Dominance Deniers Are Killing Our Dogs

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Dominance Deniers are Killing Dogs

I’ve been thinking about an article about dominance for a long time. I keep seeing all this nonsense about how dominance doesn’t exist and how dogs aren’t pack animals.  I was originally going to write an article debunking the debunking—but you know, that’s not just how I think.

I’m not a fan of labels or quibbling over terminology. I don’t like obsessing over whether something falls into which operant conditioning quadrant. It all seems like a waste of time. I just work with dogs. Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of them. All sorts of breeds. Pet and working dogs. All sorts of issues and training. I have a system that works as effectively as a lot of the “old school” training methodologies without the unnecessary harshness. It works. We train dogs, we help eliminate issues, we end up with happy, fulfilled dogs. We do it day in and day out, and we do it consistently.

I want to let you in on a little secret. The idea that dominance doesn’t exist is ludicrous to anyone that has ever spent any time working with or even just observing dogs. This idea is promoted by the positive training movement, for the simple reason that they like to twist “science” to meet their warped worldview that corrections in dog training are never ever necessary.

You see, if dominance doesn’t exist, hierarchy doesn’t exist. And if hierarchy doesn’t exist—then it’s all equal footing and positive rainbows and dogs magically frolicking through fields, always obeying because they want to, and never, ever doing things like chasing and killing the family cat.

I think you see the problem.

So when I talk about dominance, I don’t want to “prove” to you that dominance exists. I would rather talk about what I see as the end result of dominance deniers. Because it’s not just a vision of canine behavior that has no basis in the real world. It’s denying the fundamental nature of the domestic dog. And make no mistake: they’re doing a lot of harm.

First, what’s dominance?

Dominance and submission are neither good nor bad; they are simply formalized methods of communication that enable dogs to get along with each other so that they can co-exist without fighting.

Think of it this way: Dominance in people isn’t much different. We are very oriented to chains of command. Businesses have bosses and employees. Organizations have leaders and followers. Even unstructured groups tend to have those who take charge and those who don’t.

Similarly, some people tend to rise to positions of authority and some don’t. Some are more assertive and some less so. This isn’t anything that we think about very much; it just is what it is. It’s basically how dogs operate too. They function like that with each other—and they function like that with us.

For the past 15,000 – 30,000 years, we have lived with dogs. We’ve bred them for specific functions, truncating and manipulating their drives for specific jobs, and we have many different breeds. But fundamentally—they are all dogs. And over the thousands of years we’ve been working together, does it not make sense that dogs are hard-wired to operate within a pack that includes humans?

I say it does. I would even argue that to a large extent, domesticated dogs have evolved to look specifically to humans to lead them. Dogs are dogs because they work cooperatively with us. They want to work with us. If they didn’t, they’d still be wolves.

The overthinking is excruciatingly.

Some people deny that dominance exists at all; others like to caveat dominance with all sorts of qualifiers. The problem is that the conversation devolves into extreme navel-gazing that doesn’t do anything to actually resolve canine behavioral issues. So let’s just go ahead and clear some things up.

Stupid statement 1: Dogs are scavengers, not pack animals. Sure, dogs can be scavengers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have hierarchies. Think about it. What happens if two feral dogs get to the same piece of food at the same time? They either fight over it, or they avoid full on fights through ritualized displays of dominance and submission.

Stupid statement 2: Dogs never try to assert dominance over humans. People will only say this if they are really bad at reading canine body language (or if they know better and are trying to be politically correct). Now, this doesn’t mean that dogs are trying to “claw” their way to the top to be alpha dog. In fact, most dogs want to follow their human. A truly dominant dog is a rare, rare animal; most people will never see one. However, it is not uncommon for a dog to want to test boundaries. That is very healthy and normal—but it can also be dominant.

Stupid statement 3: Dogs only display dominance over a resource. That’s just silly. Like people, some dogs are naturally more dominant than others—and just like people, some dogs like to assert that dominance. Dominance and submission are all fluid. It depends on the other dog, the person, and the situation. For instance, you’ll often see tails go up when two dogs meet for the first time. This isn’t good or bad. I think of it more like a gunfight, where they present themselves strongly to each other—and often, it’s just about who gets there first.

Stupid statement 4: Dominance isn’t important, only the dog’s emotional state is.  Sadly, ascribing all canine behavior to emotion is a rising trend in dog “training.” The ironic thing is that this view seems to create fearful dogs, thus validating their worldview.

The mother of all stupid statements: OH MY GOD you acknowledge dominance, so you must therefore be abusing dogs when you train them. All I can say is that anyone who honestly believes this is an idiot.

Let me also note that the reverse is also true. Much that gets chalked up to dominance often has nothing to do with it at all. People will take to heart advice such as always eating before the dog, never letting the dog go out the door first, and never let dogs up on beds or couches.

When dogs and humans eat has nothing to do with establishing pack structure. The average dog politely walking out the front door before you is generally not a problem (with some specific exceptions, usually specific guarding breeds. A lot of dogs love being up on the bed because they want to be close to their owners. There’s nothing wrong with any of this. Much depends on the dog in question too. For instance, is a dog growling when you approach the couch? Sure, that could be dominance. But it might not be. You have to look at a lot of factors, including the breed.

Why does dominance matter?

Dominance matters because dogs are pack animals. And as pack animals, they want to know their place in a hierarchy.

If you look at any good, structured pack of dogs, there is a basic hierarchy. You’ll see this in dogs that live or board together, who go to doggy daycare together, or who get walked together. You’ll even see it in feral dogs that only form loose associations with each other.

Dogs will correct each other. It’s all very proper and non-personal. The group becomes harmonious because all dogs know exactly where they stand. When you add another dog into an established pack, the hierarchy will often change. (And if you add another dog before everyone is calm, it can lead to fights.)

The fact is, dogs have a rich language they use to communicate with each other. And while there can be some exceptions—such as in the case of a fearful dog—it tends to be extremely clear, with little ambiguity.

Leadership is not a bad word.

Now consider that the average pet dog lives in a household with humans and perhaps other animals. This is their pack. If we want our dogs to be happy and healthy canine citizens, we need to provide them with the proper leadership. Contrary to popular belief, being a leader, a parent, the alpha, the master, whatever you want to call it is not a bad thing. It’s the structure a dog wants and needs. The problem with denying dominance and submission is that without it, everyone is at the same level.

Let me say that again in different words: You cannot be a leader unless you assume the authority of leader.

This is perhaps one of the biggest things I am seeing in clients today: they have been brainwashed into thinking that if they assert their authority, then they are mean, horrible, abusive people who do not believe in “modern, science-based” training.

How does it play out? Well, a lot of the time, dogs will step up to the plate and try to lead. This is NOT because they want to be dominant. It is because their OWNER is not showing dominance.

And let me be clear. I am not talking about showing dominance through “dominance training techniques” such as alpha rolling the dog or outstaring them, or whatever other nonsense is out there. I am talking about showing dominance through clear, concise communication. At its most basic level, living with and training a dog is basically saying YES, we want more of that and NO, we want less of that.

No is not abuse and correction is not the antichrist.

Correcting a dog has become politically incorrect. Depending on who you’re talking to, this can range from never even saying the word no to using a training tool like a prong collar.

This makes no sense. YES and NO is a complete feedback system that establishes boundaries, guidance, and yes, pack structure. I also want to be very clear that there are many ways to assert dominance. For instance, I have seen people who call themselves positive “force free” trainers use dominating body language that is far more intimidating than a simple prong correction. There are also positive trainers who don’t use corrections, but use Nothing in Life is Free (NILF) 24/7/365.

In my observation, the people who worry about “fallout” from correction have no idea how to do it. They’ve never done it, they don’t know how to do it, and often they rely on other tools (like head halters) to do it for them, which basically means they’re lying to themselves. And then there are the “crossover trainers” who seem to be people who never said YES before and used heavy-handed corrections and now never say NO.

The other problem is that in moving toward positive reinforcement, people have associated correction with “bad.” The result is that the lengths people will go to in order to avoid a correction are reaching epically ludicrous proportions. I completely reject the notion that a proper correction is harmful or abusive, or something to be studiously avoided in any way. Correction is just communication; often, it’s just quickly snapping a dog out of drive or out of a fixation—kind of like when you’re staring off into space and someone says, “HEY!! ARE YOU LISTENING?”

For instance, one current trend is teaching an incompatible behavior instead of correcting a behavior. The thinking goes like this: If your dog jumps, teach your dog to sit when meeting people instead. Eventually, the dog will just start sitting and not jump anymore.

I have a few problems with this line of thought. First, you’ve never actually communicated to the dog that jumping is not okay, which means that getting a dog not to jump at all is difficult and time-consuming. Second, it’s a guessing game for the dog because it’s not 100% clear what he’s not supposed to do. For one or two behaviors—not such a big deal. But if it’s within an entire system of never providing clear feedback and clear guidance, you’re not providing the leadership the dog needs. Chances are, you’re going to end up with a fearful, neurotic dog that’s on medication.

Besides, you can very easily correct that behavior without any damage at all (we do it all the time)—and then move on.

Dominance and submission are about relationship.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make is to try to understand their dogs by humanizing them—and the most common way they do it is to describe a dog by assigning it human emotions. I have no doubt that dogs feel happiness and love and fear. But dogs aren’t people. They don’t think the way we do. And they don’t feel the way we do either.

Leadership and followship is a big deal to a dog. It’s how they operate within a pack; it defines exactly who they are. Your average dog wants someone who will take charge, someone they can look to for guidance, someone they can turn to if they’re unsure. Hardcore as it may sound, respect matters. Would you work for a person you didn’t respect? Yeah—neither will a dog. And a dog isn’t going to respect you if you only say yes, yes, yes. Remember, it’s about clarity. YES and NO.

Without balance, what you end up with depends on the dog and his temperament.

You could end up with a pushy dog that is going to challenge you. Dogs challenge people regularly. It’s not a big deal, but left unchecked can become a real problem. And once again, this doesn’t mean that the dog is struggling to be THE alpha dog and take over the world. It simple means that if there’s a void, the dog is going to fill it. Plus, dogs are opportunistic; they’ll do what they can get away with.

We see this every single day. Often, a single correction can fix matters. It’s speaking their language. I can’t tell you how many dogs show up completely out of control; one quick correction, the dog is snapped out of it. Things start to fall in place. Clarity, structure, hierarchy.

Or you may end up with a dog that doesn’t care about you at all because you’re essentially saying the dog isn’t part of the pack if you’re not speaking their language. You can see examples of this with dogs that have been traditionally kept separate from their families—think shiba inus and Tibetan mastiffs.

And, of course, there’s the possibility that you will end up with a neurotic and fearful dog. This happens a lot. Honestly, the number of dogs that come to us that are on some sort of anxiety medication is shocking. Positive trainers hand them out like candy. Hell, positive trainers often have dogs that are on medication. They don’t seem to think there’s anything weird about this. We train the dog—and throw away the medication.

Dominance deniers are not in it for the dog.

The reality is that there are fads in everything; dog training is no different. A lot of these fads make everything far more complicated than it needs to be, and they don’t help the dogs that come to us day in and day out with aggression, anxiety, reactivity, window barking, fence fighting, pulling, and all the rest. The horrible thing is that people are bamboozled into thinking that they are doing the kind and humane thing for their dogs by embracing “positive” dog training.

People come to us after going through positive trainer after positive trainer. They’re told not to train through “pain, fear, and intimidation,” which, of course is just plain stupid. No good trainer trains a dog like that. They’re told to work on reactivity with counterconditioning techniques that take months to work, if they work at all. They’re told to work on impulse control by balancing treats on the dog’s paws. They’re warned to keep their dog “under threshold” at all times, even if that means never walking the dog. They’re told to put the dog in another room when guests come over. They’re told to put curtains up so the dog won’t bark at the window. The list goes on and on.

There is one thing that all these dogs and scenarios have in common; they are coming from a group of people who would rather manage, muzzle 24/7, medicate, and euthanize a dog before ever using a correction.

So if they’re the ones telling you that dominance doesn’t exist—are those people you really want to listen to? Don’t be scared to say NO.

(Please note that if you are having problems, I always recommend working with a knowledgeable trainer with a proven track record who can provide references and outline his or her philosophy before you get started. If you have any questions about anything you’ve read, please feel free to as

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