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The ultimate guide to dominance in dog training

I’m sure as a dog owner at one time or another you will have heard from someone that the reason that your dog is not listening to you is because they think they are the ‘top dog’.

Unfortunately, a lot of material focusses on us needing to be at the top of the hierarchy and the pack leader.

The theory comes from the idea that as dogs descended from wolves, they have a pack mentality and see different members of the pack as having different rankings. The fact is that this theory has been disproven by science many times now.

Although dogs and wolves share around 98% of DNA, so do we with chimpanzees. Raising a dog as if they are a wolf is the same as raising a human baby as if they were an ape. 

Dogs split apart from wolves to become domesticated over 100,000 years ago. Dogs are used to living in family groups and need kind and fair guidance from owners based on mutual respect. 

We don’t need to do anything before our dogs to show them that we are boss.. If anyone has ever recommended that you:

  • Go through doorways first
  • Walk ahead
  • Eat first
  • Pin your dog into ‘submission’

…there is absolutely no scientific basis behind doing it. Logically, eating your cereal in the morning before your dog has their breakfast has absolutely no parallels to a pack of wolves sharing a carcass, to your dog.

If your dog is displaying behaviours which are undesirable to you it is not because they are trying to fight for a place as pack leader, in fact it could be for any number of other reasons.

It may be that they simply don’t understand what is being asked of them. A good example of this is telling a dog ‘no’ when they perform a behaviour which we don’t like. ‘No’ means nothing to dogs as we use it in so many different contexts. You might say ‘no’ when they’re pulling on the lead, and when they jump up and counter surf, and when they’re barking. It just becomes white noise and never gains any meaning to them. Instead ask your dog to do something else that is desirable and that you know they do understand. So, if they’re counter surfing, ask them to sit instead. If they’re barking, teach them a ‘quiet’ cue. 

Dogs also appear to become selective with their hearing when we aren’t providing enough motivation to listen to us, not because they’re trying to dominate us or be deliberately ignorant. If they’re having the time of their life playing with their friends in the park, can we blame them if they don’t immediately come running back to us for a piece of kibble? We must be more motivating than the distraction, which comes through lots of training repetition and using very exciting reinforcement such as high value food and toys. We shouldn’t expect them to listen to us just because we think we’re their boss, after all would you come into work for free? Dogs go where they get paid! 

‘Stubborn’ is also a common description for dogs who appear to be showing unwilling to listen to their owners. This is commonly in the case of dogs who don’t want to move on walks or jump off furniture when told. This is perhaps the most frequent time that you would hear the ‘pack leader’ theory but the opposite could not be truer, refusing to move is very often driven by negative emotions. If your dog becomes unhappy when you try to move them from a piece of furniture or if they sit down on walks, get them booked in for a full vet check. Imagine how irritable you would be if you were in pain and someone was trying to physically move you. If they gain a clear bill of health monitor their body language for signs of anxiety or fear. If you are out on a walk and they stop moving was there a sound which could have worried them? Or have they had a trauma around that area in the past? Never physically drag a dog who is not moving, instead allow them to go back the way you came if that is what they are telling you they want to do, or leave them be on furniture. Remember, they aren’t trying to control you! They are trying to communicate with you.

Rachael Claire is an IMDT accredited Behaviourist and Certified separation anxiety pro trainer working remotely with separation anxiety cases across the world.

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