The Dominance Theory: A Dog Training Fallacy

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We all grew up with the same idea of how dogs work: they use physical force to fight to be the alpha, to submit competing dogs in the pack. This notion is so engraved in our psyche that in English, being the top dog means that you are the most ‘dominant’ around. Even people who have no interest in anything dog-related will have undoubtedly heard about the importance of being dominant, the pack-leader, the alpha.

Even now, when it has been so completely disproven, so much so that most trainers will stare down their noses at anyone who dares to utter the term “dominance” or – worse! – “alpha role”, this idea that dogs are trying to take over the world one owner at a time is still a sadly prevalent thought among dog enthusiasts.

Everything from pulling on the leash and jumping up, to eating something you dropped on the floor and chasing the cat, has been blamed on a dog’s search for supremacy or an owner’s lack of leadership skills.

It really is a wonder that we call dogs man’s best friend at all, what with this supposed friend’s constant attempt to overthrow us. You feed him, bathe him, care for him and in some cases even clothe him, you take him to the vet when he’s sick and give him a comfy place to sleep when he’s tired, and how does he repay you? By staging a coup d’état! The nerve! But how did this misguided notion of rank come to be?

We all know that wolves dominate one another, they have a strict hierarchy where subordinates are denied prime resources and individuals are constantly battling for dominance, right? Well, no, that’s not exactly how it works. It turns out that our previous notions of lupine social behaviour were based on captive wolves. Individuals from different packs were forced to live in close proximity of each other, a highly unnatural condition for them, leading to highly unnatural behaviour. The bloodbaths over resources were the result of stress, whereas in the wild, there are no rival packs because space is not an issue.

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