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  • April Schrader, CPDT-KA

Ditch the Pack Mentality: Debunking Dominance Theory

As a dog trainer, I have seen firsthand the damage that the outdated concept of dominance theory can do to the relationship between dogs and their owners. Dominance theory, the idea that dogs are pack animals and seek to establish dominance over their human owners, has been a widely accepted concept in dog training for many years. However, this theory has been largely debunked by modern dog trainers and animal behaviorists.


The concept of dominance theory in dog training can be traced back to the 1940s and 1950s when animal behaviorist Rudolf Schenkel conducted a study of wolves in captivity. Schenkel observed that the wolves formed a strict social hierarchy, with one alpha wolf at the top of the pack. Schenkel's findings were later popularized by wolf researcher David Mech, who used the concept of the alpha wolf to explain canine behavior.


In the 1970s, dog trainer and behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar began promoting the idea of using dominance theory in dog training. Dunbar believed that dogs needed to be dominated by their owners in order to prevent them from becoming aggressive or disobedient.


The concept of dominance theory became popular in the dog training world, and many trainers began using techniques like alpha rolls and leash corrections to establish dominance over their dogs. However, as more research was conducted into canine behavior, the flaws in the theory began to emerge.


One of the major criticisms of dominance theory is that it is based on outdated research on wolves in captivity, which is not representative of how wolves behave in the wild. In the wild, wolves live in family groups, and the alpha wolf is typically the parent of the other wolves in the pack. David Mech, the wolf researcher who popularized the concept of the alpha wolf, later revised his views on the concept and debunked it himself.


Mech's initial research, which was based on observations of captive wolf packs, suggested that wolf packs are hierarchical and led by an alpha wolf who asserts dominance over the other wolves. However, Mech later conducted additional research on wild wolf packs and found that their social structures are much more complex and fluid than those of captive wolf packs.


In his revised view, Mech acknowledged that the concept of alpha wolves and dominance theory did not accurately reflect how wolves behave in the wild. He also emphasized that dogs are not wolves and that attempts to establish dominance over a dog can lead to fear, anxiety, and aggression.


Modern dog trainers and behaviorists have largely rejected the concept of dominance theory, instead focusing on positive reinforcement training methods that are based on rewarding good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior. Positive reinforcement training has been shown to be effective in reducing unwanted behaviors in dogs and creating a stronger bond between dogs and their owners.


In conclusion, while dominance theory was once a widely accepted concept in dog training, it has been largely debunked by modern research and is no longer considered an effective or humane way to train dogs. Positive reinforcement training methods have emerged as a more effective and humane way to train dogs and promote good behavior.

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