Where Did it Come from and Why Does it Persist?
‘My dog is barking at the neighbour’s puppy, and the neighbours are complaining,’ says a desperate woman on the well-known parenting website, Mumsnet. Various posters are wading in with advice, some of them dog owners, some of them people who don’t like dogs. A couple of posters appear to be dog trainers. The plea for help appeared yesterday and already there are nearly three hundred comments from people offering advice, ranging from ‘Claim the space from your dog.’ Get a e-collar,’ ‘Socialise your dog with the neighbour’s dog,’ ‘move house,’ run outside and shout ‘no’ at your dog when he barks.’
I feel so sorry for the woman who’s asked for advice. I’m hoping the overwhelming and conflicting advice from the (now) three hundred and sixty four people who’ve come to comment will make her realise that it’s probably useless to try and incorporate any of it. If she tries to act on any or all of the advice, the likelihood is she’ll end up—at best—with a very confused dog.
Four years ago I was this woman, desperately trying to navigate the world of dog training advice. We ‘rescued’ an ex farm dog—a collie huntaway cross. I’d never met a dog so scared: of motorbikes, of people (unless they had dogs). Of cheese graters, of trailers. She lunged, barked, tried to bite people. She crawled along the pavements, ears back, body flattened. There was barely a lead that she couldn’t twist herself out of. One wrong noise would prevent her from toileting for most of the day. Our lives were chaos. A kind local farmer let us use his nearby field so that we could walk her somewhere quiet. A few friends with dogs managed to bond with her a little. I was so grateful for their help and patience.
I’d always had dogs, so I’d assumed I was pretty good at dog training. Like many people I arrogantly thought I ‘had a way with dogs.’ Lexi changed all of that. She’s the reason I did a dog training course, followed by a more theoretical canine behaviour course. I was desperate for good, evidenced-based information about how to help her. And that was when I discovered the deep and confusing divisions in the dog training world.
‘Show Her Who’s In Charge’
I was suddenly surrounded by strange advice on website threads: ‘Growl at her.’ ‘Make her go through the door after you.’ ‘Shout ‘no’ at her when she barks, whilst raising your hand in the air.’ Yes, that one was particularly ineffective! ‘Show her who’s boss.’ Make sure she knows her place in the pecking order. She’s trying to dominate you. She wants to be in charge.’ I heard this over and over. Somehow, instinctively (and thankfully) it all seemed like the wrong advice.
What I was hearing from well-meaning people, were aspects of ‘dominance style training.’ In a nutshell, dominance theory, when applied to dog training, is the assumption that ‘…most unwanted behaviour is due to the dog trying to be ‘dominant’ or wanting to be the alpha dog in the pack. Therefore, dominance theory suggests, that the way to solve many behavioural problems such as aggression is to establish dominance as pack leader over the dog,’ according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). In line with the findings of many other humane, animal welfare, animal behavior, and veterinary organizations around the world, the RSPCA continues, ‘However, many of these assumptions are erroneous and are often harmful to dogs and the human-animal bond.’ This is not the approach I wanted to take with Lexi, although I understood that the advice to dominate her in myriad ways was well-meaning.
When a fantastic dog trainer came to our house, a woman approaching retirement, who trained police dogs and all manner of reactive, scared dogs, she said some magic words that I’ll never forget and seemed to sum up how dog training works: ‘She just doesn’t know what you want from her.’ Or, as John Bradshaw puts it so succinctly in his wonderful book ‘In Defence of Dogs, ‘The issue of how closely dogs’ behaviour aligns with the behaviour of their wolf ancestors turns out to be something of a distraction, because when it comes to training the most important question is: how do dogs learn?’
Where Does Dominance Theory Come From?
I’m originally a historian, so I delved down into the origins of the different types of training. According to Ilana Reisner, writing in The Domestic Dog (Second Edition), positive, gentle reward-based training techniques were recorded as early as 1848 for gun dogs. You can find examples in books at the time: ‘Careresses and substantial rewards are far greater incentives to exertion than any fears of punishment.’ (Hutchinson). Cheese was being used as a source of reward-based training instead of punishment. ‘If you decide on using cheese as a medium…[it] places you in a position to reward your charge at a moments notice, and be careful not to keep him waiting for his bonne bouche’ (Pathfinder and Dalziel).
Several decades later punishment methods, based around the theory of ‘dominance’ were made popular by Colonel Konrad Most who wrote a manual called Training Dogs in 1910. It was primarily about training military and police dogs, and involved violent methods of beating with a switch. ‘[The switch] should be employed until the animal submits and his will to resist…is replaced by fear,’ goes Most’s theory. This manual formed the foundation upon which many dog trainers learned their trade for decades. This method of using compulsion was necessary to ‘achieve the permanent and unconditional surrender of the dog.’ The language of the military is obvious here. In other words,Most’s manual promoted the idea of the dog’s owner/handler dominating the dog, often by violent means, in order to control it.
On top of this, a few decades later, a (now scientifically debunked) study of captive wolves became the behavioural standard bearer for how to think about dogs. It was a flawed study, but unfortunately still seems to hold sway over how people think of dog behaviour. Not only was it irrelevant in terms of determining wolf behaviour (wolves live in family packs and their hierarchies are generational) it told us nothing about how dogs (whose social behaviour is somewhat different to wolves) might interact with people, let alone with each other. Kristi Benson writes a great piece about wolf pack terminology and its implications. The behaviour that these captive wolves used with each other: rolling, shaking, growling, staring, became the blueprint for how dog trainers thought humans should interact with dogs in their care. Dominance theory.
Undesirable Behaviors are Not Caused by Dogs Trying to Dominate Their Humans
A key revelation to many owners is that their dog is behaving a certain way because they have already been taught to do so. Whether we actively teach or not, our dogs are learning all the time and we are often inadvertently rewarding undesirable behaviours without realising it. I wrote about this in The Embarrassment Factor a while back. It outlines some fairly innocuous behaviours like humping visitors or jumping up, which might be accidently ‘taught’ to a dog. Most dogs are around different people, so they will be taking their cues from various interactions. So while you are training your new dog to sit on his bed during mealtimes, your four-year-old throws him scraps of dinner when you aren’t looking and your confused dog is being rewarded for two opposing behaviours. This kind of inconsistency is no doubt replicated in countless households. Mostly, these contradictions aren’t actually dangerous (unless the dog is in danger of harsh treatment) but the issue becomes more of a problem where biting and growling is concerned, Again, this is classically where a behaviour will be misinterpreted as ‘dominance,’ when it’s more likely to be fear.
Many owners I’ve spoken to are surprised when I tell them to reward their dog when he’s doing what you want outside of the training sessions. When our dogs are quiet, or doing what we want, we often forget about them, when that’s often the time to offer a reward. Frequently, when I’m in the park observing people with their dogs, the only time the dogs get to interact with their owners is when they’re being told off, which, confusingly for the dogs, is rarely in a way that the dogs would connect with the undesired behaviour anyway.
The problem with dominance training, according to Ian Dunbar, (world-renowned veterinarian and dog behaviourist) is that, as well as being ‘unnecessarily cruel,’ it’s based on a crucial misconception: the misconception that if a dog is misbehaving it’s because it’s trying to ‘outrank’ other members of the family. Misidentifying the cause of an animal’s behaviour will get us nowhere if we want an animal to perform a different behaviour.
Most laypeople can’t be experts in everything. So assessing what is true and accurate in any specialist field can be tricky. Assessing evidence about dog training, is similar to assessing scientific evidence about anything else.
Three Key Ways to Assess Evidence About Dog Training
1. Peer Review And Scientific Inquiry
Whenever there are polarised and a seemingly irreconcilable views on a subject, a useful way to assess the merits of a view or opinion is to see if it is supported by peer-reviewed evidence. Peer review is the gold standard of scientific enquiry; it’s the process of subjecting an author’s scholarly work, research, or ideas to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field, before being published in a journal or book. It’s different to an individual writing, as, say, a scientist writing, because it goes through a review by several others who are already practising in that field of work. It doesn’t mean that unscientific claims can’t slip through, but if, on the whole, a theory is supported broadly by repeated peer review, then it’s probably safe to say it holds up as a theory.
If an article you’re reading links to a paper as ‘evidence’ to support their opinion, a quick check on Google Scholar should help you find if it’s appeared in a peer reviewed journal. For instance, if I’m reading a book by James Serpell, The Domestic Dog, and I come across a chapter on dog training and see that it asserts ‘the contention that some individual dogs are dominant by temperament has been challenged.’ (Luescher & Reisner 2009). A search on Google Scholar tells me that this quote is from a peer-reviewed paper by Andrew Luescher and Ilana Reisner DVM PhD: “Canine Aggression Toward Familiar People: A New Look at an Old Problem.” If most of the assertions in the book that dominance theory has been debunked are backed up by peer reviewed research I can start to build a picture of how robust that evidence is.
A backup to this is to check if the author you are reading, is currently practising academically in their field of study. My book by James Serpell holds a degree of weight in terms of his credentials because not only is every chapter in his new edition of The Domestic Dog (2017) subject to rigorous peer review, he is also a currently practising Professor of Ethics & Animal Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, researching and teaching on this subject.
2. Check What Key Regulatory Bodies Say
Although dog training is largely unregulated (only Germany requires dog trainers to have a formally recognised qualification) there are many institutions that require self-regulation and base their training methods on sound science. It’s useful to defer to associations and regulatory bodies, because they will be based on a consensus of opinion between many different experts, so there’s less room for bias.
For example, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers is explicit in its support for positive reinforcement training, and steers clear of punishment: ‘Training dogs has changed a great deal in the last few years. It is no longer necessary, or acceptable, to use harsh methods in training, and the use of gentle, motivational methods are as successful as they are enjoyable to use.’ (http://www.apdt.co.uk/about-apdt) And: ‘Half check collars can of course be used in a similar way to a full choke chain. It is most definitely against the UK APDT policy to use ANY collar to jerk, pull or choke a dog…The UK APDT does not endorse methods of training which cause pain and discomforts.’ (http://www.apdt.co.uk/about-apdt/apdt-policy-on-half-check-collars)
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior also has a strong position statement against dominance theory in the behaviour modification of animals. They write, ‘AVSAB is concerned with the recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behavior problems. For decades, some traditional animal training has relied on dominance theory and has assumed that animals misbehave primarily because they are striving for higher rank. This idea often leads trainers to believe that force or coercion must be used to modify these undesirable behaviors.’ (https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Dominance_Position_Statement_download-10-3-14.pdf)
The AVSAB also writes, ‘Instead, the AVSAB emphasizes that animal training, behavior prevention strategies, and behavior modification programs should follow the scientifically based guidelines of positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, desensitization, and counterconditioning.’
Further, the AVSAB recommends that vets only refer clients to behaviour consultants and trainers who use the principles of learning theory and who focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors while removing the reinforcement for undesirable behaviors. There are additional details in their position statement including myths about dominance and wolf behaviour as it relates to dogs.
3. Service Dog Organizations are Increasingly Using Reward-Based Training
Guide dogs, service dogs. Bomb disposal dogs, search and rescue dogs are all working in the most focussed, stressful and distracting roles. The government bodies, military institutions and national charities that train them are likely to pick the best, long-lasting and risk-free training methods. In the UK and elsewhere, they have been increasingly moving toward positive, reward-based training. Why? Because it’s essential that the dogs trust and bond with people, learn fast and long-term and are able to cope in tense and distracting situations. As The Happy Puppy site says in “The evidence for positive reinforcement training in dogs:” ‘These organisations are not interested in ‘fads’ and the latest fashion. They are interested in results.’
Some of the top service dog organizations in the world using reward-based training include MSA Security (USA). MSA is considered to be an elite bomb-sniffer dog training academy, and is America’s largest cargo screening canine provider. They currently supply 160 teams working mostly in New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Dallas. MSA also supplies dogs for ‘a government agency referred to by three initials for use in Middle East conflict zones.’ See more below!
Guide Dogs for the Blind, (USA-based, with a sister-organization in Canada), is the largest guide dog school in the US and also uses reward-based training. As do Guide Dogs of America, Service Dogs UK, and…the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the USA, as alluded to above. Here are the CIA’s top 10 dog training tips. #1 is “Make it Fun.” ‘“If the dog makes the decision to do a desired behavior on its own,” says our lead K-9 trainer Dennis, “they learn more, rather than the trainer [or owner] making them do it.” Compulsion on a dog does not work.’
The Science Supports Reward-Based Training
Broadly, the dog behaviourists and trainers who are the most qualified in this field support reward-based, positive training techniques that are as force-free as possible. Many will concede that it’s virtually impossible to completely avoid punishment, if we include the mild anxiety a dog might feel at being ignored—lack of eye contact and delayed reward could be anxiety-inducing for a dog. But most qualified behaviourists seem clear that punishment should end here.
As John Bradshaw says in his book In Defence of Dogs, ‘Personally, I’m delighted that the most recent scientific research backs up an approach to managing dogs that I’m comfortable with. As a scientist as well a dog lover, I’m dedicated to assessing the best evidence available and then deciding on the most logical approach to adopt…I was relieved by the discrediting of the wolf-pack idea, since then I could explain…to others why routinely punishing a dog is not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive.’
Why Does Dominance Theory Persist?
Confirmation bias—our tendency to assess new evidence by noticing, or seeking out, information that supports our existing beliefs—is a key problem. We’re all susceptible to confirmation bias and people will cherry pick information and data to support the view they already hold. It’s particularly likely to happen in a field that is quite emotive, so how we treat animals in our care is definitely likely to elicit some strong emotions.
I’ve long suspected that a romanticized view of dog-human relations helps prop up the ‘wolf pack’ theory. There’s a lot of literature out there about humans and dogs, living in semi-wild states, think Call of the Wild, White Fang and Red Dog. There’s a part of lots of dog owners that feels a connection to the wild through their dogs and the idea of ‘dog whisperers’ i.e. people who have natural affinity and ability to communicate with dogs, possibly stems from this. Usually it’s a way of describing someone who has a ‘gift’ to tame hard-to-control animals. My issue with it (and the issue many people have with the term ‘whisperer’) is that it implies that this ‘gift’ is beyond most people, and then it’s more likely to become a marketing gimmick to ‘sell’ a particular brand of dog training. This is also why it conveniently turns out that these techniques are too difficult for laypeople and so you need to employ said person to bestow their gifts onto your dog.
A good dog trainer will be teaching everyday people safe ways to be able to train their dog themselves, in an ethical manner that protects the dog and the family it lives with. If a trainer tries to tell you that they have a special gift that is elusive to others, it’s probably not true. I’m sure some people have a greater ability to communicate well with dogs, and I don’t doubt that a lot of people who claim to have these gifts have high levels of dog communication skills. It’s much more likely to stem from careful observation and an enthusiasm for dogs than because of a mysterious, innate skill. Enthusiasm and love for dogs is an essential ingredient if you want to work well with dogs, but sound training techniques that have developed out of the latest behavioural science is also essential.
I also think Kristi Benson hits the nail on the head when she says: ‘So where did the rather sad pop culture idea about wolf packs come from? In part from our own psyches, very likely: hierarchies matter to humans, without a doubt. We simply can’t help interpreting the world through our own experiences—I can’t, you can’t, and neither can wolf researchers.’
Ian Dunbar cites a similar view in his Dog Training Academy. He explains how humans project their own feelings and assumptions onto dogs, which distorted how researchers interpreted dog behaviour in the past. He credits the anthropologist, Thelma Rawell, with noticing that the infamous ‘dominance theory’ stuck around because she says, the researchers were all men and they were too important and busy to spend enough time properly observing animals. They saw themselves in dogs and wolves. Or as Ian Dunbar explains: ‘It’s like if you go into a busy pub, at 9 pm—what do you notice? You notice the adolescents. The loud young people. They’re fighting and shouting and jostling. You don’t notice the quiet man in the corner, sat with his wife, chatting.’
John Bradshaw blames television for the continued application of dominance theory. ‘Because conflict, and its dramatic resolution make for compelling entertainment. Reward-based methods are slower and less dramatic.’ Youtube videos and the highest ranking google searches might be people’s first stop when it comes to dog training advice and the thirst for entertainment is likely to override a desire for more evidenced based knowledge.
Where’s The Harm?
A 2009 survey by the University of Pennsylvania Ryan Veterinary Hospital revealed that many dog owners were using harsh methods to try to train their dogs, including 43% reporting hitting or kicking their dog, and 31% attempting ‘alpha rolls.’ According to the survey at least a quarter of these dogs responded aggressively to these methods. (John Bradshaw, In Defence of Dogs). The same survey showed that non-aversive methods elicited no aggression, despite the majority of dogs in this group originally being brought in because of aggression problems. This seems to be backed up repeatedly in studies.
One problem with applying punishment to a dog based on dominance and a desire for rank that doesn’t exist, is that the real reason for the behaviour isn’t being addressed. Punishment, at best, suppresses an unwanted behaviour, and creates a more fearful animal. The other big problem is that our dogs associate all the training methods with us, so ‘mixing’ training techniques, e.g. shouting, staring down, with giving rewards at another time, doesn’t work if your dog now associates you as someone to be fearful of. As the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior points out: ‘Even in the relatively few cases where aggression is related to rank, applying animal social theory and mimicking how animals would respond can pose a problem. First, it can cause one to use punishment, which may suppress aggression without addressing the underlying cause. Because fear and anxiety are common causes of aggression and other behavior problems, including those that mimic resource guarding, the use of punishment can directly exacerbate the problem by increasing the animal’s fear or anxiety.’
The success of positive reinforcement and reward-based training, and the reason service dogs are trained in this way, is that the bond between the human and the dog is strengthened at every opportunity. And as Pat Miller puts it so well in the Dog Training Journal: ‘It’s about time we gave up trying to be dogs in a dog pack and accepted that we are humans co-existing with another species—and that we’re most successful doing so when we co-exist peacefully. The fact is, successful social groups work because of voluntary deference, not because of aggressively enforced dominance. The whole point of social body language rituals is to avoid conflict and confrontation, not to cause it. Watch any group of dogs interacting. Time and time again you’ll see dogs deferring to each other. It’s not even always the same dog deferring.’
Thankfully, these days, most reputable dog training bodies insist that their accredited trainers and members keep themselves up-to-date in the latest training techniques. This feels like a step in the right direction, towards a gentler future of human coexistence with these remarkable animals. As John Bradshaw writes in In Defence of Dogs: ‘The hope is that dogs will soon be universally recognised as the utterly domesticated animals that they are, not the superficially cute animals disguising demons that lurk within.’
When I checked back to the thread on Mumsnet, with it’s stream of conflicting messages, the hopeful part of me can see that, despite the misinformed dominance-based advice, there is a real desire from most people to use ethical methods of dog training. Throughout the confusion is a huge outpouring of love and respect for dogs. Hopefully, when dog owners are confronted with three hundred and sixty four suggestions on how to train their dogs, they’ll be able to check that advice against peer-reviewed research, what regulatory bodies like the AVSAB and APDT recommend, as well as what approach service dog trainers use. Hopefully we’ll witness the shift towards the language of force-free training instead of dominance theory. Maybe we’ll hear more of ‘Observe your own dog’s personality,’ ‘Request. Lure. Response. Reward.‘ And recommendations of ethical, tried and tested training methods, rather than whoever is the latest celebrity dog whisperer of the day.
Resources for force-free training methods
Train Your Dog Like a Pro (By Jean Donaldson, who runs one of the most respected training academies in the world – Academy for Dog Trainers.)
I Speak Dog (Great easy-to-understand lessons on how to understand dog body language and communications, with many resources on training)
Patricia McConnell, PhD (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), she is known worldwide as an expert on canine behaviour and dog training, as well as for her engaging and knowledgeable dog training books, DVDs and seminars.)
The Power of Positive Dog Training (Excellent book on how to train with force-free methods by Pat Miller)
Dog Star Daily (Sign up for tips from Ian Dunbar)
Ian Dunbar’s Dog Training Academy (Can often be purchased at very reduced prices)
Dunbar Academy (Free courses from Ian Dunbar )
John Bradshaw In Defence of Dogs (Has some great chapters on dog training)
Karen Pryor Clicker Training (From one of the most well-respected force-free trainers in the world. This website has lots of articles and resources on training.)
Domesticated Manners (Chirag Patel specialises in animal behaviour and training that is ethical and science-based, both for domestic animals as well as zoo animals. Great videos on the resources page.)
Discussing Punishment and Animal Training with Chirag Patel (Video in which Patel discusses the problems with punishment-based training.)
Dr. Sophia Yin’s Blog (Sophia Yin, DVM, MS was a veterinarian, applied animal behaviorist, author and lecturer. She was an internationally-recognized pioneer in animal behavior applied to pet training.)
Editor’s note: The section about service dog training has been edited to reflect that not all service dog organizations globally have crossed over to reward-based training (at least not yet!), and to include several sample organizations that have.
Tanya Hawkes, patiencenova/Pixabay.com, paulbr75/Pixabay.com, Runa Kazakova/Shutterstock.com, andriano.cz/Shutterstock.com, Christian Mueller/Shutterstock.com.
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