“Dominance” and the Pitfalls of Punishment


Training is not about asserting “dominance!”
The term “dominance” has to deal with:
1. Conflict
2. A resource (food, toy, resting place, etc.)
3. When one animal consistently defers to another
For example, two dogs are in the room. Dog #1 is chewing on a bone. Dog #2 walks up to Dog #1. Dog #1 growls at Dog #2 in order to keep the bone and thus Dog #1 walks away. In this scenario, Dog #2 was dominant.

Dominance is not a personality characteristic!

It will change depending on the situation.

For example, now Dog #2 is in his crate and Dog #1 walks over. Dog #2 growls at Dog #1 to say, get away from my crate, and Dog #1 walks away. We would say that Dog #2 is dominant in this situation over his crate or resting place.

A much better way to describe the previous scenarios is with the term “Resource Guarding”

Resource guarding means simply that the dog is guarding something valuable to him/her, such as food/water bowls, treats, chews, toys, a resting place, the car, even their person.

In the first scenario regarding Dog #1 chewing on a bone, when he growled, he was resource guarding his bone.

In the second scenario, Dog #2 was resource guarding his crate.

Resource guarding is a natural behavior, we all do it, even us humans. We don’t just let anyone get money from our bank account and we lock our cars and houses at night. These are the things that are important to us and thus don’t just let anyone have them, and in some cases we will fight to protect our resources.

However, if the behavior escalates to actual aggression, that does not mean that you have to use negative/aversive methods of training in order to achieve a well mannered dog. In fact, studies have shown that such methods will usually make the behavior worse, or bad behaviors will come out in other ways. Most situations have nothing to do with so called “dominance”.

Now Dog #1 is laying on the couch and Dog #2 jumps on the couch and lays down next to Dog #1. There is no dominance here because there is no conflict. The couch is a resource but since there was no confrontation the situation is null and void and thus doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a difference that one dog got up on the couch first because that dog did not then try to keep the other dog away from or off of the couch.

A lot of owners will think that because their dog gets in the trash, pulls on the leash or gets on the couch when they get up or are not in the room are being “dominant”. These have nothing to do with “dominance”, or even leadership on the dog’s part. This is simply from a lack of training on the owner’s part. The dog gets into the trash because yummy smelly things were thrown away in the trash and no one is watching. Once the dog learns that yummy things come out of the trash can, the dog is going to repeat that behavior because it gets the dog something awesome. The dog that pulls on the leash is just excited to get where ever it’s going, even if it’s simply to go forward. If the owner keeps walking then the dog learns to ignore any pain or pressure on its throat because it is being conditioned to the walk feeling this way. And frankly, we just don’t walk or run fast enough. It is not about being ahead of us, they are just excited and most owners teach their dogs that pulling gets them where they want to go. For the dog that gets on the couch, the couch is comfy, much comfier than the floor, and probably comfier than most dog beds. And the dog has associated that if the person comes in the room they get in trouble when they are on the couch, so they get off. However, the dog has also associated that when no one is around that nothing bad happens when they are on the couch and they are thus getting the reward that they seek. The dog is not purposely trying to be sneaky in order to be on the couch. They just know that in situation A they can be on the couch and in situation B that they cannot be on the couch. It has been scientifically proven that dogs are not cognitive enough to do things out of spite or to be purposely stubborn.

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