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Debunking Dominance Theory

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Explain it all away

Throughout the pet business right now, "dominance theory" is a popular explanation for absolutely anything that happens, from a puppy tugging on your trouser leg to birds flying up instead of down. Conquering "dominance" has become justification for absolutely any punishment people can think up, from shocking dogs to stuffing parrots into the toilet. (Yes, seriously.) And the awful thing is that otherwise sensible people believe this nonsense. Apparently the idea that some animal is trying to "dominate" YOU really resonates. Yikes—gotta stop that, right?

Dog lying down

You may be pleased to learn that some British scientists have blown a hole in the whole dog dominance business. Researchers in companion animal behavior in the University of Bristol veterinary department studied a group of dogs at a re-homing center, and also reanalyzed existing studies on feral dogs. Their conclusion: individual relationships between dogs are learned through experience rather than motivated by a desire to assert "dominance."

According to these specialists in companion animal behavior, training approaches aimed at "dominance reduction" vary from worthless to downright dangerous. Making dogs go through doors or eat their dinners after you, not before, will not shape the dogs' overall view of the relationship, but will only teach them what to expect in those situations. [1]

In other words, that stuff is silly, but harmless.

"Much worse, techniques such as pinning the dog to the floor, grabbing the jowls, or blasting hooters [noise makers] at dogs, will make dogs anxious, often about their owner, and potentially lead to an escalation of aggression." [2]

Consequences

Veterinarians and shelters are seeing the results of this misapplied dominance. As one veterinary behaviorist put it to me at a recent scientific meeting, "A puppy has to submit to whatever the owner does; it has no choice. Then around the age of two comes just one Alpha roll too many, and the dog defends itself at last and tries to take the owner's face off." So now the dog is in the shelter. And these dogs are fearful, unpredictable, and very hard to rehabilitate.

Teaching people the power of clicker training is the benign and much more effective alternative. I'm so glad you all are out there, showing people through your own example and your happy, cooperative, attentive clicker dogs that there is a better way.

Happy clicking,

Karen Pryor


[1] If you'd like to read the original paper:

Bradshaw, John W.S., Emily J. Blackwell, and Rachel A. Casey. "Dominance in Domestic Dogs—Useful Construct or Bad Habit?" Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research (May/June 2009), 135-14.

[2] From a nice summary of the research:

"Using 'Dominance' to Explain Dog Behavior Is Old Hat," Science Daily, May 25, 2009.

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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.