(noun) "a relationship between individuals that is established by aggression and submission to determine who has priority access to multiple resources"
Dominance is a hot topic at the moment, and one that is likely to enter the public consciousness more and more over time. As with many things, the public interest will likely be imported from the USA where the media fuelled ‘dogfight’ between Cesar Milan and Victoria Stillwell is making headlines. Coincidentally, this media attention comes at a time when both have been actively publicising their latest ventures.
Albeit unwittingly, Cesar and Victoria have come to represent the two sides of the argument that splits the dog training community in half. Cesar represents the more traditional methods based on dominance theory and Victoria campaigns for more modern methods based on learning theory alone. It is a representation I am not personally happy with because, although some of his methods leave significant room for improvement, I much prefer the ethos and objectives of Cesar’s show to that of Victoria’s. Nevertheless, from a purely impartial viewpoint, Victoria Stillwell largely uses correct methods whereas Cesar does not. I do not mince my words here: pinning a dog to the floor to show it who is ‘dominant’ is cruel. The dog is most likely scared and pinning it down will result in nothing but a responding show of aggression.
I do not believe that Cesar Milan is a bad person, nor do I believe he is a bad dog trainer. However I do believe that some of his methods are potentially harmful and the portrayal of them therefore sets the dog training profession and dog owning public back years. Although I cannot abide Victoria Stillwell from a marketing and entertainment perspective, the methods she promotes are founded in good, scientifically proven research. But this is not intended to be an article about celebrity; I certainly do not intend to take sides.
The theory that dogs view their social interactions within a dominance hierarchy is a popular and persistent one, but it is deeply flawed and has been largely disproven. The evidence now suggests that this view is not just flawed, but is in fact counterproductive to the relationship we form with dogs. So why is it that dominance continues to be used as a basis for training techniques? The reason is because it sounds so plausible; in the same way as many people still believe that goldfish have a three second memory. If you hear a ‘fact’ that appears likely and causes you no concern, why challenge it? The following statements are comparable:
"Goldfish don’t mind being in a tiny goldfish bowl, because they can’t even remember where they were three seconds ago."
"My dog does not think I’m cruel when I pin him to the floor for ignoring my commands, he expects me to display my dominance over him."
Without being too blunt, ignorance is never an excuse. If you do the research, all the evidence shows that dominance does not exist in our pet dogs and that using motivational methods that follow learning theory is a better way to get positive results. Blindly repeating untruths or likely explanations can be harmful.
Dominance theory became fully formed in the 1960s when the study of genetics proved how similar dogs are to wolves. The seemingly logical theory followed: "dogs are genetically almost identical to wolves; therefore they will form the same hierarchical pack system". This assumption is wrong on two counts. Firstly, they maybe similar genetically, but there is no suggestion that behaviour is determined exclusively by genes. Secondly, wolves do not form a linear hierarchy in the wild.
Let that sink in. Wolves do not form packs.
The ‘treat dogs as they treat each other’ argument for aggressively scruffing dogs or pinning them to the floor is also deeply flawed. I know dogs don’t give each other titbits, but neither do they put collars on each other and throw each other a Frisbee. Furthermore, we now realise that wolf social behaviour in the wild is actually formed around a cooperative family unit, where parents support their young as occurs in human family units, irrefutably to further their genes.
It is at this stage that we come to a problem, in that training techniques based on dominance theory seem to work. In fact I know they do – I used them for years. Bear in mind though, dogs are one of the most adaptive species on the planet and have learnt to manipulate human society extremely well. They will behave in whatever way increases their access to desirable resources. If you accept this fact and accept that dogs are not constantly plotting to take over the pack, you start to view our behaviour very differently indeed. Do our dogs accept that this is how they should be treated? Nope, they are more likely scared. If their problem behaviour disappears, it is because they have become inhibited, depressed and possibly stressed. Let me take the extreme example of dominance style trainer using a shock collar. If you put a shock collar on me and told me to sit – am I learning anything or am I behaving in whatever way keeps me safe? I will go into more detail about that particular issue in my next article, where I will address equipment choices.
More importantly, dogs trained with the harsher methods often recommended by traditional dominance based training techniques (for example those displayed by Cesar Milan) may work, but often cause side effects such as increased aggression. They are also not terribly nice from an animal welfare perspective.
The alternative methods I am alluding to are not just stuffing food down ill behaved dogs, as is often the perception of ‘positive’ trainers. The basic principles of learning are simple: reward the behaviour you want, ignore the behaviour you don’t. This does not automatically equate to food treats. Neither is it ‘treating dogs like children’. It is a respectful relationship where each knows what is expected of them.
Trainers who use rank reduction training methods often accuse modern trainers of not getting results. Their arguments being that their dogs jump up, get on couches, run around and play. I’m sorry, but these arguments have nothing to do with the ability of the trainer – merely their levels of acceptance. The only difference between trainers comes when you compare how you expect your dog to behave, and I have come to realise that this is the crux of the issue.
It occurs to me that a lot of the issues are of perception. I can attest to this from my own experience. Picture a young child, happily enjoying themselves and doing as children do. Probably playing in the mud and making some noise. Now imagine her childminder is there, playing with her and encouraging her to be herself, to enjoy her life as a child doing things children do. Is she a problem to anyone? No. Now imagine an army drill sergeant comes on the scene. Children should not be playing in the mud. Children should be seen and not heard. He is furious that the child has dared to go against his orders. Is the child causing a problem? The answer is in the perception.
The levels of discipline faced by that old cliché of a Victorian school child mean that they behave extremely well. They are still a schoolchild at heart and still have the same desires to make mess and noise; however their behaviour has simply been inhibited. Perhaps they are nervous to behave how they want because of fear of reprimand by the cane. They are not expected to understand the rules, only accept them.
I should apologise at this point for my use of children as a comparison to dogs, because I know it doesn’t sit well with many people. Here I completely agree – dogs are not children and should not be treated so. There is a misconception that modern trainers think dogs should be treated as children. This is not the case. However, modern trainers are aware that children and dogs, as with other animals, learn in the same way. If a behaviour is consistently reinforced, it will be repeated. If it receives no reinforcement it will not.
Cast your eye back to the definition of dominance that opened this article. Now think of your dog’s problem behaviour: most undesirable behaviours in our pets are not related to priority access to resources. Instead, they are due to those undesirable behaviours being consistently rewarded. Learning theory states that dogs learn by consistent repeated association of events and their consequences. This applies to both behaviours we want our dogs to display as well as those we don’t. A dog may bite you because when he does, you stop trying to take his bone. He is no more dominant than the dog that sits because when he does, you give him a bone. So become a teacher and help your dogs learn how to behave and, while you’re at it, dismiss dominance to the history books.