Too often, both during my work as a dog trainer and, and almost more often in my private time, I hear: “This is a dominant dog!”. Often it is shown on dogs that growl at other dogs, do not come when you call them or are very pushy.
I recently had a discussion with a woman who firmly believed that she was doing the right thing when she turned her very dear and old dog on the back at the vet. The bitch finally growled and that had to be punished with the so-called “alpha throw”.
Such statements make me sad and angry, because often natural dog behavior, such as the bitch growling at the veterinarian, is punished just because it bothers people and thinks that his dog is dominant and must therefore be properly punished and subordinate become.
But what does dominance actually mean? Why does the widespread understanding of this word allow that many dogs are wronged and suffering every day?
“Dominance” is one of the most misunderstood terms. If you ask any person on the street, for example, you often hear: “The dominant is the one who is aggressive” or “He always prevails”.
In contrast, there is the generally applicable definition of behavioral biology, which says that dominance simply means having first access to certain resources (e.g. coveted feed, berths, toys, sexual partners) and being respected by others in the group. Access to resources is strongly dependent on the situation and the situation.
Originally, the term “hierarchy” and the dominance term that came with it at the beginning of the 20th century was coined by the Norwegian Schjelderup-Ebbe, who had observed that the competition for feed in chickens always runs in a certain pattern. The highest and therefore most dominant chicken “A” chopped all other chickens away, the “next higher” chicken “B” chopped all but “A” etc. The so-called “pecking order” was then transferred to all kinds of animals pretty quickly , also on the wolf and unfortunately also on the dog, because it is known to come from the wolf.
The view of the all-determining alpha wolf quickly became known and one
simply assumed that as a person in a dog-person relationship you had to behave as if you were the “pack leader”. Specifically, this means that the dog should not be given freedom, and should even be suppressed, because otherwise he will climb the hierarchy and believe that he can conquer the whole family.
In this context, the strangest advice is given on how to prevent people from being ranked below their dog:
- Do not give the dog anything to eat until you have eaten yourself.
- The dog must not go through the door first and must not run in front of the person on a leash.
- If the dog has marked, it is best to urinate over the marking. For this purpose, specific spray bottles were invented (there are no limits to creativity.).
- And of course the classic: the dog must not sleep on elevated berths, such as on the bed and sofa.
When I think about how often my dogs sleep on the sofas, eat independently of me, and often enough be the first to go through the door, I almost laugh at the thought that they should be dominant because of this and will eventually try to get away from mine to expel the nonexistent throne in order to seize power.
My feeling that it cannot be right if every apparent “behavioral problem” is based on a lack of “dominance” or “leadership” on the part of the owner has also been confirmed in recent years by observations of wild wolf packs and groups of dogs.
Many well-known biologists have observed the behavior of wolves and found no confirmation of a fixed hierarchy.
Last but not least, David Mech emphasized that wolves live in a family association that is very similar in social organization to a human family. And in a normally led human family there is no oppression with unrealistically hard rules and violent implementation.
It gets even more complicated if you look at the dog-human team. Often, aversive training methods, such as “snout grip”, “alpha throw” or “pinching flanks”, are justified by the fact that dogs would do this to one another in order to prove their strength, among other things. What is kept secret is that it is often not the sovereign, but the insecure, stressed dogs that react aggressively to their peers and then actually put other dogs on their backs. We don’t want to appear insecure as a “dominant person”, do we?
Ultimately, this is simply irrelevant for life with my dog:
I am not a dog! I cannot adopt dog-like gestures that I am not able to do at all due to timing reasons and that I can possibly only grasp half.
I am a human being and I have cognitive skills with which I can actually consider why my dog behaves towards me the way he does and how I can change his behavior so that no one in my environment and certainly not my dog harms of it carries.
The question of the pack leader in a human-dog group and in the multi-dog household is also superfluous.
Unlike free-living wolves, free-living dogs do not form family associations with sufficient resources, as the wolves do, but either live alone or form multi-dog groups. These observations were made by Ray and Lorna Coppinger, among others, and show that we can no longer compare our domestic dog to the wolf in this regard either.
But if you can’t justify disobedience, aggression and pushy behavior by saying that my dog doesn’t take me seriously, what can it be?
For example, if my dog growls at me, there can be several reasons:
- He is afraid of me and thinks he has to defend himself in some way. He warns me that if I keep doing this, he’ll probably bite because he can’t help himself any other way.
- Stress often plays a major role in aggressive behavior. Dogs who are stressed react more quickly with aggression in many situations than if they were not stressed.
- Even frustrated dogs become aggressive more quickly. Frustration and aggression are closely related
- My dog wants to keep a coveted resource, such as a chewing bone, and has not learned that it is not bad when I am near the resource.
There are many reasons why dogs can react aggressively or are “disobedient”. The last thing to think about is “dominant behavior” and the associated consequences for this dog, because there are much better ways and possibilities to analyze behavior and change it permanently.
For the bitch that snarled at the vet, it can just mean that she was scared or in pain. She could have been helped by teaching her to accept uncomfortable things before going to the vet so that she didn’t feel like defending herself.