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Domination, Coercion and Pack Theory

The use domination to coercively force a dog into submission during training is based on completely irrelevant studies has no scientific basis or value and is effectively bullying. This way of working with dogs has been outdated for decades, yet, I still come across people, trainers and behaviourists who apply this technique on domestic dogs.


I personally don’t recognise ‘dominance’ or ‘submission’ as terms relevant to working with a dog, as they simply aren't explanations for behaviours. To describe a dog being dominant means nothing to me, ‘dominant’ isn't a behaviour.  Typically, if clients do think along these line, I find things far more productive to exchange the word ‘dominance’ for the word ‘control’, and the word ‘submission’ for the word ‘appeasement’. We can then explore why the dog feels it necessary to ‘control’ or ‘appease’ in any given situation, which rapidly exposes the initial problems as symptoms.  Once we look beyond the symptoms we discover the route of the problem (which is typically emotionally based). This allows me to then show the owners how to guide the dog to adopt a more confident, socially acceptable approach to that given situation.


I generally encounter people who have used domination or pack theory because they have a dog who have shown aggression despite their ‘training’. The dog usually targets whoever isn't acting dominant or using coercive methods, e.g. children or visitors.

I am very uncomfortable with the use of domination or coercion as a training mechanism because it works on the notion of fear and suppression. The underlying principle of ‘pack hierarchy’ and ‘domination theory’ is; the leader has to be the biggest and strongest and reinforces behaviour modification or training with the threat of force, or, if necessary, actual force (from finger jabbing, back healing, ‘hand biting’ to the ridicules ‘alpha roll’ pinning down a dog by the throat etc).


My main concern with this technique is a secondary issue which is rarely considered by domination theorists; the behaviour eliciting mechanism you apply to dog can become the mechanism your dog uses to elicit behaviour from others. In short, if you force a behaviour from a dog, you run the risk of the dog then forcing behaviours from others; the bullied will go on to bully. This won’t be the dog acting maliciously, it is simply the dog doing what it has learnt is normal; dominate or be dominated. The dominated dog has leaned not to challenge the pack leader of course, but ‘weaker’ members in the hierarchy, children, or people outside of the hierarchy, visitors, are much easier to force behaviours from. Almost every incident of a dominated dog biting occurs when the ‘Alpha’ figure isn’t present, which indicates domination only works whilst the oppressive force of the Alpha is present, but this education system renders the dog devoid of the ability and confidence to recognise and produce socially acceptable behaviours.


Another huge issue I have with domination theory is; if it is incorrectly or poorly applied (which in my experience usually happens), an atmosphere of pressure, suppression and fear occurs. A very stressful home environment is thereby created for the dog. This situation can result in the dog living in a state of ‘learned helplessness’ where the dog doesn't understand why it is continually punished and learns there is nothing it can do to stop the punishment, so just accepts the stress and fear as how life is.  This is simply a heart breaking concept to consider. (Of course, learned helplessness often occurs in a well executed domination hierarchy!)



Pack leader theory, being the ‘Alpha’ and Wolf studies

Domination theory is strongly based in the misunderstanding associated with the term ‘pack’ and how a ‘pack’ is structured. I have huge concerns about the subsequent dangers and unfairness of raising a dog on these inaccuracies.

Comparing the domestic dog to a Wolf living naturally in the wild (not unnaturally in captivity) only has any merit if you understand the ecology of wild Wolves (and it doesn't involve a domination hierarchy!).


A normal (natural) wolf pack consists of a Father, a Mother and a few generations of children, (notably similar to a typical human family). The parents raise and educate the young adults and pups in a division of labour system until; they are socially skilled, they have become a competent predator, they have been involved with raising sibling pups and they are knowledgeable enough to leave the family and survive. Now the young adult has the life skills required to leave and successfully raise their own family (also notably similar to a typical human family).


Studying captive wolves has no real value as they are forced to endure un-natural circumstances in an un-natural environment. In captivity unrelated wolves are forced to live in confined environments, this immediately places the wolves in a very stressful situation; no parental figures to teach what is sociably acceptable, no opportunity to leave or start their own families and no prey to work together as a family to hunt, chase and consume. It comes as no surprise that domination theory is based in studies on unrelated captive wolves. It was, in fact, Swiss animal behavourist Rudolf Schenkel whose studies on captive wolves in the 1930s and 1940s basically concluded; wolves with fight with one another to try to gain dominance over the pack. Whichever wolf wins these fights assumes the role of Alpha wolf who rules the pack with force and aggression, they dominate.  This study is the basis for ‘domination theory’ and, by any modern standard, is clearly irrelevant information in regards to domestic dog behaviour.


When researching information about Wolves I usually consult books and papers by World leading wolf biologist and ecologist David Mech. Dr Mech wrote in The Canadian Journal of Zoology, 1999, “The typical wolf pack, is a family, with the adult parents guiding the activities of a group in a division-of-labor system.” [In a natural wolf pack], “dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all.” David Mech has researched and studied wolves since 1958 in America, Canada, Alaska and Italy where he spent many months at a time living alongside wild wolves. He is well published with a large volume of books and articles to his name. He is regarded as a world authority on wolves, which gives the above statement irrefutable credibility.


I much prefer (and find it more relevant) to regard dogs as sociable family animals driven by curiosity and positive experiences, as opposed to pack animals who are governed the rule of fear and force. Even using basic dictionary definitions can be fairly illustrative; which of these definitions apply most accurately to your family’s relationship with your dog?


Pack (online dictionary definition);

  • A group of wild animals, especially wolves, living and hunting together: ‘a pack of wolves will encircle an ailing prey’
  • A group of hounds kept and used for hunting: ‘the lead hound gives tongue and the pack takes off, following the line of scent.’
  • A group of similar things or people, especially one regarded as unpleasant: ‘the reports were a pack of lies’


Family (online dictionary definition);

  • A primary social group consisting of parents and their offspring, the principal function of which is provision for its members.
  • A group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit.
  • Two or more people who share goals and values, have long- term commitments to one another and usually reside in the same dwelling place.


I personally much prefer to see domestic dogs raised in a ‘family’ setting as opposed to a ‘pack’ scenario.

Dogs are fantastically adaptable animals who’s domestication over the last several thousand years has seen them able to fit easily into our human family lives, so why would we want to reduce our lifestyles and homes into a regime similar to that of a captive wolf pack just to accommodate a pet dog?  Why not simply educate and raise the dog in a similar fashion to how we raise our children, encourage politeness, manners, socially acceptable behaviours and also, when required, teach what are socially unacceptable behaviours are in a positive way (this is after all something all dogs are very capable of learning!). We don’t need to dominate our children, so why apply this primitive, unnatural ‘training’ method to the domestic dogs under our care and protection?


Why Is Domination Theory still used?

 I often get asked, in light of all this evidence debunking domination theory, why is it still used today by some trainers and behaviourists?  This is a valid question and the simple answer is; because it appears to work! But the reason it ‘works’ is why the modern, educated trainers or behaviourists refuse to apply it.  Domination and coercion simply suppresses the symptoms of the problem and without actually addressing the root of the problem. For instance; if a dog barks at another dog in an aggressive manner, a dominant Alpha owner might employ something like a sharp lead jerk, shouting, a back heal to the underside of the dog, a hand ‘bite’ to the neck, thrown water to the face, or the simply idiotic alpha roll (pinning the dog down by the throat). The result is; the dog stops barking, everybody is happy.

The educated behaviourist wouldn’t agree with the result at all, they would interpret this situation thus;

The dog was fearful (for example) of the other dog and acted aggressively in order to keep the other dog as far away as possible. By keeping the other dog, the potential threat, at a distance there is no chance of the fearful dog getting into a fight. It is not an aggression or dominance problem, but a fear based one and the barking is merely a symptom of that fear. The dominance reduction techniques, harsh lead jerks, hand ‘bites’ etc, only serve to suppress the barking. So the dog stopped barking not because it was suddenly no longer fearful of the other dog, but simply because it was now more fearful of the handlers’ repercussions. This results in the actual initial problem, the dog being scared of other dogs, being suppressed, not ‘fixed’, and a suppressed problem will always re-emerge, often with an increased intensity.

So yes, in this instance forcing the dog to stop barking worked, but the barking was just a symptom of a root cause problem; fear. Addressing an issue such as fear isn’t resolved using force or coercion. The modern approach would involve; relaxing the dog, encouraging a positive mindset, building the dogs confidence up and then addressing the negative association with unknown dogs. The negative association is then replaced with a curious, positive association encouraging the dog to confidently interact with other dogs in a socially acceptable way. The result will be a dog which is no longer fearful of other dogs, and thus the barking stops.


Cesar Millan

The relatively recent rise in the popularity of domination theory is due, in no small part, to Cesar Millan and his National Geographic TV series, “The Dog Whisperer” (which has now been dropped). He is certainly the most well known modern promoter of domination/pack theory and is almost always cited in conversations on the subject.

Personally, I agree with Mr Millan on a very very basic level, dogs do need daily exercise, they do need social rules and boundaries (education) and of course affection at the appropriate times, no trainer or behaviourist will disagree here. But, how this is achieved is where our philosophies vastly differ.  I used to spend a lot of time watching The Dog Whisperer with the sound off so I could concentrate on the featured dog’s body language. What I usually saw was a fearful dog offering appeasing gestures trying to get Mr Millan to cease in his threatening/oppressive behaviour.  This simply isn’t how I believe dogs should be educated.

A simply way to consider the relevance of domination theory is to look at the type of people who support or oppose Cesar Millan’s theology;

People who support Cesar Millan’s techniques often seem to have either been self taught using incorrect/outdated information sources, or, had a back ground in negative military, police or protection/attack dog training. Such people are; Wiliam Koehler, The Monks of Skete, Ed Frawley (Leerburg), Bruce Billings and to a lesser extent, UK’s own Barbara Woodhouse. Look into some of the coercive techniques their approach for working with ‘problem’ dogs leads to (such as ‘helicoptering’), it can make for difficult reading.


Here are some examples of people who oppose Cesar Millan’s method; Dr Ian Dunbar (veterinary degree, special honors in physiology and biochemistry from the Royal Veterinary College of London University, a doctorate in animal behavior from the psychology department of UC Berkeley and a decade of research on the olfactory communication, social behavior and aggression in domestic dogs). Dr. Sophia Yin (veterinarian and animal behaviorist), Patricia McConnel, (Author & Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist), Jean Donaldson (Director of the SF/SPCA Academy of Dog Trainers) and Dr. Nicholas Dodman, (Director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicines, Tufts University). These associations also advise against domination methods; American Humane Association, Association of Pet Behaviour Counselors (UK), International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.


Which of those two groups of people do feel have the most complete and relevant education in regards to offering advice on the behaviour of domestic dogs?


A dog brought up at the bottom of a domination hierarchy is simply much more likely to behave less; the less behaviour the dog produces, the lesser the chance of getting punished by a displeased Alpha (the owner).  Such a dog may appear calm and relaxed but an educated behaviourist would be more likely to see a suppressed or depressed dog working hard to avoid punishment.

When looking for advice on integrating a dog into your family or guiding a dog through any antisocial behaviours is might be displaying, look to modern positive techniques. Please don’t take advice from ‘pack leaders’ who rely on force and fear to maintain a ‘domination hierarchy’ putting a dog ‘in it’s place’. Superficial short term results can be very damaging to your family’s relationship with your dog.

You must, of course, be able to disagree with a dog’s behaviour in some circumstances, but, this should be done in such a way the dog understands your communication without evoking any degree of fear or appeasement in them. There is no need to shout, touch, jab, pin down, smack, squirt with water, use harsh sounding tools, shock collars, prong collars etc etc. A simple understanding of body language is all that is required to communicate to your dog your disagreement with their behaviour, then positively reinforce the dogs decision to adopt a more socially acceptable behaviour.


Ideally I like dogs to be positive, happy, confident, friendly and relaxed companions who understand what is socially acceptable behaviour whatever situation they find themselves in, regardless of whether their owners are present of not (similar principles to how we raise children, you would want your child to show manners and act in a socially acceptable way wherever they are and whoever they are with).