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Down with Dominance
Both Ends of the Leash
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Here are some “rules” for you dog lovers out there (that is, if you’re given to following just anyone’s advice, whether or not they’re qualified to give it):

• Don’t pet your dog unless he works for it first.
• Don’t let your dog move his head so that it is higher than your own.
• Don’t feed your dog until after you’ve eaten.
• Don’t step around your dog if she’s in your path; make her get up and move, even if she’s sound asleep.
• Don’t let your dog sleep with you or cuddle with you on the couch.
• Don’t clean up after your dog while she’s watching you.

But, never fear. Here’s what you can do:
• Spit in your dog’s food.
• Wipe your baby’s dirty diapers on the wall.

Why, you might ask? Because each action is said to either cause your dog to think he’s dominant over you, or — in the case of the spitting and the wiping — tells your dog that you (and your baby) are dominant over her. Seriously. There are people out there telling us that these tips are critical to our own happiness as well as that of our dogs.

Oh my. Are we really still having this conversation? Are we really still talking about whether or not we need to “get dominance” over our dogs? Ten years ago, I wrote a column for Bark titled “Alpha Schmalpha,” in which I explained that dominance is one of the most misused and misunderstood words in the English language, at least in relation to dog training. As I and many other trainers and behaviorists repeat endlessly in books, blogs and seminars, dominance is simply a description of a relationship between two individuals who want the same thing.

One animal is said to be “dominant” over the other if he or she always has primary access to the pork chop that falls on the floor, or the favorite toy, or the cozy lap of a dozing guardian. Thus, it’s about the resolution of situations in which there might be competition for a resource. It is not about coming when called, or sitting when told to sit, or accepting unfamiliar dogs into the yard.

We’re not even sure how the concept relates to interactions between dogs, much less to interactions between two entirely different species like people and dogs. At present, thoughtful ethologists and behaviorists are re-evaluating the concepts of “dominance” and “social status” as they relate to the domestic dog. Although there are questions and quibbles about some of the finer points, experts almost universally agree that the concept of “getting dominance” over our dogs is, at best, not useful, and more often is harmful to our relationships with our best friends.

Yet, the idea that we must “dominate” our dogs lives on, zombie-like, in spite of years of research and experience that demonstrates “being dominant” over our dogs does not improve obedience. In fact, we know that using positive reinforcement results in the best behavior, the fewest behavioral problems and the richest relationships. Given that, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: why is the concept of achieving dominance over our dogs so seductive? Why is it so hard for people to give up?

This is most likely not a question with one answer. Given that humans are complex animals, I suspect there are many answers. And, of course, all we can do is speculate. Perhaps thinking about what might motivate us to hang onto this age-old concept can help us finally give it a respectful burial.

Surely one reason that so many people are enamored of the concept is that social status is highly relevant to our species. No matter how egalitarian we are, the fact is that in restaurants, some people get better tables than others, and most of us can’t walk into the governor’s office just to have a chat. We address physicians as “Dr. Johnson” but we call nurses “Anita” or “James”; we ask the judge for “permission to approach the bench”; and if we are lucky enough to be given an audience at Buckingham Palace, we still, still, bow or curtsy to the queen.

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