In 1947, researcher Rudolph Schenkel published a very influential study titled Expression Studies on Wolves (Schenkel, 1947), which became the basis for the understanding of canine behavior and training practices for decades to come. Schenkel wrote of the hierarchical nature of wolf “societies” with a dominant mated pair of wolves at the head of the wolfpack, and stratified levels of more and less dominant wolves under them. This was reinforced by a later (1970) study of wolves by David Mech, in which he introduced the concept of “alpha” pack leaders (Ha and Campion, 2019)
This became the model for 20th century understanding of canine social behavior and was incorporated into the practices of dog trainers – because, after all, dogs are close relatives to wolves. Dog trainers, including very influential ones such as William Koehler (Koehler, 1962) incorporated a mindset that a human dog owner must be the dominant figure (the Alpha) to his dog and constantly enforce that relationship (*). The use of dominance and pack theory has been adhered to by a large number of trainers, including celebrities, such as Cesar Millan and The Monks of New Skete (Monks of New Skete, 1978).
Under this theory, dogs feel more secure when they have a distinct place in a hierarchy. Dominance trainers will tell their clients to physically place their dogs in subordinate positions, such as holding them by the muzzle, or putting them in “alpha rolls”. Owners will be told to engage in dominance displays such as staring contests, forcing their dogs to look away first. This extends to play activities: owners will be told to never let their dogs win a tugging contest and to take away their toys when the play activity is done. They are told to claim territory and never allow dogs on chairs or beds, never allow the dogs to precede them through a doorway and other controlling activities. All this under the belief that domestic dogs are pack animals that thrive in a strict hierarchy and that the owner must be the “alpha dog” (Peeples, 2010; Herron 2009). It should be noted that in later editions of How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend, the monks have moved away from recommending dominance enforcing actions such as “alpha rolls”, due to the number of biting incidents that resulted from this advice (Monks of New Skete, 2002).
This belief has given rise to the theory of “dominance aggression” in which dogs who growl at, or bite, their owners are disputing their position in “the pack” and are actually challenging them for the position of “alpha” (*). These displays of aggression are seen as rebellion and resistance on the part of the dog which require the owners to reinforce their position as leader and instill submission on the dogs’ part (Uchida, Dodman, DeNapoli and Aronson, 1997).
This entire practice is fundamentally wrong on many levels:
First: Schenkel was not researching wolf packs in the wild. He was observing a population of unrelated wolves that had been put together in a confined space in the Basle Zoological Garden. His theory of a pack hierarchy was based on observing a highly stressed population of wolves that had been put in a very restrictive environment, analogous to a human high-security prison (*). Mech later retracted much of his conclusions about his research into wolves social behavior, when later investigations showed that his study population was atypical (Ha & Campion, 2019). More recent research has shown that neither feral dogs nor pet dogs engage in any social hierarchies and that simple resource guarding has been commonly misinterpreted as a dominant behavior between dogs (Bradshaw, Blackwell & Casey, 2009)
Second: Wolves are not dogs. Although they are related species, they diverged from each other about twenty thousand years ago and have followed different evolutionary and behavioral paths. Dogs have thousands of years of behavioral adaptation between them and their wolf cousins. Dogs’ body language is more subtle than wolves and depends largely on individuals
. For example, holding another dog’s muzzle in its mouth could be an attempt to make the other dog stop doing something, or it could be an invitation to play – depending on the dog or the situation.
Third: Dogs know that humans are not dogs. They are adept at reading our expressions and body language and do not need us to act like dogs to understand our emotions and intentions (Sinischalchi, d’Ingeo and Quaranta, 2018).
Fourth: Dominance does exist in the canine world, but it is situational. It centers on avoiding conflict rather than establishing a hierarchy. When a dog owner tries to lock eyes with his dog and the dog looks away, the pup is not acknowledging that he is subordinate; he is responding to his owner’s aggressive stance and attempting to calm the situation and defuse a confrontation (Rugaas, 2006).
Dogs’ actions that had been previously thought to be displays of submission to higher-status animals or people are now understood to be “calming signals”, intended to avoid conflict. Looking away, sitting, tail positions, and even rolling on its back are a dog’s efforts to signal that he is trying to avoid a confrontation and bring calm to a stressful situation. We must remember that these behaviors are part of dogs’ communications repertoire and are a completely voluntary – we must not impose them on our dogs. When we roll a dog on its back, grab its muzzle, glare into its eyes, we are acting like highly aggressive animals trying to provoke a confrontation. Our dogs will typically try to appease and calm us down by engaging in “submissive” or calming signals. This isn’t real submission to a pack hierarchy, they’re just attempting to avoid conflict. When we engage in dominance behavior with our dogs, we’re simply creating an antagonistic relationship with them (ASVAB, 2008).
Similarly, there’s no such thing as “dominance aggression”. When we act in a dominant or aggressive way with our dogs, we make them stressed and fearful. When we impose dominance during play or simply walking, we are not making our dogs more secure in their “pack status”, we are making them insecure. And when we ignore every appeasing and calming signal that the dog is desperately sending us, when we take away every other way for them to escape the stressful environment we’ve created for them, they will act in a way that we call “aggressive” (McConnell, 2002). This isn’t an attempt to move up in some imaginary hierarchy, they are simply desperate to make their owners stop scaring them. What has previously thought to be “dominance aggression, in which dogs are attempting to assert themselves in being “alpha”, is now understood to be the dogs being fearful of their aggressive-behaving owners (Herron, 2009).
Dogs, like us, are individuals. Some are more assertive than others, some are braver, some are timid, some are more or less outgoing than others and some are socially awkward. But they are never trying to challenge us for leadership. Dogs have been with us for thousands of years and are the most human-cooperative animals in the world. You don’t need to impose your dominance on your dog, all that does is damage his trust in you and make him stressed and apprehensive when you are around. Your dog should be your buddy and companion. Take the time to learn his personality traits, just like you would with a human friend, and train him in the skills he needs to live with humans just like you would with a human child. Use positive reinforcement and make your interactions with your dog fun, even joyful.
American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (2008), Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals. Retrieved from Dominance_Position_Statement_download-10-3-14.pdf (avsab.org)
Bradshaw, J. W. S., Blackwell, E. J. and Casey, R. A. (2009). Dominance in Domestic Dogs – Useful Construct or Bad Habit?. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 4 (3). 135 – 144. doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2008.08.004
Ha, J. C. and Campion, T. L. (2019). Dog Behavior, Modern Science and Our Canine Companions. Academic Press, London, UK
Herron, M. E., Shofer, F. S. and Reisner, I. R. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational Animal Behavior Science 117 (1-2), 47 – 54. doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
Koehler, W. R. (1962). The Koehler Method of Dog Training. Retrieved from Amazon.com
McConnell, P. (2002). The Other End of the Leash. Ballantine Books, New York, NY
Peeples, L. (2010), Critics Challenge ‘Dog Whisperer’ Methods. Live Science. Recovered from: www.livescience.com/5846-critics-challenge-dog-whisperer-methods.html
Rugaas, T. (2006). On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee, WA.
Schenkel, R. (1947). Expression Studies on Wolves. Retrieved from Expression Studies on Wolves – Rudolph Schenkel, 1947 : Rudolph Schenkel : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
Siniscalchi, M., d’Ingeo, S. and Quaranta, A. Orienting Asymmetries and Physiological Reactivity in Dog’s Response to Human Emotional Faces. Learning Behavior 46 (4). 574 – 585. doi: 10.3758/s13420-018-0325-2
The Monks of New Skete (1978). How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend. Little, Brown & Company. New York, NY
The Monks of New Skete (2002). How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend (2 ed.). Little, Brown & Company. New York, NY
Uchida, Y., Dodman N., DeNapoli, J. and Aronson, L. (1997). Characterization and Treatment of 20 Canine Dominance Aggression Cases. Journal of Veterinary Medical Science 59 (5). 397-9. doi: 10.1292/jvms.59.397