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Down with Dominance

However, we don’t seem to make the mistake within our own species that we make with our dogs, confounding social status or control with teaching or conveying information. We may take away our children’s cell phones to make them spend more time studying algebra, but we don’t think that our ability to do so actually teaches them algebra. And yet, we tend to do that with our dogs all the time. Dogs are supposed to come when called, refrain from jumping up on company and walk at perfect heel just because we tell them to. Each of those actions requires learning; they are not natural to dogs and have to be taught, much the same as we had to be taught how to solve an equation like 2x – 3 = 5.

Perhaps another reason we are so susceptible to the fallacy of “getting dominance” over our dogs is that it makes dog training seem simple. One-step shopping — just get your dog to accept you as “alpha,” and voilà! Your dog will stop jumping up on visitors and will quietly walk through the neighborhood at your side, ignoring all the interesting stuff, like squirrels and information left by other dogs as they passed by.

No training required, either for your dog or, as importantly, for you. No need to learn timing and reinforcement schedules and how to know when your dog can learn and when she is too tired or distracted to understand what you are trying to teach her. In a world of instant rice and instant messaging and instant information on demand, no wonder a simple, black-and-white concept is attractive.

No matter that dominance has no relation to these issues, or that the way it is presented often equates more to bullying than to social status. Sure, it’s appealing to think that one overriding concept will take care of a host of behavioral issues. And hey, how hard could it be to talk your dog into believing that you are the alpha? You’re the one who can open the door, you’re the one who brings home the dog food and you’re the one with the opposable thumbs and the big brain. Of course, opening doors has nothing to do with sitting when the doorbell rings, but surely being “dominant” will mean that when you say “Sit!” she does. What else would she do?

Well, actually, there are many reasonable responses that a dog can make to a noise coming out of a person’s mouth, such as: have no idea what sit means because she hasn’t been taught to understand what she was supposed to do when she heard the word; or be unable, without training and practice, to control her emotions and sit down when she is overwhelmed with excitement.

Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, the concept of dominance feeds into our desire for control. Let’s face it: we all want control, at least over some things. Influencing the behavior of others is crucial to members of a social species, and is most likely one of the driving forces behind language, facial expressions of emotion and the importance that movie directors pay to the musical score. Heaven knows our desire for control is satisfied rarely enough: world leaders pay no attention to our solutions to one crisis after another — granted, we’ve only been talking to our friends about them, but then that’s my point. We are awash in events that we read about, hear about and post blogs about but have little or no control over. How satisfying then to say “Sit” and have our dogs hear us, do it and look up with a grin.

The idea that all we need is respect (cue Aretha here) and our dog will behave perfectly is understandably seductive. Too bad it’s incorrect. Far worse, it can lead, at best, to a dog who performs because he is intimidated, and at worst, to a dog who is abused. The fact is, dogs will respect us only if we are consistent, clear and fair. They will love and trust us only if we are loving and patient and are able to communicate to them in ways that they understand. That does not mean we need to “spoil” them and allow them to behave like rude and demanding house guests. However, we need to teach them how to behave in the society of another species, rather than expecting them to do what you say just because they “want to please us.” That foolish fantasy is as realistic as a Disney cartoon.

Ah, we all love a good fantasy, don’t we? However, separating fantasy from reality is an important part of being a grown-up. Let’s make it an important part of being a good guardian for our dogs.

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