Scientists believe dogs evolved from wolves some 15 000 years ago. In an attempt to understand dogs’ social structure some scientists began to study the lives and social structures of wolves in captivity. They discovered that wolves had a strict hierarchical structure and labeled the wolves in a ranking system according to their access to resources as alpha wolf, beta wolf, omega wolf etc. Wolves in the wild rarely showed conflict, but had a sophisticated way of deferring to one another where priority access to breeding and resources belonged to the alpha wolf.
Dog trainers and enthusiasts took hold of this information and transferred it to the lives of domestic dogs, whilst inserting ourselves into the mix. Unfortunately this idea has led many to believe that behaviour problems arise due to a dog’s need to be the dominant animal in the human home.
POPULAR TV shows often explain dog behaviour problems as being a result of dominance and suggest to caregivers that all they must do is show their pet who is BOSS and who is the PACK leader.
There is now ample evidence that this is NOT a productive, scientifically valid or ethical way to operate behavioural medicine.
Dogs live with us, together, as part of the family. The social structure of a group of dogs is very different from that of a wolf pack.
To be a successful member of a family dogs need clear, consistent cues to follow. Since we control their food, their access to shelter and their sexual lives, we ARE inherently the dominant species in the relationship. We do not need to act in an aversive, bullying way to have a successful relationship with our canine. What dogs need is leadership, but this leadership should be based on providing the dog with clear, consistent rewards for desired behaviour and the substitution of well-learnt, calm behaviours for ones that are problematic. Dogs do not follow a hierarchical system akin to wolves. A hierarchy may exist between dogs who live in a household, but this can fluctuate to change between dogs, depending on the resource being discussed. One dog may have priority access to beds and another to dog bones. Dogs can be attention-seeking and bossy, but this does not equate with having a dominant personality.
There is evidence to suggest that when caregivers are given the advice to be DOMINANT over their dog they are likely to try to make their dog SUBMIT and therefore are at greater risk of being bitten. Asking caregivers to be dominant over their dog is inherently risky if the dog suffers from fear and anxiety.
Instead, caregivers can be taught positive forms of communication with their dog to assist changes in behaviour. Ask us for clarification if you have any concerns.
See these resources:
See AVSAB – Position statement on Dominance
And the pet professional guild