by Rosie Barclay
Essential reading for all dog owners that are thinking about getting a puppy and for those with the less than perfect dog.
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Have you ever been told that your dog’s behavioural problem is due to it trying to “dominate “you? Have you read or seen on television that your dog is behaving badly because it wants to take over as “Alpha “male?Or told that your dog is defying you to become “leader of the pack”? If the answer is yes then you have to ask yourself are you being given the correct advice. The answer to this is quite simply no you are not. Your dog is not trying to dominate your world; it never has or ever will do. There is no such job description within a group of domestic dogs as “the Dominant Dog, the Alpha Male or Leader of the Pack”. Surprised?
As a certified clinical animal behaviourist (CCAB) and a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) working in Jersey I am hearing more and more from well meaning dog owners that they are worried that their dog is trying to take over this “leader” role and showing problem behaviour as a result. They hear this from celebrated dog trainers on popular television programmes and by reading their respective best selling books so it’s no surprise that the myth of the Alpha male has now circulated widely around the USA and in the UK and is now prominent in Jersey.
This “dominance” theory relating to dogs living in groups has been in circulation for many years and qualified behaviourists throughout the globe have begun to move away from this as it became clear that domestic dog groups simply do not operate in this way.
The “dominance” theory originally stemmed from wolf behaviour in captivity where unrelated wolves are kept together in small areas. Certain wolves in these groups were observed to be showing behaviour that looked as if there was a hierarchy in place. However, research on wild wolves suggests that wolf packs are not rigidly controlled by a single domineering male. A wild pack usually has an alpha pair but most of the rest of the pack is that pair’s offspring. That means the lead male never fought for dominance but merely reproduced. This “father” wolf does not always lead during hunts or in anything else for that matter. The term “alpha” is no longer used because what it implies is not accurate.
Domestic dogs on the other hand have lived with humans for 15,000 years, and they evolved as scavengers, not hunters. So it is not legitimate to compare dogs with wolves and wolf packs. The evolutionary pressure on dogs was that the least shy animals were the most successful in ransacking human refuse. Today's free-roaming dogs live in small, less cohesive groups rather than packs and are often alone. They compete with each other for resources but not for the top position of the pack.
To illustrate this more clearly I will describe a common situation that occurs regularly when I visit households with several dogs and humans living together. It will become obvious very quickly that the owners have been watching the many dog behaviour programmes seen on the television and will tell me that they know who there “dominant” dog is. So I will nod sagely and ask which one that is and the conversation usually goes a bit like this:
“Well Lardy the Labrador is the Alpha male because when he’s eating his dinner he won’t let any of the other dogs or my husband go anywhere near him. Sometimes he growls and goes to snap at them and they keep away.” They stop and think for a while and then continue. “Unless it’s a ball and then Shep the Collie is the boss because he won’t allow any of the other dogs in the house or any other dog in the world for that matter go anywhere near him when he has the ball”. Then the husband might come in at this stage and point out that “When Baby the Pomeranian is sitting on your lap dear she is the boss because she tries to bite me if I try and sit next to you”. At which point I refer back to the original question and ask “So which one is leading your pack again?” And the confusion sets in as to which one is actually leader of the pack and a fierce debate ensues. Of course the answer is none of them are. They are simply defending the resources they are most interested in. Just like any group of humans that find themselves placed together they all have different wants, needs, strengths and weakness’s and they all behave differently to achieve a feeling of contentment. Some dogs are greedier than others so will try hard to find and eat more food. Other dogs need to chase things and will challenge other dogs to make sure they can keep on chasing things. Owners are often viewed as highly prized resources as they are well trained feeding machines, comfy cushions, door openers and they know where the lead is kept. There are dogs that want the lot and are often described as “Leaders” because it looks as if they in control of everything. But that is because they are in control of all the resources and not because they want to “lead the pack”.
So does it matter which words we use to describe this resource holding behaviour? Well yes it does because of the way so called “dominance “problems are being solved by the perpetuators of this belief. If, for instance, you are told your dog is trying to dominate you because it barks and lunges towards other dogs that are approaching, you might be advised to put in place a long list of rules and regulations that “show” your dog who the boss is. These might include you eating before your dog, ignoring your dog for 5 minutes when you come in, not allowing it onto chairs or walking through doors first. However, this only teaches your dog that you are in control of food resources, your own personal space, your settee and the door way. It doesn’t address the problem your dog may have with other dogs. You might then be advised that when another dog approaches to use techniques such as the alpha roll (where your dog is rolled onto its back, a submissive position) or to grab the back of its neck with a firm “Grrrr” or to use a pressure halter and force your dogs head away from the approaching dog. There are also those that advocate the use of shaking containers filled with stones, pet corrector cans that give off a loud ear splitting blast and water/citronella sprays that deliver a shot of water or lemon smelling liquid into your dogs face amongst many other similar suggestions. Some well known celebrity “behaviourists” use of a number of punishment devices and out dated correction techniques that are simply not advised in today’s more enlightened society. Some devices such as the Electric Shock collar have already been banned in Scotland and Wales.
However, what are you really teaching your dog? What if your dog was not barking and lunging at other dogs because it wants to lead the pack. What if it was doing this because it was nervous of the other dog’s intentions so makes sure it tells the other dog not to come too close”? You can’t convince your dog not to be scared of another dog if it gets punished every time it sees one.
What if your dog has learned that all approaching dogs means that it suddenly feels pain as the lead is tightened, a can of stones is shaken, it hears a loud ear splitting sound or receives a spray of stinging liquid in the eye. Or worse still it feels the pain of an electric shock. Just because you the owner has the ability to imagine what might happen next doesn’t mean your dog can. It may never understand that the owner is cross and that bad things happen because of what it might do in a few seconds time. It only learns that when another dog approaches it's not a very nice experience so tries to stop it happening by the only way it knows how. My advice to owners if they are unsure of whether to use a certain correction device is “would you use it on your children?”
There are some dogs that do try and assert their strengths and challenge other dogs to show how big and strong they are but not because they are trying to “lead the pack” but for a number of other different reasons which might include guarding their ball, their owners, their personal space or they may be doing it because it feels good and thus self rewarding. There are certainly behavioural modification programmes that we can put in place to make sure that our dogs are not challenging us over ownership of certain resources and to stop reinforced self rewarding behaviour but the dogs are not challenging us to reach the mythical “Alpha” position.
To copy the techniques directly from some of these television programmes may by detrimental to the welfare of your dog so before you jump onto the “dominant” bandwagon think about all the authentic reasons why your dog might be showing these behaviours because it won’t be due to it wanting to dominate your world and keep away from anyone who says they know just the way to deal with dominating behaviour alpha males and pack leaders.