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Debunking the Dominance Myth by Morgan Spector

Moving Beyond The Dominance Myth:  Toward An Understanding of Training as Partnership

By Morgan Spector

Reprinted from Forward – a newsletter for Obedience Trainers – February 2002

This is a paper that I presented at the Tufts Animal Expo 2001 in Boston.  It’s a bit on the academic side, but that’s the audience I was writing for.  In my talk, I focused on a simple if perhaps unpopular idea: people are not dogs.  We don’t sniff crotches, lift our legs in the house, or snack out of the kitty litter box.  And not only that, while people may sometimes be confused on the subject, I think dogs know that we are not dogs and that they are not people.  Nonetheless, dogs do adapt to human society very well, and humans have learned to put dogs to good use in our daily lives.


Having an understanding of how dogs communicate is a good thing.  Understanding calming signals, for example, lets us read signals that dogs send to us and respond in kind.  This is a social lubricant and a bridge-builder, and that’s a good thing.   It’s rare that any two species find ways to communicate.  (Heck, it’s rare to find true communication within a species; what is the old saying about England and America?  Two countries divided by a common language.)

It is one thing to take benign forms of communication and work with them.  It’s quite another to take forms that we interpret as physical “discipline” or punishment and work with those.  There we are in deep waters, indeed.  When one dog seems to grab another and pin it, we don’t really know that the “top dog” is doing, or how hard.  So if we try to replicate that in some fashion we can easily overdo and misuse it.

But there is more, and here is where we are prisoners of inadequate language.  I distinguish between “dominance: (a more or less benign form of intraspecific – ie. Within members of a single species – aggression) and “aggression” (non-benign interspecific aggression).  The difference between the two, essentially, is that intraspecific aggression (“dominance”) has as its ultimate end the well-being and even the survival of the species in question by guaranteeing that the members of the species best fitted for survival control the prime resources available to the species: on the other hand, interspecific aggression is a competition for resources between species, and the survival of one or the other species is usually at stake.

Now, dogs don’t comprehend this intellectually, but I am certain that they do instinctively.  If people are not dogs, then when people act violently toward dogs, I think that to the dog this does not replicate what one dog does to another, but what an enemy species (i.e., a predator) does.  And although the day-to-day interaction between dogs and humans may minimize the damage, the inescapable fact is that the antagonistic overtones of the actions must inevitably poison the relationship.

And the bottom line is, we don’t need it.  That’s what a vision of training as partnership is all about.

This is the underlying rationale for what has come to be known as “dominance” theory: Dogs see themselves as living in a pack with humans, therefore humans have to emulate pack behavior and, specifically, assume the Alpha position within the pack.  Ironically, although the direct analogy to wolves was new, the notion of dogs and humans forming a pack in which humans must reign supreme was not.  Most articulated the same theory in 1910.  He wrote:

“In a pack of young dogs fierce fights take place to decided how they are to rank within the pack.  And in a pack composed of men and dogs, canine competition for importance in the eyes of the trainer is keen…  As in a pack of dogs, the order of hierarchy in a man and dog combination can only be established by physical force, that is by an actual struggle, in which the man is instantly victorious.  Such a result can only be brought about by convincing the dog of the absolute physical superiority of the man.  Otherwise the dog will lead and the man follow.  If a dog shows the slightest sign of rebellion against his trainer or leader, the physical superiority of the man as leader of the pack must be given instant expression in the most unmistakable manner.” (Most, p. 35, emphasis added).

Based on the notion that dogs and humans form a uniary pack in which humans must rule, “dominance” becomes the central issue in the relationship between human and canine.  This “dominance paradigm” may be said to underlie all approaches to training rooted in the use of force to compel obedience.  Disobedience is not merely a failure to perform a behavior when called upon to do so, but incipient rebellion against the Alpha. As Most put it:

“Should a dog rebel against his trainer, instant resort to severe compulsion is essential….  For, each time the dog finds that he is not instantly mastered, the canine competitive instinct will increase and his submissive instinct will weaken.  One of the objects of training, however, is to inculcate the reverse condition. (Most, pp. 35-36)

There are several fallacies in this paradigm although there is a kernel of truth within it.  The kernel of truth is that dogs must live appropriately within human society, both in the home and in the world at large, and that humans are responsible for teaching dogs how to do so through training.  But there is no need for a theory of “dominance” to explain the need for this training.  And seeing the purpose of training as achieving “dominance” sets up an approach to training that all too easily becomes unduly harsh and punishing.  As noted, punitive methods are justified by the logic of the “pack” approach.

Dominance As A Product of Intraspecific Aggression

It is important to understand what “dominance” represents in the natural order.  Lindsay explains that dominance is a product of a certain type of aggression occurring within members of the same species (or, intraspecific aggression).

He writes:

“In general intraspecific aggression provides a countervailing and distance-increasing function over place and social attachment processes but without breaking down affiliative contact altogether.  As such, ritualized intraspecific aggression imposes social order (e.g., the formation of a dominance hierarchy) and territorial limits on the interaction between individuals belonging to the same species.” (Lindsay, p. 167)

Lindsay distinguishes intraspecific from interspecific aggression, pointing out that”  “Interspecific aggression refers to aggressive behavior directed against another species and includes both offensive and defensive elements.  Although intraspecific aggressions most often associated with competition between closely socialized animals belonging to the same species, interspecific aggression is most frequently associated with self-protective goals, as, for example, occur when a prey animal defends itself against the attach of a predator.  The dog’s relationship with humans is complex in this regard, with both competitive and self-protective aggression being exhibited under different situations.” (Ibid)

We can understand the fallacies of the dominance paradigm if we first understand that “dominance” is really a set of behaviors that can be identified and therefore can be modified.  And in almost all cases this set of behaviors exists within a larger range of social behaviors available to and exhibited by the dog within the context of social relationships within which the dogs functions.

We should also recognize that nobody really knows what is meant by the word “dominate”.  “Dominance” has become a catch-phrase to cover a wide range of behaviours and so-called “attitudes,” many of which can be best explained or understood without an reference to “dominance.”  We have much the same problems with terms such as “Aggression” and “submission.”  The problem is exemplified by the evolution of phrases such as “submissive aggression” that almost defy explanation.


Seen from this perspective, the first major fallacy in the “dominance paradigm” is to regard the dog-inclusive family as a canine “pack”. The second major fallacy is to classify a given dog as “dominate.”  Related to this is the third major fallacy, seeing “dominance” as though it were a psychological disorder or condition rather than a set of behaviours exhibited by the dog in response to the situation in which he lives. 

Alternatives To Training Based On “Dominance”

There is an alternative to the “dominance” paradigm.  This alternative rests on several perceptions, some of which are at least implicit in what has been set out above.

Dogs Are Not Humans

First, humans are not dogs and dogs are not humans.  We cannot interact with dogs as though we were dogs.  Our interactions are interspecific, and in our interactions we must respect the realities that distinguish humans and dogs.

Dogs are social and interactive creatures.  Dogs are much better at lubrication their interactions with other dogs that humans are at lubricating interactions with other humans.  It is the human lack of sensitivity to social signals that underlies much of our misunderstanding of what canine social behavior is about.  For example, if two dogs meet one another and one averts its eyes, this is “good manners” – a canine calming signal that will help avoid any clash between the dogs.  If two humans meet one another and one averts his eyes, it suggests shiftiness or a lack of openness.  If a human meets a dog and the dog turns its head, the human may try to get the dog to look him right in the eyes.  To the human this is friendly.  To the dog, it is antagonistic.

We Will Interact Best If We Focus On Behaviour And Not On “Attitude”

Second, we will do best if we understand that what concerns us is the behavior that the dog produces at any given time.  There may be some value in trying to determine the source of that behavior, but such analysis is often speculative and therefore may not be of much use in figuring out how to modify the behavior in questions.  For example, one may diagnose a certain type of behavior as “predatory,” but having done so we have not necessarily clarified our options (although the fact that a given dog consistently manifests predatory behavior may affect our assessment of whether the dog can continue to live in a given family environment.

The Model for Intraspecific Interaction is Symbiosis not Dominance

Webster’s New Dictionary defines “symbiosis” as “the intimate living together of two kinds of organisms, especially if such association is of mutual advantage.”  Although in some ways inexact, this describes a more appropriate paradigm for the relationship between dogs and humans.  There is mutual practical advantage in the relationship between dogs and humans.  Dogs have their survival needs met; humans can get useful work from dogs. This useful work may consist of actual productive labour (e.g., herding or guarding livestock, hunting, or search and rescue) or it may consist of the general psychological and emotional benefits dogs can confer on humans simply by their presences.

Our training should be based on that mutual benefit.  Good training affects a “training bargain” in which the human says to the dog, “You give me what I want, and I’ll give you what you want.”  The dog, in turn, learns to “say” the same thing to the humans.  This creates a mutually beneficial partnership in which “dominances” is essentially irrelevant.

Operant conditioning embodies this symbiotic “partnership” approach.  Positive reinforcement is the means for giving the dog what the dog wants, which is turn makes clear to the dog what the human wants by way of the behavior.  “Dominance” is not an issue.  I am an operant trainer; it is essentially irrelevant to me whether the dog thinks he is “driving” me by using his actions to cause me to click.  In fact, in many ways I am perfectly happy that the dog should think so, because that dog has become strongly engaged in the training “game” that we play.

This approach is not only beneficial to the professional or competitive training but to the average pet owner as well.  In this writer’s experience, most pet owners do not want to be in conflict with their dogs and they resist harsh training methods.  Koehler viewed such people with contempt (see, e.g.: Koehler, pp 18-19).  But in fact it is possible to achieve everything that a trainer wants to achieve, regardless of the type of training involved, through operant conditioning and positive reinforcement.  It is not necessary to “dominate” the dog:  it is essential to enlist the dog in a cooperative working relationship.


Raymond and Lorna Coppinger

Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution

Scribner, 2001


Dr. Ian Dunbar

Dog Behavior: Why Dogs Do What they Do

TFH Publications, 1979


Vicki Hearne

Adam’s Task: Calling Animals By Name

Harper Perennial 1982


William Koehler

The Koehler Method of Dog Training

Howell Book Publishing, 1962


Monks of New Skete

How to Be Your Dogs’ Best Friend

Little Brown, 1978

Col. Konrad Most

Training Dogs: A Manual

Popular Dogs Publishing Co. Ltd. 1954;    Reprinted by Dogwise Publishers, 2001