Debunking Dominance Theory in Dog Training


We all want our dogs to be well behaved- that’s a given.  It can be challenging, and there are methods that work well in the short-term (usually based on punishment or coercion), and methods that are better for long-term results, as well as long-term well being.  In recent years, several high profile dog trainers have graced our television screens, and have shared their ideas on how to best train your pup. They often share the idea that your pooch is trying to be “dominant,” and it is your job to remind them you are the “alpha,”  when the reality is a little more complicated than that. While it is great that these shows have sparked a larger conversation- what works on television and what works in real life can be very different. Luckily, a lot more emphasis is being placed on animal behavior and training, and scientists are researching what works best for animals for long-term successful behavioral training.

Most undesirable habits in dogs are a result of those behaviors being accidentally rewarded, and not because dogs are trying to gain a higher rank or be “dominant.”  For example, dogs jump up on people because when they do so, they get attention. Dogs out in the yard refuse to come in because the yard is more rewarding than coming inside.  Dogs that counter surf get yummy things off the counter- they’re not doing it because they want to be the “boss” of the house. Therefore, dog training needs to be focused on being proactive and setting the dog up for success.  This means being consistent and rewarding the behaviors we want the dog to continue to do, while not rewarding behaviors we want to stop.  

You may have seen people on television “alpha roll” a dog on their back to break them of being “aggressive”.  However, the most common cause of aggression in dogs is fear- and pinning down a dog, when he is scared will not get to the root of the fear (and in fact will likely heighten the fear response and make the dog more anxious, most likely towards humans).  Most dog behavior problems stem from insecurity and a desire for the dog to be safe and comfortable- not from a desire for the dog to be the “alpha” over the humans in the home. If your child was scared of something and lashing out, would you hold them down on the ground to show them who was boss?  Of course you wouldn’t! When dogs get scared and feel threatened, they may develop aggression- so training needs to work on building positive associations, not “breaking” the bad behaviors in the dog.  

Despite the fact that research on behavior has disproved the dominance theory, some animal trainers continue to base their training methods on outdated perceptions centered on the study of wolves.  This military-like concept of a dog’s social relationships is rooted in outdated wolf research, with artificial packs of captive wolves, and is a holdover from German military service dog training in the early 1900s.  Even those who conducted these studies have debunked them, yet some trainers continue to use these methods because they can get quick (but unsustainable) results.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) emphasizes that animal training, behavior prevention strategies, and behavior modification programs should follow the scientifically based guidelines of positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, desensitization, and counter conditioning, NOT dominant theories of behavior.  

When looking for a dog trainer, look for one that bases their technique on positive reinforcement.  Positive reinforcement dog trainers believe that controlling the dog’s behavior is a matter of controlling the things that a dog needs and wants (such as food and social interaction), rather than using force to try to dominate the dog.  If you, as the human, control the things that the dog wants, the dog will listen and respond to you out of self interest. Instead of dominating your dog, you establish yourself as the one with the highest status (and as the one that has all the good stuff).  Your dog agrees to listen not out of fear, but out of respect and in anticipation of the rewards you give- such as food and attention.


The Four Pillars of Positive Training:

  1. The use of positive reinforcement

  2. Avoiding the use of intimidation, physical punishment or fear

  3. A comprehension of the often misunderstood concept of dominance

  4. A commitment to understanding the canine experience from the dog's point of view

Bottom line- if you want a behavior to be repeated, reward it.  If you don’t like a behavior, ignore it or redirect the dog, and that behavior will decrease if you are consistent and patient.  Don’t use physical or mental force, intimidation, coercion, or fear, as you will end up with a dog that is fearful, aggressive, unpredictable, and dangerous to humans and other animals..

For more information or to find a trainer that uses positive training methods:

Andrea WilliamsComment