The Dominance Myth
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I shouldn’t let my dog walk through the door before me, should I?
There’s really no problem with allowing your dog to go out of the door ahead of you. Your dog just wants to get through the door as quickly as possible because they are so excited to get to the (squirrels and cool stuff) world that is outside. It’s nice to have taught your dog not to rush the front door ahead of you but this is a question of keeping your dog safe as opposed to making sure that he knows you are the boss.
Where did the dominance myth come from?
Outdated notions such as not allowing your dog to walk through the door ahead of you and using an ‘alpha roll’ to gain your dog’s compliance and respect (the whole theory of dogs wishing to be dominant) was born due to a study conducted in the 1970s. This study followed a group of captive wolves who were forced into a group and situation that was unknown to them. The captive wolf group displayed increased levels of conflict because they were forced to live in this unnatural way. It’s possibly like going to prison in human terms; if you found yourself in prison with people you don’t know, it’s likely that you would behave in an unnatural way too. The original study that set up the notions of ‘dominance’ and ‘alpha’ in the canine world has since been renounced by the scientist who published it.
Wild wolves generally live in a family group. The alpha wolf doesn’t need to resort to physical confrontation or dominance displays (such as insisting that his pups wait until he has entered the den) as he is the father of the family. Respect is given to the alpha due to his status as the father and provider. The alpha does not need to physically punish or ‘alpha roll’ his pups to gain respect, it is inherent. Just as a human father doesn’t need to ‘father roll’ his children in order to gain respect as he is the provider of pocket money and TV privileges.
Dogs are not wolves
Another point to mention is that wolves are not dogs, they differ substantially in behaviour, development phases and physical attributes. Dogs are genetically closely related to a (now extinct) wolf, just as we are genetically closely related to chimpanzees.
What about the pack?
Although dogs are pack animals they are not interested in overall dominance in their canine pack or their human family; they are interested in ownership of particularly coveted possessions (their favourite toy, their favourite bed etc). One dog may love to lie on the bed by the patio doors to look out, whilst the other covets being the first into the garden to bark at birds. Dog 1 may guard their beloved bed from the other, whilst dog 2 may guard the area by the door as their owner approaches. It’s great to be a leader for your dog (and family) but this does not require physical punishment or domination of your dog; most great leaders are inclusive, fair and consistent.
The problem with dominating techniques
The problem with techniques that have stemmed from the ‘dominance’ myth is that they can have very serious adverse effects on dogs and subsequently their humans (fear, aggression and timidity). I fully appreciate that there are trainers (on TV still) who are continuing to be advocates of these outdated notions, scientific studies have taught us, however, that confident, well-adjusted dogs are raised using positive training methods.
The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs: Emily J Blackwell, Caroline Twells, Anne Seawright, Rachel A Casey. 2008 – Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, University of Bristol, UK.