This page is part of our info on dog training theory. Here’s an evaluation of different dog training methods (including detailed examples of how they would deal with jumping up and growling)
It seems academics solved this debate conclusively years ago …
but while people are still asking questions about the topic, we’ll keep this page up. The references make good further reading.
Why there’s no such thing as a pack leader
It’s unhelpful for you and detrimental to your dog. This kind of training uses quick fixes that only work for a short time and can make things worse in the long run.
How is the reasoning behind the pack leader flawed?
The pack leader assumes that the modern domestic dog are like wolves in the wild and have based their dog training on how they think wolves interact and organise themselves. Wolves are assumed to live in a hierarchical pack, where the alpha is the leader, the others are competing for power and attention; their lives could be described as nasty, brutish and short*. These conclusions were drawn from when some wolves were waiting to be realised into Yellowstone and were in a (relatively) small holding pen. Dog trainers had seen the information, saw similarities and formulated the idea of dominance.
In a bizarre plot twist, the researcher (Dr. L. David Mech) tracked the wolves after their release and he noticed that their behaviour was not at all like what he saw in artificial confines of the enclosure- he had made a terrible mistake. There was less stress, more freedom and social interaction was much more co-operative and friendly. In the late 70’s, with this new knowledge, he retracted the initial findings. Wolves don’t live in hierarchical packs, there is no proud Alpha or lowly Omega, there’s just wolf families. But by then, it was too late. The pack leader had based their understanding of dog behaviour on the wrong idea about the wrong species.
The dominance training popularised on the TV had appeal in a mix of charisma and quick fixes; the documentary style gained viewer trust. Dominance became accepted, to the point it was almost seen as obvious and “natural”.
Things considered “natural” are very hard to challenge. Perhaps the later study didn’t get the reputable publicity it deserved, maybe too many were already too invested in the dominance idea. Sadly, the new wolf information served to polarise the dog world, rather than end the debate.
Why not look at dogs to try to understand dogs?
It’s not as easy as you’d think to study stray dogs- most places have a dog warden. Not Moscow. Studies of the strays there found that the dogs don’t behave like the pack leaders would expect.
Packs are formed, but they are loose and do not conform to the dominance model; pack leaders are those who are more sociable and kind. Stray dogs don’t form hierarchical packs.
Researchers think the more intelligent, kinder dogs gain the others respect more than the bully. Dogs are very sociable and in Moscow they go to visit their friends on the tube. The strays’ life is harsh- they fend for themselves by scavenging and begging, but then they pick their targets wisely. A grumpy young man with food in his pocket is likely to be ignored, but a kindly looking older lady will be approached more often.
Domestic dogs don’t form hierarchical packs. A study of 19 dogs living domestically (within a sanctuary) showed that they use past experiences to help them understand new interactions. Researchers looked to see if anything like hierarchy was formed. Individual dogs did forge relationships with each other but it did not conform to the dominance model (Bradshaw et al. 2009).
Dogs are more co-operative and less selfish around each other. One study, looking into how pairs of dogs react to inequality when being rewarded, confirmed that the dogs were able to assess and compare their efforts and achievements. Their behaviour changed when they realised what they were doing was affecting the other dog and they would then purposefully avoid inequality (Friederike Range et al). This seems completely at odds with the dominance way of thinking. If dogs are in a take-over power struggle, competing for resources, then you wouldn’t expect them to be considerate towards each other.
Does domestication change an animal?
In studying wolves to understand dogs, one important factor needs consideration: the impact of domestication. Wouldn’t thousands of years have an effect?
Over some forty years scientists kept foxes. They kept two types, friendly ones and unfriendly ones. They took photographs and bred from both- thoroughly checking for social and biological differences. They even swapped over some embryos between the two groups. After forty years they noticed many differences in appearance and behaviour. The domesticated friendlier foxes looked more puppyish, their markings changed remarkably. Domestication, therefore, does change an animal over time.
Dominance training advocates the use of punishment, which is unhelpful and detrimental.
In dominance theory, dogs are thought want to take over the world in an aggressive bid for leadership, so misbehaviour is treated aggressively- with like for like. To change behaviour, dominance training uses negative reinforcement until dogs start doing the correct behaviour (like a spray collar for recall) and negative punishment until they stop doing the undesirable behaviour, like “put your knee up to stop the dog jumping” (my mother’s neighbour). Dominance training makes things unpleasant for the dog until they do what they are told and a habit is formed. Anaysis and examples here.
This aspect of dominance is the most controversial and has been the focus of many studies. It’s been found that dogs are less likely to remember the lesson due to increased anxiety and more likely to misunderstand and learn the wrong behaviour. If problems go away, they’re very likely to resurface elsewhere and become deep-seated and worse. There is an increased chance that they will become aggressive in return.
The use of spray, shock or prong collars is advised in dominance training and falls into the category of “negative reinforcement” as things are made unpleasant for the dog until they comply. A study looked into how owners got their dog to return to them whist they were in the park and assessed how reliably the dog reacted. One group used remote e-collars and negative reinforcement, another group had been to puppy school and knew how to recall with rewards. The dogs using the e-collars were less likely to return to their owners and those who used rewards, or positive reinforcement, were much more reliable and more likely to succeed (Blackwell, et al. 2012).
Dominance training suggests such things as flicking the lead to teach walking nicely, so as something unpleasant happens until the dog behaves appropriately. There has been concern as using such negative punishment has been found to be problematic. The method makes the dog more likely to be stressed (Mendl, 1999) and they’re less likely to remember (Walker et al.,1997). Not only does yanking the lead risk injury, such techniques are prone to misunderstanding and can be very confusing for the dog.
Any delay in punishment (or reward) can lead the dog can associate the feedback with the wrong thing (Polsky, 1994). If there is any delay, the dog associates the flick with walking, so dogs trained in this method tend to tense up in expectation of the tug as they take a pace and be relaxed as they pull (Welfare in Dog Training, link below). Risk of injury must be increased.
Dominance training often encourages reprimanding for indiscretions, advising owners to tell the dog off because punishment, in their mind, establishes boundaries. Dogs are likely to misinterpret why they are being told off, so reprimanding a dog usually results in the problems changing or becoming worse. (Solomon et al, 1953; Brush, 1957). As we saw in the methods page, a dog who has been told off for growling is more likely to bite (as their warning system has been removed). If you’ve heard someone complain that their dog has relieved themselves behind the sofa, then there is a good chance that the dog has been told off for inside toileting. The dog is confused and has inadvertently become uncomfortable performing in front of people. (How to encourage walking nicely and outside toileting here)
Dominance training using negative punishment and reinforcement increases confusion and anxiety, it has also been found to increase aggression. Such techniques “are associated with a 2.9 times increased risk of aggression to family members, and a 2.2 times increased risk of aggression to unfamiliar people outside of the household” (Stanley Coren, PhD., DSc., FRSC)
Usually, aggression happens as a last resort when the dog thinks that they’re being threatened.
“Dogs are aggressive in response to unfolding events… it is always dependent upon what they believe is happening to them” (David Ryan),
Something happens, the dog is frightened and it growls or snaps- dominance training would say the dog needs a telling off. Frightened dogs would then be treated aggressively. Such reprimands would increase their anxiety (Joels et al. 2006) and the whole situation is made worse. This is damaging and worrying. Thinking that the dog wants to be in charge is the projection of human thoughts and emotions onto dogs and such, anthropomorphism is a problem at the core dominance theory. Behaviour then gets viewed and interpreted from this very confrontational standpoint and it is no wonder that things escalate. 59% of bites occur when an owner tries to punish their dog (Reisner et al. 2007).
Dogs trained using dominance method are more likely to be hand- shy, or scared when people move their hands near them and they are more likely to bite (Hunthausen 2009).
Behaviour problems are supposed to arise when a dog becomes higher in rank than their owner. Studies have found that this is mistaken and unhelpful (Drews, 1993, amongst others).
The behaviours commonly thought to indicate a desire for leadership include aggression, but it can be defined as from grumbling to biting and without in-depth consideration of the circumstances. Other “dominant” behaviours include: attention seeking, barking excessively, destruction, escaping, excitement at the front door, humping, ignoring commands, leaning on people or jumping up them, lying in doorways, marking, mouthing and nipping when playing and pulling on the lead (Milan & Peltier, 2007, amongst others). Lying in a doorway hardly seems like a punishable offence- our dogs appreciate a cooling draft.
Most of the behaviours seem shockingly normal and a good training course should address them without causing harm or distress. For most dogs, the time they would usually cause the most destruction is concentrated into their first few months- when they are teething and being toilet trained and also when they are learning what is (and what is not) an appropriate toy. Most of these things would be most evident in an untrained dog who is under a year old.
Dominance theory offers a list of guidelines that studies have found to have no impact upon behaviour.
The general rules go something like this: Don’t spoil dog, don’t cuddle them and don’t treat the dog like a human child. Don’t let the dog to win a game of tug. The dog mustn’t sleep in bed or on the furniture. Dogs should not to go first through doors. Dogs can’t walk ahead whilst on the lead and dogs ought to eat after people.
This has been studied by several researchers and all are convinced that such efforts have little impact on behaviour (Goodloe, L. P. and Borchelt, P. L. 1998, amongst others). The definition of “spoil” is very loose here and what the researchers are emphasising is that you can be kind and nice to your dog and they won’t think that you’re weak or beneath them- dogs don’t see getting something lovely as a sign that they are in control. (Of course, we urge people to be considerate of waistlines, health and well-being).
Trying to follow the list of guidelines may inconvenient and unsafe. Entering the house first with a pram and some shopping whilst trying keep the dogs in a wait outside is not very practical, especially if the front door opens up onto the pavement, like in our Victorian terrace. People would have to let go of the lead and turn their backs to the dogs while they manoeuvre themselves, the pram and shopping inside- the dogs are then free to dash off or run into the road.
It doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules …
Just because there’s no such thing as a pack leader it doesn’t mean to say that there are no rules or boundaries, or that family life would be a free- for all or that you can’t train your dog. Efficient training uses games to teach words which can be utilised in many situations in every day life. Dogs learn best with repetition and the better the reward, the more motivated they are to remember (Hillard) and repeat the behaviour. Dogs love food and positive interactions with their owner so if learning is turned into a game, the fun increases the chance that they will retain the lesson. Teaching tricks can be more helpful than it sounds- if a dog knows how to walk backwards, for example, it can be used to ask them to get out of the way when wandering across the kitchen to drain hot steaming pots, or if you have dropped and broken a glass.
The rules are up to you. Say you want your dog on the sofa for a cuddle once in a while but you also like to read uninterrupted for a few moments, it’s reasonable to expect both. Teaching “on” and “off” will let them know when it is appropriate and when they are invited. To avoid any mixed messages and jumping up, it’s good to develop a signal for “I want cuddles”. I pat my knees and hold out my arms and wiggle my fingers- you don’t have to copy that thought, the best signals (and words) are always whatever comes most naturally to you.
Training with encouragement and support then rewarding when they do the task encourages a supporting trusting bond and increases the motivation to behave politely. When they don’t they get no praise … that’s boring- reducing motivation by making something seem pointless is a kind way to diminish unwanted behaviour. The dog learns that when they have good manners they are rewarded. Dogs love treats and fuss and enjoy communicating- they’re incredibly good at it.
So please, cuddle them as much as you like. If it’s easier or safer, let your dog go first in and out of the house. Dogs can eat first, if it’s more convenient and if you want your dog in your bedroom, or up on the sofa, then by all means, invite them. You should base that decision on whether you can cope with cleaning up the hairs. Everything is entirely up to you.
* “Nasty, brutish and short” was the phrase used by Thomas Hobbes in his book “The Leviathan”. Written in the context of English civil war, Hobbes thought that people had nasty, brutish and short lives. They were locked in a constant battle for survival, constantly trying to maintain and improve their own lot- and as such were not able to consider the common good. Hobbes elegantly argued that only a strong leader- a monarch- would be able to set aside his own interests and pass judgements that would benefit all.
After thoughts …
When the idea of the pack leader and theories of dominance really first started on television, it seemed to be readily accepted into people’s imaginations. It mostly passed me by- I could already able train my dogs effectively and we have pcs, rather than a telly. Some of my earliest memories are playing with my grandfather’s dog, where I lived in the fens on a small farm, with pigs and chickens. Grandad showed me how to train when I was small. “A dog is your best friend, they look after you” my grandfather would say, “treat ’em right, and they’ll treat you right.”
I first encountered dominance when I began researching dog training- people saw how our dogs behaved and we were increasingly being asked how we did it. I researched as I wanted to make sure that I was being helpful- afraid I’d say something and accidentally make things worse for someone. Although what worked for us didn’t seem to conform to what the TV was saying. I took that as a sign that I needed to learn more. The more I learned, the more uneasy the dominance method made me feel.
When I watched the programmes the whole concept of dominance didn’t really sit well with what I had been taught by experience or as a child. Our dogs were allowed on the sofa at times when someone fancied a cuddle and we had no problems. Our dogs were sometimes fed first (depending on what we were doing) and this created no issues…. we seemed to do many things wrong, yet we all lived together very happily.
When training to become a dog trainer, the dominance ideas were rarely referenced as it was described as common sense. I was taught at university that when anything is labelled natural, then people are making assumptions about something and it needs careful and thorough investigation. I began to look into it more and read up.
I was horrified to see dogs roughly manhandled on the TV and noticed dogs giving crystal clear warnings of fear and unhappiness which went unrecognised or unheeded. I was not surprised at the high frequency of bites but was shocked that the professional always seemed surprised and couldn’t see it coming a mile off. Carefully watching clips on youtube, I noticed that the dog would change the demeanour and so with freeze framing, I noticed that they had a new collars at that point- which looked suspiciously like shock collars. I began reading up and was relieved to find that I was not the only one who was concerned.
It made me anxious that viewers would attempt to replicate these methods (despite the disclaimers saying “do not to try this at home”) as I fear that neither the people or dogs would not benefit from this type of advice. Sadly it seems I was right- since the programme aired dog bites on humans have increased. I wrote this article a good few years ago now in the attempt to properly explain to people that there really is no need to try to be a pack leader.
Bradshaw, J.W.S., Blackwell, E.J. and Casey, R.A. (2009) Dominance in domestic dogs – useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 4, Issue 3, Pages 109-144.
De Keuster, T. and Jung, H. (2009). Aggression towards familiar people and animals. In Horwitz, D.F. and Mills, D.S. BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine. 2nd ed. 182-210.
Drews, C. (1993). The Concept and Definition of Dominance in Animal Behaviour. Behaviour, 125, (4), 283-313.
Goodloe, L. P. and Borchelt, P. L. (1998). Companion dog temperament traits. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 1(4): 303-338. both Sited here
Hunthausen, W. (2009). Preventative behavioural medicine for dogs. In Horwitz, D.F. and Mills, D.S. BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine. 2nd ed. 65-74
Mendl, M., (1999). Performing under pressure: stress and cognitive function. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 65, 221-244
Milan, C. & Peltier, M.J. (2007). Be the Pack Leader: Use Cesar’s Way to Transform Your Dog . . . and Your Life. Random House Inc., New York: Three Rivers Press. sited here
Polsky RH (1994). Electronic shock collars – are they worth the risks? Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 30 (5), 463-468
interesting reading: positively.com/dog-training/myths-truths/the-truth-about-dominance/
Walker, R., Fisher, J. and Neville, P. (1997). The treatment of phobias in the dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 52, 275–289.
Written by Susan Lyall MA CANTAB Affinity Dog Training, Northampton
Edited June 2017 (website overhaul)
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