Certificate In Canine Psychology and Training

The term 'dominance' is often misunderstood when referring to why an animal behaves like it does. The Dominance Theory was originally based on studies of wolf packs as dogs were thought to have similar social hierarchies to wolves. So much so, that it was assumed that the family replaces a dogs pack and that a dog tries to gain the 'top dog' position over family members and may become aggressive to lower ranking members of the pack. There were 3 significant flaws in this early research...

1. The initial wolf studies were short term and only focused on about 1% of a wolf's life, mostly hunting. Dr David Mech, an internationally recognised expert on wolves, points out that the idea of having an 'alpha wolf' and desire to be 'top dog'  were based on observations of captive groups of unrelated wolves. These artificial social groups bear very little resemblance to a pack of wild and free wolves that are related.  The suggestion that wolves spend their days trying to better each other, and that dogs do the same with is, is just not true. 

2. Sweeping conclusions were made from this information and then generalised to dogs, ignoring 15,000 years of domestication, and then again generalised to the relationships that dogs have with humans. It was suggested by veterinarian Ian Dunbar that trying to understand dogs behaviour by studying wolves is comparable to humans trying to learn skills from primates. 

3. The researchers observed behaviours which they misinterpreted into forcible dominance displays, however we now know these to be ritualistic displays. Such as a higher ranking wolf forcibly pinning a subordinate wolf to the ground - we know that the subordinate wolf is not forced but instead is offering appeasement behaviours and is choosing this position as a method of avoiding conflict. 

This dominance theory has been over used  and complicates our relationships that we have with our dogs. Pet owners are led to believe that their dog is trying to dominate them and take over, therefore must not be allowed to get away with things. Dogs and puppies have been considered dominant when demanding attention, or pushing through doorways before their owners etc. However, we now know that they are simply performing a conditioned behaviour that gets the desired result, as they have not been taught the appropriate behaviour. The dominance theory can affect the bond that humans develop with their dogs, as they believe their puppy views them as a lower ranking pack member, which  can cause some owners to feel the need to practice dominance techniques to control their puppy, such as scruff shaking or rolling them on their backs. These techniques increase anxiety and fear for both the owner and puppy and are counter-productive in the training process.