In the marketing of dog training, there's a topic that often lurks in the shadows: “DOMINANCE”. It's a subject many shy away from, perhaps due to the controversy it stirs and the crowd of opinions surrounding it. However, I believe in confronting topics head-on, especially when they are as pivotal as this.
In this blog, I'll be sharing my perspective on dominance in dog training - a perspective shaped not just by extensive research and learning from the best in the field but also by my personal experiences spanning over two decades.
While many have tried to sway my viewpoint with various arguments and evidence, my stance still remains firm. I invite you to keep an open mind, read along, and tap into my insights to understand the perspective I've cultivated over the years.
The Balance of Leadership
In the world of dog training and behaviour, few terms are as debated and misunderstood as "dominance" and "submission."
While some argue for a redefinition of these terms in the name of political correctness, it's crucial to understand their true meanings and implications in the context of canine behaviour.
• Dominance: In the context of the article, dominance refers to an individual (in this case, a dog) taking the lead or having priority access to resources within a social structure. It's a natural dynamic observed in many pack animals, including dogs.
Although, It's essential to differentiate between healthy dominance and aggressive or forceful dominance.
• Submission: This refers to behaviours that a dog displays to show respect or lower status in relation to another dog or human.
Examples include avoiding eye contact, exposing the belly, or lowering the body. It's a way for dogs to communicate with non-confrontation and peace.
• Alpha: Historically, the term "alpha" has been used to describe the leader of a pack, especially in the context of wolves. In dog training, it's been adopted to refer to the dominant individual, whether it's the dog or the human trainer/owner.
The concept of "alpha" has been debated and can be misunderstood, so it's crucial to clarify its meaning and relevance in modern dog training.
• Pack Dynamics: This term refers to the social structure and interactions within a group of dogs. It encompasses the roles each dog plays, their relationships with each other, and the behaviours they exhibit based on their status within the group.
The Traditional View of Dominance
Historically, the concept of dominance in dog training has been deeply rooted in the idea that dogs function within a rigid hierarchical system. This perspective led trainers to adopt methods that accentuated the handler's position as the "alpha" or the leader of the pack.
Such practices often involved ensuring the dog walked behind the handler, prohibiting the dog from getting on furniture, and enforcing strict behavioural guidelines.
One of the more controversial techniques that emerged from this viewpoint was the "alpha roll." In this method, the dog is forcibly rolled onto its back to make it submit. The intention behind this technique was to mimic the natural behaviours observed in wild canine packs, where a dominant wolf might roll a submissive one onto its back.
This understanding is based on outdated and often misinterpreted observations of wolf behaviour. In nature, a wolf or dog will voluntarily roll onto its back as a sign of submission to a more dominant member.
Forcing a domestic dog into this position can be traumatic for them, especially without a proper bond or understanding. The dog might perceive this aggressive action as a life-threatening situation, leading to fear, or aggression. A sudden and forceful change in behaviour from a trusted owner or trainer can deeply confuse a dog, potentially damaging the trust built over time.
While the alpha roll might seem like a quick fix to establish dominance, its potential risks far outweigh its benefits. It's always recommended to approach dog training with methods that prioritise understanding and patience.
It's essential to note that while dominance does have a place in dog training, it's not necessarily about asserting oneself as the 'alpha' or resorting to aggressive techniques.
Effective dog training is about guiding, mentoring, and building a bond with the dog. It involves clear communication, rewarding positive behaviours, and rectifying mistakes.
Dominance: Leading the Way
Dominance, in its essence, refers to an individual taking the lead or having priority access to resources within a social structure. It's a natural dynamic observed in many pack animals, including dogs.
A dominant dog might take the lead during walks, choose the best resting spot, or be the first to eat. However, dominance doesn't always equate to aggression or force. It's about leadership based on mutual respect and understanding.
During a recent private session with a client, we discussed the topic of fair leadership in dog training. Sue drew an insightful parallel between leadership in dog training and management styles in the workplace. She observed that when strict managers are present, team morale tends to dip. On the other hand, when bosses are too casual, there's a noticeable decline in care and standards from the entire team.
This analogy resonated with me, highlighting the delicate balance required in leadership, whether it's in a corporate setting or in guiding our canine companions.
Just as in a corporate environment, the approach one takes in guiding a dog can profoundly impact the relationship's success.
Drawing further similarities between workplace leadership and dog training can provide valuable insights.
Dynamics: The Boss vs. The Leader
In both the corporate world and the field of dog training, the concepts of 'boss' and 'leader' play pivotal roles. While the context differs, the underlying principles of leadership remain consistent.
Let's explore how these concepts translate to the world of dog training and why one approach might be more effective than the other.
The Boss: Authority and Control
1. Directive Approach: Much like a boss in a workplace who dictates tasks without seeking input, a dog owner might command their pet without understanding its needs or cues. This top-down approach can lead to misunderstandings and conflict.
2. Focus on Results: A boss might be solely result-driven, often overlooking the process or the well-being of their team. Similarly, a dog owner focused only on immediate obedience might miss out on building a deeper bond with their pet.
3. Fear Mongering: In the corporate world, some bosses use fear as a motivational tool, believing that employees will perform better under threat. Similarly, some trainers believe in using dominance and fear to control a dog's behaviour. This approach often leads to anxiety and a lack of trust.
4. Distance from the Team: Just as a boss might maintain a strict professional boundary, a dog owner might miss out on forming a deeper connection with their pet by keeping an emotional distance.
The Leader: Guidance and Inspiration
1. Collaborative Approach: Effective leaders in the workplace value feedback and collaboration. Similarly, a good dog trainer observes and responds to a dog's cues, fostering mutual understanding and respect.
2. Focus on Growth: Leaders prioritise the growth and well-being of their team members. In dog training, this translates to focusing on the overall behavioural growth of the dog, ensuring mental stimulation and fulfilment.
3. Inspiration-Based Motivation: Just as leaders inspire their teams with a shared vision, dog owners can motivate their pets with positive reinforcement, rewards, and consistency in training.
Leaders in the corporate world understand the importance of building genuine relationships with their team members. Similarly, forming a bond based on trust and mutual respect with a dog ensures better training outcomes and a happier pet.
The Role of the Handler: More than Just a "Boss"
While it's tempting to view the handler-dog relationship as a partnership, it's more complex than that. The handler is not just a friend but also a mentor and leader. They provide guidance, set boundaries, and ensure the dog's well-being. This leadership role is not about asserting dominance in every interaction but about guiding the dog with compassion and understanding.
In situations where the dog isn't complying, it's the handler's responsibility to step in and take control. This doesn't necessarily mean using force but rather providing clear guidance on what's expected.
Dogs, while intelligent and capable, aren't always the best decision-makers. It's up to the handler to show them the way.
• Observation and Understanding: Recognising a dog's cues and body language is crucial. It allows handlers to communicate effectively and understand their dog's needs and motivations.
• Building Trust Through The Positive: Trust is foundational in any relationship. Using rewards and positive reinforcement, handlers can build a bond based on understanding.
• Setting Clear Boundaries: While understanding a dog's needs is essential, it's equally important to set boundaries. This provides consistency and structure, helping dogs understand what's expected of them and creating respect for the handler.
• Flexibility and Adaptability: Every dog is unique. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work in dog training. Handlers must be adaptable, tailoring their methods to each dog's individual needs.
The Misunderstanding of Submission
It's perplexing when some argue against the existence of dominance while simultaneously acknowledging submission. This selective acceptance is a contradiction. If one believes in the presence of submissive behaviours, it inherently means there's an opposing dominant force causing that submission.
The Yin to Dominance's Yang
Submission, in many ways, is the counterpart to dominance. Like the ancient concept of Yin and Yang, where opposing forces are interconnected and interdependent, dominance and submission are two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other, and both play crucial roles in the intricate dance of canine social dynamics.
The Positive-Only Approach: A No-Win Situation
The positive-only approach to dog training, while well-intentioned, can sometimes misinterpret or overlook crucial canine behavioural cues. Certain techniques, if misapplied, can inadvertently push a dog into a state of passive submission. For instance:
• Spatial Pressure: Luring a sit with a treat, if done without proper understanding, can exert undue spatial pressure on a dog. This pressure, especially on a more submissive or timid dog, can push them into a passive submissive state.
• Forced Hand-Feeding: Encouraging a dog that's not very food-motivated to eat from one's hand while making them sit still can be a stressful experience. Instead of fostering trust, it can inadvertently induce a state of passive submission.
On the other hand, with a more confident and hyperactive dog, the positive-only approach can sometimes fall short. Without clear boundaries and guidance, such dogs might misinterpret the consistent positive reinforcement as an affirmation of their dominant behaviours.
Over time, this can lead to an elevated sense of dominance within the dog, potentially leading to behavioural challenges.
Recognising Submissive Behaviours
Submissive behaviours in dogs can manifest in various ways:
1. Lowering the Body or Body Parts: A classic sign of submission: A dog might lower its body parts, like ears, head, tail, etc., or the whole body and even go into a crouching position when feeling submissive.
2. Avoiding Eye Contact: Direct eye contact in the canine world can be seen as a challenge. A submissive dog will often avoid making direct eye contact as a sign of respect.
3. Exposing the Belly: This vulnerable position is a clear sign of trust and submission, showing they pose no threat.
Understanding the context of these behaviours is paramount.
Is the dog feeling threatened or overwhelmed? Is it a natural interaction with another dog, or perhaps a learned response to past experiences? Or is it a direct response to the owner's actions or training methods?
Submission, like dominance, is a natural aspect of canine behaviour. Recognising and understanding these behaviours, and the context in which they occur is essential for any dog owner or trainer. It allows for a more holistic approach to training, ensuring that the methods used are in harmony with the dog's natural instincts and emotions.
The Dynamics of Multi-Dog Households
In households with multiple dogs, the intricacies of pack structures and traits become even more pronounced.
It's fascinating to observe how these natural dynamics play out when several canines coexist under one roof. Each dog, regardless of size or breed, will often display distinct behaviours that align with their perceived role within the pack.
From subtle cues like who gets the prime sleeping spot to more overt displays such as food guarding or leading the group during walks, these behaviours are deeply rooted in their ancestral pack instincts.
It's not uncommon to see one dog naturally assume the role of the 'leader', guiding the actions of the others, while some might take on more submissive roles, following cues from their canine companions.
Understanding these dynamics is crucial for multi-dog households. Recognising each dog's natural tendencies and position within the pack can help owners ensure harmony, prevent conflicts, and foster positive relationships among their pets.
Real-Life Example of Leadership and Submission
A classic example I often encounter in my training facility is when a boisterous, dog-reactive canine comes in. This dog isn't necessarily aggressive or fearful but has never been communicated with effectively about its undesirable behaviours.
When either myself or one of our trainers takes the leash, most often there is an instant behaviour change. The dog stops reacting, follows the trainer, and complies effortlessly. This isn't because the dog has been trained in that short time but rather because of a shift in leadership.
The dog, not having any other known behaviours to exhibit in this new situation, defaults to following the new leader.
However, when handed back to the owner, the behaviours will revert, showcasing the learned behaviours between the dog and that particular individual.
Training requires time, patience, and repetition. Leadership, on the other hand, can shift in a moment. Dogs, being pack animals, always have a leader. If they sense a lack of leadership from their human, they often step up to fill that role. This isn't always ideal, as not all dogs are natural leaders. Some dogs, when pushed into a leadership role, can make poor decisions or feel uncomfortable, leading to undesirable behaviours.
The Impact of Pack Changes on Canine Behaviour
The profound influence of pack dynamics on individual canine behaviour is undeniable and nothing to ignore.
Take, for instance, a dog I once knew. Despite his lively nature, he never showed the slightest interest in chasing balls. It was as if the thrill of a bouncing ball completely eluded him. Yet, on the other hand, His pack mate was the opposite. Utterly obsessed with balls, always in high spirits to chase, retrieve, and parade around with it.
A pivotal shift occurred when his ball-chasing buddy sadly passed away. The dog, who once seemed indifferent to the ball, underwent a surprising transformation. Almost overnight, he became infatuated with the ball, chasing it with newfound enthusiasm. It was as though a dormant switch had been activated, revealing a side of him we'd never seen.
This unexpected change was both touching and thought-provoking. It raised the possibility that while his pack member was still around, this dog might have consciously or unconsciously adopted a distinct 'role' or 'personality' within their duo.
The departure of his pack leader seemed to trigger a behavioural shift, either to fill a perceived void or to unveil a facet of his character that had been previously suppressed.
Such instances highlight the profound depth of canine social structures and behaviours, even within the confines of a domestic setting. Showing the remarkable adaptability of dogs and their inherent capacity to adjust to alterations in their social setting.
This narrative is but a simple illustration of the countless scenarios one might observe. If you've ever witnessed the introduction of a new dog to a pack, the loss of a canine member, or a dog's transition to a different household, you'd know that these changes can precipitate significant shifts in a dog's temperament. After all, they are innately adaptive pack animals.
Why Does It Matter?
Understanding the true nature of dominance and submission is paramount for promoting healthy relationships between dogs and their owners. Misconceptions can lead to misguided training methods based on outdated theories. We should focus on educating dog owners about their proper context.
Pack animals, including dogs, have intricate social structures. Recognising and respecting these dynamics allows for better communication, stronger bonds, and more effective training. By understanding our dogs' behaviours, we can guide them with compassion and clarity.
The approach one adopts in dog training can significantly impact the dog's behaviour, well-being, and the overall bond between owner and pet. For most dogs, good leadership, providing resources, training, fulfilling their drives, granting freedom within clear rules and boundaries, is often enough to give them what they seek in a leader. Recognising and respecting these dynamics allows for better communication, stronger bonds, and more effective training.
For trainers committed to excellence, continuous education isn't just a recommendation — it's a necessity. By staying updated, they ensure the well-being of the dogs, the satisfaction of the owners, and the integrity of the profession.
Dominance and submission are natural aspects of canine behaviour. Rather than shying away from these terms or redefining them, let's embrace them, understand them, and use this knowledge to build stronger, more positive relationships with our canine companions.
At the heart of these behaviours is a deep-rooted understanding of pack dynamics and leadership roles. Dogs, by their very DNA, instinctively look for a pack leader who exemplifies certain attributes and meets specific responsibilities.
In our domesticated settings, when an owner or trainer falls short in fulfilling these leadership roles, it doesn't leave a leadership vacuum. Instead, the dog often feels the need to assume that role.
In the context of our human world, dogs aren't always equipped to be the best leaders. Recognising and honouring these innate canine tendencies is essential. By doing so, we not only enhance our understanding but also pave the way for a harmonious and thriving relationship with our pets.
How about you,
Have you noticed these dynamics with your four-legged little ones?
Please share your experiences and insights in the comments below, let's continue this unspoken conversation together!
Ryan King | OzcorpK9