Many people still believe in dominance-based dog training. Here’s why we need to drop this mindset and replace it with a positive, reward-based approach.
“You need to show him who’s boss.” “He won’t do what you say unless you make it clear you’re the alpha.” You’ve probably heard statements like these before. They imply that dog training must involve establishing yourself as the dominant individual, even if it means using punishment, if you want to succeed. Some trainers still warn against things like letting your dog walk in front of you, go through a doorway before you do, eat before you do, or the ever classic: “If you allow your dog on the bed, you’re not being the alpha.”
How did the dominance-based theory develop and why is it now being replaced with a more positive, reward-based approach?
The roots of dominance theory
The dominance model of dog training, based on the belief that the human must be the “alpha”, has been around for a long time, and it’s not going away without a fight.
Dominance theory was first introduced to the dog training world in the 1940s. It was based on limited studies of captive wolves who displayed confrontational behaviours to become and maintain their alpha positions. Since dogs are descendants of wolves, it seemed appropriate to extend these observations to explaining the behaviours of domesticated dogs as well.
Dominance-based training really took hold in the following decades…but it began to crumble when research of wolves in the wild, conducted by scientist David Mech, produced entirely different findings. Unlike the captive wolves, wild wolf packs typically consist of related wolves, including the offspring of the breeding (alpha) pair. In studies conducted from 1986 through 1998, Mech observed not violent challenges for dominance, but wolves who peacefully deferred to the alpha pair. Their behaviour much more closely resembled that of a family than a brutal pack of status seekers. Since then, many other wolf researchers have come to the same conclusion: in the wild, wolves’ survival and ability to thrive depends on cooperation, not rivalry, among pack members.
Comparing dogs to wolves – it is valid?
This brings us to the other bone of contention between the two dog training camps — and that is whether it’s even helpful to use studies of wolves, captive or wild, as guiding principles for training our dogs. Behaving the way one believes an alpha wolf would behave in order to create a well-trained dog is the tenet of dominance-based dog training.
One of the many problems with this approach is that it completely disregards the fact that domesticated dogs have been living with humans for tens of thousands of years. Though animal lovers are often accused of anthropomorphizing their dogs, repeated behavioural studies provide evidence that dogs do in fact have emotions and attributes that have long been considered exclusively human characteristics.
No one is proclaiming that dogs are really just furry humans. But it’s time to acknowledge that our dogs are not wolves, and neither are we.
More about positive-reinforcement dog training
As the name implies, positive-reinforcement training focuses on rewarding dogs for wanted behaviours, not punishing them for unwanted behaviours. The learning theory supporting this type of training is that all animals, including us humans, repeat behaviours that are rewarded. In positive dog training circles, you’re likely to hear comparisons between reinforcing desired behaviours in dogs with how we encourage learning in young children. In fact, positive-reinforcement techniques have proven to be incredibly effective and rewarding for dogs, trainers and animal parents alike.
Rewards such as treats, toys, praise or play are used to reinforce behaviours that the trainer asks for, from a simple “sit” or “come” to teaching the dog to walk politely on a leash. When a dog doesn’t perform a behaviour as requested, there is no punishment – it simply means he doesn’t get a reward. After a while, the dog learns that doing what he is asked results in good things – while not doing them yields nothing special — so he becomes more eager and willing to follow the trainer’s requests.