Behavior Myth: Dominance Theory

“She is acting dominant.”

“He wants to be the boss.”

“If I just show him who’s boss.”

“I am having such a hard time with her, I know I should be more dominant, but it’s not me.”

I hear these statements in general practice, during behavior consultations, over dinner with friends, and just about everywhere else.  

Dominance theory has saturated our culture’s approach to dog behavior problems. The dominance myth, however, is dangerous, leading to suffering of both dogs and their owners. This myth has its roots in outdated theories about wolf behavior, which were applied to a different species, the domesticated dog, with over 10,000 years of different evolutionary history.  

Most problem behaviors aren’t expressed because the pet wants to be dominant or needs to be dominated. Dominance involves a relationship in which one animal uses force or aggression for priority access to resources over other(s) who submit. Behaviors which are defined as “dominant” by many dog owners are not dominant, yet exist because the behavior has been inadvertently rewarded. For example, when a fearful dog snaps, the threatening person backs away.  

Most dogs who display aggression are fearful. When owners and/or trainers “dominate” them, their fear worsens. Perhaps there is an initial perception of behavior improvement because the dog is so frightened, but aggression in fearful dogs worsens with these techniques. Additionally, what is often recommended by those who prescribe to dominance theory are direct stares, alpha rolls, pinching, kicking, yelling, and other aggressive techniques. These confrontational methods are dangerous. Dogs can respond to these threats with aggression, which can injure people and other animals, no matter how big or small the dog is.

Science supports reinforcing the behaviors you want to see and ceasing to reinforce unwanted behaviors. Recognizing the emotional state of the animal and approaching behavior modification with compassion is important to strengthen the bond between you and your dog. Medical causes that might be contributing to unwanted behaviors need to be assessed. These techniques have proven success.

If you need help with your dog’s behaviors, start with a free 30-minute consult with me.