A quick note before we get stuck in: Gumtree Greys does not accept or use dominance theory when training and working with behaviour issues, and we warn against applying it with your dog.
- Dominance theory is the idea that you have to be the alpha and correct your dog’s behaviour with punishments like alpha rolls and leash checks.
- The theory is outdated, incorrect and harmful to dogs.
- Instead, we need to understand what our dogs are communicating with their behaviour, and use positive reinforcement to teach them what we want them to do instead.
What is dominance theory?
Dominance theory is the idea that a dog is always trying to be at the top of the pecking order, and behavioural issues come from a dog asserting dominance. Whether you realise it or not, you’ve probably come across dominance theory, as it has a nasty habit of seeping into training advice. Forced eye contact, alpha rolls, scruffing, grabbing collars and leash checks are all punishments based on dominance theory, and they all have the potential to do a lot of harm.
Dominance theory shows up in other ways too. You might have heard people say that your dog should never walk in front of you, or that they should always wait for you to go through a doorway first. In reality, these are arbitrary rules with no evidence to support them. Let’s unpack how dominance theory came to be so widely accepted.
Where did dominance theory come from?
Dominance theory evolved from studies of captive wolves in the 1930s and 40s, where animal behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel suggested that wolves used aggression to establish their rank in the pack and become the alpha. Schenkel assumed these observations also applied to wild wolves, which trickled down to be accepted for domestic dogs too. This is how we ended up with ideas like ‘showing your dog who’s boss’ and ‘being the alpha’ (spoiler alert – that’s bad news).
Is dominance theory wrong?
The short answer – yes, dominance theory is wrong. It has been thoroughly debunked by behaviourists and biologists like David Mech who observed wolves in the wild. Wolf packs aren’t made up of competing individuals, living in a constant fight for leadership – they’re families made up of parents and pups. It turns out that forcing unrelated groups of wolves together in zoos causes conflict, but wolves in the wild rarely show aggression within their pack. The underlying theory of dominance in wolf behaviour is incorrect, and it doesn’t apply to dog behaviour either.
How to spot dominance theory
Unfortunately, even though the theory has been debunked, dominance-based trainers still recommend punishment or control-based methods that stem from these outdated, incorrect ideas. Red flags for dominance theory include words or phrases like:
- Top of the food chain/pecking order
- Leader of the pack
- Showing who’s boss
- Top dog
- Correcting behaviour
- Nothing in life is free
- You need to have calm, assertive energy
Can dogs be dominant?
Dominance describes a relationship, not a state of being. Dogs can be dominant over some resources but not others, like when one dog has their favourite couch that the other stays away from, but this is situational and fluid and not a state of being for the animal.
Why should we avoid dominance theory?
Training based on dominance theory uses punishment, intimidation and force to suppress unwanted behaviour. These approaches are wrong for many reasons. Let’s break it down.
Punishment increases fear and excitability, and this can push the dog further up the ladder of aggression – like from a warning growl to a bite. Punishment doesn’t teach a dog how to behave, as it doesn’t change the underlying reason that the dog is behaving that way. Punishment also doesn’t teach the dog what you do want them to do.
The reason dominance theory endures is that it appears to work. Punishing your dog for ‘bad’ behaviour like barking or growling teaches them to suppress it, so it might look like the behaviour has stopped. Here’s the thing – that didn’t fix the problem. Your dog is still anxious or stressed, but can no longer communicate those feelings in the same way, so they progress up the ladder to other forms of communication like lunging or biting.
When people say “the bite came out of nowhere,” we have to assume that the dog’s earlier warning signals were ignored, missed or punished. Dogs communicate with us in so many ways, and learning to understand their body language and signals can help us build a stronger, happier and less stressful relationship with them.
Another downside to dominance-based methods is that they damage the relationship between people and dogs. We all love our dogs and want them to feel safe and happy with us, but punishment and intimidation threatens that beautiful relationship. Punishment increases anxiety and breaks their trust in us, because our behaviour becomes scary and unpredictable. Given enough time and repetition, punishment can break a dog’s trust in people in general.
What are the alternatives to dominance theory?
Okay, we’ve covered all the reasons to avoid dominance theory – but what should we do instead?
First, remember that all behaviour serves a purpose. Successful behaviour modification relies on understanding the function of the behaviour – in other words, understanding what the dog is trying to achieve with a behaviour. This lets us meet their needs through a different behaviour, a change in environment or changing the underlying emotion. Instead of resorting to dominance-based methods, you can:
- Be proactive by learning about what your dog is trying to tell you with their behaviour, and communicating with them in a language they understand. Dogs thrive when their handlers are clear and consistent in their communication.
- Reward and reinforce the behaviour you want to see instead of the undesirable behaviour. Reinforced behaviour gets stronger!
- Listen to your dog and understand that undesirable behaviour like growling, barking or lunging is a form of communication. For example, if your dog barks or lunges at another dog in the park, your dog is saying ‘I need space, that dog is too close,’ so you need to move your dog away.
- Set your dog up for success by creating an environment where they can easily make good choices and offer the behaviours that you want.
Putting it all together
If your grey is counter surfing, it’s not because they want to be an alpha dog or they’re trying to show you who’s boss – it’s because dogs are scavengers and opportunists by nature, and there’s yummy stuff on the bench! You can train your dog to be calm around food and not steal from the bench by reinforcing the behaviour you want, like staying out of the kitchen or being on their mat while you’re cooking. You’ll strengthen your relationship with your dog by showing them what you want them to do in that situation and rewarding them when they do it. It’s a win-win for you and your dog!
Dominance theory and balanced training have no place in today’s society, as evidence-based training and behaviour modification have proven that punishment is detrimental to the animal in our care and our relationship with them.
Gumtree Greys is a dedicated, ethically funded community of volunteers dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating greyhounds. If you’re interested in fostering or adopting, or you want to ask us a question, please contact us.
Last modified: November 18, 2023