ForPaws Blog

The Prevalence of Dominance – Part 7, Aren’t you just being Pedantic?

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Rewarding a Good Recall Works Much Better than Punishing Bad OnesIn the first 6 (yes I do like to write!) parts of my blog I explained the reasons why I, like so many other modern dog trainers and behaviourists today, no longer feel that the dominance theory can be used to explain our dogs behaviours and I also touched on some positive methods for dealing with problem behaviours.  Hopefully these arguments have successfully explained to you why the dominance theory is so flawed, but I suspect that you still may be wanting to point out that even if the theory is wrong, the methods work!  That dogs still need to be shown ‘their place’ in the household and when they’ve done wrong.  That nice methods don’t always work – you’ve known someone who tried treating their dogs all the time and their behaviour got worse, not better.  Am I (and all the other trainers who get so riled up by dominance theory) not just being a bit fussy and naïve in promoting rewarding training methods? 

Dominance Methods Do Work (if you don’t care about the side effects)

Just a reminder, dogs are not seeking status or trying to dominate us, which means the methods do not work because they teach a dog that you are ‘pack leader’ – so why do they work at all?  The methods work because they punish your dog and if given at the correct time, the punishment reduces the frequency of a behaviour reoccurring.  However, using ‘positive punishment’ (which is giving something unpleasant to the dog, such as a kick, a shock or a leash jerk) to teach a dog not to do something is fraught with problems, primarily because dogs are associative learners.  You may think that you have taught the dog one thing, but the reality can be very different.  For example:

  • Your dog pulls on the lead to see other dogs, you give a ‘leash correction’ to punish the dog for pulling.  Whilst this may mean that the dog no longer pulls on the lead it also sadly could mean that you have created an association between the pain of a leash jerk and the appearance of another dog, making him fearful of the other dog, which could lead to on lead or even off lead aggression towards other dogs.  If this sounds too theoretical too you, I can assure you it happens all too frequently.
  • Your dog’s recall is being particularly poor one day, when he finally comes back to you, you shout at him, grab him roughly by the collar and put the lead back on, yanking him back to the car.  I’ve not seen many dogs successfully trained in recall in this manner, why?  Dogs are not particularly adept at working out that you are cross because they took so long to come back – they just learn that when they go back to you they get shouted at, jerked around and taken home, so they come back even more slowly!
  • Your dog jumps all over visitors when they arrive.  You drag him off, shouting at him and give him a smack.  Eventually the dog stops getting excited when visitors arrive and lies quietly in the corner.  Why?  The dog has learned to fear the arrival of visitors, as they mean that he gets shouted at and smacked, so he tries to avoid them if possible.  This may be fine until one of your visitors decides to force a greeting with your dog, who is so scared of the punishment that he thinks will follow, he bites your guest.

This may sound like a worst case scenario to you.  You may think it sounds too farfetched if you’ve used some of these methods on your dog and he is ‘fine’.  But you’ll be surprised how many advocates of this method constantly complain that their dog’s recall isn’t particularly great, or that they are a bit ‘nervy’.  Worst still, when you begin to really learn about canine body language, un-blinkered by dominance theory, you start to realise just how stressed and fearful so many of our dogs are.  Start looking, signals of fear can be:

  • Brief tongue flicks – where the dog very quickly licks the top or sides of his muzzle.
  • Hesitant and slow movements often with the body crouched quite low to the ground.
  • Tail hung very low or clamped to the belly.
  • Turning away from something or someone.
  • Tension and tightness in the body, perhaps even whilst the tail is wagging.
  • Moving or jerking away from something, often hands.

When you start noticing these signs you’ll soon wonder how you missed them before and see the damage that painful or uncomfortable punitive techniques does to our dogs.

Another disadvantage with the methods that advocates of the dominance theory use, is that dogs can occasionally learn to ignore the pain or discomfort if doing so enables them to get something they really want, which only leaves you with the option of increasing the level of the punishment for it to keep working.  This can lead to some awful consequences, dogs strangling themselves on choke collars, prong collars causing puncture wounds into necks, etc.  Not only will this hurt and likely injure your dog, it is quite unlikely that this type of training will make you happy, instead you will be wound up, frustrated and angry.  Who wants to feel like that with their dog?

A wise Mann* once said to me, “it’s about how you want to feel at the end of the day, do you want to feel happy after a training session or do you want to feel angry and frustrated”?  This was the moment I mentally ditched dominance theory for good - constantly using punitive training methods on your dog is a very negative thing for you and your dog, it will not leave you or your dog feeling happy.  Isn’t the purpose of having a dog to enjoy spending time with him or her?

Dogs Should Know their Place

I’m sure you’ll think I’m being pedantic if I say I feel that a dog should be taught its place in the family, rather than a dog should know its place.  But the truth is, our dogs don’t automatically know how they ‘should’ live with humans, they will only know this if they’ve been taught.  It’s a vital distinction because all too often, when we start saying that our dogs ‘should’ be doing something, we then feel justified in punishing anything they ‘shouldn’t’ be doing.  But if we haven’t taught our dogs how to behave, it is completely unfair to punish them for not doing what we want – they’re not psychic! 

Still not convinced?  Imagine starting a new job, in a new office, with a new company that you’ve never worked for before.  Everyone seems nice, but no one tells you what to do.  Every time you do something ‘wrong’ your boss rushes over and shouts at you, but still doesn’t tell you what you should be doing.  How quickly would you become frustrated?  How quickly would you start to panic when your boss rushes over?  If we want our dogs to behave in certain way (that is often contrary to what they would do naturally) then it is our duty to teach them to behave in that way, not by punishing anything other than that behaviour, but by making it rewarding for our dogs to do things our way.  The only acceptable should when it comes to training, is on us, we should teach our dogs how to behave – and remember, we’ve only finished teaching them how, when they behave in that way all the time. 

Dogs Know When They’ve Done Wrong

This is one of those statements that puts most modern dog trainers teeth on edge for three reasons: 

Firstly, dogs have no moral compass.  Right or wrong doesn’t really enter into their sweet little simple minds.  You might think this is also being a little pedantic, but is it?  Imagine this, you drop the super expensive beef fillet you bought for a special occasion on the floor, faster than you can screech ‘FIDO NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO’, your dog has swallowed it with barely an appreciative chew.  I’d be fuming, not least because I’ve just spent £25 on Fido’s dinner and he’s not even said thanks (and I LOVE beef fillet)!  I may even utter a ‘bad boy’ before I catch myself – Fido has just acted on instinct.  Food is on the floor, if he can get it fast enough (dogs are scavengers after all!)  it’s his – morals don’t come into it.  Dogs see the world in terms of what gets them what they want and what doesn’t.  It’s that simple.  How on earth could eating awesome food that becomes available be wrong???

Secondly, when dogs are faced with a really grouchy human, they will often offer ‘appeasement’ behaviours or calming signals.  These are the ‘sheepish’ signs that owners often interpret as guilt, such as big puppy dog eyes, a very low wagging tail and a low slinky body posture.  They are actually trying to chill us out or show that they are a little scared of us, not show us how guilty they are – guilt is an emotion that requires a level of knowing that something is wrong, so if dogs have no moral compass, they can’t be guilty.

Lastly, you may think, that you don’t always shout at my dog when he wees on the carpet/chews up my shoes/steals a steak etc, and he still does the sheepish look, he KNOWS it’s not right.  Actually, you’ve likely only succeeded in teaching your dog that when he does wee on the carpet/chew your shoes/steal your steak, that you will be really angry and scary when you come in and see it, so he offers these calming behaviours the moment you come home to try to calm you down. 

Just because your dog knows you may get angry when you find what he’s done, doesn’t mean that if he feels the need or the want to do something that he won’t do it – so teach him the right thing to do instead!

Nice Methods Don’t Always Work…

Often advocates of the dominance theory feel dogs should be punished and rewarded in equal measure, because nice methods won’t teach a dog to not do something.  As we mentioned previously, punishing behaviours we don’t like when we haven’t taken the time to train behaviour we do like is unethical and unfair. 

However what about cases in which treats are not working?  Would it not be appropriate to punish then?  To answer that we need to look at why using food treats or a positive reward isn’t working, this could be because:

  • Treats are not high value enough to motivate the dog – would you work all day for £1?  How about £10?  How about £100?  Difficult behaviours (like recalling away from other dogs) require a high value treat or reward.   Experiment to find what motivates your dog, don’t just give up!
  • You are trying to use treats on a dog that is too distracted.  Trying to teach a dog to walk on a loose lead in the middle of a park full of dogs off lead would be a taxing task for the brightest of dogs if you haven’t built up to this moment gradually.  This doesn’t mean you can start to punish your dog if they aren’t walking on a loose lead, it means you need to take the time to train your dog in minimally distracting environments first. 
  • You have pushed a dog ‘over threshold’ to a point where he or she can no longer eat (this is often when the fight/flight instinct has been invoked, or is about to be!) and therefore the treat is useless.  Find a trainer who understands how to keep your dog below threshold for your training.
  • You are not using rewards correctly.  In order for your dog to learn a behaviour, you need to mark and reward correctly.  This can be deceptively tricky at times, so find a trainer who can coach you through this.  Also remember, that a consequence to a dog not correctly doing a behaviour should be the loss of a reward (ie., no treat).  You’d be amazed at how many people just treat anyway!!!  What are they teaching their dog?!
  • Just throwing treats at a dog in a haphazard unplanned way will not help the dog to overcome any fear aggression issues.  Fear aggression needs to be taken very seriously and should be dealt with by a qualified behaviourist (or trainer) with extensive experience in treating aggression with positive reinforcement techniques.  Occasionally inexperienced or unqualified trainers or behaviourists who use positive reinforcement techniques may not quite understand the practicalities of treating these issues with reward and may give flawed advice.  Choose your trainer/behaviourist wisely.

Ultimately, many many trainers and behaviourists have successfully trained and rehabilitated dogs using positive reinforcement techniques.  They can assure you that these techniques work, because they have successfully proven this many times in the course of their work.  Rejecting a method because your friend tried it (without the help of a qualified professional) and it didn’t work, is like refusing to vaccinate your children because of reading scare stories about vaccinations in the Daily Mail.  Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s wrong.


Having explained why the dominance theory is wrong and has no place in modern training and why the methods associated with it shouldn’t be used you might think I’d be finished.  But I have one more blog to go… which is to answer the question that started this series of blogs… Why is the Dominance Theory still so Prevalent?

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