Animals can be hard to figure out sometimes. When an animal acts in a way we consider inappropriate, it can be very convenient to ascribe moral attributes or a desire to dominate us to the cause of the unwanted behavior and in turn, attempt to assert our own dominance over the situation.
However, dogs don’t think that way, and the very concept of dominance theory is problematic. It is based on vague surface familiarity with a theory and study carried out many years ago with captive wolves (not their domestic dog distant cousins). This study was later refuted by the scientist who carried out the study
Getting to the bottom of a dog’s behaviour involves a careful assessment of the function of the behavior, the environment that triggers the behavior, and the consequences that either increase or decrease the behavior.
After assessment, a competent trainer creates a personalized training plan that sets the animal up for success. Success is achieved by creating an environment that does not trigger the unwanted behaviour, removes reinforcement for the unwanted behaviour and teaches the animal a desirable substitute behaviour. Through consistent reinforcement, science tells us this results in a strengthening or increase in the desired behaviour.
At no point in the training process does a competent trainer assign a moralistic cause for the behavior.
When it comes to dominance, dogs do not create social hierarchies the way that wolves do. Even when wild dogs form groups, they are not tightly knit family groups like those of wolf packs. Domestic dogs tend to form groups with fluid social hierarchies, meaning more than one dog will lead the group at different times and in search of different resources.
Certified animal trainers follow a behaviour modification procedure that is described as a least intrusive, minimally aversive (LIMA).
LIMA training interventions cycle through a procedure that manages the environment to reduce incidents of unwanted behaviour, and systematically teaches an animal, through carefully applied reinforcement of specific behaviour, how they should act instead.
Dominance-based training methods are scientifically unsound and often apply punishment to reduce behavior when the animal is not able to understand what behavior, exactly, is warranting the punishment. Or the methodology involves repeatedly setting up an animal to execute the unwanted behaviour, then applying punishment to reduce the behaviour.
This methodology may involve using equipment such as shock and choke collars to issue corrections when a dog has behaved in an unwanted manner and often involves physically manipulating a dog to do what we want. This type of training is harmful and can create or worsen issues of aggression and fear. If we force an animal into submission and the animal goes limp, the animal is not conceding that you are dominant, it is solely acting in fear. The fear the animal is experiencing may cause them to turn to aggression to escape.
The good news is that, even though the animal training industry remains unregulated, we see far fewer hobby trainers or uncertified trainers attempting to change behaviour based on dominance theory.
Instead, we are seeing a strong shift towards certification in the industry. Certified trainers understand that dogs are motivated by resources like food, toys, and our attention and build careful plans to teach a dog how we expect them to behave using the principles of reinforcement. Certified dog trainers also teach pet parents to carefully read their dog’s communication cues to better understand what your dog is communicating.
The end result is optimal behavioural welfare, well behaved dogs and happy pet parents.
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