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The Prevalence of Dominance – Part 8, Why do so Many Still Believe?

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Easiest way to dominate this dog?  Tennis Ball!So, after 7 blogs outlining why the dominance theory is no longer valid you may be left asking yourself, if dominance theory is wrong, why do so many people still believe it?  Surely this is evidence in itself that there is some truth in it?

Firstly, consider this - just because a lot of people may think something is true, doesn’t make it true.  There was a time when everyone believed the earth was flat and supported by 4 elephants on the back of a giant turtle.  Or held up by a huge guy called Atlas.  And that the earth was the centre of the universe and the sun moved around the earth.  And that the atom was the smallest thing in the universe.  And that goldfish have 3 second memories.  And that Praying Mantis females always eat the males after sex.  All untrue – well actually the latter does happen sometimes, but not all the time - a recent study of 69 copulating mantis’s showed only 1 ended up eating the male!  The fact is many things that we have often held as definitely true, are not.  That we ever believed them in the first place doesn’t make us stupid, the same possibly can’t be said if we continue to believe these things despite it being proved they are wrong. 

Richard Dawkins coined the use of the term ‘memes’ to define ideas that spread through cultures, being repeated from person to person through a variety of sources.  Like many things, the more places we hear an idea, the more we believe that it ‘must be true’ so we add to it and repeat it without ever really stopping to look into it.  I feel that the same can be said for the dominance theory, proposed by scientists decades ago, the idea caught on and spread like wildfire, still being popular today in spite of the fact that it has been rejected by the very scientists that proposed it!

So why would it spread so fast and so far?  I think that there are lots of reasons, but here are a few of the main ones in my opinion…

Anthropomorphism

Yes you are reading this correctly.  Dominance theory supporters have pointed the fingers at positive reinforcement trainers for years and accused us of humanising our dogs.  But I feel the opposite is true.

Think about this, what are the common acts that we consider dominance or traits of dominance?  Higher seating positions, eating first, going through doorways first, aggressive displays to show who is in control?  To me this can actually be seen throughout our own human societies.  Monarchs sit up high on a thrown, the head of the house eats first, children are taught not to rush out the door in front of elders, and we’ve long used wars and violence to assert our authority over others.  I personally feel that one of the reasons the Dominance theory caught on so much is because it gave us an easy way to relate to and understand dogs and the motivations behind their actions.  When they act in ways that we don’t get, or in ways that we don’t like, we look to this nice convenient dominance theory that we understand because humans operate in similar ways.  And if anyone pokes a hole in any of it, someone knowledgeably pipes up with ‘that’s what wolves do’ (even though they have no idea if wolves actually do that!) and the conversation is ended.   Anthropomorphism masquerading as science.

A quote (reputedly) by Anais Nin comes to mind here, ‘we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are’.  Very often the need to understand the world around us drives us to see it in terms of things we understand and I think that this is what makes us want to humanise our dogs so much.  Sadly the truth is that we do our dogs a great disservice in doing this, we attribute incorrect motivations for natural behaviours and hold these motivations up to our own relatively strict moral and societal codes, justifying our punishment of our dogs in the same way we would do a child acting ‘too big for its boots’.

Embracing modern dog training methods really means embracing the science behind the way animals learn.  And sometimes this is a scary concept, we may feel we have no frame of reference anymore and that we have lost the ‘common ground’ with our dogs that made them our best friends.  But take heart, I promise if you really look into modern dog training, you will quickly see the similarities between dogs and humans again – and really leverage these to your advantage!

Convenience

Modern dog training methods can seem slow, repetitious and time consuming.  Because of this, stressed and busy owners may look around for a better way.  Enter the dominance theory.  Owners learn that actually their dog is trying to assert his dominance and that’s why this training ‘isn’t working’!  Oh the relief!  If a dog keeps doing the wrong thing, it’s not because the owner is doing anything wrong, it’s because the dog is being dominant!  Problem solved!

Ultimately I feel that many people cling to the dominance theory because they are looking for the easiest and most convenient way to train their dog.  And I understand that, really.  I work long days and often spend my evenings doing admin, planning and advertising for my business and I find it hard to find training time and energy.  But that’s not my dog’s fault.  My stretched time and energy doesn’t mean that I can resort to just punishing the things she does wrong.

Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of your long term goal in dog training.  That long term goal is usually to have a happy, well behaved dog who fits in with our lives - within reason, all dogs have needs that we need to fit around too!  This does take a lot of work initially, particularly whilst they are young puppies and adolescent dogs in need of our guidance and training efforts.  But with time, the correct methods and repetition, you will notice your training begin to pay off, as your dog grows into a well behaved adult who loves to be around you.  The same can’t be said of dominance based training methods, which often need repeating for life to be effective and result in a fearful dog lacking in confidence, because it doesn’t know when its next punishment will come from.  The time spent in training your dog now with positive methods, WILL pay off in the long term, think of it as an investment.

TV

I can’t help but wonder if the dominance theory would be anywhere near as popular if it weren’t for TV and a certain show on Nat Geo Wild called the Dog Whisperer.  Regular viewers watch Cesar fix behavioural problems in mere minutes with a 5 cent choke lead!  It’s a miracle!

At some point I will write about why I don’t agree with the techniques used in the Dog Whisperer (and any similar shows), but I don’t feel that this is relevant to this blog.  The simple fact is that the techniques shown in the show do work and this seems to validate the theory – Cesar is a huge advocate of the Dominance theory.  But when you take a deeper look you can see that the reason why the techniques work is nothing to do with any supposed notion of dominance, and everything to do with the fact that punishment can work to modify behaviour.  No trainers will disagree with that, it is a core principal of Operant training, however punishment techniques are fraught with issues as I’ve already covered in this blog.  Electing to use positive punishment training techniques to change your dog’s behaviour can lead to fear, increased aggression and a reduction in valuable ‘warning signs’ that your dog is uncomfortable – which means your dog is more likely to react aggressively with little warning. 

I was a huge fan of the Dog Whisperer and I used to repeat all the arguments that avid fans often throw out in defence of the show, dominance theory and Cesar Millan.  That he treats dogs other professionals would avoid or worse, would put down – not true, I know plenty of behaviourists and trainers work who work successfully with dogs just like those on the show.  That we are jealous of him – not true, I’m jealous of Victoria Stillwell, but I love watching her show and learning from it.  That only his techniques would work on the dogs he is working with – again not true, positive reinforcement techniques have been used effectively on dogs like those in the show for years with far better results.  That the dogs are happy – not true, anyone versed in reading canine body language can see that sadly.  This for me is the worst of the myths that the Dog Whisperer perpetuates.  The incorrect reading of canine body language and the labelling of exhausted, distressed and shut down dogs as ‘calm submissive’ and therefore happy dogs.  They are anything but. 

Ultimately the Dog Whisperer is a tv show, a show that carries a warning not to try any of the techniques at home.  So don’t.  Consult with a modern, force free professional, what have you got to lose?

In Conclusion

There are many more reasons why the Dominance meme has been so successful, but the fact remains.  It is now a disproved theory.  Thousands of dog trainers and owners have seen the light and enjoyed marvellous success, not to mention a wonderfully improved bond with their dog by employing Positive Reinforcement (and Negative Punishment*) training methods.  If you have read this and still feel a little sat on the fence, then I urge you to read more, to attend a training course on modern dog training and to really research.  You have nothing to lose and from your dog’s point of view, everything to gain. 

Now go give your dog a cuddle and a fuss, dogs are neither dominant nor patient and this has been a long blog!

*not to be confused with Positive Punishment.  Negative Punishment involves removing something that the dog wants, this could be attention, the cessation of a game, or the loss of a potential treat for performing a behaviour incorrectly for example.

Further Reading

I cannot take the credit for any of the ideas in this blog, they are all ideas from some of my favourite dog behaviour and training authors, listed below:

The Culture Clash - Jean Donaldson

Don't Shoot the Dog - Karen Pryor 

In Defence of Dogs - John Bradshaw

Dominance in Dogs - Fact of Fiction - Barry Eaton

Why Won't Dominance Die - David Ryan article

Recommended Training Course

2 Day Career as a Dog Trainer Course - IMDT, an excellent start for anyone looking to understand the principals of dog training, including the principals of operant training, how punishments work to change behaviour and why they are ineffective.

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