Dogs Aren’t Wolves: Debunking Dominance Theory

By​ ​Courtney​ ​Emken
co-written​ ​by​ ​​Bart Emken, CPDT-KA, Jen​ ​Larson,​ ​KPA-CTP, and Amanda Ott

Thanks to a certain celebrity dog “trainer,” dominance theory has risen from the dead and spread across the country. Modern trainers who use positive methods are fighting an uphill battle against the resurgence of these outdated, ineffective, and cruel aversive training methods.

To help spread awareness, we want to directly dispute dominance theory in this article. We’ll show you how the entire theory rests on the mistaken assumption that dogs will act like wolves, and why positive methods are overwhelmingly more successful. Let’s debunk dominance!

Why “Dominance” Theory Is Bad Science And Even Worse Dog Training

Dominance vs. Positive isn’t a matter of opinion- it’s actually a question of science. Animal behaviorists and dog trainers have built up years of research that disproves dominance and have demonstrated the efficacy and the ethics of positive dog training.

Dominance theory is based on wolf studies performed by Rudolph Schenkel in the 30’s and 40’s. His papers influenced animal behaviorists for years, and are directly responsible for the invention and popularization of terms like:

  • Alpha male
  • Beta male
  • Submissive female
  • Top dog

However, his studies were conducted on wolves held in captivity, not wild wolves. This means “experts” have been basing dog behavior on another species’ unnatural behavioral patterns observed outside of their home environment… sounds a bit iffy, doesn’t it?

People also have a tendency to confuse the meaning of dominance. The term doesn’t indicate who’s the big boss of the group, but rather who has access to food first. So, your dog can’t be “dominant” over you or the cat, since you don’t share a resource pool.

How The “Dominance” Perspective Pits Owner Against Dog

We still hear people say things like: “Oh my dog is so alpha,” or “he’s just dominant and she’s a submissive beta female.” None of these phrases make any sense when referring to dog behavior. Canines don’t think that way. Those terms stem from human misinterpretation and personification.

Dominance theory is not only inaccurate, but harmful to an owner’s bond with their dog. Thinking in terms of dominance creates an adversarial relationship between you and your dog, placing each of you on separate sides in a constant battle for imaginary “dominance.”

If you’re asking: how do I get my dog to know I’m the boss, you’re asking the wrong question entirely. Owners should view their relationships with dogs as teamwork and companionship. You want to cooperate together to accomplish cool things like tricks or sports, and become lifelong friends.

Positive methods allow owners to give their dog cues, gentle signals that ask your dog to work with you, in order to build obedience and impulse control. We don’t have to be our dog’s bosses. Your dog would much rather be your good friend instead.

The first step is learning to speak dog. Unfortunately, dogs aren’t quite as sharp as us, so it’s impossible for them to learn our language. Instead, we must get on their level and learn how they actually communicate with one another so that we can do the same.

If you have any questions about positive reinforcement training methods, or just want to hear us rail against “The Dog Whisperer” more, please contact us today. At DogBoy’s, we want every owner to build a strong bond with their dog; a bond founded on trust instead of “dominance.”


Image Permissions

Wolves by Arctic Wolf

Man’s Best Friend by Sasha The Okay Photographer

Snow Dogs by Jonas Lowgren

By | 2017-06-09T12:11:55+00:00 June 9th, 2017|Dog Behavior, Dog Training|0 Comments

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