Traditionally dogs were trained by the ‘Alpha’ method, which involved showing that the human was dominant – or the Alpha leader of the pack – by forcing the animal into a submissive position. Now studies now show that nothing could be further from the truth. As with humans, the main thing dogs learn from aggression is how to be aggressive.
Down with dominance
Scientific experts at the Animal Behavior Research Institute have a bone to pick with dog trainers like Cesar Millan, the popular ‘dog whisperer,’ who encourages forceful behaviour like rolling the dog on its side or back to show submission to the ‘dominant’ human.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) is concerned about this “re-emergence” of dominance theory of training which involves forcing animals into submission as a way to prevent and correct behavior problems. The theory mistakenly assumes that animals misbehave mainly because they want the ‘Alpha’ role, leading people to believe that they must use physical force or coercion to modify their pet’s undesirable behavior.
To counter this type of training, the AVSAB has developed the following guidelines, which emphasize that the dominance theory should not be used for behavior modification.
Reinforcing desirable behavior
Behavior modification and training for dogs must focus on reinforcing desirable behavior, and not reinforcing undesirable behavior. Trainers need to look at the underlying emotional state of the dog – such as fear and anxiety – as well as medical and genetic factors that could be driving the undesirable behavior.
Check out this amazing video that clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of training that focuses on changing the dog’s emotional state using rewards. In other words, dogs – even those with very aggressive tendencies – learn to associate positive behavior with food rewards.
Most of the types of behavior that dog owners want to modify – like barking too much, jumping up, and not coming when called – occur because in one way or another, the behavior was inadvertently rewarded, and because alternate appropriate behavior was not trained instead. So it’s not so much dominance that most dog owners want, but the ability to influence their pets to perform behavior willingly.
A parallel can be drawn to ‘old school’ parenting and the concept of ‘spare the rod, spoil the child.’ Using dominance training or physical punishment to deal with aggression is only a quick fix because you’re not really addressing the underlying cause: often fear and anxiety. You could very well be making the problem worse. Pets subjected to threats or force may naturally react with aggression – not out of dominance – but because the human threatening them makes them afraid.
It’s important to realize that the main thing that comes out of dominance-type training is the creation of an antagonistic relationship between you and your pet. So, when it comes time for training, do your homework and be sure to find a course or trainer that uses a rewards-based approach.