Dog Training: The Dominance Confusion

When it comes to the topic of dominance and dogs, there are a lot of conflicting opinions on whether dominance exists amongst dogs, and whether we should use a dominate approach to train dogs.

Recent studies suggest that dominance is not present within dog’s minds – the alpha role being disproved – and we should not use dominance, fear or bullying to get our dog to behave in a desired way

I both agree and disagree with this. Primatologist Dr. Dario Maestripieri said

"Bottom Line: dominance between two individuals helps keep the peace and increases stability and predictability in the relationship, thereby allowing both partners to benefit from their relationship."

Dr. Dario Maestripieri

Dominance in the canine species does exist, but just not in the way we have previously perceived it.

Understanding Dominance in Dogs

When referring to dominance within dogs and dog packs, it is more appropriate applied to social standing and the behaviour that dogs display to one another when sensing their place within the social hierarchy.

In order to avoid conflicts and fights, dogs will form a linear relationship but this can be interchangeable dependant on circumstances. As alluded to above by Dr. Maestripieri; it is not about being dominating or dominated, or even power. It is a healthy component of dog behaviour and communication.

Dogs know we are not dogs, they communicate with us in a different manner entirely to how they communicate with each other. We should not use a misinterpreted concept to train and live alongside our canine companions.

What the Latest Research Tells Us About Dominance

Until quite recently, if we consider other research and studies into animal behaviours, a dog’s behaviour and cognition were not considered a worthwhile subject. Scientists thought that dogs were too domesticated, believing the bond between dog and human precluded objective study.

However, with a few studies throwing up some interesting questions, dogs fast became the “it” animal for cognitive research. Research labs around the world began studies on dogs faces, vocalisation, and their incredible ability to read human cues.

The unique relationship dogs hold with humans that once saw the science world shun them, was now seen as a worthy study in its own right.

Some researchers see the dog as a case of convergent evolution with humans because we share similar behavioural traits. This, in turn, questions our previous understanding of dominance in dogs, and the role it plays in their social structure.

Dog Training

We should be extremely careful when talking about dominance in relation to dogs. Some approaches to training and managing behaviours are derived from theories about dominance and rank relationships between dogs. This has lead to the mistreatment of dogs via methods that are not only unnecessary but harmful, both physically and mentally.

The word “dominance” is often associated to aggressive, threatening or controlling behaviour, with some believing that you must “show your dog who’s boss” or be “the alpha” male” in order to produce a well-behaved dog. The use of fear, or the threat of violence, or inflicting physical pain to train dogs is simply not needed. Dogs do not need to be treated like a subordinate member of the family to be reigned over.

Constantly being controlled with force and hostility will lead to mistrust, and some dogs go on to develop fear aggression behaviours to deal with their fear of humans. It is a reactive technique to kept humans at bay. Sadly, the dog is usually branded as dangerous.

The latest studies imply dominance is on display amongst dogs. However, to draw on Dr. Maestripieri beliefs, it is for stability – and is dependent on the circumstances and dog.

How Do Dogs View Humans?

Dogs are aware that we are not dogs, but human members of their family. They have evolved to be more attuned to our body language, vocal cues, and will actively seek out eye contact with us – because they know we respond differently to this than a dog would.

Dogs are pack animals and instinctively need interaction and companionship to be happy. They have been closely associated with humans for thousands of years and are so well adapted to living alongside us, that we now fulfil the kinship of a pack.

Dogs will, of course, socialise with each other and enjoy those connections but the bond a pet owner has with their dog is similar to that of a young child and their parents. 

Revisiting my earlier comments on eye contact; researchers in Japan discovered that when a dog stares into the eyes on their owner, their Oxytocin levels rise. Oxytocin is the hormone associated with trust and maternal bonding.

Do dogs view humans as parents? It is possible. They certainly display the same behaviour as infants when interacting with the environment. Puppies, and many adult dogs are more comfortable and feel reassured in the presence of their owner. They retreat to the safety of that individual when they perceive a threat .

How We Should Treat Our Dogs

Scientists at Emory University ran MRI scans on dogs and at the same time released different smells into the air. The smells were from other dogs, food groups and also their owner’s scents. The scent of their owner created the biggest reaction in their brains. In the caudate nucleus or “reward centre”. The dogs were most excited by the aroma of their owners than anything else.

Most dogs see humans as the most important relationship in their lives. They are the only non-primate animal to make eye contact with us and run to us for protection and comfort when in distress. Dogs see humans as family. They enjoy spending time with us and receiving attention, praise and co-living in a happy home.

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