogs you may have. It is your responsibility to establish yourself in the alpha position. If you fail to do this, your dog will do it as a natural behavior. Many people assume that they are automatically in charge just because humans are superior to animals. But are you really the pack leader? Does your dog know it? Being the pack leader does not mean you have to be big and aggressive. Nor does it mean that there has to be a battle of wills after which you are the victor. Anyone can be the pack leader. It is an attitude an air of authority. It is the basis for mutual respect, and provides the building blocks of communication between the two of you. Leadership exercises can confirm humans as the heads of the family pack. Once you establish this relationship, your dog will seek you out. He will want to be with you and will treat you with respect and affection. After he learns to submit to handling, all other tasks such as grooming, nail clipping, cleaning ears, and medicating will be easier to accomplish. But first he must learn that you have the power to handle him, and that handling will not lead to any harm. He must come to trust you entirely. This is important to the health and well being of a dog. You must be able to take care of her medical needs without a struggle. I learned this the hard way when caring for my dog with Renal failure.

Posted by: Ganuff | February 8, 2014 4:47 PM    Report this comment

I agree 100% with this. You cannot have a meaningful relationship with a dog when they are always "put in their place" or when they are forced to always be submissive to you and often every other human. It's a disgusting attitude to have. A dog can't escape their situation, it DEPENDS on you to treat it fairly.

If you do something "mean" such as try and take away a dog's bone from his possession, or rudely wake him up and push him off the couch, he has every right to show anger at you and even snap at you. Those are terrible things to do to a dog, you wouldn't do them to a human without getting into an argument with them over it and yet people think they can get away with doing those things because they're to a dog.

Similarly, you wouldn't just let a stranger come up and molest you, so why should people in the street have that ability? And then when you try to defend yourself against their advances, your own owner comes in and punishes you?

Ironically it's the ugly HUMAN desire to be number one and show their superiority that is all that is showing here. The dog just wants a bit of respect sometimes, not to be messed around. The alpha male gets the girls in the wild that's true, but they are all part of the pack and all buddies on the very same team sticking up for each other etc.. Humans and other primates however at the very ones who are OBSESSED with rank among the social group. OBSESSED with scheming and plotting and making jabs at others and showing off. It's really a cruel joke on dogs to take this willfull superiority complex out on them.

If you can't treat a dog as your complete equal you don't deserve to own a dog at all. True, you don't want a big and very dangerous breed the ability to become snappy, however if you can't manage it without punishing them into submission from a young age then don't own those breeds at all.

Posted by: SuperInfinity | August 11, 2013 1:45 PM    Report this comment

Many years ago a so called child physiologist said "don't spank the child , it will break their spirit" WELL - - look where that has led us!!!! There are a lot of different kinds of dogs and each one has it's own personality. I have trained German Shepherds, Dobermans, cocker spaniels, Silkey terriers and Jack Russels. and each of these had to be approached differently. The first Sheppard was trained without any physical contact while the second one tried to bite me every time I tried to discipline her. I HAD to take her down and force submission, After that she was almost perfect. The Doberman was a failure. Not because I couldn't train him, but because he was dumber than a board due to Father to Daughter breeding over a number of generations. He was a beautiful dog but brainless!@!!!. The cocker and the Silkies were easy while the Jack Russel was a hand full. Not because he was dumb but because he was so smart! The point is that each dog is its own problem. Personally, I think Cesar Millan is a mirical worker!!!

Posted by: Unknown | July 21, 2013 10:36 AM    Report this comment

I want to start off by saying what an awesome article this is.

Now, I want to talk about Cesers way.

If you think he does not use any harsh methods, please re-watch his episode with Shadow, the Wolfdog. He HUNG the dog off of the ground and caused asphyxiation. He scruffs dogs and shakes them He fights dogs into "Calm Submission" even if the dog is protecting themselves (Biting him) and finally gives up.

He teaches Learned Helplessness. He does not teach Calm Submissive State. The Alpha Role is very destructive to the dog as a rush of stress hormones fill the dog and they do what is called Shut Down. Do this enough times, the dog learns it's not OK to be afraid.

Remember Shadow as mention earlier? He has been taken back from the Sanctuary the owner adopted him from and has since been euthanized.

There are so many people who were a part of the show that is starting to talk out. SO many dogs from the show have had behavioral issues afterwards, or have gotten worse to the point where they were euthanized because of the methods Cesar uses. He does nothing but suppress behaviors. He doesn't even TRY to solve what is actually happening. He floods dogs (Putting them in a situation for so long, they stop reacting, another form of Learned Helplessness).

Positive Reinforcement is not Purely Positive. We do use discipline. But we use it to GUIDE the dog into what we WANT them to do, not what we don't want. We focus on the good, and redirect from the bad.

As for the couch comment, you can condition your dog to love his mat by putting a bone there, and he can only have it there. You can treat him there and he gets nothing on the couch. A VERY simple redirection that works within seconds literally.

Yelling, Stares, Standing in a position that typically makes your dog cower, swatting, is all abusive mentally and physically as it's forcing your dog to do what you want instead of what the dog wants. However, with that being said, you can get the dog to enjoy what you want and award him with the things he wants to do as a reward (if it's unsafe then obviously not)

You do NOT have to use Dominant Methods to get what you want.

Posted by: Ariel H | July 20, 2013 6:57 PM    Report this comment

I could not agree w/ elenathedevil more! Cesar's techniques have totally been misconstrued here...I've watched every single episode & can't seem to see the monster that I've seen described here & in other articles. If people claim that his techniques are so far off, I'd have to see proof that it's being done better. And to the comment about Holly the resource guarder - HELLO...Cesar is still human, & from my recollection, has never once claimed to catch every single sign from a dog. If there's a more perfect dog trainer out there who has never once made a mistake, I'd love to hear about them. Until then, I'll stick w/ what I've seen work (on TV & at home), & not some twisted version of it that's been completely taken out of context.

Posted by: jlg051490 | July 20, 2013 5:43 PM    Report this comment

I just finished my registration just so i can write my comment. The article is someones point of view and weather i agree or not its not the issue but i keep reading all the comments about dominance and submission and the horror stories to go along with the comments and i have no idea where people get violence or even punishment from being dominant with your dog. Its obvious that you are not familiar with the training or simply misunderstood the point. The idea is to provide your dog with stability and security of a "pack leader" or role model or protector that simply teaches the dog rules and boundaries. No punishment just corrections. On a personal note i have used this type of training on a hyper dog who ran the household for 6 years and my parents labeled him the devil. After two month of training he walks without the leash in heal position with no command (couldn't even take him out on a leash before) he greats guests politely, without jumping and you don't have to squeeze through the door to get the package delivered, he doesn't just dash from the front door. All it took is proper walking and lots of it ( yes with some corrections in the beginning but after a while verbal "shh" is enough) and lots of behavior modification for me not really the dog. As soon as i provided consistent exercise, rules and discipline and acted as a leader for my dog he gladly followed. And yes thank you Cesar for sharing your wisdom!The Bond that me and my dog had developed during training is unbelievable. He is my perfect companion, friend and yes my little baby. No abuse no punishment! Its easy to use corrections and get carried away but if you really listen to Milan you will see that he talks more about changing yourself and the change in your dog will follow, i cant remember him telling people to beet the submission out of their dogs, or fight for it. Must have missed that episode. But i do use positive training with lots of treats and praises to teach my dog tricks. However in my mind those are just fun and for his psychological development.

Posted by: elenathedevil | July 5, 2013 3:18 AM    Report this comment

I have been traing dogs professionally since the late 1970's and have always debunked the alpha dog, dominance theory. I first got a BA in experimaental psychology. So this is not knew\. I have always used reward training. You just caught up to me.

Posted by: vmdogs | March 30, 2013 12:37 PM    Report this comment

" for some few (like Cesar) who are really good at reading body language "

I got a laugh out of this. Cesar Millan is so good at reading body language that recently he got nailed by Holly a resource guarder. His comment I never saw that coming. Watching the video most competent trainers saw it coming ages before the dog nailed him. If his ability to read body language is so good why did he not see it coming?

Posted by: clady448@aim.com | November 2, 2012 7:38 PM    Report this comment

" for some few (like Cesar) who are really good at reading body language "

I got a laugh out of this. Cesar Millan is so good at reading body language that recently he got nailed by Holly a resource guarder. His comment I never saw that coming. Watching the video most competent trainers saw it coming ages before the dog nailed him. If his ability to read body language is so good why did he not see it coming?

Posted by: clady448@aim.com | November 2, 2012 7:37 PM    Report this comment


Posted by: JOAN H | May 5, 2012 10:23 PM    Report this comment

Hi, I work with rescued dogs and pet sit. I also practice Reiki (Spiritual Energy) used for healing. So I use my gut (intuition) to find the answers to many things with research as well. I knew in my heart that I should not dominate my dogs although I hear it over and over. I have 3 dogs & 3 cats living happily together with a host of dogs coming in and out in a small space. One is a foster dog. Thanks for this article confirming it. I do have a question about pinch or choke collars (I am totally against). I told on FB to a trainer that I am against this. Her response was I train service and police dogs. I am not a professional trainer. What are your thoughts on this? Is it ever OK to use these methods on certain kinds of training? Thanks

Posted by: Unknown | March 5, 2012 9:10 PM    Report this comment


You mean like when a mother tells a child to hush and puts her hand over their mouth? I think I was treated in just the manner you mention, though it was apparently so traumatic that I can't even remember it... To add to the sarcasm I could also mention that when I was a kid my mom once put a leash on me (no joke) after one of her friend's told her she thought it was a good idea. We went around the mall and I was VERY angry about the leash. Afterwards Mom vowed NEVER to do that again, but I'm afraid my friend was not so lucky. However, I still remember that and how horrible it was. So the moral of this story must be that... dogs shouldn't wear leashes because it's humiliating. But I digress.

I have no problem with praising an animal for doing something right - and despite the complete mischaracterization in this article, neither do the Monks of New Skete. However, I do have a problem with people - in general - who believe that no form of physical correction is ever merited. That is simply wrong at so many levels. If you think a leash pop or a shake on the scruff is terrible then I would suggest that you are either dealing with the most well behaved dogs on earth, or you are willing to tolerate behavior that is neurotic and unbecoming both of inter-dog relationships and human-dog relationships. You admit that, "There are many forms of punishment which do not require 'a small leash correction or scruff shake' to get the point across," which acknowledges that the need to punish does arise. Yet you defend someone who says "Figure out how to prevent him from being reinforced for the behaviors you don't want, and reinforce him liberally for the ones you do..." Those two statements are vastly different. The latter implies nothing but positive reinforcement; the former implies some form of positive and negative reinforcement. Preventing a reinforcement that you don't want is not a punishment any more than ignoring the fact that your child just hit another child would constitute punishment.

What I don't understand is why people believe there's a difference between commands like "sit", "stay", and "come" and ones such as "no." Just like a baby, those commands may initially mean nothing to a puppy, but give the puppy a few weeks, at most, and it will be able to easily interpret almost all of your most pertinent mood indicators (such as "no" and a shake or "good girl" and a pat). Dogs understand and learn from both types just like humans do. Frankly, I did not enjoy my spankings or time outs as a kid, but they sure were effective at teaching me. Dogs definitely aren't humans (for example, I hope you don't make a parallel between my never wearing a leash again and your dog never wearing a leash again as that would be very unsafe), but dogs sure do understand many of the same concepts that we do. So sorry, but I think this training philosophy is more an extension of the misguided ideas about child rearing coming out of psychology departments than it is about actually teaching animals to be responsible members of your family - which for me is the ultimate goal.

Posted by: aacealo | February 27, 2012 2:18 PM    Report this comment

@AAcealo - you said: Rather, as the monks of New Skete very clearly assert, the punishment should be timely and in the form of a small leash correction or scruff shake.

ME: I will make you a deal. The next time you have a choke chain around your neck, I will speak to you in French (or another language you do not understand). If you do not do ask I have requested (in French), then I hope you will allow me to attempt a "small leash correction." After that, we can talk about what is "discipline" versus abuse, how small and painful is a "small leash correction" and what defines "drastic measures." I think that experiment might be rather revealing.

@rssgnl27, @AAcealo, @KCushing, @Gidget, @GraceS, @JanGrant Nothing in the article suggests that any dog should be taught using ONLY positive reinforcement (nor is there any such thing, actually). Ms. Miller specifically states, "Figure out how to prevent him from being reinforced for the behaviors you don't want, and reinforce him liberally for the ones you do...". There are many forms of punishment which do not require "a small leash correction or scruff shake" to get the point across. Teaching what those appropriate punishments are is one hallmark of a good primarily positive reinforcement trainer. Being open minded to trying new and different ideas is what helps us all to evolve as people, and helps us learn to treat our fellow humans and other creatures with more respect and love. And with appropriate structure as well. I heartily recommend keeping your minds open to (relatively) new ideas, such as Ms. Miller's.

Leigh Sansone, JD, CPDT-KA, PMCT

Posted by: RuffCustomers | February 13, 2012 11:23 AM    Report this comment

I just wrote to Dr. Mech. He states that he "knows very little about dogs or dog training, and I have published nothing about dogs." What should be considered about dogs vs. wolves is 1) wolves live with other animals fluent in their behavior and "language" with similar agendas vs. dogs who live with people not totally cognizant of our own "domesticated behavior", largely ignorant of the behavior and "language" with different agendas, 2) Wolves are not subjected to the onslaught of fight or flight situations that dogs are in living with people I.E. being leashed, tied, fenced, in cars and in homes and forced to walk by strange people and animals without interacting or responding, 3) Wolves who won't get along can disperse vs. our dogs who are stuck with who they are put with, 4) wolves live in family groups-parents and pups vs. our dogs who don't. Melissa Berryman People Training for Good Dogs

Posted by: MelissaBerryman | January 9, 2012 12:13 PM    Report this comment

I've read all the comments and noticed that an important evidence-based result of punishment was not mentioned. PUNISGMENT IS REINFORCING FOR THE PUNISHER,AND it is addicting- and a very difficult behavior to change once well established. It has all of the addictive qualities of the most notorious narcotics...an immediate sense of being in control, of power, and relief from stress. The fact that these sensations are of a transient nature, make the use of punishment all the more addictive and more frequent. It is the "poster child" for unintended consequences--it encourages those observing it to imitate the punisher. Think of all the children who have been physically punished, or in the worse case abused, who grow up to be abusers, adults who deal with their frustrations through force and bullying. Would you really want oyur chuild to watch you physically abuse an animal? Count on them imitating you and applying it not only to pets, but also to smaller weaker children.

Posted by: Danielle T | December 22, 2011 7:04 PM    Report this comment

This is an excellent article. For those of you who don't understand what punishment means and how bad (and ineffective in the long term) it is, get the book by Murray Sidman, PhD called "Coercion And Its Fallout". It is not a dog book, it is a behavior book. But behavior is behavior is behavior. It doesn't matter much whether the punishment is from the extreme of abuse to the other end called coercion, what we need to understand is how behavior works, not to mention between 2 different species who don't speak a common language. This article is not just right on with a "pleasant" message, but it contains the most up-to-date information we have from behaviorists and dog trainers and veterinarians on how BEST to train and work with your dog.

Posted by: Tamara D | December 21, 2011 5:14 PM    Report this comment

This is as bad as not spanking your children. There is a difference between correction and abuse. That's why there are so many bad dogs because of bad owners who refuse to correct there dog. Cesar does not use punishment. Why was he included as using punishment. His methods make the most common sense and has helped more people with problems. I live with neighbors who don't correct their dogs behavior and it drives me crazy. From being kept awake at night to being jumped on and mouthed all over.

Posted by: Gidget | December 14, 2011 3:35 PM    Report this comment

I forwarded this article to a relative who has had dogs, mostly Labs, for decades. His comment:

"I read the article but was somewhat disappointed when the author lumped how Cesar Milan "corrects" bad behavior with some of the behaviorists who use violent punishment. The first Comment section had a great review where they point out the difference and emphasized the "timing" of the correction that sometimes may simply be a well timed stern look or stare. Since this article attempts to debunk the alpha dog theory without going into detail about how using only positive reinforcement it left me completely confused.

Everyone who loves their dog would live to use patience and only positive reinforcement. However, and using the example of owning a dog who lives to climb up on the couch, I don't know how you could replace the comfort of the couch by gently asking your dog to hop off and sit on his doggie mat. The doggie mat is not a better replacement as the author suggests.

You should never beat your dog, but this article has not convinced me that you could be successful in training a strong willed dog, or a child for that matter, with only positive reinforcement. Even a glutton like a Lab will lose interest in food if given enough treats as a reward. I would certainly like to evaluate the success of a dog behaviorist that uses only love and communication with a dog like my Lab."

Posted by: Grace S | December 13, 2011 3:14 PM    Report this comment

Why are Americans so extreme. I believe each dog responds differently to different methods. I used Barbara Woodhouse's book, NO BAD DOGS in 1990 to train my pup and she turned out to be like Lassie. I did nothing cruel to her and didn't have to have treats on hand for everything she did, it was enthusiastic praise for a good behavior, and a stern verbal correction for undesireable behaviors. Why not take the good from both methods, there is evidence that they both work. I had to be a bit firmer with my adult rescue, who was extremely dominant and bold and she also became a wonderful dog. However, I now have a "scaredy dog", who I know needs an "all positive" approach to training and that's what I'm doing with her. Time will tell if it was the best method, but I am quite tired of carrying treats around 24/7 and avoiding all her triggers, as opposed to confronting them and correcting, but she is so different, that's what she needs right now.

Posted by: JAN GRANT | December 5, 2011 6:30 PM    Report this comment

I think Cesar Milan is wonderful at what he does. It's people that cannot read a dogs body language that gets them in trouble. By all means, drowning a dog or shaking it by its jowels are not acceptable. Cesar does not use physically harsh signals. He's just trying to help the owner out that has let a behavior get out of control. I think he just uses words like that to help the uninformed owner, who for whatever reason cannot/will not reward good behavior, is yelling all the time, lets their dog growl at them etc.. Cesar is an exception to the rule. MOST people cannot correct a dog at the proper time or in the proper way. Most people would benefit from positive training, it works for some few (like Cesar) who are really good at reading body language and can time their corrections right.

Posted by: rssgnl27 | December 5, 2011 4:40 PM    Report this comment

The definition of 'alpha" is questionable - "to use force and intimidation to overpower your dog into submission." That sounds like the definition of 'bully". The definition of alpha is: alpha - first in order of importance; "the alpha male in the group of chimpanzees"; Nowhere does it mean to use force or intimidation. My understanding of being alpha with your dog is you are leading the way and looking out for your dog's best interests so they can follow.

Posted by: KCushing | December 3, 2011 9:31 AM    Report this comment

Thank you Pat for this great post. I am also a positive professional dog trainer. I have a little story to share with your audience as far as the whole dominance myth and how it can literalyl come back to bite us.a couple of years ago I was working with a client at a local dog park(I know but the client wanted to work with their dog at the park) I met a family with a 13yr old boy. This family bought a Pitbull female for the boy in the hopes of building confidence in the kid/ This young boy really had no friends other than this dog so the fmily thought that having a very large powerful breed might rub off on their son. As I was talking to them about this dog and their son they told me that they were huge Cesar Milan fans and the whole Alpha roll calm submissive behavior crap. They told their son that every time the dog did not respond to his commands he was to Alpha roll this poor dog on her back. While I was there he had done this at least ten times. i really talked to them about how this was not the right approach but they would not listen to reason. I gave them my card in the hopes that they would call me and get thehelp this dog and young kid needed as well as the whole family. I was really concerned for the safety of thei kid because this had been done to this dog since she was a puppy and she was now over a year old and a very poewrful 60lb dog. A couple of weeks went by and i ran into some others at the park that knew the family. I asked how they were doing. I have to say I was not surprised by what they told me but was very sad and just wanted to scream tot he world "thank you Cesar Milan for destroying another dog and family. I was told that the dog had finally had enough and literally bit half the kids face off and he was in the hospital with major injuries to his face and neck. Ofcourse they put the dog down for this. I am asking others that have posted comments that say using violence against dogs is the way to go i hope you think of this story when you use violence against your dog. This could have easily been prevented with compassionate positive training but this was not the case with this family and with many others out there that subscribe to the Dominace based theory that dogs have to be what we want them to be. Training dogs should be about choice for both humans and dogs. hen that choice is taken away and replaced with violence we will get violence right back.


Dennis Fehling CPDT(KA)

Posted by: dennis f | December 2, 2011 10:22 AM    Report this comment

@aacealo, haven't you heard "positive doesn't mean permissive"? No one is saying you should ignore growling, not even in this article. But if a member of your household says "I don't like that" do you smack that person and say "Never say that again!"? I hope not. What we tend to do is help that household member find the skills to deal with it if they have to, or make sure the situation doesn't come up.

And I've seen plenty of parents raise their children without smacks, "taps" or spankings, and the children learn limits, respect, discipline, and good behavior - mine own included.

Posted by: STACYS WAG N TRAIN | December 1, 2011 1:09 PM    Report this comment

To the people who think that spanking is appropriate to raise kids, and that correction is the way to raise dogs, allow me to share a couple of stories. First, I was stepmom to two great boys. It's inappropriate, however, to spank other people's kids. And, I am the proud owner of an incredibly well behaved therapy dog who has a CGC and a new Tricks Title from "Do More with Your Dog" She's also the official volunteer mascot of a pet/elder program at a regional non-profit agency and does many public appearances. The thing that you are missing is that it isn't physical punishment, per se, that is important in changing behavior. It's CONSEQUENCES. The reason many people resort to spanking kids, or to chastising dogs physically, is that they never learned how to correctly manipulate consequences that were more benign, yet effective. The very FIRST time your kid tantrums in the grocery store, did you leave the cart and walk out, insuring that they would NOT get the candy bar, or be able to do whatever they were upset about? If not, the child learned that there was no significant consequence, and would be more likely to try a tantrum again to get what it wanted. Same with dogs. The FIRST time your dog pulled on the leash, did you stand like a tree and not move, or did you, the way most humans do, allow your arm to leave your side (even a little bit)? If you did, the dog learned that pulling will get it closer to the thing it was headed for. The shift back toward punishment training is appalling and unnecessary. Back for a second to my dog. I have had her since she was 9 weeks old. She has never been choked, pinched, shocked, or even heard the word "No!" Yet she goes to health fairs, outdoor events, nursing homes, anywhere and everywhere, and never causes me one iota of embarrassment, in fact I'm usually complimented at how very wonderfully behaved she is. She has never failed to come when called, will always "leave it" when asked, and proves to me every day that Cesar, the Monks, Brad Pattison, Fred Hassen, and all the others who say that you need those gimmicks (tsst noises, pinning, scruffing, shock collars, prong collars, etc.) are all wet. Right on Pat Miller - you are the voice of reason!!

Posted by: ANNE S | December 1, 2011 6:10 AM    Report this comment

I still can't believe how many people believe in this dominance crap. It will be a great day when this information becomes common knowledge.

Posted by: ELIZABETH M | November 30, 2011 9:56 PM    Report this comment

I've seen plenty of parents smack their children's hands or give them a small tap on the cheek if they misbehave (mine included). As the child grows that punishment gradually shifts to spankings and finally, when the child reaches a certain age it disappears. But suggesting that those early punishments weren't part of who the child became and how they learned to respect others at an early age is ridiculous. Punishment is an integral part of raising a child. With a child, talking to them is often the preferred medium, but that is only after they learn to talk and can understand. With a dog, small (and for anybody that says otherwise that IS what we're talking about) physical corrections are a useful tool when first teaching the rules of the behavior which you expect. Additionally, suggesting a dog is incapable of being deliberately disobedient is as ridiculous as claiming that they are incapable of being deliberately obedient. That is what makes dogs so amazing - their capacity to learn! Removing a disciplinary tool smacks of the kind of softness that we learn about in college psychology classes and less of the successful reality that I see around me everyday. It's a ridiculous idea and while it can be successful, it requires a special dog. Dogs that grow up without punishment or reprimand are the same as people who grow up the same way. Sometimes it works, more often it turns into unruly children who don't know or respect any limits. Have it your way, but as for me, I'll stick to the "barberic" methods of the Monks of New Skete.

Posted by: aacealo | November 29, 2011 10:13 AM    Report this comment

Before the Dog Whisperer, there was another Dog Whisperer, perhaps the original? The Dog Whisperer: A Compassionate, Nonviolent Approach to Dog Training, Paul Owens. I once heard on a PBS program that the dominant or alpha wolf is the one that plays well, not the most violent or aggressive one. I thought this was an interesting observation and I realized my dog considers me alpha in part because I take him to all the fun places - romp with his best buddy, the beach, hikes, and, yes, even gopher hunting in the park (we've never actually caught one together and guns are not involved). In my experience, 'discipline' is necessary but the discipline need not be violent. However, it takes patience and time to get to the point where the dog understands he's been 'bad' and I'm unhappy because of his actions without resorting to physical discipline. That's the key and the problem. It's difficult to make the time.

Posted by: airedalewalker | November 28, 2011 2:05 PM    Report this comment

Can a parent take something away from his child. Yes - because a parent is bigger and stronger - until the child becomes bigger and stronger. But who in the right mind would suggest to take a three year old's dinner away to prevent that he slams the door in his father's face at age 15? Overt and physical dominance displays are signs of one's insecurity more than leadership. Nobody suggests to ignore a dog's growls, but cuffing him will not change his mind about what elicited the growl. That is the level it needs to be addressed. Why is the dog growling in the first place? Likely because he feels anxiety or ambiguity about humans - or dogs - and no slap, prong collar correction or shock collar zap will change that, but likely increases anxiety. At best, the growl will be suppressed, but the dog often direct or redirects aggression.

Inflicting pain for a mistake the dog makes is only justified if the dog deliberately makes the mistake. That, frankly, is ludicrous to believe. There are a whole number of reasons why dogs misbehave, defiance isn't one of them. I challenge every balanced trainer who believes that corrections are necessary in learning to learn a new skill. Perhaps something that is not natural for him, something he has no aptitude for, and perhaps even in a foreign language. The instructor is allowed to apply any correction she sees fit for any mistake one makes.

One more thing. Suggesting that a gentle scruff is okay is suggesting that gently shaking a baby is a good way to stop her from crying. We know what it does to a baby's brain. What would one think it is different with a puppy's.

Posted by: silvia4dogs | November 25, 2011 12:43 PM    Report this comment

The comments expressed about the Monks of New Skete were especially misleading and out of context. The ideas expressed by many animal trainers are similar to those expressed by child psychologists. Just like a child that is never disciplined typically doesn't turn out well, neither do most of the dogs I've seen who are trained without correction. Rather, as the monks of New Skete very clearly assert, the punishment should be timely and in the form of a small leash correction or scruff shake. Neither of those actions is particularly harmful, but they are certainly surprising! As far as cuffing a dog under the chin... I was a bit surprised when they said that, but consider the topic - growling at a human - and I would think we could all at least agree that such behavior cannot be ignored (as purely positive training techniques assert). The idea that you can ignore all the bad behavior and focus on only the good behavior is lopsided. What I liked so much about the books put out by the Monks of New Skete is how they balanced their approach. They are neither so vain as to believe that purely positive training methods are the only way to go, nor are they so dominance focused that they encourage you to take drastic measures every time your Dog doesn't do what you want. Saying anything else about their training method would be a gross misrepresentation! The fact that this misrepresentation is made undermines the entire premise of the rest of the article. I would like to believe the authors assertions about improper experimentation, but with the other erroneous assertions about a group of talented trainers and breeders, I cannot. Additionally, though the author asserts that the studies are inaccurate (and well they may be) for the behavior of wolves, she goes on to say that captive wolves and dogs living in captivity do form a loose hierarchy. While more fluid than the common perception, the idea that one does not exist is preposterous. The same can be said for the relationship of a parent to a child. Ultimately the parent must be the one with total authority. Yes, a child must be allowed to make decissions of their own or to have items that belong to them, but at the end of the day, mom and dad are allowed to take away those objects and to have the final say in those decissions. Without allowing for positive and negative reenforcement, you take away a valid training tool and handicap yourself. It may be possible to illicit the responses you want using only positive methods, but some of those undesirable traits will be much harder to excise from your dog's vocabulary - plain and simple.

Posted by: aacealo | November 23, 2011 6:50 AM    Report this comment

Back in 1976 I met a policeman training his German Shepherd in the park and he let me heel his dog for a bit. The dog heeled perfectly and I kept saying, "Good dog, good boy." But the policeman told me to stop praising the dog during the training. His advice sounded odd to me. Since then I have continued to praise my dogs whenever they do anything "good" - lying on the floor, chewing a bone, walking on leash past noisy dogs, etc. All my dogs have been great, closely bonded to me, and never "misbehave" at home. Today I get questionable advice from some agility handlers who follow Cesar Milan, but just like the policeman's advice, it doesn't make sense and I ignore it. Frequent praise creates incredible dogs.

Posted by: SundogsHawaii | November 22, 2011 12:57 PM    Report this comment

hear, hear! I will piggy back off of Carolyn's comments. Thank you so much for writing such a concise article that I can pass along. People definitely think I'm the crazy dog lady when I start talking about positive training.

Posted by: CARRIE BAKER | November 22, 2011 12:14 PM    Report this comment

Thank you for publishing what I have been spouting about for over a year now... No one believes me, even when I quote Dr. Mech.. .they get that sort of "oh there she goes again," glaze-over. Hopefully people will get it now!! Thanks again! Carolyn Hettich

Posted by: chettich | November 22, 2011 9:12 AM    Report this comment

Add your comments ...

New to Whole Dog Journal? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In