There is a deep concern with the recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behavior problems. For decades, some traditional animal training has relied on dominance theory and has assumed that animals misbehave primarily because they are striving for higher rank. This idea often leads trainers to believe that force or coercion must be used to modify these undesirable behaviors.
In the last several decades, our understanding of dominance theory and of the behavior of domesticated animals and their wild counterparts has grown considerably, leading to updated views.
Here are some common misconceptions about dogs:
My dog greets me by jumping up, steals food behind my back, tries to climb into my lap to be petted, and often ignores me when I call him to come. Are these signs of dominance?
No. In animal social systems, dominance is defined as a relationship between two or more individuals that is established by force, aggression, and submission in order to gain priority access to resources (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993).
Most unruly behaviors in dogs occur not out of the desire to gain higher rank, but simply because the undesirable behaviors have been rewarded. For instance, dogs jump on people and climb into their laps because when they do so, they get attention. Similarly, dogs fail to come when called if they are being rewarded by the objects or activities that are distracting them. Even stealing food when humans are not watching is not a play for higher rank. In the wild, lower-ranking animals steal resources when higher-ranking animals are not around to guard the resources.
This is an alternate strategy for obtaining the resources they want. Those who are rewarded by success are more likely to continue stealing in this manner.
Because dogs are related to wolves, we should use wolves as a model for understanding dogs
While we can get ideas of the types of behaviors to study in dogs based on what we know about wolves, the best model for understanding domestic dogs is domestic dogs. Dogs have diverged significantly from wolves in the last 14,000 years. Ancestral wolves evolved as hunters and now generally live in packs consisting most often of family members (Mech 2000).
Pack members cooperate to hunt and to take care of offspring. In a given year, generally only the alpha male and alpha female mate, so that the resources of the entire pack can be focused on their one litter. Dogs, on the other hand, evolved as scavengers rather than hunters (Coppinger and Coppinger 2002). Those who were the least fearful, compared to their human-shy counterparts, were best able to survive off the trash and waste of humans and reproduce in this environment. Currently, free-roaming dogs live in small groups rather than cohesive packs, and in some cases spend much of their time alone (MacDonald and Carr 1995).
They do not generally cooperate to hunt or to raise their offspring, and virtually all males and females have the opportunity to mate (Boitani et al. 1995). Marked differences in social systems, such as those just described, inevitably lead to notable differences in social behavior.
I hear that if you think a dog is dominant, you should roll him on his back in an “alpha roll” and growl in his face because that’s what an alpha wolf would do.
In a pack of wolves, higher-ranking wolves do not roll lower-ranking wolves on their backs. Rather, lower-ranking wolves show their subordinate status by offering to roll on their backs. This submissive roll is a sign of deference, similar to when someone greets the queen or the pope by kneeling. Consequently, a more appropriate term for the posture would be a submissive roll (Yin 2009).
Even if wolves don’t roll subordinates on their back, it seems to work in some cases. Should I try it anyway if my dog is aggressive?
The most common cause of aggression in dogs is fear. Pinning a dog down when he is scared will not address the root of his fear. Furthermore it can heighten the aggression. In fact, a recent study of dogs (Herron et al. 2008) found that confrontational techniques such as hitting or kicking
the dog for undesirable behavior, growling at the dog, performing an “alpha roll,” staring the dog down, and enforcing a “dominance down” frequently elicited an aggressive response from the dog. The aggression may also be redirected toward inanimate objects, or other animals or people besides the owner. Even non-physical punishment, such as a harsh verbal reprimand or shaking a finger at a dog, can elicit defensive aggression if the dog feels threatened by it.
I have heard that to be the boss or leader, you have to go though doors first: walk ahead of the dog like wolves do.
In a wolf pack, the highest ranking wolves only lead the hunt a fraction of the time (Peterson et al. 2002). Furthermore, when they are hunting, they do not keep a tight linear formation based on their rank. Since the alpha goes first, should you eat before your dog? Higher ranking wolves don’t necessarily have priority access to food. Once a wolf has possession of food, he may not give it up to another wolf regardless of his rank. When food is not yet in possession of either wolf, ritualized aggression (snarling, lunging) may still occur, with the higher-ranking wolves usually winning.
Feeding dogs treats will cause them to become dominant.
Even among wild animals, sharing of food does not relate to dominance. Adult wolves frequently regurgitate food for puppies. Males of other species frequently court females by bringing food to them. Giving a dog a treat when he jumps up or barks at you can result in unruly behavior. However this does not teach him that he is higher ranked or has priority access to resources. If you would like to teach him to wait politely for a treat you can wait until he sits or lies down patiently and then give him a treat.
Will growling or trying to bite a dog or making a claw with your fingers mimic what a wolf does when he growls at or bites a subordinate?
There are no studies on this. However, as an experiment, you might ask a friend who has been bitten by a dog whether poking him with your fingers bent in claw formation has an effect that’s similar to when he was bitten, or whether your growling or biting seems similarly ferocious. In general, we shouldn’t assume that our actions mimic those of a dog or a wolf. Rather, we should evaluate each of our interactions with our pets and observe their response to determine how the pet perceived it.