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The dog world has been split into two for a long time. Those who believe that the dog should be trained with rewards and positive reinforcement, promoting the dog to succeed against those who believe that you should be the pack leader and use dominance and force against your dog in order to properly train them.
But what does science have to say about the pack leader mentality and dominance theory in dog training?
Let us first rewind a couple hundred years back and look at how this historical split happened.
The Norwegian chickens
In the beginning of the 1900 a Norwegian psychologist and zoologist named Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe was studying a group of chickens. Through his observations of the flock of chickens he found that within the group there was a specific pecking order – a rank if you will. One hen was in the top of the order and another was at the bottom. Each hen had her place in the pecking order, and should someone try to move up in rank it would result in a fight.
Thorleif determined this as the pecking order. Each hen knew it’s place in the pecking order and would peck on the ones lower than themselves in the hierarchy. Thorleif wrote about this pecking order in his dissertation. A dissertation that would soon change the way many biologists and zoologists would view animal to animal relations and group dynamics.
Of course, this was soon also applied to the wolf. Scientists who studied captured wolf packs observed that there was a specific rank among its members in a pack. The alpha being the top wolf and the omega being the wolf lowest in the hierarchy. The alpha wolf would be the one in charge and everyone would follow his/her command.
The dominance theory was born.
This theory continued to spread and as many believe that the dog is a descendant of the wolf (it is not quite that simple…) this believe quickly spread to the dog world and many behaviours was described as dominant or submissive when studied by scientists.
Pack leader and the dominance theory
The Dominance theory also moved to clarify the relation between dogs and humans. Many dog owners and trainers started to believe that in order to have a functioning relation with their dog they needed to become the pack leader or alpha of the pack and make sure that their dog didn’t take over the home (sadly, many still believe this to be true!!!). They believe(d) that a dog’s sole purpose is to establish themselves as the leader/alpha of the family, and that if you do not keep them in check (yes, with force) they will start to take over.
Have you heard of the alpha-roll? It was believed (again, some still do this!) that when you got your little puppy home, you should grab it by the neck and press it firmly to the ground. That way the puppy would immediately know who the pack leader/alpha of the home was, and your dog would obediently follow you and do as you say for the rest of his/her life.
Questioning the pack leader
Now, if you are a smart cookie, and I am sure you are. You will already have questioned how you can move a term used to explain the relation between animals of the same species, to the relation between two different species. Already there we should back up and question this Dominance theory – Can you really apply this theory to the relation between two different species? Does the dog really want to become the pack leader?
I mean a lot of problem dog behaviours can be explained by this theory right? Does your dog pull on the leash or growl at you when you get too close to where (s)he eats then it is probably because you haven’t established a proper rank and the dog is trying to become your leader…..OR…
Debunking the Dominance theory and pack leader mentality
Here is where the Dominance theory falls apart. The newest science is consistent in today believing that the Dominance theory is not only wrong it is also highly dangerous to use. The Dominance theory can directly harm your relation to your dog and cause more behavioural problems in your dog then if you use positive rewarding training (Read more about the different training methods here). Science has also found that the whole idea about ranks among animals of the same species is soooo much more complicated than what our friend Thorleif found (I mean, his theory is more than a 100 years now).
Let us also remember that although dogs and wolves share a common ancestor, they have gone two different ways during their evolution. Dogs have gone through a domestication process where their brains have actually altered in order for them to adapt to their life with humans. Just look at their amazing way of communicating with us – they literally know how to ask for our help not to mention how remarkable they are at reading us and our body language.
Furthermore, the whole dominance theory has been debunked on wolves as well, by the scientist who first claimed it, recognising that wolf packs in the wild consists of a family with a mum, dad and their offspring, not a hierarchically order of random wolves. Meaning no one is trying to be the alpha, it is just a family dynamic.
Finally, for our last argument we need to look at street dogs. Studies have shown that feral street dogs do not form hierarchies where one is the pack leader and leads the hunt. They form small groups with no leader or apparent rank. They use their smarts to find food in the trash or use puppy eyes to get humans to feed them. Not one of the dogs are trying to be the leader or alpha of the pack, instead it is a matter of collaboration and companionship.
Now whether dogs who live in groups, like in a shelter, form a hierarchy is still debated among scientists. Some say that there are hints of a rank system while others say that the relation between individuals change depending on the situation.
Us that has a multiple dog household also see that our dogs have established a dynamic, just like we all do when living in a family. Maybe one dog likes to eat alone and the other dog respects that by keeping his/her distance when eating but will then gladly jump into a crazy tug-a-war game next second. There is no rank but a change of dynamics and communication depending on the situation, again like there normally would be when several individuals has to coexist.
The human pack leader
What science can agree on is that to move this whole hierarchy Dominance theory idea on to the relation between humans and dogs is totally bunkers (my words not theirs). Instead we should focus on what is really important, and that is how to create the best relation and collaboration with our dogs (Read more about the relation between humans and dogs here).
Using dominant training with force and physical gestures (to put it nicely) and thinking of yourself as a pack leader will only destroy your relation with your dog – Do an alpha roll, as we talked about in the beginning, and that is a sure way to lose your dog’s trust.
Physical punishment will not help either you or your dog, if anything it will only create a bad relation between the two of you and a more dangerous dog.
Remember, your dog chooses not to bite you, but that does not mean that they can’t!
Here is what a study from the university of Bristol found.
Dogs that were physically punished showed an increase in behaviours such as increased barking in general, higher aggression levels when meeting other dogs and human strangers. Furthermore, they had a higher tendency to display fear and separation anxiety. All in all, they had all the problems you don’t want your dog to have.
Now, this is not to say that you are treating your dog in a wrong way if they have one of these problems. Problem behaviours can yes stem from the use of wrong training, but it can also be due to that dogs’ personality. Some dogs are more nervous than others and some dogs simply don’t like other dogs.
Just like us humans, dogs have different personalities and it is up to us as their humans to give them support, love and care and try our very best to learn to understand them and teach them gently what we want them to do (Read more about the relation between humans and dogs here) just as you would with a child.
Your dog is not trying to take over your home. They are NOT trying to dominate you or be the pack leader. In your dog’s mind there is no such thing as rank between you, just a family!
Treat your dog with respect, care and love. Reward them when they do something you like and they will do their very best to follow and please you.