For decades, we as dog owners were taught that in order to achieve a harmonious home life with our canine companions, we must dominate our dogs, however modern theory is now turning old-school practise on its head – and here’s why...
The studies from which the old-school dominance theory were developed, were all based on Rudolph Schenkel’s 1947 studies on the behaviour of captive wolves. In 1999, L. D. Mech challenged these studies by highlighting the dramatic effects on wolf behaviour that were caused by captivity, stating that within a natural and free wolf-pack, dominance is not manifested as a pecking order, dominance contests are extremely rare, and the typical free wolf-pack functions more like a symbiotic family unit, sharing out the leadership, labour, and responsibilities to ensure survival. Whilst captive wolves make frequent challenges to their pack leader, free wolves do not.
We forget the many differences that captivity presents – manipulated by man, the captive pack consists of unacquainted wolves unnaturally brought together from different sources (think Big Brother House for wolves); they have a stable and predictable food supply, and there is little outside threat to their existence – no real risk of injury or death. In other words, all the reasons to work together and form a harmonious pack no longer exist in this artificial environment – there is no opportunity or encouragement for them to act naturally.
In stark contrast, free wolf packs have been observed to actually have a lot in common with our human family groups – a breeding pair and their cubs will co-operate together as a unit to ensure their survival, and rather than challenge the elders’ position, the young, once matured will often leave to find another lone wolf and form their own pack – something which isn’t possible in captivity. Ray Coppinger suggests that pack formation is not a genetic inevitability, but merely an efficient response to their environmental situation, stating ‘wolves live in packs primarily because adult pairs can then efficiently share with their offspring the surplus food resulting from the pair’s predation on large prey.’
Varying pack studies aside, there are now numerous studies available on free ranging and feral dogs (because we must remember that ultimately, dogs are not wolves) and most - if not all - of these studies reveal that many of these dogs in fact live independently, without ever forming social packs with dominance hierarchies. Thomas Daniels, who observed free ranging domestic dogs in New Jersey, noted that whilst the dogs were familiar with each other, they weren’t overly social or cohesive, they rarely fought, and there was no evidence of territorial behaviour – findings similar to those of Alan Beck who observed Philadelphia dogs, and Ian Dunbar who observed dogs in California. Now it could be argued that these dogs are not living in the wild, with a scarcity of food or any real threat of injury or death from serious predator so, like the captive wolves, perhaps their behaviour is affected by their environment – but then wouldn’t that support an argument against dominance theory and pack hierarchy once again? Certainly where its application to our domesticated pet dogs is concerned. After all, our pet dogs are living in a massively artificial environment with 100% security against predators, a surplus of regular and reliable food... there is no need to resort to the safety and security of pack structure when there is no real threat to their survival, if it is to be believed that packs are formed out of sensible necessity rather than as a result of genetic instinct.
We must also remember that domesticated dogs are neither wild dogs, nor are they wolves. So much human interference has taken place, with selective breeding to give us the medley of domesticated dog breeds that we have today, which has had a massive impact on dog appearance, behaviour and temperament across the breeds, that these dogs are so far from the wolves which have been studied, that there is plenty of room for myriad differences between them.
Coppinger’s research showed that even feral dogs – without restrictions on all the vital elements of survival, such as food, water, and shelter, were happy to live independently or harmoniously in small groups with a loose social structure, far from the cohesive family unit of the wolf-pack. Dogs are not wolves. Humans are not dogs. Humans and dogs co-habiting is so far from being a wolf-pack, it starts to become odd to insist that we behave like alpha wolves before our pugs, in order to ensure a successful home-life.
We do not need to assert ourselves as an ‘Alpha’ figure over our dogs, because modern studies show that neither free-roaming dogs nor free-roaming wolves actually behave in this way.
In fact attempting to dominate using punishment can have these detrimental effects:
Increase the dog’s fear or anxiety about the situation in which it is used. For example, if your dog barks every time he sees another dog, and so you hit him, yank his choke chain or give his electric collar a little zap to prevent the barking, you may end up with a dog that develops an extreme aggression problem around others of his own species. Why? Because you’ve taught him that every time a dog appears, he experiences pain! Good luck letting him off-lead at the park once he’s learnt that lesson. He may end up doing his best to keep those other dogs away – whatever that takes.
Decrease the dog’s ability to learn. Science has proven to us that the parts of a dog’s brain responsible for making associations and creating long-term memories function better when the dog is enjoying himself! If you’re doling out punishments for bad behaviour rather than rewards for good behaviour, your dog will end up miserable, and your training will be less efficient!
Inhibit behaviour – but leave the underlying emotional response unchanged, leading to bigger problems... Let’s take separation anxiety as an example. Every time you leave the house, your dog barks incessantly, and your neighbours are complaining. So you start ‘training’ him out of the behaviour by leaving the room, and promptly returning with a water bottle to spray your dog in the face every time he barks. The barking might eventually stop. But you have not dealt with your dog’s underlying anxiety about being left alone at all... if anything you’ve now given him cause to fear your return as well as your departure – so now he really has got a lot on his plate! Now that he is afraid to bark, his anxiety is likely to manifest itself in other ways, which could include house soiling, destructive chewing, and a whole host of other problem behaviours.
Damage Your Relationship. Why did you get a dog? I’m guessing because you wanted a companion, either for yourself or your family, for you to bond with and enjoy. Repeatedly doling out aversive, painful and scary punishments to your dog does nothing for his relationship with you, contrary to any old-fashioned rhetoric you may have been told about dominance and ‘alpha’ leadership.
Remember, your dog is not trying to take over the world; he’s just after a nice life... aren’t we all?!