The Dominance Theory in Dog Training

Dominance Theory in Dog Training

When people want to study cats, they look at cats, when they want to study horses, they look at horses but for some reason when people want to study dogs they look at wolves

Dr. Sophia Yin


(Sorry, I can’t recall the exact animals she used in her example).


Wolf packs are said to be divided into a hierarchy made up of alpha male and female and other family members. Certain right are afforded to these alpha dogs – mating rights and feeding rights amongst others. The males fight for this top position and the loser is chased away. However, recent studies have shown that the wolf pack is more of a family unit than a hierarchical pack.

As a family unit it comprises of parents and offspring the parents are naturally the leaders and the pups follow and as a result there is no real alpha. Once the pups become sexually mature they split from the main family to find a mate and create a new unit. There is no interfamily fighting for the top spot and as such the word alpha is no longer used when referring to wolf packs.

Traditional training techniques are based on the idea that we should be the dominant leader in the household and rule our dogs as a wolves rule their pack. Traditional trainers blame almost every bad behavior on dominance issues.

So if your dog pees on your bed, or growls when you try take his bone, if he mounts your leg or won’t let go of a toy – it’s all a dominance issue. The result of this type of thinking is that there is one set of rules (those governing how to train dominant dogs) that are used to treat all types of different problems. It also means that owners themselves have to be the alpha and constantly demonstrate strength and control over their pet. It’s as if all dog owners need to live in a constant battle of wills with their pets.

The truth is that while dogs are related to wolves, they are still an entirely different subspecies. It is believed that prehistoric dog was more of a scavenger than a hunter which would indicate that his family groups were probably not as big or as developed as that of the wolves. It is impossible to feed a large family just by scavenging so it would make more sense to keep the family unit small if it all. Furthermore dogs are opportunistic and promiscuous breeders. This implies that almost any male will be able to mate if the opportunity arises hence diminishing the need for a real alpha male.

And if all the above is not convincing just ask yourself this: have you ever seen a pack which comprises of different “creatures”? It would not make sense to say that dogs would try to dominate us as they recognize that we are different and therefore do not form part of their natural competition.

Alpha Dog - Alppha Owner

Dominance Theory In Dog Training

Anyone who has ever had a dog problem of any sort has probably come up against this “dominance” theory:

  1. Don’t let your dog win at tug of war – you need to show who is stronger
  2. Don’t let your dog on the bed – it will let the dog feel in control
  3. Don’t let the dog push past you through the door first – alpha goes out first
  4. Don’t let the dog growl at you when you’re trying to take his toys/bone – everything in the house belongs to the alpha
  5. Your dog isn’t scared of you – he isn’t submissive enough in order to train, be more forceful
  6. Your dog is peeing on your bed/door/shoes etc. he is marking his territory and trying to dominate
  7. If your dog is lying in your way, push him out of your way, don’t step over him – alpha has right of way

So how would we solve the common “dominant” problems?

  1. Tug of war is just a game, let your dog win sometimes, no one like losing all the time. Moreover it’s a great way to teach fetch and strengthen your bond with your dog.
  2. The dog can get on whatever he likes as long as it’s ok by the owner. If you don’t want your dog on the bed rather prepare a warm and comfy bed for them next to you. Feed them bones there, play with them there, teach them “to your place” and generally make it enjoyable for them to use it. They will soon prefer it to having to share a bed with their humans.
  3. My dogs are so excited that they run right out the door in the morning before I can even get my coat on. Unless you’re willing to run at their speed at six in the morning, let them be. It’s not dominance its excitement. If teaching your dog to let you go through the door first is important for you (and there are many reasons that it can be – age, small children, handicap etc.), you can teach the dog to sit and wait at the door while you go out and then call them through, or to only go through the door on cue.
  4. Does your dog growl when you’re trying to take his bone? Well, wouldn’t you get angry if someone stuck a hand in your mouth and pulled out the yummy éclair you were munching on?
    Try not to take things out of your dog’s mouth. The dog learns that every time he has something and you come past, you take it from him. So you might be successful the first few times, and then suddenly get growled/snapped/bitten once your dog realizes what you’re doing.
    Instead offer your dog something else in return for releasing whatever is in his mouth. A toy, a treat, another bone, anything. It doesn’t necessarily have to be of equal value, only something that the dog is willing to eat/play with therefore leaving whatever was in his mouth for you to take. This way your dog learns that when you come past he doesn’t have to guard his toys/bones, rather he is going to receive something exciting.
    For those dogs that pick rubbish off the streets while being walked; unless its life threatening do not forcefully open your dog’s mouth or stick your hand down the dogs throat. If you have noticed in time, and your dog is still chewing, try asking your dog to exchange it for whatever treats you have on you. If you are unsuccessful at getting your dog to spit out whatever was in his mouth, leave your dog to swallow and rather teach them (as a separate exercise) not to eat food off the floor.
  1. There can be many reasons why your dog appear to not be listening to you. Rather than shouting at them or forcing them to submit to your request, assess the situation to see what is really going on.
    Perhaps he can’t hear, he is distracted, he is hungry, tired, stressed, excited, you’re using a poisoned cue – these are just some of the reasons your dog is “ignoring you”. When this happens it’s good to focus your dog on something he knows or likes. If he is familiar with the clicker, then pull it out. Say your dog’s name – click feed – and now you have his attention once again.
    As I have previously mentioned, dogs are individuals, some get distracted and stressed by some things and others can work with you through the noise of a hurricane. If you notice that your dog cannot pay attention to you, just don’t train. Take them out of the situation or just wait it out.
  2. Peeing indoors can have many reasons, neurological, emotional, and physical. Mostly dogs like to pee on an absorbent surface (hence carpets, beds, clothes etc.) If your dog has already been house trained and has recently started peeing indoors its best to get them checked by a vet. If nothing is medically wrong and this problem persists then try to house train your dog from the beginning. Taking him out several time a day to avoid accidents. I also like to teach my dogs to go on cue: Every time I can see my dog is just about to relieve himself I say “go”.
    DON’T click, it will stop your dog mid- whatever it is he was doing and bring him to you. Rather say the cue while he is relieving himself and when he is done make a big fuss and treat and play. After a few times, your dog will learn. This if very handy especially if you’re in a hurry. If your dog for whatever reason, seems to be unable to contain himself for long period of time, supply a puppy pad or newspapers in a place where you would legitimately allow him to relieve himself. Take him there several times a day and praise when he does relieve himself there.
    However there have been cases that I am familiar with (especially with puppies) who learnt that peeing on newspapers was ok and to this day their owner can’t leave a newspaper on the floor. A VERY important point here is that you should never scold /shout at your dog for relieving himself. This will result in your doing being afraid of reliving himself around you and a number of behavioral problems can develop as a result.
  1. Don’t move your dog every time you pass him in a narrow space. Let sleeping dogs lie. Unless you want to prepare your dog for a crawling baby, then you can play the shuffling game. Shuffle with your feet gently towards you dog and a little into him. Eventually he will get up, praise your dog on moving out of the way. If you’re doing this, make sure that there is a spot in the house where he can sleep and knows that no one will disturb him there.


Common dominance problems in dog training

This isn’t to say that dominance does not exist. Dominance is defined as priority access to a limited resource. What this means is if you throw food at a pack of dogs and the same dog gets it every time that dog is probably dominant if all the other dogs competed for the food with the same intensity. Taking this definition into consideration, it is clear why dominance does not affect us as much as some trainers would like to believe. We are not in competition with our dogs for food, mating rights or territory.

All our dog wants from us is love and understanding. Let’s enjoy them rather than constantly try to “put them in their place”. Dogs make us their family, let’s do the same for them.

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