Why I Have No Dominant Dogs

I’ll start this off by saying I don’t have a lot of use for “pack theory” or the TV-popularized dominance-based training. Sure, it may seem to work–on some dogs, I’m sure it does produce a desired result. But here are two indisputable facts:

1: Pack theory/dominance-based dog training methods are based on scientific studies of captive wolfpacks that have since been proven to be bad models of how wolves actually live in the wild. At the time the studies were done, there were no wild wolfpacks in the US. We have wild wolfpacks now. They don’t behave in this rigid, Alpha-Omega, conflict-based structure. So the science behind the theory is bad.

2: Behavioral theory shows us how all creatures pattern and learn, and while fear and pain (which dominance-based dog training methods rely upon) do teach living beings very quickly, there are far more humane ways that are just as effective and don’t have the same negative behavioral side effects.

Why rely on bad science and bad feelings? TV and some experts will tell you it works, but here is a third fact:

3: Anyone can claim they are a dog trainer as there is no governing organization, although there are

This dog is learning so much.
This dog is learning so much.

voluntary certification boards. And there are far more bad-to-mediocre dog trainers out there than good ones. That guy on TV isn’t certified or governed by anyone but his ratings.

So anyway, this is all to say that I don’t think about pack hierarchy at all at home.

I don’t demand my dogs’ respect. I plan to earn it through building a history of reinforcement–showing the dog that I am consistent in my requests and offering rewards for certain behaviors. I show dogs that I’m a behavior puzzle that doles out cookies, snuggles and games, and if they give me the right behaviors I’m full of unending fun and love. My dogs defer to me entirely because of this: Momma knows what’s going on, she’s got the cookie pocket, she knows the best games, so we’re gonna come when she calls and hold a down-stay at the door when the pizza guy shows up.

I’m not the Alpha. I’ve never thought about myself as a pack leader. Wild wolfpacks are made up of related dogs, led by a mother and father. I’m not the gang leader, I’m the parent. I’m here to guide, not push people around.

You may think, well, maybe you ended up with really soft dogs, so this was easy. They were looking for someone else to be in charge and you fit the bill. It would be different if you had a really hard-headed dog.

That is absolutely not the case with Vesper.

Vesper loves people, but she loves everything. She is enthusiastic about the world to a level that has caused us a lot of trouble. She’s reactive, dog-aggressive, and has an incredible prey drive and the physical prowess to catch and harm pretty much anything smaller than her. When I met her in rescue, the woman who’d taken her out of a Yakima shelter told me I would need a prong collar and probably an e-collar (a shock collar) to keep her under control. I’d need to show her her place in the world, which was below me, in deference.

I nodded and smiled and the moment I got that dog in the car the prong collar came off. I threw it out. From that moment Vesper was on a program of relationship-building with me: Momma is more interesting and more fun than anything else in the world. It’s been a ton of work, but we have an amazing connection. She has a great deal of impulse control for a dog who started with none at all, and her trust in me is absolute. She’s a remarkable dog.

And the puppy?

Reckless is worse. He tests limits. If you give him an inch, he’s immediately a mile away. He’s pushy! He’s the sort of dog that would get physically corrected by a dominance trainer again and again–but the thing is, Reckless is very sensitive. If you manhandle him, you lose his trust. If he ended up with dominance trainers, Reck would be terrified of them.

The relationship would be one of fear and compulsion, heartbreak and confusion. I love you, this otherwise-endlessly cheerful puppy would say, I don’t want you to hurt or scare me. But I’m not sure what you want!

As for pack hierarchy within my dogs, well, two dogs is hardly a pack, so there’s no real structure there. Dogs do figure out who’s in charge if there are enough of them around, and defer to the stronger personalities in the group, but it’s a fluid structure that changes circumstantially. This is true of people, too.

I’d assumed that Vesper would need a soft personality to cohabit with peacefully, but she loves her pushy little brother. They’re never in conflict, as resources are pretty thick on the ground in our house, and so it doesn’t matter who’s Alpha or Beta or Delta or whatever. They’re just siblings. They don’t really care. They jaw-wrestle and curl up together when it’s cold, and occasionally get jealous of my attention or the raw bone the other dog has and grumble at each other. And then they work it out quickly and move on.

A dominance theory-based trainer might have looked at either of my dogs and said, oh, that dog thinks they’re the leader of the pack. I counter that: those dogs were idiots. They didn’t know who they were yet. They needed parenting, basically. It’s the difference between raising someone in a military academy and in a loving, consistent home. Who’s going to have the better balance? Who’s going to have more confidence, a better sense of themselves, a deeper bond with those around them?

So when you look for a trainer, my advice is this: avoid anyone who uses the phrases “balance training,” “pack leader,” “alpha,” or refers excessively to pack behavior or talks a lot about dominance. It’s almost never the real issue between people and dogs (which, if you’d like reading on that, I can supply), it’s based on bad science, and it’s just plain unkind.

You’re a kind and scientific-minded person. You can do better.

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