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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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Submitted by RJ | September 20 2011 |

Hi Dr, McConnell (or Patricia, whichever you’d prefer),
Playing devil’s advocate here: as resource managers, aren’t we inherently “dominant” and always practicing dominance? The dog can’t let themselves outside, feed or hydrate themselves…etc as domesticated animals they need humans (more or less) and with that structure in place we are “theoretically” the dominant species. Priority access to a preferred resource, well if the human is the one making the decisions and the ones doling out the resources, we inherently have priority access to it and are the ones in charge and decision makers (dominant ones). So why is it so hard to envision why humans use dominance and integrated that concept into daily use and use dominance in explanations to clients and in everyday interactions with their dogs?
I love you columns and books,
Thank you RJ

Submitted by Patricia McConnell | September 26 2011 |

RJ: That's an excellent question and it deserves a thoughtful answer.It is indeed true that humans have priority access to some things in some contexts, but the point here is that most training (coming when called, sitting when asked, etc.) has nothing to do with competition for limited resources. That's exactly why it should not be used in most "daily interactions" because it isn't relevant to what most owners want or expect their dogs to do.

Submitted by Pam Shaw | December 29 2011 |

Dear Patricia , I totally agree with your comment regarding daily interactions of sitting when asked etc being irrelevant. I have not 'taught' my dog to sit....she already knows how to do it and I do not see the point in getting her to comply with commands all the time. When out on a walk if I want my dog to come to me I will call her and invite her to make the choice of coming to me, when she comes she is rewarded with a small treat or a hug. Dominance to me seems to be all about being a bully and not about respect. I would never get my dog to move out of the way, especially if she was sleeping, that is not about respect that is about being arrogant, almost like 'get out of my way'! I do not want to bully my dog like that I want a relationship where we have a mutual respect for each other.

Submitted by Pam Shaw | December 29 2011 |

A fantastic article I must say!

Submitted by Little Buddhas ... | December 30 2011 |

Dr. McConnell,
Thank you for writing this. I am not a dog expert like you are, but I operate my own small dog walking service. Every day I do off-leash group walks with 7-12 dogs. Needing the feeling of control is more about us than the dogs. Anyone who works with dogs will make mistakes and the simplified theories about dominance are just that, and misleading. I am blessed to live in the SF Bay Area with lots of knowledgeable people and trainers who have spent time with me and shown me a lot.

There are so many subtleties that can easily be ignored by focusing on dominating a dog instead of building a rewarding relationship based on patience, consistency, positive reinforcement, and just spending time with a dog getting to know them as one would a person. With a lot of quality time together and a but of willingness to allow the dog to lead you a little bit, you can teach your dog a lot! Just communicating simply with eye contact is very effective and rewarding.

I have a lot of responsibility keeping my dogs safe, and I love that we spend a lot of quiet alone time together without my needing to constantly annoy the dogs by barking commands and demanding obedience. I do expect it though, and when we're in an area with distractions, they feel safer just doing what I always expect when we're alone. I love them for that.

Of course, there are days, but I have to say, a dog will teach one far more poignant lessons than one will teach a dog. For those commands that keep a dog polite and safe, practice makes perfect. Spend quality unhurried time with dogs, carry great treats...enjoy. I look forward to finding your book and devouring it! Thank you!

Amad Demetrious
Little Buddhas Dog Walking

Submitted by Barb McNinch | December 30 2011 |

Great article as usual, Patricia. I think too that the reason people accept the "dominance" theory is that humans have HUGE egos and we like to be in charge of things. Oft-times we are not even able to be in charge of ourselves or our lives, so if we can lord it over a dog then hey why not? I also feel that the connotation of the word has been lost and when people hear the word dominance they also hear or think, "punishment".
I think today's PR trainers would do well to find new words and phrases to describe what you so aptly describe: " resolution of situations in which there might be competition for a resource. "
I will certainly do my best to do so with my clients in the future, describing resolutions to situations and behaviors.
Thanks again for the brilliant dialogue and opportunity to discuss rationally!

Submitted by George Schlosser | January 28 2012 |

It boils my blood when I realize there are people out there making lots of money writing writing article like this. My bet is that somehow Dr McConnell (and Cesar Milan) got ahold of the class notes I hand out to my obedience class students and tweaked the wording slightly. And to think I make peanuts compared their riches.

Our prior Dalamatian was taught who was boss, as part of her obedience training for Search and Rescue. (Don't laugh, as a team with my wife, she surprised an awful lot of people.) After she retired from SAR, we eased up some the things listed in this article, and it was funny how her hearing became more and more selective. The come command would have to be followed up with an emphatic NOW. But she could still hear the cheese being unwrapped from the far end of the house.

Submitted by Dog obidience t... | February 1 2012 |

I agree with George on this one, whole heartedly.
This is a very subjective article for someone that is supposedly so qualified in her field of research.
How many dogs have you owned, raised, or trained? How many dogs do you interact with on a daily, weekly or monthly basis? All this hype sounds like something off one of those sad delusional television shows and books that people believe in. Every behavior problem I have ever witnessed in dogs owned by normal everyday people boils down to treating them like a spoiled little human child, not a domesticated wolf that has been shaped and molded by man to do what was needed of it. Hierarchy is the basis for all social animals to get along peacefully or kill each other out of competition. Wolves and humans both live by it. Dogs need it to be happy, and they are usually quite happy for us to take the lead, less stress on them. Dogs are only different from wolves because we bred them to be more dependent, to want to learn from us and communicate from us. These are similar behaviors to all once wild now domesticated animals. A wild or even zoo-bred wolf sees no point in listening to a human.
People label dogs even based on how they respond to us and our demands of them. ‘Stupid’ dogs are labeled as such because they were bred to be more, independent and less biddable, and this then becomes why they are less ‘intelligent’, i.e. Spitz, Hounds, and many livestock guardian breeds. ‘Smart’ dogs are the ones that are easy to please, easy to train, and so ‘intelligent’ because they are highly biddable and highly dependent on human instruction or they fall apart (or destroy your house), i.e. retrievers, herding, working, and terriers.
The social interactions of wolves and dogs has been thoroughly studied, it’s easy enough to find the studies on this. Anyone with any knowledge of canine behavior can see dominance and submission in a pack of 6 week old puppies where there will be more confident and leader born pups, middle grounders, and pups who are the most passive and giving of the bunch. Good breeders match the puppies’ personality to their new families, usually with great success where there is few future problems. Most people don’t get dogs from good breeders or good rescues so that bit of help is gone. Most owners will never spend hardly an hour a year trying to train their dog or puppy, and then they can’t understand why they have so many problems. Most people understand nothing about canine body language, canine pack structure, or any other key facts to owning a domestic wolf in their house.
So it isn’t a fair argument to say that dominance or submission doesn’t exist and isn’t relevant, because it does, between dogs, their owners, and each other. To say otherwise is to insult your very degree and field of knowledge, and gives no credit to you as a so called professional in these matters. Maybe you should be doing more research into canine etiology, since you have a 'degree' people will assume to believe you. But really, stop trying to be another Cesar by giving people bad and even dangerous advice.

Submitted by Dog Obedience T... | February 7 2012 |

You might want to look at David Mech's video on "Alpha" here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNtFgdwTsbU

It is true that as a species, dogs - even as puppies - show particular behaviors on the spectrum of submissive to bold and confident within a short period of time during their interactions. There are behaviors that are termed "dominance gestures" such as T-ing over another dog's shoulders with its head or paws, "muscling up" (becoming stiff and tall with the body leaning forward) and mounting...and all of these behaviors can be seen during PLAY and during agonistic (socially conflicted) interactions or threats up to and including aggression. You can see dogs pass through all these behaviors in a matter of seconds. So, when you learn canine signaling, you realize you are observing behaviors with more than the two motivations of dominance and submission.

This is the old-school, ham-handed stuff that makes me crazy. But if you love thinking you're all that, just rock on.

Within groups of dogs in a multiple dog household, there are certainly hierarchies, but they are not linear and static. They are fluid. For example, one dog is queen of all the tennis balls. Either no one bothers that dog when she has one or certain dogs - but not other dogs - can approach or take away the tennis ball from her. And the Queen of Tennis Balls may not give a rip if another dog takes away her rawhide, but NO ONE can bother her if she's on "her" chair. See what I mean? Each dog has resources it prefers and will show other dogs how valuable those resources are to it in any number of ways. But it isn't as though we're constantly fending off nuclear war in our own homes daily and neither are packs of wolves.

It is discouraging when encountering DOG TRAINERS who still believe that dogs don't know we're not dogs, too, and that rather than wolves living in cooperation to pass on their genes and survive as a species, they are constantly fighting each other to the death.

Too much National Geographic all around.

Submitted by Anonymous | February 9 2012 |

Well that video doesn't prove to help your argument number two. As does the bashing for television watching. It's hard to see a valid argument here when you can't even properly read what the other voice had said. Number one never mentioned strict structure or anything you bashed back about. But hey, next time I see a more 'un-dominant' dog attack and maim an obviously 'non-dog' owner for taking it's chew or toy away or telling it it can't sleep on the human bed, I'll remember posts like this. But seems like there will be two sides to this spectrum and all the graying will be forgotten. Being closed minded never helps a logical argument. Sad stuff really.

Submitted by V. Mayer | August 6 2012 |

Even a dog that's at the bottom of the hierarchy, such as it is, will exhibit resource-guarding behaviour if pushed far enough. You certainly can coerce a dog into submission, but there is no guarantee it won't snap at some point.

No dog will be seen constantly reasserting its status in the pack. At any rate, resorting for a minute to the somewhat outdated terminology, "alpha" dogs would be less likely to do so than dogs ranking lower who seek to improve their standing and push the boundaries. As a result, constantly reminding your dog "who's boss" is likely not what an "alpha" dog would do, making it a tool of questionable efficiency in your hands.

Furthermore, while a great deal has been passed down from wolves to dogs, dogs are not wolves. Neither are they humans, nor do they view themselves as such (with the possible exception of those who have not been sufficiently exposed to other dogs - but in that case they would know very little of canine society and the way it works, so attempting to enforce the rules of canine society would be of very little use). We cannot pretend to fully understand the nuances of canine communication, and much as we would like we cannot replicate canine behaviour because we are not the same species. We do not rely on scent in our communication - who knows what messages our pheromones relay to our dogs, and will we ever be able to control these messages? -, we do not have tails to wag or ears to flatten or prick up, and so forth. I do believe to some extent it is possible to cross these boundaries and communicate by posture and signals like yawning, growling, snarling - and the dogs will often pick up on them -, but still we cannot behave like dogs.

Instead of attempting to force on them our concept of what life in a pack should be (especially since the science on that is constantly getting updated), we might as well accept we are members of two different species living together. Our goal should be to teach our dogs what is acceptable and what is not, in a clear way and without antagonising the dog. This can be achieved by reinforcing desired behaviour and letting undesired behaviour "fade away", or redirecting it, or - in a few cases - showing the dog that it is not desirable. If you are the source of all that's fun and grand, your dog will want to please you even if you don't make a great show of being the "dominant one" in the household.

Yes, the dominance theory worked - and works - better than letting the dog get away with everything, and in certain cases you might want to resort to techniques that sound somewhat similar to it in order to solve specific behavioural issues, but that doesn't mean there is no other - dare I say, better - way of training your dog.

Submitted by V. Mayer | August 6 2012 |

Incidentally, this only shows that she didn't find coming to you as soon as called very rewarding - entirely understandable, since recalls often interrupt activities that dogs find great fun, or at any rate highly interesting/exciting.

Your being "top dog" and enforcing this would not have necessarily made it more rewarding for her to come to you, either. Of course, I do not know your dog and have not seen her working, but it sounds like SAR work was something she was good at and enjoyed doing, so performing actions linked to it was enjoyable as well; once SAR no longer was part of her life, she might have wanted something new to focus on and enjoy, linked with her obedience work (and recall).

Submitted by Anonymous | January 30 2012 |

I love the dialog that comes with charged issues like "dominance" - it keeps us asking questions about all of our longest held perceptions. Personally I enjoy reading all sorts of authors, even the dominance theory proponents. I read the much maligned to form my own ideas instead of just listening to the opinions of others and I have learned a lot from unexpected places. But yes, there are so many great new ideas available to us now. It is a great time to be a dog lover. From Positive Reinforcement to Natural Dog Training - who knows who will have the next great thing to say? But ultimately it will be the dogs who teach us the most - which makes us very lucky indeed if we are quiet enough to listen and learn from our four-legged teachers.

Submitted by Tomi | February 9 2012 |

I don't disbelieve that dogs require some kind of Alpha or dominant figure in their lives, but I think we make this a bigger deal than it is.

Just like Patricia, I have opposable thumbs (yay me!) and a large brain. I provide the food, the cuddly dog bed that I got on sale at Costco, the water, the shelter and the love.

Without me, my Maverick would be out in the cold, hungry, thirsty and not nearly as comfortable when he goes to sleep at night. Am I not the dominant figure just by being a human?

I understand that a dog needs structure and boundaries in order to respect it's owner. That doesn't mean I need to walk around with my chest puffed out, constantly letting him know who's boss.

People, these are domesticated dogs, here. Yeah, they carry on traits they've inherited from their wolf ancestors, but we've spent years and years conditioning them to be our best friend and companion. If we have to spend all of our time reminding them who's dominant, what was the point of domesticating them?

I see Maverick as my best friend and companion. He respects me, I respect him. He knows better than to get into the trash, I know better than to be hurtful and mean to him, because it destroys his little puppy heart. He knows when I'm upset, I don't have to do cartwheels around the room. A simple "NO" suffices.

This all boils down to the fact that today everyone wants a quick fix. No one wants to put the work in to make their dog a satisfactory companion.

Today, most people won't do what my grandfather did and spend hours and hours outside teaching a dog obedience. If he was going to bring a new dog home, he was going to invest himself in it for as long as he needed to, and in turn the dog always invested itself in him. It's a lesson he taught his children, and in turn my mother taught it to me. We never had a family dog that wasn't exemplary.

Whatever happened to Man's Best Friend?

Submitted by Canis bonus | July 1 2012 |

Why or why does this keep being such a divisive issue? I do not get why people cling to this concept of dominance with such passion. Who else knows better than a person who wrote her PhD thesis on dog behaviour?

How can people continue to argue in spite of the most authoritative sources.

It baffles me.

We just all need to keep writing articles about this and hopefully, one day, the last retrograde, dominance-obsessed, trainer, will retire and make room for fact-based and humane training.

Thanks for sticking your neck out writing this.

Submitted by Bree | September 3 2012 |

Because unsuspecting, uninformed new dog owners like me keep stumbling upon the aforementioned dominance trainers. Y'all, please don't give up. It's taken me a few years but I finally see the light on my dominance supporting dog trainer and why his advice did not sit well with me. On to the positive!

Submitted by Lisa | September 4 2012 |

You "Keep going girl!" Sometimes it seems like we are hitting our heads against a wall when people argue the whole dominance thing...My friend Marge keeps reminding me of a saying (I think it came from Steve White, but am not sure so I can't really give proper credit), but it keeps me sane when working with people who want to argue the dominace issue or the whole issue of whether science based training really works - here it is:
"Some will,
Some won't
So what
Someone's waiting."

Submitted by Anja | September 5 2012 |

When we make the effort to understand our canine companions and become better 'leaders', we also get a chance to evolve as a human being!
Learning how to make our dogs WANT to follow us can make us better parents, coworkers and partners in a relationship!
Succeeding at making our dogs WANT to follow us WILL greatly improve our quality of life!
"The other end of the leash" is one of the best books I've ever read and one of the first I recommend to EVERYONE!!!
"Domination" may work in the short term and it is the method of choice for people who are insecure, uneducated and lazy.
Just like we have to work on making our dogs 'want' to follow us.... we also have to work on making American dog owners 'want' to learn how to be better and more effective leaders to their dogs.
We must remain open to learn at all times and that includes learning how to inspire our neighbors and relatives and friends.... to become better dog owners as well.

Submitted by kevin meehan | December 25 2012 |

the list of rules not to do...
Is pretty disgusting to think people still do and promote such nonsense. My heart breaks for any dog that has an owner that would treat them like that.It's that mentality that continues to be promoted and why there are sooo many dogs with isues.
It all begins with the 1940's wolf pack research and mans quest to dominate everything (he thinks he so smart)
ok the furniture can be considered but even that's a personal preferance if you ALREADY have a good dog it won't make a differance.
If we all open our eyes we will see ALL canine species are designed to cooperate (not dominate) and that's what they do 99% of their time.If dominance was the rule,there would be no dogs left on our planet.
If we can just stop all the TRAINING concepts and dominance,submissive and subordinant human conduct,the world will be a better place for millions of dogs and people alike.
Look at natural dog...do you see any of them training each other/

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