The world of Dog training and behaviour is being continuously researched and we now know more than ever about the workings of our Dogs mind. There are many theories and techniques out there and at the centre of much controversy and debate is “Dominance Theory”. Below is a statement from Dogs Trusts head of training and Behaviour, Lynn Barber which outlines the flaws with this theory, why it doesn’t work and most importantly what does!
Dominance and Punishment
Statement by Lyn Barber
Head of Training and Behaviour, Dogs Trust
We have rehomed over 3,000 dogs here from our
Dublin centre and work closely with Bristol University in the to remain at the forefront of current training and behaviour modification methods. UK
I know that dominance based training has been well regarded for many years but at Dogs Trust we believe that this is not the best approach for building a lasting relationship with your dog or achieving successful behaviour modification.
Dogs Trust believes that Dominance Theory plays no part in our current understanding of ethology.
For many decades trainers and behaviourists decided that, because dogs descended from wolves, we should observe wolves and treat our pet dogs accordingly. There were many flaws to this idea and current scientific thinking has led us away from this belief and is encouraging us to treat dogs as dogs (not wolves in doggy clothing!).
The original Dominance Theorists spent a great deal of time observing wolf packs. Unfortunately they were observing wolves that lived in captivity and were therefore in error in defining wolf ethology.
Wolves kept in captivity are severely restricted as far as resources are concerned – limited territory and areas to roam, restricted diet which is only available to them on set days of the week, no choice as to group size or members and being forced to live in very close proximity. With little choice in their lifestyle there would have been many conflicts witnessed within the group – an observation that led these theorists to believe that aggression was connected to dominance.
In actual fact if you look up the definition of dominance it reads ‘to have a commanding influence over’. Think back to when you were at school. You and your friends were in the maths classroom waiting for Mr Smith, the teacher, to arrive, with lots of chatting and tomfoolery. Mr Smith enters the classroom and begins shouting and threatening in order to get everyone to sit still, listen and begin the lesson (i.e. he has an aggressive attitude). The same scenario occurs in the English classroom. When Miss Walker, the teacher, walks in she simply stands at the front of the class. Very quickly the pupils begin to notice her and settle at their desks to commence the lesson. Which teacher is truly’ dominant’?
We have long understood that aggression and dominance are not in direct correlation. Indeed if we were to look at ‘free-living’ wolf groups we see that the alphas are more often mediators within the group but have the most important job of keeping the group safe from other animals and to ensure that the next generation is fit and healthy to continue the genetic lines.
Where our pet dogs are concerned the Dominance Theorists will have us believe that every incident of aggression is down to the dog being dominant. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The biggest reason for aggression from a dog is because he is frightened for his own safety.
Take the dog that is lying on the sofa and growls at his owner when they enter the room. He is not being dominant and laying claim to the comfy sofa but rather he is worried what you are going to do to him to get him off he sofa. This can be a result of past experience, confusion about the owners attitude or even worried because he is sometimes allowed on the sofa and sometimes not – but he has no way of predicting which it will be on this particular occasion.
Within Dogs Trust we are most concerned with building good relationships between dogs and owners and to help these dogs in our care to trust people again.
The dominance theorists have come up with many imaginative ways of making our pet dog realize that he is the lowest of the low within the family pack and that the humans are pack leaders. Unfortunately they all consist of negative punishment (and occasionally positive punishment).
The behavioural experts have long understood that excessive and non-contingent punishment leads to Conditioned Suppression, Learned helplessness and, potentially, Tonic Immobility (any of which cause serious welfare concerns for the dog).
Imagine that I have come to visit you and brought the most decadent chocolate cake you can imagine. I ask that we keep the cake for afternoon coffee but, because you love chocolate cake, you can’t resist and sneak a small piece when I’m not looking. That’s got to annoy me a bit so I decide I’ll have to be pro-active to salvage the rest of the cake.
I stand next to the cake with a rolled up newspaper and hit you smartly over the head whenever you come near the cake. I am punishing you (hitting you) for trying to steal some cake but, more importantly, the fact that I am standing there with the newspaper is a threat of punishment that you recognize.
While the threat of punishment is present you will not steal any cake (I have Conditioned you to Suppress the behaviour of stealing cake) but I have done nothing to address your motivation to steal the cake (you love cake!!!). However, if I am called away, the threat of me hitting you with the paper disappears – be honest now, what would you do? Leave the cake? Take a small piece of cake? Or…Take a huge piece of cake (because you can)?
Most individuals would now steal a huge piece of cake, if not the whole cake. This is called Spontaneous Recovery – when the threat of punishment is removed the behaviour comes back bigger, better, badder than before.
If I was to carry on with the threat of punishment but now I hit you for stepping towards the cake, or looking at the cake – just because you might steal a piece. Then the punishment becomes non-contingent to the dog (it becomes unpredictable) and we then get Learned Helplessness. Now all novel, interesting, exploratory behaviours will cease. “I won’t do it because I might get punished”! This, too, is subject to Spontaneous Recovery.
If I get carried away even further with the punishment (or threat of punishment) then there is a danger of me causing Tonic Immobility whereby even voluntary movement ceases. You can appreciate the huge welfare issues now.
We should not be dealing with problem behaviours using any kind of punishment as these will be prone to Spontaneous Recovery or seriously affects the dog’s welfare.
If I were to address your motivation to eat chocolate cake by giving you a bar of chocolate to eat in the meantime, then I will succeed in preserving the cake for the afternoon. This would be the approach of a ‘reward based, positive trainer’. It will lead to success without compromising your welfare.
I have just become the proud owner of two working collie pups. As I write this they are 10 weeks old – always up to mischief! ‘Right Little Charlie’ and Foxy Scrumpet’ – yes, really, that’s what they’re called – Charlie and Foxy for short.
This has given me pause (paws?) for thought – I will be bringing them up concentrating on true natural behaviours of the domestic dog and not under the strict rules of a ‘dominance’ regime. How much difference will this make to their next 15 or so years?
Scenario 1: The pups must see me as ‘pack leader’
How do the Dominance Theorists tell you to achieve this?
Basically you have to control every aspect of the dog’s life – eat before the dog, go through the door before the dog, don’t allow the dog on the furniture, move the dog rather than step over him, don’t give attention when he wants it, and probably another dozen or so ‘control’ aspects.
Although the rolled up newspaper is not employed here all of these ‘don’ts’ are implemented using negative punishment.
Learned Helplessness, a dog that has little or no confidence and a very poor relationship with the owner.
Scenario 2: The pups develop a secure, trusting attachment to me.
How am I going to achieve this?
Allow them to make choices where the important Maintenance behaviours are concerned (these are eating, drinking, urinating, defaecating and sleeping) which has been proved to help reduce or limit stress levels, give in when they ‘attention-seek’ (when my pups ask to go outside to toilet then I’d be foolish to ignore them!), greet them when I return home (helping to build a strong, appropriate attachment).
At the same time I will implement a socialization and habituation program (to combat Cognitive Dissonance) as well as positive reinforcement training.
Two little pups who will grow up to be confident dogs who can think for themselves and who trust (and like) me! And be allowed to be dogs!
You should be able to appreciate the difference in lifestyle and welfare that these little guys will have in each of these cases. If you imagine that, when you were a child, your parents kept saying “you can’t do this, you can’t do that, why bother even trying”. As an adult you are less likely to try things out, you will have no confidence in your ability and will probably have a fairly miserable life.
If, on the other hand, you had parents that supported you – “well done! You tried really hard, I’m proud of you” then you will grow up to be an adult who confidently will try. I know I’m making the right choice for these little guys.
For further reading on Dominance and its implications, please visit the following site.