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Veterinary Forum March 2009 (Vol 26, No 3)

Clinical Report — Debunking the myths of dominance training

by Sophia Yin, DVM, MS (Animal Science)

    When dealing with difficult dogs, do you have to dominate them and teach them who is boss to get them to behave?

    If dogs bark, growl or misbehave, should you throw them on their back in an alpha roll and reprimand them face to face?

    When dogs greet you by jumping or rushing out the door, are they vying for a higher rank?

    Fifteen years ago, many veterinarians would have answered "Yes" to these questions. But now the scientific understanding of dominance theory and the social structure of dogs and their wolf relatives are debunking the myths about dominance, and veterinarians, technicians and trainers who have used dominance theory to guide their dog-human interactions are rethinking their techniques.

    One major myth debunked by updated scientific knowledge is that dogs misbehave because they are seeking higher rank or are trying to be dominant. According to the recently released position statement from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), "The Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals," dominance theory has limited use in animal training, and rank is rarely the motivation behind inappropriate behavior. To understand why this change in thinking came about, one has to understand the concept of dominance.

    In animal social groups, dominance is a relationship among individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission to determine which animal has priority access to multiple resources, such as food, preferred resting spots and mates. The dominance-submissive relationship does not exist until one individual consistently submits or defers. The behaviors that most pet owners want to modify, such as excessive barking, unruly greetings and failure to come when called, are not related to valued resources and may not even involve aggression. Rather, these behaviors occur because they have been inadvertently rewarded and because alternate appropriate behaviors have not been taught.

    "Behavior modification and training should focus on the scientifically sound approach of reinforcing desirable behaviors, such as sitting when greeted, and removing rewards for undesirable behaviors, such as jumping on people for attention when greeting them," says E. Kathy Meyer, VMD, president of the AVSAB. Reinforcers for this type of jumping behavior include petting, yelling, pushing the dog away or playing with the dog.

    Focusing on a more scientific approach rather than one based on an antagonistic relationship affects not only the dog's long-term well-being but also the owner's safety. When using dominance theory as a guide, owners tend to meet resistance with force, which can lead to human injury.

    "A typical scenario is a client with a 3-year-old dog that presented because of aggression directed at strangers the dog meets either on walks or when guests come to the home. Initially, the dog barks at people as they pass and backs away if approached, indicating that the aggression is from fear," says John Ciribassi, DVM, DACVB, past president of the AVSAB. "The dog is referred to a trainer who suggests that the dog be fitted with a pinch collar and be given a verbal and physical correction with the leash. Because the dog now feels pain when it encounters the person it fears, the aggression escalates."

    As a result, Ciribassi adds, the dog lunges, snaps and bites in situations in which it used to bark and back away. "In some cases, the dog is so aroused it learns to redirect its aggression toward humans."

    Some owners also may incorrectly try to pin a dog on its back and reprimand it when it misbehaves. This treatment is based on an incorrect understanding of what happens in the wild. For decades trainers have assumed that higher-ranked wolves pin lower-ranked ones in an alpha roll as a power play. In reality, it is not the higher-ranked wolf that forces the lower-ranked one down, rather the lower-ranked wolf offers a ritualistic posture as a sign of deference, similar to the way one might bow or kneel before royalty. Consequently, a more appropriate term for this posturing would be a "submissive roll."

    Indeed, biologists who study wolves rarely, if ever, use the term "alpha" to describe the leader of the pack, much less a body posture. "Rather than viewing a wolf pack as a group of animals organized with a 'top dog' that fought its way to the top, science now understands that most wolf packs are groups formed exactly the same way as a human family," says prominent wolf biologist L. David Mech, PhD, senior research scientist, US Geological Survey Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in St. Paul, Minn. "That is, maturing males and females from different packs court, mate and produce a litter of pups. These adults naturally fall into a leadership role."

    As the trend toward using dominance theory fades, people may ask, "What about leadership?" The AVSAB stresses that dominance and leadership are not synonymous. Leadership, or the ability to influence individuals to perform behaviors they would not necessarily perform, can be gained without force by:

    • Clearly defining guidelines for behavior, such as sitting patiently to ask for what is wanted
    • Communicating these guidelines by reinforcing desirable behaviors immediately as they occur and removing reinforcers for undesirable behaviors before they are reinforced
    • Avoiding reinforcement of undesirable behaviors and reinforcing only desirable behaviors frequently and consistently enough for them to become habit

    By dispelling the old rules of dominance and following the new guidelines, veterinarians can better handle patients and guide their clients toward proper training.

    For more information:

    "Alpha" wolf video by David L. Mech, senior research scientist, US Department of Interior; accessed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNtFgdwTsbU; Jan. 30, 2009.

    AVSAB. Position statement on the "Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals;" available at www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/images/stories/Position_Statements/dominance%20statement.pdf; accessed Jan. 30, 2009.

    Bernstein IS. Dominance: the baby and the bathwater. J Behav Brain Sci 1981;4:419-457.

    Drews C. The concept and definition of dominance behavior. Behaviour 1993;125:284-313.

    Yin S. Dominance vs. unruly behavior. In: Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification in Dogs and Cats. Davis, Calif.: CattleDog Publishing; 2009:52-73.

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