While it is true you want to be a leader of sorts for your
human/canine family for safety reasons, physical force or
punishment or the threat of force or punishment are not
necessary. The definition of dominance is “who controls
access.” In your everyday relationship with your dog,
you want to be dominant but without resorting to using physical
force. If a three-year-old child has her hand on the doorknob,
she is dominant because she controls whether the dog goes
in or out. If she is holding a ball, in the dog’s
eyes, she is dominant because she controls access to the
ball. So dominance doesn’t mean who is bigger or stronger…although
that sometimes plays a part. It simply means setting up
your environment so that you control access to things your
dog wants and he has to look to you to get what he wants.
You control the food, affection, toys, social freedom, climate
control, and everything else in his universe. There is no
negotiation. In effect, you are saying, “I’ll
give you the world, but you’ve got to do something
for me first.” When the dog figures this out, you
simply ask the dog to do something before providing the
reward, whether it be food, chasing a ball, going outside,
For many years, concepts about hierarchy within the canine
world led to the idea that one dog in the pack is the top
ranking “alpha dog” and that that dog is dominant
in all situations. In recent years this concept has been
researched extensively by leading animal behaviorists who
now consider it to be outmoded and simplistic. Still, the
perception that dogs look up to the alpha in the pack as
some sort of tyrannical dictator and that humans should
take on this role has been perpetuated by the authors of
many mainstream dog training books and trainers on television.
They use this theory to teach you to mandate your authority
as the physical-force leader of your dog’s pack—the
boss, the head honcho, the big cheese, the numero uno. Woe
to him if he doesn’t obey. Unfortunately, this outmoded
idea has some trainers perpetuating the myth that humans
should use physical displays with the family dog including
physically forcing dogs to walk behind them, standing over
them, pinning them to the ground, always entering a room
first, and so on, supposedly to mimic the behaviors of packs
in the wild. Well, none of these things actually exist in
the wild except around food or procreation issues.
The most frequently repeated phrase by trainers who endorse
this outdated “dominance” theory is. “You
must always win when training your dog.” If you think
about it, the phrase “you must always win” conveys
that there is a competition going on. And a competition
means there is a “win-lose” mentality. How can
you and your dog become a behavioral team when you are caught
up in an environment of having to compete and win at all
Dogs are social animals. When they were domesticated way
back when, we became part of their social order and along
the way we also became their guardians, caregivers, protectors,
and guides. There is no “one dog rules all”
pack mentality. The best way to view your role in your dog’s
life is as a member of his family—and the dog as a
member of your family. Just as parents and children have
different roles in the family, so, too, humans and dogs
have different roles. But we’re all part of the same
family. In nonviolent dog training, you are not out to compete
or “win” anything. There are no “commands”
and no threats. Instead, you give your dog “signals”
and reinforce his correct “responses.” You are
learning from each other how to work together.
Although not a perfect mirror, some similarities exist
in the social orders between wolves and dogs. L. David Mech,
one of the world's leading experts on the pack behavior
of wild wolves, prefers to associate the term alpha with
parenting. He says, "In natural wolf packs, the alpha
male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents
of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are
rare, if they exist at all.” ¹ Mech continues,
“Breeding wolves [only] provide leadership because
offspring tend to follow their parents' initiative….
The point here is not so much the terminology but what the
terminology falsely implies: a rigid, force-based dominance
hierarchy.” ² Mech’s research shows that,
while breeding wolves provided the most leadership, wolves
who had subordinate roles also provided leadership during
travel. He says, “No “alpha” [emphasis
mine] would suddenly run to the front of the pack and force
the subordinate to get behind him.”³
According to Dr. Karen Overall, many animal behaviorists
believe that although each member of a group works in his
own self interest, that self interest manifests in shared
responsibilities. It would be abnormal for one animal to
constantly have to demonstrate through force that he was
dominant. In reality, each situation in the group dynamic
entails a collaborative effort. In the wild, these social
interactions are dependent on what’s going on in the
environment because success for the group is dependent on
working together. Wolves have a complex communication system;
we are still trying to translate their subtle language.
We do know, however, that studies suggest the only situations
that trigger an absolute rank hierarchy are around disasters
or stressful situations relating to resources like food
and sex (procreation).
So the question arises, why do some trainers seem to elicit
almost miraculous results in getting dogs to do what they
want through what they call “dominance” training.
The truth is, it isn’t miraculous, nor is it related
to dominance. The results are due to using physical force
in order to suppress behaviors, which is done by using positive
punishment and physically forcing fearful dogs into overwhelming
situations until they “shut down,” which is
called flooding. Calling this dominance training is simply
incorrect and its practice can be dangerous for both dogs
and humans, especially when aggression is involved. It’s
pure abuse when used with fearful dogs.
Animals defer to one another to keep their group safe,
strong, and healthy. If one individual threatens the group’s
collaborative efforts by asserting himself in ways contrary
to the group’s well being, he is thrown out. There
are many examples of animal packs ousting members who tried
to rule by brute force. Wolves have banished individuals
who constantly used undue physical force to exert their
authority. Monkeys also have been shown to attack and oust
brutish members who used their strength and size against
other members of the group.
Behavioral scientists are helping us better understand
ourselves and our world by their study of collaborative
efforts within various species. The following story is a
terrific example of how we humans can learn from nature—in
this case, from geese:
The Goose Story
Next fall, when you see geese heading south for the winter,
flying along in “V” formation, you might consider
what science has discovered about why they fly that way.
As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for
the bird immediately following.
By flying in a “V” formation, the whole flock
adds at least 71 percent more flying range than possible
if each bird flew on its own.
People who share a common direction and sense of community
can get where they are going more quickly and easily because
they are traveling on the thrust of one another.
When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels
the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone . . . and
quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the
lifting power of the bird in front.
If we have as much sense as the goose, we will stay in
formation with those who are headed the same way.
When the head goose gets tired, it rotates back in the
wing and another goose flies point.
It is sensible to take turns doing demanding jobs, whether
with people or with geese flying south.
Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep
up their speed.
What do we say when we honk from behind?
Finally—and this is important—when a goose
gets sick or is wounded by gunshot or falls out of formation,
two other geese fall out with that goose and follow it down
to lend help and protection. They stay with the fallen goose
until it is able to fly or until it dies. Only then do they
launch out on their own or with another formation to catch
up with their group.
If we have the sense of a goose, we will stand by each
other like that.
Parents understand the importance of protecting and educating
their children. After all, the parenting role requires not
just providing food, shelter, and clothing, but also setting
boundaries. What you want the dog to do and the child to
do is to take their cues about the appropriateness of their
behavior from you and that is the context within which you
guide and protect them. A child can’t just run out
into the middle of the street or steal a toy from another
child in the schoolyard without consequences. In the best
of circumstances, the parent acts as a loving, nonviolent
guardian; he is the source and provider of safety and comfort,
and he educates the child through the use of examples, boundaries,
and limits. In the same way, you must educate and act as
a loving, nonviolent, benevolent guardian in your dog’s
Asking your dog to lie down before releasing him to go
up the steps or out the door presents terrific everyday
training opportunities. So does asking him to sit before
being fed, or asking him to jump off the couch so he can
be rewarded by getting back on the couch to sit with you.
But asking for these behaviors and rewarding your dog is
much different than “showing him who’s boss”
and forcing him to sit, lie down, and obey you in all things
under the threat of punishment.
So ask yourself why you are teaching your dog to sit, lie
down, and come when called. For safety purposes? Ideally,
we train our dogs to respond to our signals so we can help
them and ourselves be all that we can be. Training stimulates
growth and forms a bond between us because it involves communication
and interaction. A synergy emerges allowing both our dogs
and ourselves to grow and learn in ways that are unique
and might otherwise be impossible. I have learned as much,
if not more, about patience, honesty, compassion, and congruity—matching
my words to my actions, thoughts, and emotions—in
the companionship of dogs as I have in any other endeavor.
In addition, I believe my dogs have also benefited in ways
I can’t even imagine.
So when you read about or hear about how important it is
to control your dog by showing him who’s boss, I ask
that you reconsider. Don’t compete; instead educate.
Show him how the world provides his food, affection, and
freedom—and ignores him when he behaves inappropriately.
(Of course, use common sense here—don’t ignore
him when doing so would cause harm to him, to others, or
to the environment.) Educate your dog about the appropriateness
of his behavior. Create an environment in which you can
guide and protect him, yourself, and the environment.
Dr. Karen Overall, director of the Behavior Clinic of the
School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania,
sums up the path to a great relationship with our dogs with
the following overview:
Practice deferential behaviors.
Do not use physical punishment.
Teach the dog that you are not a threat.
Reward good behaviors, even when they are spontaneous.
Don’t worry about minor details—none of us are
Always let the dog know he can have treats, love, or toys
if he sits quietly first.
Never do something just because you can.
Talk to your dog. Use his or her name. Signal clearly.
Be reliable and trustworthy.
Mech, L. David. 1999. Alpha status, dominance, and division
of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203.
Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center