D is for Dominance

I’m so encouraged that Bark and Lunge has received the following endorsement:

Bark and Lunge is worth reading slowly for the details and for the joy of it. The book recognizes the inappropriate use of simple dominance theory, which is so common and so wrong for dogs. Many dog owners will recognize some of the questions they have, and now, will have some answers.
— Professor Alan M. Beck, Director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond, College of Veterinary Medicine, Purdue University

Oh no! Mia's on my pillow! She's trying to dominate me!
Oh no! Mia’s on my pillow! She’s trying to dominate me!

It’s almost absurd that I had to learn about Dominance Theory the hard way.

At least as far back as 2001, Dr. Ian Dunbar wrote in Before and After Getting Your Puppy:

If you physically force and dominate your puppy, he won’t respect you. He may heed your commands — grudgingly and fearfully — but he certainly won’t respect you. More likely, your dog will grow to resent you. …

Push-pull, leash-jerk, grab-and-shake, alpha rollover, and domination techniques are now considered ineffective, besides being adversarial and unpleasant. These out-of-date methods are now, thank goodness, by and large a thing of the past.

Dunbar, by the way, is a veterinarian and has a PhD in animal behavior. Cesar Millan, despite being the founder of something he called the Dog Psychology Center, does not have a degree in psychology. So forgive me if I refuse to accept this diagnosis on his website:

Dog aggression stems from the dog’s frustration and dominance. The dog’s frustration comes from a lack of dog exercise, and the dog’s dominance comes from a lack of calm-assertive leadership.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. (The aggression/dominance connection, anyway. I do agree that frustration often can be alleviated by increased exercise.)

Victoria Stilwell, another dog walker turned trainer turned television personality, advocates for science-based dog training. In her book Train Your Dog Positively, she writes:

Unfortunately for dogs, a dominance-related misdiagnosis of their behavior problems usually leads to the worst-case scenario: traditionally prescribed behavior-modification techniques usually include punishment, intimidation, fear — precisely the opposite of what dogs really need to overcome most behavioral issues.

This is why so many trainers and behaviorists take issue with the Dominance Theory. It prescribes owner dominance as the treatment for dog aggression because it misdiagnoses the cause as the dog’s desire to dominate the human. In truth, most dog aggression is caused by fear. When you treat a dog’s fear by trying to dominate the dog, the prognosis is more fear. More aggression.

D is for Dominance. Don’t Do it.

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Published by Kari Neumeyer

Writer, editor, dog mom, ovarian cancer survivor

14 thoughts on “D is for Dominance

  1. Wow. What a review.
    NoDo makes sense, too.
    Email by Carol

    Typos by Blackberry

  2. I definitely agree with your post! It’s so frustrating that so many people are misinformed about this. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  3. We’re not fans of dominance theory of dog training, but we do agree with Cesar’s take on the importance of exercise. A well exercised dog – both physical and mental exercise – is more relaxed and more open to learning & training. Dogs release endorphins just like humans when they exercise and it produces a calmer state of mind.

    1. Agreed! And I almost edited that part out of his quote, because exercise is extremely important. The problem I had with Cesar was that he seemed to be saying that walking a dog would fix every behavior problem, so I kept walking my fearful dog past bicycles and other dogs, and couldn’t figure out why that didn’t cure her reactivity.

      Thanks for your comment. I added a parenthetical, clarifying.

  4. What a terrific post! I love how the different definitions are highlighted so clearly. As for the behaviorists (the reputable, experienced ones other than, ahem, certain TV hosts), I really love Patricia McConnell’s explanation of the definition of dominance – and how she notes that the common terminology used by people is completely different than those used by animal scientists. Dominance in animals is mostly in relation to access to something that is wanted. She goes into detail in this post https://www.patriciamcconnell.com/theotherendoftheleash/the-concept-formerly-described-as-dominance, and there are other good resources on her site. 🙂

  5. You mention some good points, and I’m also glad the old dominance theories are falling away. There are definitely better ways to deal with this issue. IMO Cesar Millan get’s a lot of things wrong!

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