"Dominance" is Dead

"Dominance" is Dead

We used to think that wolf packs were led by an "alpha" male and female pair. Then, additional research discovered that those alpha wolves were actually just the parents of the rest of the pack---leaders of the family. But this second piece never made it into our cultural consciousness. Furthermore, dogs are far removed from wolves and we can't make conclusions about domesticated dogs from wolf behavior. But let's ignore that for a second, because wolves do have something to teach us about dominance.

 Extra points for you if you could tell that these two are playing, not fighting.

Extra points for you if you could tell that these two are playing, not fighting.

Dominance is a thing, though, even though it's quite a bit less exciting than the RAWR I'M AN ALPHA mentality. Dominance is about access to and control of resources, and it can change depending on circumstances. When you're one of my students, I am the dominant party because I get to decide on how your access to my knowledge resources is going to go down. When I visit your house, you are the dominant party because you control all the environmental resources, like snacks, what we watch on tv, and whether or not I get to use the bathroom.

Notice how there is no aggression or coercion in the dominance scenarios above? That's because animals (and people) who are truly dominant generally have no need to assert how dominant they are. Everyone already knows, since dominance is a product of all the non-dominant individuals willingly submitting. And we even see this play out in wolf packs, where the most dominant members are actually the most tolerant and slowest to become aggressive. It's the wolves in the middle of the dominance hierarchy, neither consistently dominant or consistently submissive, that tend to squabble, fight, and generally "act dominant". In other words, if you think you need to prove you're an alpha, you're probably really a beta.

 A  Betta splendens . That's a straight-up Dad joke right there.

A Betta splendens. That's a straight-up Dad joke right there.

That all being said, you do want to be the dominant animal in your household, but not in the squabbling, alpha-wannabee, jerkface way to which more old-fashioned training approaches subscribe. Assert your dominance in a much more boring way: be tolerant, caring, confident, and control access to resources. When your pooch is looking to you for help or guidance, you're the leader. Easy peasy!

There will be times when your dog disobeys. Before you scold your dog or decide he's being "dominant", turn that finger around and point it at yourself. Stop being insecure, you're still the boss. It's far more likely that:

1) your animal doesn't understand what you want

2) your animal understands what you want but the naughty thing is really great and rewarding (make a mental note to henceforth control access to the naughty thing)

3) your animal can't control himself because of an activated emotional state (fear, excitement---may be temporarily exacerbated by hunger, pain, some medications, or sleep deprivation)

4) your animal didn't hear you, or was distracted when the command was given


I've heard the "dominance" theory trotted out in all kinds of inappropriate contexts. Parrot trainers used to teach that birds sitting on perches higher up than their humans were "dominant", so they might try to bite if you reach for them. However, the simpler explanation is that parrots like being on high perches (see #2) and being on your hand isn't as fun. We know that this is likely the case because we can solve this issue by making stepping up more fun than being on the high perch with positive reinforcement, like providing access to Polly's favorite things. Suddenly, he or she is the best stepper-upper ever!

If you think that you need to bully, intimidate, force, threaten, or punish to get your pet to behave, think again. See my related articles on trauma in animals.

Why is dominance theory still so pervasive?

TLDR version: Cesar Milan.

Nearly half of my clients mention Cesar Milan at some point during their sessions. In his (and their) defence, he started training dogs in the US in 1990, and Karen Pryor's book "Don't Shoot the Dog", which revolutionized companion training came out almost a decade later in 1999. Prior to that book, everybody was doing what Cesar was doing and it was the cutting edge.

However, this is where I'd like to take Cesar aside and have a pointed conversation with him. Cesar found something that kinda works and stuck with it regardless of new research and overwhelming evidence for techniques that are longer-lasting, faster, and safer. His brand was built around drama, coercion, correction, and force and stayed that way because he's an entertainer, not a scientist. This wouldn't be a big deal except that his television shows have influenced a generation of human and dog relationships and continue to keep animal behaviorists like me in business. To his credit, his more recent show has moved away from danger and drama and more into positive reinforcement, but his brand is still fundamentally about dominance and punishment (or the euphemistic "discipline" used on his website).

I will venture to say that there are a few areas in which Cesar and I agree: 1) dogs need more exercise than most people think, 2) spending more time with your dog will help your relationship, and 3) your dog will behave better if you can have more chill. But is your dog an aspiring dictator? No. All animals want to feel safe, get information about their environment, and forge social connections that are appropriate to their species.

Trainer or Behaviorist?

Trainer or Behaviorist?

Socialize Your New Dog: An Infographic

Socialize Your New Dog: An Infographic