What is Dominance Theory, and Why is It Outdated?

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If you've come across the term "alpha" or "pack leader" while researching dog training, you've discovered the outdated training method known as dominance theory. The dominance model of dog behavior assumes that unwanted behavior is due to a dog trying to become the "alpha dog" within a pack. Dominance theory was previously seen as an effective training method but has since been debunked by animal behaviorists and wildlife biologists. The principles of dominance theory are based on flawed scientific research and do more harm than good when it comes to training.

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Origins of dominance theory

Dominance theory is based on a 1947 paper titled, "Expressions Studies on Wolves" by animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel. Schenkel observed two packs of captive wolves in Switzerland's Basel Zoo and concluded that wolf packs had a specific social hierarchy with a mated pair of alphas who were dominant over other members of the pack. He noted physical fights between pack members and theorized that "lower-ranking" members would use aggression to challenge the status of the alphas. Schenkel's paper drew parallels between the behavior of wolves and domestic dogs. Schenkel concluded that domestic dogs, as the descendants of wolves, must also have a defined social structure with an alpha pack leader.

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Debunking dominance theory

There are a number of issues with Schenkel's research methods and his findings. Most notably, his paper was based on the observations of captive wolves. This was largely out of necessity, as wild wolves' elusive and nomadic nature makes them difficult to study. However, animals in captivity do not display the same behaviors as they do in the wild. The wolves Schenkel studied were living under stressful conditions — small habitats, loud and busy environments. These settings caused them to behave in ways that we now know are not indicative of their behavior in the wild. Using observations of captive wolves to inform our understanding of domestic dogs is scientifically inaccurate. Though dogs are descended from a wolf-like ancestor, tens of thousands of years of domestication have resulted in our pets being markedly different from wolves both physically and behaviorally.

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As our understanding of animal behavior has grown, wildlife biologists have proven the dominance theory to be false, and Schenkel himself has spent the latter part of his career saying so. Wild wolves live in packs that generally consist of a male-female breeding pair and their offspring, who range in age from pups to adolescents. Though dominance theory suggests that the breeding pair (formerly called alphas) maintain their social rank through aggression, observations have shown that this is not the case. Wolf packs function as a family unit and the breeding pair act as parents, ensuring that every member of the pack is cared for and fed.

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Why dominance training is ineffective

Using dominance to train your dog is not only ineffective — it's also harmful. Dominance theory incorrectly states that dogs need a strict social hierarchy and that dog owners must stand in as the "dominant dog" who would lead a wild pack. This method uses fear and physical contact to "put dogs in their place."

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One such approach, called an alpha roll, involves flipping a misbehaving dog onto his back and pinning them to the ground until they stop struggling. Though alpha roll proponents call this "calm submission," it is anything but calm. A dog who is alpha rolled cannot fight or flee, and they freeze out of fear. Instilling fear of punishment in a dog may appear to be effective but can actually cause aggression. A dog who is physically punished will grow more and more fearful of the person disciplining them. This fear often turns into aggression as the dog attempts to protect themself.

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Many people will be familiar with celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan, who is a strong proponent of dominance theory. Millan uses aggressive physical discipline in his approach: through physical restraint, choking, and shock collars, he provokes dogs into what he calls "successful submission." In reality, dogs who are terrified into submission by the use of physical force experience psychological unresponsiveness (also called learned helplessness) — they simply shut down out of fear.

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A healthy, loving dog-human relationship is the best foundation for effective training. Using fear and punishment only causes a dog to become anxious and aggressive. Positive reinforcement training methods have shown much more consistent, long-term results. Rather than punishing "bad" behavior, positive reinforcement teaches a dog to associate good behavior with rewards (treats, toys, and praise).

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In summary

Dominance theory used the observations of captive wolves living under stressful conditions to apply an incorrect view of pack dynamics to domestic dogs. Wild wolves do not use aggression to assert dominance over one another. What's more, domestic dogs are genetically and behaviorally distinct from wild wolves and have evolved alongside humans for tens of thousands of years. Using dominance to train a dog will only instill fear and potential aggression in them. A loving dog-human relationship based on trust, safety, and positive reinforcement gives a dog a much better training environment than dominance.

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