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The Myth Of Dominance

The use and misuse of the "D" word.

I want to talk to you about the "D" word. This is perhaps one of the most overused and misunderstood words used by people to describe their or other's dogs. That word is Dominance. First you have to know that most canine behavioral problems either involve normal behaviors that people don't like or understand or anxiety-related issues. Yet, most people approach this from only a human's needs. Often you'll hear advise like:

"You must dominate the dog!"
"You must exert control and show the dog who is boss!"
"You must be alpha to the dog!"
"You must make sure the dog submits to you!"

The misuse and misperception of the concept of dominance has seriously confused understanding and often results in a damaged relationship. Dominance is thought by many to be a rigid hierarchy. It was thought to develop through contests in young pups that would predict later social relationships as adults. Because of the forceful way in which this hierarchy was assumed to develop, humans were encouraged to be at the top of the hierarchy and told to be dominant to their dogs, to show the dog, "who is boss". Under this misconception, untold numbers of humans have been bitten by dogs they have been betrayed, terrified and given no choice. For dogs that have an anxiety disorder, the behaviors used to dominate a dog (e.g., hitting, hanging, subjecting the dog to dominance downs, alpha rolls and other punitive, coercive techniques) convince that troubled, needy, pathological dog that the human is indeed a threat, resulting in the dog's condition worsening.

In reality, dominance simply means that in a contest over a particular resource, one dog will dominate, or if you will, "win" that contest. In our house, our male Boxer will always win over food. Our female Boxer, over our attention and our female Malinois, will win over toys. Other things, they just might not care about.

We need to change our thinking. Instead, an understanding of social rules that rely on deference--teaching our dogs to defer to us instead of taking matters into their own paws, can help us to avoid the unfair, cruel and often dangerous behaviors that are the result of being dumbed down by dominance. What do we mean by deference? Deference occurs when the dog assesses an ongoing situation and waits calmly to get input from another member of the group (that member would be you) before pursuing a behavior or interaction. Indeed that is how we should think of ourselves, a cooperative member of our dog's social group. Next week, we'll focus on how to teach and use deference.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Lynda April 19, 2012 at 03:10 AM
Thanks for starting a discussion about dominance vs deference in working with dog behaviours. As someone more familiar with cats, dominating never seemed practical to me! Also, I would be interested in more information about how the breed of a dog affects behaviour. Just from personal experience with my standard poodle, cocker spaniel and lab, the breed of a dog does affect behaviour. Of course as you mention, some dogs are just more interested in food or attention or toys than other dogs. Thanks.
Scott Shwarts April 19, 2012 at 05:51 PM
Breed is a huge factor in behavior. Over man's history with dogs (one dating back some 14,000 years) we have molded them to serve our needs in what began solely as a working or cooperative relationship has evolved in modern times into a companion relationship. Terriers for example were bred to hunt rodents and if you've ever seen a russell or scottish or other terrier with a squeak toy you know those patterns are still "in there". My Belgian Shepherd, a herding breed, if not given work to do, will find something to amuse herself usually involving a pair of my shoes. Even our little friend the Chihuahua was bred to be a lap dog and to be protective of whose lap they were sitting in. So indeed, many of the behaviors that people complain about with their dogs have their root in the breed specific behavior. The key is to understand it and try to channel it-not just try to make it go away.

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