I was talking to a friend about dog training recently and I gave him some examples of the dog behaviours I have had to deal with over the years. His first question was ‘so what do you do in the lesson, do you have to show the dog who is boss first?’
I thought, ‘how am I supposed to do that during a lesson? Stare the dog out, grab it by the scruff of the neck or hold it down until it submits?’ Some of the dogs I deal with are already fearful of strangers, imagine me walking in and the first thing I do is wrestle it to the floor or make it feel uncomfortable by staring or grabbing it. The answer was simple, ‘No I do not’.
This ‘show the dog who is boss’ form of training is common but often leads to confrontational methods being used and stems from the alpha or dominance theory. Many behaviourists and trainers believed (and still do) that dogs, like wolves live in a social structure with a hierarchy and that they have a drive to achieve a higher status within a dog or human pack. This interpretation of behaviour caused many people to use dominance as a tool for training and for the owner to be the alpha. The owner needed to establish dominance over the dog. This approach often led to training techniques that used force or punishment. This outdated approach is still used by trainers today due to the historical error interpreting the behaviour in wolves many years ago. Even the researcher who published these results of the study in the 70’s discredits the findings. Dogs are a co-operative species with humans and not part of an alpha dominated pack like the wolf so we should not translate behaviour or base training on dominance. Dogs do however live in a social structure with a hierarchy but I struggle to believe they have a drive to achieve a higher status within a dog or human pack.
We are told that to be the alpha or boss you should eat before your dog, remove its food, walk first through doors, don't let the dog sleep on your bed, never lose a staring competition... the list goes on. From my experience the issues occur when there are no consistent rules, no leadership and the dog subsequently makes its own rules or is unknowingly rewarded for unwanted behaviours. As long as you set the rules, be consistent and reward good behaviour, using dominance or showing the dog who is boss is not required and just undermines trust and ultimately your bond with the dog.
To explain the ‘show who is boss’/alpha/dominance theory using force or punishment, imagine this. You start a new job where you don’t speak the language of your boss. You walk in the office and sit in a chair, your boss tries to stare you out then grabs you by the neck and forcefully removes you whilst shouting things you don’t understand because he wants you to sit in a different chair. But you don’t understand what he wants. You get up dust yourself off and sit down again in the wrong chair, this time he hits you and holds you down on the ground shouting more words you don’t understand. Next time you sit down he approaches, so you warn him, but now he doesn't understand what you are trying to communicate, so you have to defend yourself. This makes your boss feel the need to use even more dominance. In future this may lead to you avoiding that particular chair, especially when your boss is around and using aggression to protect yourself and resources. And the crazy thing is you are still not sure what behaviour is wanted by your boss. All this conflict and misunderstanding stems from the boss communicating poorly and using aversive techniques. You now hate your boss and any trust has been lost.
Now imagine the same scenario but with positive training, you are sat in the wrong seat and the boss approaches, but instead shows you £100, they then guide you to your correct seat and give you the money. Every time you sit down in this particular chair you receive £100, but you receive nothing for sitting in any other seat, you would soon realise that this seat was the best seat as you have been consistently positively rewarded. The reward over time would then be phased out as you sitting in the correct seat becomes habit. You have trust with your boss and enjoy doing the right behaviour.
We should ensure that we are not forcing a dog to do something, we should make the dog want to do it through positive rewarding, this will mean good behaviour is likely to be repeated and this should also avoid aggression. Communication is also key, it is very important to understand a dogs body language as well as helping them understand the human signals and what it is we want. If in doubt, consult a qualified trainer.