Is dominance a myth?

Is dominance a myth?

Today the media have been focusing on the issue of ‘how best to train your dog’ with traditionalists such as Cesar Milan advocating the use of hard line training methods to show your dog who’s boss compared to modernists such as Victoria Stillwell and Dr Ian Dunbar who focus on positive reward to teach a dog what is and isn’t wanted through calmness and consistency.

Last year I led a research study with 100 people (50 dog owners and 50 non dog owners) to see if there was a difference in the way owners and non dog owners interpreted dog behaviour and actions.  One question included the “You have to be in charge of your dog, or he’ll dominate you.” I asked respondents whether they considered this to be True or False.  Interestingly, 79 per cent of those polled answered ‘Yes’.  However, this isn’t the case.

The idea that all dogs are dominant and want to dominate us is simply untrue.  Studies show that often, when owners use dominant or aggressive behaviours towards their dogs to “show them whose boss” or to teach them that growling, mouthing, snapping is unacceptable; the owners are likely to cause escalation the dog’s behaviour.  Thankfully, more and more research is coming out proving that these forceful methods, in most cases, do not work.  A recent study led by Dr Rachel Casey from the University of Bristol, involved the study of dogs freely interacting at a Dogs Trust rehoming centre over a period of six months, and re-analysing data from studies of feral dogs.  Their research concluded that individual relationships between dogs are learnt through experience rather than motivated by a desire to assert “dominance”.  The study proved dogs aren’t motivated by maintaining their place in the pecking order of their pack.  As many of my behaviour clients know, what our dogs want is calmness, consistency and reassurance.

The idea of dominance has really become a popular over recent years, spurred on by the rise in dog behaviour ‘experts’ TV using and recommending confrontational methods.  Some of you may know that I wasn’t always a Dog Listener.  I spent nearly ten years working in television as a Producer while studying animal behaviour to qualify as a canine specialist.  So, I know how to make television programmes – what ‘looks’ good, how pull at the heartstrings of viewers and create dramatic scenes.  However, what may appear impressive on TV such as, pinning down a dog to show him ‘your in charge’ as favoured by Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan or rattling chains or shouting at the dog, as favoured by the trainers from Dog Borstal, often make unwanted behaviours worse.

Often when I’m called in to assist a client who’s dog is exhibiting unwanted behaviours, the client may have attempted to replicate what they have seen on TV in order to ‘teach’ the dog he’s done wrong.  While other owners have attended dog training classes, where owners are encouraged to shout at their dog or jerk them on the lead.  However, confrontational techniques like pinning the dog down, grabbing his jowls, blasting hooters or air sprays into his face, yelling at the dog, jerking him around or using choke collars as means of control, will make a dog anxious and stressed – often about their owner, and potentially lead to an escalation of aggression.  Dr Casey says, “The blanket assumption that every dog is motivated by some innate desire to control people and other dogs is frankly ridiculous.  It hugely underestimates the complex communicative and learning abilities of dogs.  It also leads to the use of coercive training techniques, which compromise welfare, and actually cause problem behaviours.”

So, how do you get a calm and responsive dog if not by dominating him?  Easy!  By understanding how dogs think, what motivates them, how they learn and communicate, owners can then begin to successfully train their dog and reduce down and even stop unwanted behaviours.  I use reward based training – praise, touch and food reward to get repetition of the good behaviour and teach ways of dealing with the unwanted stuff in a calm and consistent way.  Many owners ask me, “What’s the secret to successful dog training?”  My response, it’s understanding your dog, being consistent, managing your environment, and having a bucket load of patience.

If you’d like to know more about Hanne’s research, or find out more about dog behaviour and how to deal with problem behaviours, contact Hanne at

Photo: Cesar Millan by Melissa

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Robbie August 17, 2010 at 7:48 am

I am just reading Ceaser Millan at the moment and I think this article is unfair to him. The methods this article advocates are practically identical to the ones he advocates. He never advocates shouting or any form of aggressive behaviour; in fact he is strongly against them. As for pinning a dog down he is very clear that this is only something he uses in extreme cases and should only be attempted by a professional and never the dog owner.
Of course people will misinterpret and incorrectly apply his techniques. Just as people will take mistaken impressions from this article such as there is no such thing as a dominant dog or that all I need to do to help my dog’s problems is give them more treats, or that Ceaser is some kind of evil dog beater. It would be a shame if people were put off someone who has helped so many dogs by getting the wrong impression about what he does.

Laura Palmer November 20, 2010 at 11:46 am

I agree with this comment Robbie. Cesar does get a lot of stick. In an article in Dogs Today by Victoir Stilwell he was classed with people who use electronic collars and choke chains, which he doesn’t. I think its very difficult to draw the line between all the different methods because everybody shares some views and disagrees with others, The only good thing I can say about BM is at least with APBC registered ones who know they have a science degree and have have had some consults observed before being awarded certification. I think the answer is to not get too worked up about dominance, and just aim for calmness. Dogs need to work, so make it fun and have them work for food, and that way at least the good behaviours will be repeated. Its just a shame that everybody misinterprets everything. I knew a dog that was 35kg overweight, when I asked why, the owners said they had to feed the dog to stop it from being aggressive. I’m sure they’ve misinterpreted some advice somewhere along the line.

Shane January 11, 2011 at 6:55 pm

“he was classed with people who use electronic collars and choke chains, which he doesn’t.”

He actually uses chokes chains and prong collars all the time, I’ve seen a clip where he had a choke chain on a dog who was nervous aggressive, put the dog into a situation where it reacted badly, and ended up choking out the dog. I’ve also seen several clips where he uses a remote shock collar on a dog, but keeps it hidden so you only see it if you look close enough. In one particular clip, he’d shock a dog anytime it looked at the cat it lived with and wanted to attack. So much to the point that the dog ended up being terrified and cowering in a corner to which point he brought the crate with the cat in it repeatedly up to the dog, had him backed into a corner, and the dog was so terrified and desperate to get away and not be hurt that in the process of breaking free bit the owner.

“No one has the right to say ‘you do what I tell you, or I’ll hurt you.” – Monty Roberts

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: