You might think that after 20-plus years of moving toward a deeper and more scientific understanding of dog training and behavior in the dog-training profession, all of the alpha/dominance myths would have vanished into the sunset. Sadly, you would be wrong. Far too many trainers still promote the old-fashioned “you have to show them who’s boss” approach to training, and far too many caring but misguided dog owners still believe them. Nat Geo’s recently launched “new” Cesar Millan show is stark evidence of this.
“Dominance” is a legitimate construct in the behavior world. However, it’s not about who can forcefully pin the other to the ground, shake them by the scruff, or sit higher up on the furniture. It is simply about priority access to a mutually desired resource.
This is more often than not accomplished peacefully. For example, two dogs come upon a bone. The first dog says (with body language of course), “Gee, I’d like to have that bone!” The second dog says, “Oh, but I really want to have that bone!” The first dog backs off, and the second dog gets the bone. The second dog was dominant in that interaction. He may or may not be dominant in the next one.
While stable social groups do tend to develop some type of hierarchy, social groups work primarily because of deference, not dominance. Willingness to defer avoids conflict, and conflict in social groups is not healthy for the survival of the group – it can cause injury and death to individuals as well as damage to the social fabric.
Conflict was avoided in the above scenario because dog number one was willing to say, “Okay, you really want it, you can have it!” A dog (or other organism) who consistently uses aggression rather than healthy and appropriate communication signals is a bully who threatens the well-being of others in the social group. Dog trainers who still use and promote old-fashioned dominance-based training theory and methods are simply that: bullies.
Social groups are made up of conspecifics – members of the same species. As much as we may consider them members of our family, we aren’t conspecifics to our dogs – we are a different species entirely, which calls into even greater question the debunked idea that we have to establish ourselves as “alpha.”
GIVE UP THE POWER STRUGGLE
So what do you do when you have a dog who seems like he’s trying to rule your world? For starters, you can change your perspective.
All living things do what works. The behaviors that strike you as a potential power grab are simply his efforts to make the world work for him.
A basic good manners training program (featuring force-free methods, of course) will lay an excellent foundation for communication and understanding between you and your canine pal.
These strategies will help:
- Implement solid management strategies to prevent him from receiving reinforcement for the behaviors you don’t want (i.e., put the garbage can in a cabinet under the sink, don’t leave food on the counter, give him a bed that is equal to the sofa in comfort, etc.).
- Create structure in his daily life. Some dogs are happy to roll with anything and everything we put them through as our life companions. Fearful or defensive dogs generally do better with structure and routine. Unknowns and things that are unexpected are stressful. Being able to anticipate what is going to happen (thanks to structure and routine) decreases stress for fearful and defensive dogs. This helps them be less fearful and defensive, and eliminates – or at least decreases – their need to be aggressive.
- Make sure he gets reinforced for the behaviors you do want. Focus on the things you want him to do and reward his efforts. This will help boost his confidence in his ability to succeed – and his trust that you are a consistently kind person that he can trust.
- Whenever possible, try to find a nonconfrontational way to get your dog to do what you want him to do. If you don’t want him on your bed, and he jumps on it anyway, toss a treat or his favorite toy (have some ready by your bedside) onto his bed. Or, toss it outside the bedroom door, and then get up and shut the door behind him! As the one with the opposable thumbs and the ability to control all the good stuff, you should be able to do this.
- Be a benevolent leader. True authority doesn’t look angry or confrontational in any species. Think about your own life. Are you more likely to follow someone who kindly guides you or one who bullies you? Cooperation, not conflict.
OBSERVE “MAGICAL” TRAINERS
Have you ever taken a class with a dog training professional who uses “dog-friendly” techniques and marveled at how easily they seemed to be able to get your dog to understand and do what they wanted him to do? This is not because they are “dog whisperers” or have special “energy.” It’s because they:
- Pay close attention to the dog we are working with.
- Understand and respond appropriately to canine body language signals.
- Communicate cheerfully and clearly to them with consistent cues and body language.
- Manage them well to prevent reinforcement for behaviors we don’t want.
- Generously reinforce behaviors that we want/like.
- Consistently set the dog up to succeed.
If your dog has behaviors that concern you and the basic training and management steps don’t resolve them, seek the assistance of a qualified force-free behavior professional to help you find solutions using methods that will preserve a relationship between you and your dog that is based on mutual trust and willing cooperation.
LONG TIME TOGETHER, NO TAKEOVERS YET
Dogs and humans have had close relationships for at least 15,000 years, with current research suggesting that domestication of our canine companions may go back as far as 40,000 years. One might think that if they were bound and determined to take over, it would have happened eons ago. It really is time to stop thinking about our dogs as adversaries and just relax and enjoy life with them as our cooperative partners and companions.