Hey, Old School Dominance Theory: School’s Out!
Updated: Apr 10, 2022
A pediatrician is attempting to examine an infant. He holds the stethescope to the tiny chest but the baby won’t stop squirming. It’s difficult to get an accurate listen. The doctor informs the mother that the baby can’t be allowed to run the show; he needs to show her who’s boss. He slams the baby on her back, places a hand around her neck, and nearly chokes her until she lies still. Does this sound absolutely crazy? Of course it does, because it is. Now replace the words pediatrician with veterinarian and baby with dog. Although the species is different, the dynamic is the same. The difference is that treating dogs this way is all too common.
The story that was partially responsible for inspiring this blog involved a nine-week-old puppy who had been nearly choked by the family vet. Unfortunately, there seems to be an endless supply of similar stories. Just last week, I had a conversation with a woman who’d adopted a large German Shepherd mix. She’d hired a trainer to address a few minor issues including jumping on people and grabbing things around the house. The trainer had told her the dog was clearly trying to dominate her, and that she needed to growl in his face and stare him down. Fortunately, the woman didn’t feel the plan of action was wise, and never saw the trainer again.
Others, however, simply do as their trainers advise. I know a woman whose trainer informed her in no uncertain terms that the only way to cure her bull terrier of his “dominance issues” (which, by the way, were actually minor behavior problems such as mouthing and jumping) was to force him on his back and sit on top of him, staring into his eyes, until he submitted by looking away or, even better, urinating. Eager to help her dog, she tried it. Guess what? The dog bit her in the face. The woman was shocked. The dog was euthanised.
Every time I hear this type of story—and believe me, it’s on an almost daily basis—my heart sinks. My head hurts. My teeth hurt, probably from being gritted so hard. With all the progress we’ve made culturally, how is it possible that so many people are still stuck in the old school mentality where everything from jumping up to pulling on leash is seen as a canine bid to overthrow the kingdom? We don’t believe that a child who pulls at his mother’s arm repeatedly for attention or destroys something of value is trying to be dominant, nor do we advise those parents to use physical force or scare the pants off the kid to prove who’s boss. So why do we continue to do this with dogs? Dogs are not children (though they are like children to many of us), but the psychology is the same. Just like kids, in most cases rude canine behavior stems not from a desire to be in charge, but from an emotional state such as anxiety or over-excitement, a lack of knowing what’s expected, or not having been appropriately trained.
It’s true that there are some very pushy, ill-mannered dogs out there. And there are some who truly do have what would be described as a dominant type of temperament. But trainers who make the effort to learn about canine psychology and body language, and who understand how to apply training and feedback fairly and appropriately, can easily work with even those dogs without causing harm to either party. And lest you think this only applies to “easy” dogs or puppies, I’ve worked effectively with severely people-aggressive dogs (including dogs who multiply puncture wounded multiple people) for many years without using harsh physical corrections. Show me a trainer who stares a dog down, rolls him on his back, or uses any type of physical force to show a dog who’s in charge, and I’ll show you a person who doesn’t know a better way. Besides, while the trainer might be able to get away with that sort of physical coercion, owners are often not.
Not all of the fallout from the use of physical force to dominate dogs is immediately obvious. Seeing your dog as an adversary and acting accordingly causes damage to the dog-owner relationship, and can cause lingering and sometimes chronic stress in the dog. That stress and frustration is very likely to surface in other ways. I’ve seen one particular scenario more times than I can count: The husband (sorry, guys, but it is usually the man) uses physical force to intimidate the dog. The dog submits and the problem ends—at least when the husband’s around. The dog then begins to behave even more poorly around the wife, or the kids. Perhaps there’s even an increase in aggressive behavior.
I can’t argue that strong-arming a dog won’t stop the undesirable behavior right then and there. If you hit me with a two-by-four to get me to stop biting my nails, I’d stop immediately. But how would I feel about you after that? And would your correction stop the underlying reason I bit my nails in the first place? Maybe I was nervous or anxious, and the nail biting was simply a symptom. Now I’m even more anxious, thank you very much!
I remember all too well Bodhi’s behavior when we first adopted him. A whirlwhind of manic adolescence, he’d been surrendered to the shelter by a college kid who “could no longer afford his upkeep.” (One disembowled couch and one mangled, dismantled mini-fridge later, I understood what the kid meant, but that’s another story.) We couldn’t so much as take a few steps without Bodhi jumping up and grabbing our arms and legs and biting down fairly hard. It wasn’t aggressive but it was frantic, and more than a little disturbing. It would have been all too easy to see this behavior as an attempt at dominance. Fortunately, I realized Bodhi was anxious and insecure. Of course his actions weren’t acceptable, and I used my own body language and voice to administer non-violent but effective consequences. I shudder to think how Bodhi, who has a strong startle reflex and a problem trusting people (along with a suspected history of abuse) would have done with someone forcefully “putting him in his place.”
The dominance issue is not only a matter of faulty philosophy, but a lack of basic understanding of canine communiation. Consider this scenario: A dog is chewing on something his owner considers valuable. The owner yells at the dog and hits him on the rump. The dog, frightened, growls a warning. The growl is viewed as insubordination. The person, now outraged, shakes the dog by his scruff. The dog, feeling trapped and frightened, becomes even more defensive. At this point some dogs will “submit” but others, in a state of high emotional arousal, will bite. Escalating a physical confrontation with a dog, or starting one in the first place, is such a ridiculous way to establish leadership that if it weren’t so widespread, it would be laughable.
Don’t misunderstand; of course we want dogs to respond appropriately when when we ask them to do something, or to stop doing something. But lest you think teaching gently means being permissive or lax, please know that my training methods do not include prancing through the posies tossing cookies hither and yon, hoping dogs will follow and do what I want. Dogs need clear direction, rules and structure, and consequences for their actions, just like kids do. But to achieve better canine behavior, I use my brain instead of my brawn (okay, not so much brawn here, but you get my point). In all my years of working with wolves and wolfdogs—and believe me, nowhere is the old school, dominance-is-everything mindset more alive than in the wolf/wolfdog world—I never once stared a wolf down, growled in one’s face, or performed the alpha roll. Guess what? I still have all my fingers and toes, and I was able to effective train and socialize some very large, strong, potentially dangerous animals.
When Phantom (the big black wolf in the photo) first came to me as a rescue at age three, he was skittish about being handled. But I needed to be able to look between his toes, examine his teeth, and do whatever else needed being done to care for him. Did I alpha roll him? Stare into his eyes? Threaten to blow his house down? No. I worked with him kindly and calmly until he learned to trust me and cooperated of his own free will. I would most certainly not have gotten the same results had I tried to scare him into submission.
As Abraham Maslow says, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.” And if all we see when we look at ill-behaved dogs is a bid for dominance, perhaps where we really need to look is in the mirror. I’ll say it again: Old school dominance theory? School’s out! It’s time to enter the Age of Enlightenment. Humans should be seen as leaders because dogs respect us, not because they fear us. Training and communication should result in a dog’s eyes lighting with joy and enthusiasm, not smothering that light under the threat of violence. Anyone can scare and intimidate dogs. It takes a better trainer, and a better human being, to be able to work with dogs and to get the same, or dare I say, even better results.
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