Predominant Falsification in Dominance Dog Training Theories


Written by Charlotte Wagner of the Canine Paws Academy

With the fluctuating economy and increase in pet abandonment due to behavioural issues, it is not surprising to see many pet owners turn to television shows and books for guidance on training issues. Unfortunately many people who watch hit TV shows such as Cesar Milan’s “Dog Whisperer”, “Dog Borstal” or follow Jan Fennel’s Amichien Bonding are unaware of how unfounded dominance-based methods and techniques may be and what psychological ramifications they can potentially have on their pets. Unfortunately dog training and behaviour is an unregulated field where often books, television shows, and training clubs are consulted by owners, breeders, veterinarians, groomers, and amateur trainers without second thought to the validity of the information being provided to the reader.

Behaviourist James O’Heare (2003) claims that: “Dominance theory is probably the most misunderstood commonly used ethological theory in the dog behaviour field.” There are a variety of views on dominance, including those advocating dominance as a personality flaw where the dog is trying to take over the owner: “When a dog growls at the wife or kids in the family, it sees itself as a higher rank than family members.” (Frawley, 2009) and modern establishments opposing the use of dominance-oriented intimidation techniques: “Sadly, many techniques used to teach a dog that his owner is leader of the pack is counter-productive; you won’t get a better behaved dog, but you will either end up with a dog so fearful it has suppressed all its natural behaviours and will just do nothing, or one so aggressive it’s dangerous to be around.” (Science Daily, 2009) Most dominance- based methods revolve around dog and owner competing for the role of alpha or pack leader: “By exuding strong leadership, you should be implanting the idea that the job of Alpha within this pack is already taken.” (Fennel, 2006), however a recent study conducted by the University of Bristol observing a group of dogs at a Dog’s Trust centre concluded that: “The study shows that dogs are not motivated by maintaining their place in the pecking order of their pack, as many well-known dog trainers preach.” (Science Daily, 2009). Many respected establishments in the behaviour field will agree that “Dominance is not a personality trait but a description of a relationship between two or more animals and is related to which animal has access to valued resources such as food, mates, etc.” (APDT 2009) as opposed to the views of trainers who see dominance as a character flaw: “Once a dog figures out that it only has to mind under certain circumstances it is a short step for the same dog to start to think that it only has to mind when it wants to. This empowers the dog and elevates pack drive.”

Fallacies within dominance theories begin with the foundation belief that dogs are socially indistinguishable to wolves: ”One of the biggest problems in the modern history of dominance theory as it applies to domestic dogs is the direct transfer of conclusions made about wolf packs directly onto companion dogs.” (O’Heare, 2003) Most people advocating the legitimacy of dominance in behaviour and training believe that groups of dogs act similarly to wolf packs: “One of the best ways to start to learn about dominance is to study pack behaviour in wolves.” (Frawley, 2009) however many opposing views point out: “The whole dominance thing is, once again a case of leaping to a conclusion before ruling out more obvious explanations.” (Donaldson, 1996). When speaking on the evolutionary aspects of dogs and wolves Coppinger and Coppinger (2004) explain: “The canid family tree split, and wolves and dogs went along their separate branches. The wolf displays specialized adaptations to the wilderness, and the dog displays adaptations to domestic life. The two canid cousins are adapted to different niches, and they are very different because of it.” Despite the scientific evidence speaking against the correlation between dog and wolf behaviour, dominance-oriented trainers like TV star Cesar Milan (2006) still stipulate:“Though there are many differences between domesticated dogs and wolves, we can learn much about our dogs’ innate natures by observing wold packs in the wild.I lead the pack like an alpha wolf, and the dogs follow me.” but comparisons between similar species are not as transparent as dominance patrons believe: ”If we want to understand humans we might be able to learn a bit from studying chimpanzees but we can learn more by studying humans themselves. Similarly, it is dogs that we must study if we want to understand their sociability.“ (O’Heare, 2003)

The use of dominance to explain behaviour in dogs is not only deceiving in legitimacy, but can also cause psychological distress and prolonged damage to the dog: “If you think your acting- out dog is the leader and you try to emulate his behavior in controlling him what you are really doing is acting aggressively towards him. This way of thinking is not useful in trying to maintain a positive relationship or good training environment” (Dennison, 2005) Many advocates of dominance in dogs use force to achieve alpha status over their dogs by using choke chains and intimidation techniques: “There is no real pain, it just takes the air away from him and he submits.” (Frawley, 2009) however those people who implement aversives to gain dominant status such as pinning the dog to the ground to force submission and shaking them as a correction for dominant behaviour are often unaware of the consequences their actions may have:“Much worse, techniques such as pinning the dog to the floor, grabbing jowls, or blasting hooters at dogs will make dogs anxious, often about their owner, and potentially lead to an escalation of aggression.” Even simple non-aversive principles of the theory lack credibility: “Instructing owners to eat before their dog or to go through doors first will not influence the dog’s overall perception of the relationship – merely teach them what to expect in these specific situations.”

Rather than leading a dog by dominance based methods and techniques, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers recommends that: “Dogs thrive in an environment that provides them with clear structure and communication regarding appropriate behaviours, and one in which their need for mental and physical stimulation is addressed.” B. F. Skinner’s operant principles of positive reinforcement and negative punishment can easily aid in the increase of desired behaviours and the extinction of undesired traits with the use of motivation rather than intimidation and suppression through aversion. There are many associations certifying trainers and behaviourists which promote the use of learning theory and scientific methods of understanding and modifying behaviour. Many of these respected bodies require professionals to either: have a degree relevant to animal behaviour, further education in training, or extensive experience with another qualified professional before accepting applicants to become members. These association include but are not limited to the: Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants (IAABC), Association of Pet Behaviour Consultants (APBC), Certified Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) and International Positive Dog Training Association (IPDTA) to name a few.

Written by Charlotte Wagner of the Canine Paws Academy
1 January 2010


Association of Pet Dog Trainers. (2009) Dominance and Dog Training: Association of Pet Dog Trainers position statement [www document]. dominance.aspx (Accessed 7 December 2009)
Coppinger, L. and Coppinger, R. (2004) Dogs: A new understanding of canine origin, behaviour and evolution. Romford, Essex: Crosskeys Select.
Dennison, P. (2005) How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong. Loveland: Alpine.
Donaldson, J. (1996) The Culture Clash. Berkeley: James and Kenneth.
Fennel, J. (2006) The Practical Dog Listener. London: HarperCollins.
Frawey, E. (2009) Dealing with the Dominant Dog [www document] pdf/dealingwithdominantdog.pdf (Accessed 10 December 2009)
Millan, C. and Peltier, M. J. (2006) Cesarʼs Way. New York: Crown.
OʼHeare, J. (2003) Dominance Theory and Dogs. Ottawa: DogPsych.
Science Daily (2009) Using ʻDominanceʼ to Explain Dog Behaviour is Old Hat [www document] (Accessed 7 December 2009)

Oʼ Heare, J. (2007) Aggressive Behaviour in Dogs. Ottawa: Dog Psych.
Pryor, K. (1984) Donʼt Shoot the Dog. New York: Bantam.
Reid, P. (1996) Excel-Erated Learning. Berkeley: James and Kenneth.

Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors:
Association of Pet Dog Trainers (US):
Association of Pet Dog Trainers (UK):
Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers:
International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
International Positive Dog Training Association:

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