By Niki Tudge
There are so many inaccurate facts that need to be dispelled about dogs and the dog training industry. The use of dominance theory and the necessity to be a pack leader using this dominance theory is one of the more concerning inaccurate facts that as professionals we have an obligation to educate pet owners about. Using powerful, engaging and educational messages we need to encourage pet owners to reconsider these outdated facts and misconceptions about their dogs and their relationship with their dogs and look toward more recent research and progressive knowledge as their source of dog training information services. We do not, however, have just the “Wolf Pack Hierarchy” studies to blame for this “dominance pack leader” approach. Force methods using dominance theory have been around since the 1800s, years before the misleading wolf pack hierarchy studies were completed” (Shelbourne 2012).
So what do we now know and why do we, as professionals, not want to be pack leaders? Well as David Mech, one of the world’s top wolf biologists, says, “We got it so wrong”. As dog training professionals we know that we do not need to act dominantly as a pack leader to manage, train and build positive safe and empowering relationships with our pet dogs. Research supports our position that this “dominance theory” is not just flawed, it is wrong. Experts acknowledge that the application of this “dominance theory” leads to a training approach that not only damages our interspecies relationship but can also create dangerous fallout behaviors that become a liability for society and our pet’s welfare.
So if our goal isn’t to dominate what should we be striving for in our relationships with our dogs? In all social settings dogs exhibit social behaviors. This is how dogs interact and form relationships with each other and people. Not through the use of “dominance hierarchies. Our social relationships with our dogs are shaped during each of our interactions. Our dog’s behavior dimensions are strengthened or weakened due to the situation specific contingencies provided. During these social interactions conditioned emotional responses are also elicited due to the history of this conditioning. All canine communication behavior is social in nature. In social settings dogs use behavioral sets to access reinforcement or avoid aversive stimulation. The environmental antecedents set the occasion for the behavior and consequences reinforce or punish this social behavior.
Given this, how do we explain our dog’s behavior if we no longer use the “dominance hierarchy or pack leader mentality”. As professionals we use the behavioral approach, applied behavior analysis, to describe and explain the behaviors that our dogs exhibit. We know that behavior is a function of its environment. We use this behavioral approach because it is an effective approach to describing and explaining behavior because behavior is not an illness or disease but rather a dependent variable within an environment and we must look at the functional relationship the behavior has with its environment so we understand its cause and then know how to work on developing a behavior change program. Let’s not dominate, let’s understand and relate.