Deconstructing the dominance fallacy, or: How science must prevail

_DSC8989What if I were to tell you that a majority of current medical treatments and behavior change programs were based on chimpanzee research and behavior? Such a world would be ridiculous and disturbing, something to come out of an episode of “The Twilight Zone” rather than reality.

As bizarre as this scenario may seem when applied to humans, many dogs are subjected to this type of logic. I refer to dominance and all the training techniques that come with it: alpha rolls, collar grabs, pinch and choke collars, shock collars, and so forth. Proponents of these methods often say, “wolves do it” as proof that these methods are necessary, and expound upon the need to assert dominance over aggressive dogs.

This could be further from the truth, as a substantive base of research is consistently proving the opposite: Dogs don’t care about dominance, nor is it an appropriate model to use for behavior change in their species.

What’s unfortunate about this wide berth of misinformation is that dogs’ welfare suffers, and that well-meaning, harried dog owners are led to believe that their dogs are constantly trying to usurp their authority, and that they must resort to scare and pain tactics to establish homeostasis in the home.

If you are a proponent of force-free training, have “crossed over” to force-free methods, or are currently using force methods but are curious about other ways to train your dog, I implore you to keep reading, as I will attempt to bust some major dog training myths and provide some perspective on the dominance debacle.

What is dominance, anyways? 

Dr. Sophia Yin, a noted veterinary animal behaviorist (, provides one of the best explanations of dominance that I have come across. She writes that dominance is not a personality trait, but a relationship between two or more individuals (2009). Whereas personality consists of specific behavioral characteristics that remain constant over various contexts, dominance – changes of “rank” – change based on the animal’s group and relationship with animals within that group.

The dog training world often ascribes the word “dominance” to dogs when talking about so-called personality flaws. (One of the big ones is aggression toward owners.) This is an incorrect use of the term. Dominance evolved as a set of behaviors intended to gain priority access to various resources (food, resting spots, and mates). It has a purpose for animals in the wild, but as I will explore in this article, has little use when it applies to behavior in pet dogs.

Dominance refers to relationships, not an individual’s character traits. (And as you will see, it does not accurately reflect relationships between feral dogs or between household dogs and their humans).

Dogs aren’t wolves

Just as we shouldn’t use the same behavioral modification techniques on humans that we use on chimpanzees, we shouldn’t base dog training interventions on wolf behavior. Why? Because dog’s aren’t wolves. Dogs evolved through a process of self-domestication. The individuals that were less fearful of humans and could live in closer proximity to them had better chances of survival because they had greater access to resources. The offspring of the less fearful wolves inherited these characteristics and, over time, became a population genetically distinct from wolves. One of the consequences of this process is major social differences between dogs and wolves.

“The analogies drawn between the social behavior of dogs and that of their ancestral species, the wolf, appear to refer to a model of wolf sociality that has now been disputed for over 30 years,” write Bradshaw, Blackwell and Casey (2009). The disputed model they refer to is research about hierarchies among wolves that focused on captive, rather than wild, groups.

Wolves in the wild form a “pack” consisting of parents and several generations of offspring. While the male and female parents are for all intents and purposes “heads” of the family unit, they are not referred to as alpha because it does not accurately describe the relationship between parents and offspring. Wolves in captivity do form hierarchies, but this is because their pack consists of wolves that may or may not be related, not because of a natural tendency to live in alpha and sub-alpha based packs.

9463384206_30d5aaecc8_zDogs, unlike wolves, do not typically form tight knit associations. Van Kerkhove (2004) reviewed the research on feral dogs and found that unlike wolves, they do not form stable pack units. At best, they form loose, temporary associations. Thus, basing any type of behavior intervention on dominance, not to mention hierarchies among wolves bred in captivity, is just poor science.

“…since the traditional wolf pack competitive dominance structure has been replaced by a more cohesive framework for wolves themselves and very little support ahs been found for dogs adopting wolflike social structures between members of their own species, it now seems unlikely that interactions between domestic dogs are always, or indeed ever, driven by the aim to ‘achieve status’ within a social group” (Bradshaw, Blackwell and Casey, 2009).

Better descriptions of behavior

Instead of looking at a dog’s behavior as an attempt to usurp authority or gain rank in the household, we as a society should be determining what consequences drive behavior.

Dogs do behaviors that have been reinforced and rewarded in their environment, not because they’re concerned about asserting dominance. (And don’t forget: Dominance describes a set of behavior that evolved to elicit a consequence: priority access to resources. This has little relevance when it comes to most household dog behavior problems.)

When a dog jumps up on his human, placing his paws on the person’s shoulders, this is not a display of dominance. Instead, the dog is soliciting attention and feedback – and somewhere along the line, the dog learned that doing this behavior was effective in getting his owner’s attention. (See? Absolutely nothing to do with hierarchies!

Similarly, a dog who surfs the counter for food when his human is not looking is not being dominant. That dog simply learned that good stuff is on the counter, and has sufficiently learned that punishment only occurs when the human is present. As a trainer, I ethically cannot make behavior guarantees, but one thing I can definitely guarantee is that your dog is not thinking, “Gee, I need to assert some rank on my mom. I’ll show her by jumping up on the counter when she’s not looking.” Instead, your dog realizes that jumping on the counter leads to acquisition of food when the human is not present. (Again, behavior drives consequences. Nothing to do with hierarchies!)

And, finally, take a case of aggression. Let’s say a human “alpha” rolled her dog (a loose, unscientific term that describes pinning a dog and rolling him over on his back, in some sort of bizarre attempt to assert dominance.) And let’s say that, in the process, this dog growled and nipped at the human’s hand. This dog is not being dominant. The process of being pinned to the ground, restrained and yelled at made the dog afraid. Because the dog was afraid, she gave a warning signal (the growl), and when the human did not take heed, she nipped. If the human had avoided pinning the dog in the first place, none of this behavior would have happened. In this example, hierarchies don’t apply to the dog’s behavior, but they certainly do to that of the human!

Avoid the shrapnel

Aside from the inherent inappropriateness of ascribing dominance models to modifying dog behavior, doing so can create behavior problems in dogs and erode the human-dog relationship. In fact, confrontational methods associated with “dominance theory” have been associated with aggressive responses in many dogs, and dogs are more likely to respond aggressively in the face of forceful techniques (Herron, Schofer and Reisner, 2009).

Human relationships with their pet dogs also suffer under the dominance construct. In the wild, dominant relationships are maintained through ritualistic and aggressive displays (in fact, a aggressive-submissive relationship only exists if one party consistently displays submissive behaviors toward the aggressive individual). So if a person did try to construct a dominance hierarchy between herself and her dog, she would have to consistently use forceful techniques and aggressive displays to retain that relationship. Not only would this cause numerous behavior problems in the dog, it would require a consistently aggressive approach to the dog, something unnecessary, inhumane and decidedly unhealthy.

Fortunately, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has released a statement against the use of dominance theory, recommending the use of force-free methods instead.

Still not convinced? 

I will leave you with a bit of brilliance from Neil DeGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

– By Maureen Backman, MS

Maureen is the owner of Mutt About Town and the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior 2009. AVSAB Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of animals.

Bradshaw J.W.S., Blackwell E.J., and Casey, R.A., 2009. Dominance in domestic dogs – useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, May/June 2009, pp. 135-144.

Herron, M.E., Schofer, F.S., and Reisner, I.R., 2009. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117, pp. 47-54.

van Kerkhove, W., 2004. A fresh look at the wolf-pack theory of companion-animal dog social behavior. J. Appl. Anim. Welf. Sci. 7, 279-285.

Yin, S., 2009. Dominance vs. unruly behavior. The APDT Chronicle of the Dog, Mar/Apr 2009, pp. 13-17.

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