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Dominance in dogs? What we believe now and the role of positive training.

Updated: Jul 17

When I first started learning about dog training (a while ago now) we used to train with dominance in mind: you had to be the alpha- and teach your dog you were in charge. A dog jumping up at you, or going out the gate first was the dog trying to position themselves higher in the pack.


Now we advocate against this view and I believe it is really important that owners understand where pack theory came from, what it means, and why we now think the opposite.


What Is Pack Theory?

Robert Schenkel in 1947 observed a pack of wolves in a zoo (a confided and stressful area). His work suggested that the wolves formed a pack- with an 'alpha male and female' in charge. These 'alphas' controlled all the resources in that group - like access to food and mating. He also suggested there would be competition to become the pack leader (and therefore control resources) and then a battle to maintain power.


Pack Theory And Dogs

The logic was that as dogs were genetically related to wolves- the similarity in genes would also mean similarity in behaviour. It was proposed that dogs would try to be the alpha of the pack. So, say your dog tried to go through the gate before you- its because they want to be the alpha. Your dog jumps up at you- they want to be the alpha.


This led to a lot of training becoming about punishing the dog - so correcting the dog by pulling on their lead or smacking their nose- showing them who was in charge. This was how I learnt to train dogs many years ago. With aggression towards humans, we would say the dog is trying to 'dominate you' when they bark or growl, so we punish those behaviours.


The issue With Pack Theory In Wolves

One of the main issues with pack theory in wolves is that there is no such thing as an alpha! Wolf behaviour expert and biologist Robert Mech disproved most of Schenkel's work! Indeed, there is an overwhelming amount of modern research to show that wolves in fact form family units- with a mother and father figure. You have a breeding pair of wolves, and the pack respects this. In the wild there is hardly ever conflict. It seems the alpha type behaviour only occurs when wolves are kept in artificial situations- without room to move, hunt and display natural behaviours.


The Issue With Pack Theory In Dogs

Firstly, all though distant relatives, dogs became genetically distant from wolves a very long time ago!


Secondly, if there is no such thing as an alpha in wolves, there isn't one in dogs!


So what does that mean for our dogs? It means there must be another reason for these behaviours. Take dogs jumping up at you, this occurs because we have rewarded it. As a puppy a dog jumps up at us and we squeal in delight and enjoy the cuddle. When they get older and are covered in mud we often wave our hands around and push them off. What the dog learns is; if I jump up at my human they make noise and give me attention.


Positive Reinforcement and Dog Training

You may notice a lot of trainers are moving towards positive reinforcement training (force free training, and training using rewards). All of the UK dog training accrediting bodies (IMDT, APDT, SOCS), vet bodies (RVC, RCVN), and ALL dog charities (Battersea, Dogs Trust, RSPCA etc) advocate for the use of positive reinforcement only.


This is because there have been hundreds of scientific studies showing positive reinforcement is better! Its not just kinder, but dogs learning is stronger and faster. There are also studies to show dogs trained with punishment and pack theory were more likely to show aggressive behaviour.

I like to use the example of my dog Mable. Before I got Mable, she was attacked by another dog in the park. When I took Mable out for a walk- she would bark and growl at every dog she walked past. It was clear she was terrified of other dogs- afraid they would hurt her. Imagine if I had punished that behaviour- so pulled on her collar and shouted 'no' every time she growled at another dog - what would she learn? Mable would have learnt she can't growl at other dogs, but would still be terrified of them. So the next time we meet another dog what options does she have? She can't bark and she can't growl, so biting is her only option.


The Bottom Line

Pack theory has been thoroughly debunked in wolves, yet it still continues to persist in dog training. Pack theory has been shown to be detrimental to dogs and their behaviour. Positive reward training has been shown to be kinder and more effective, and all reputable sources recommend it.


I hope that this article has shown you that pack theory in dogs is nonsense- and has no place in our training! Dogs are living, breathing animals who have emotions - they feel fear, anxiety, stress, happiness and excitement- and it is our responsibility to train them in a way that reflects that!


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Aria Barrett 2021

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