The theory of dominance and pack positions has been around for a long time but the theory has also been debunked for many many years. The theory originated in the 1930’s and 40’s by a group of scientists studying wolves in a captive environment noting how they interacted with each other, how conflict was resolved and who had priority to resources. The theory was then applied to dogs, being a relative of the wolf, by Dr David Mech in the late 1960’s which later became a popular concept with humans living with dogs.
However the dominance theory doesn’t add up. The natural wolf pack is a family, made up of a mating pair and their offspring and on occasions other family members. There is no struggle for dominance with the mating pair ‘being in charge’ (for want of a better phrase) which is very similar to how we (humans) live. They don’t fight for their rank positions and they resolve conflict without anyone getting hurt. The young tend to eat first because the future generations need to be protected but if the bitch is pregnant then she will eat first, meaning the Alpha male will eat last. They don’t allow the Alpha male to walk through a doorway first because quite simply they don’t exist in the wild and if they are on the move the elderly and the young often travel at the front so the alpha can watch from the back.
However the original theory was based on wolves in a captive state. When animals live in captivity their behaviour changes. Captive wolf packs are put together without choosing who their breeding mate will be and the pack is rarely related. Therefore there is no understanding of who has access to resources for example breeding mates, food etc.
So when you compare the two types of wolves (Wild vs Captive) you can see the flaws in the theory but then (bizarrely) scientists decided to apply the captive wolf theory to dogs. Wolves and dogs, although are distant relations, have completely different social structures and behaviours. It’s like saying we are exactly the same as Chimpanzees. Although there are many similarities there are also many differences thanks to domestication.
Remember Dr Mech popularised the theory of dominance in the late 60’s but he has since denounced the idea that us humans should be alpha towards our dogs. So when dogs are showing unwanted dog behaviour in human society it has nothing to do with fighting to be top dog!
So let’s take a look at some of the old pack leader rules and how they should NOT be applied to man’s best friend:
- You must eat before your dog – So everytime you feed your dog you must have something to eat first! This is completely impossible when training with food as the reinforcer – you’d be the size of a house and I think your doctor might have something to say about your own health! Personally my own dog eats before me because it is convenient but I have customers who feed their dogs at the same time as them or after because quite simply it’s what works for them on the day.
- You must be able to remove anything you like from your dog – Can you imagine we meet up for a coffee and you have £1000 sat in your handbag or wallet and I randomly decide to take it from you, simply because I wish for you to know I am in charge. I’m going to justify this behaviour because I give it back to you with the full amount of money inside. Are you honestly going to trust me? What do you do when I try to take it again? Do you snatch it, tell me to back off, punch me? Do you feel you can trust me or would you want to get to the bank asap to keep your money safe from the likes of me?
- Your dog must not sleep in high areas or above you – dogs simply choose comfortable places to sleep, let’s face it they are sleep machines! If you are having guarding issues with beds or the sofa then get in touch because there are much better ways to help your dog without using fear and aggression to teach them an alternative behaviour.
- You must walk through doorways before your dog – personally I prefer a dog to walk in front of me so I know where he is and I won’t trip over. I’m all for manners and not rushing through but it’s certainly not for dominance reasons! Also it must get tiring watching your dog and having to jump off the sofa to beat your dog to the doorway everytime your dog goes to get a drink or wishes to pop in the garden for the toilet during summer!
- You must make sure your dog moves if he is in your way– I believe in the saying ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ if you can step around them then why disturb them? If they are generally in the way then ask them politely to move, we humans use ‘excuse me please’ which can also be applied to dogs.
- Your dog must never invite you to play – how sad! It warms my heart when my dog asks me to play because I’ve been working on the laptop too long and should have a break. What better way than to play with the dog! Other times I invite her to play because I view her as my best friend and my team mate.
- You must always win a game – again, how very sad!! Can you imagine playing with a friend who always wins. Would you want to keep playing or would you start declining those offers? I know which one I would choose!
- You must initiate a greeting and completely ignore the dog if he is excited to see you until you are ready to greet him – the dog is normally the only happy one to see you, so why kill it? If you have your hands full or your dog is really full on jumping up at you and it’s becoming dangerous then teach an alternative behaviour to prevent an accident from happening but don’t ignore the dog!
Writing the list above completely depressed me – what a confusing life to live with these crazy rules. Living with dogs should be fun, we humans need to teach our dogs how we live and reinforce the great behaviours they offer and teach alternatives when the behaviour is unacceptable to us. In today’s world I hear people suggest whenever dogs offer normal behaviours that we humans don’t like, the dog is trying to dominate us, or the dog must understand his position in the pack, or the children are above the dog. I hate to break it to you but you are a human and your dog is just being a dog, doing normal dog behaviours. They honestly do NOT go to bed thinking about how they are going to rule the world tomorrow. Unfortunately these rules can teach you to be a bully to get your own way, but who respects a bully?
What is even sadder in today’s world, after this subject has been studied and disproved several times, even by the original chap who came up with the theory, is some dog trainers still tell their customers that you have to dominate the dog and that all their behaviours are linked to dominance, this includes certain TV dog trainers here in the UK and America. In the dog training world, theories and methods are always changing so if you are looking for help from a trainer or behaviourist and they talk about or state on their websites about dominance theories keep looking for an up to date professional who is always evolving with their learning rather than being stuck in the dark ages with a theory that has been debunked many years ago!
If you need help or advice please get in touch. I may not be in your area or country but I can point you in the right direction for up to date trainers and behaviourists so you get the best advice without being a bully towards your dog.