This blog handles a controversial subject. I am presenting what science has found over the years and what science supports, comparing the pack leader mentality against being your dog’s companion.
Please read the FULL blog before you start commenting.
The dog world is split into two. Those who believe that the dog should be a companion who is treated as a family member against those who believe that you should be the pack leader and use dominance against your dog.
But let us rewind for a second and look at how this historical split happened.
The Norwegian chickens
In the beginning of the 1900 a Norwegian psychologist was studying a group of chickens (I know, why am I talking about chickens when this is a dog blog, but hear me out). This Psychologist was no ordinary psychologist as his dissertation ended up changing the way we view our relation to animals.
After studying his chickens, he found that within the group there was a specific pecking order – a rank if you will. One hen was in the top of the order and another was at the bottom. Each hen had her place in the pecking order, and should someone try to move up in rank it would result in a fight.
This notion quickly spread among other animal scientists and science started using rank to explain the animal to animal relation and group dynamics.
Of course, this was soon also applied to the wolf. Scientists who studied the wolf observed that there was a specific rank among its members in a pack. The alpha being the top wolf and the omega being the wolf lowest in the hierarchy. As many believe that the dog is a descendant of the wolf this believe quickly spread to the dog world and many behaviors was described as dominant or submissive when studied by scientists.
Pack leader and the dominance theory
This Dominance theory as it was named also moved to clarify the relation between dogs and humans. Many dog owners and trainers started to believe that in order to have a functioning relation with their dog they needed to become the pack leader and make sure that their dog didn’t take over the home (sadly, many still believe this to be true!!!). They believe(d) that a dog’s sole purpose is to establish themselves as the leader of the family, and that if you do not keep them in check (yes, with force) they will start to take over.
Have you heard of the alpha-roll? It was believed (again, some still do this!) that when you got your little puppy home, you should grab it by the neck and press it firmly to the ground. That way the puppy would immediately know who the pack leader of the home was, and you would never have to train your dog, they would simply do as you said…Always!
Questioning the pack leader
Now, if you are a smart cookie, and I am sure you are. You will already have questioned how you can move a term used to explain the relation between animals of the same species, to the relation between two different species. Already there we should back up and question this Dominance theory – Can you really apply this theory to the relation between two different species? Does the dog really want to become the pack leader?
I mean a lot of problem dog behaviors can be explained by this theory right? Does your dog pull on the leash or growl at you when you get too close to where he/she eats then it is probably because you haven’t established a proper rank and the dog is trying to become your leader…..OR…
Debunking the Dominance theory and pack leader mentality
Here is where the Dominance theory falls apart (YEAH, finally!). The newest science is consistent in today believing that the Dominance theory is not only wrong it is also highly dangerous to use. The Dominance theory can directly harm your relation to your dog and cause more behavioral problems in your dog then if you use positive rewarding training. AND science has also found that the whole idea about ranks among animals of the same species is soooo much more complicated than what our friend the Norwegian psychologist found (I mean, he is more than a 100 years now😉).
Let us also remember that although dogs and wolves share a common ancestor, they have gone two different ways during their evolution. Dogs have gone through a domestication process where their brains have actually altered in order for them to adapt to their life with humans. I mean just look at their amazing way of communicating with us – they literally know how to ask for our help not to mention how remarkable they are at reading us and our body language.
Furthermore, the whole dominance theory has been debunked on wolves as well, by the scientist who first claimed it (I know right…read more about that here).
AND look at street dogs (I know it is a sad sight) but they do not form hierarchies where one is the pack leader and leads the hunt. They form small groups with no leader or apparent rank. They use their smarts to find food in the trash or use puppy eyes to get humans to feed them. If that is not debunking this dominance theory, I don’t know what is!
Now whether dogs who live in groups, like in a shelter, form a hierarchy is still debated among scientists. Some say that there are hints of a rank system while others say that the relation between individuals change depending on the situation.
Us that has a multiple dog household also see that our dogs have established some kind of…let us call it agreement. An example from our home is that Belga knows to keep her distance when Chester is eating, but at the same time she will gladly jump into a crazy tug-a-war game with him. This is not a rank, it is just co-existing – Chester is saying I like to eat alone and undisturbed but he does not think he is the pack leader and will gladly let Belga “take the lead” in other situations.
The human pack leader
What science can agree on is that to move this whole hierarchy Dominance theory idea on to the relation between humans and dogs is totally bunkers (my words not theirs 😉). Instead we should focus on what is really important, and that is how to create the best relation and collaboration with our dogs.
Using dominant training with force and physical gestures (to put it nicely) and thinking of yourself as a pack leader will only destroy your relation with your dog – Do an alpha roll, as we talked about in the beginning, and that is a sure way to lose your dog’s trust.
Physical punishment will not help either you or your dog, if anything it will only create a bad relation between the two of you and a more dangerous dog.
Remember, your dog chooses not to bite you, but that does not mean that they won’t!
Here is what a study from the university of Bristol found.
Dogs that were physically punished showed an increase in behaviors such as increased barking in general, higher aggression levels when meeting other dogs and strangers. Furthermore, they had a higher tendency to display fear and separation anxiety. All in all, they had all the problems you don’t want your dog to have.
Now, this is not to say that you are treating your dog in a wrong way if they have one of these problems. Problem behaviors can yes stem from the use of wrong training, but it can also be due to that dogs’ personality. Some dogs are more nervous than others and some dogs simply don’t like other dogs.
Just like us humans, dogs have different personalities and it is up to us as their humans to give them support, love and care and try our very best to learn to understand them and teach them gently what we want them to do (also read the blog about the relation between dogs and humans) just as you would with a child.
I know, this was a long one right!
Your dog is not trying to take over your home or rule over you as a mighty king. They are NOT trying to dominate you or be the pack leader. In your dog’s mind there is no such thing as rank between you!
It is simple – treat your dog well, reward them when they do something you like and they will do their very best to follow and please you.