To dominate or not to dominate?

dog companion no dominance

To dominate or not to dominate, that is the question....
Recently the media have been discussing the divide between two factions of dog trainers/ behaviourists – portraying old school traditionalists versus the fluffy variety. In reality the situation is less clear cut but much of the current debate boils down to the ‘D’ word. In our jobs as Pet Behaviour Counsellors, many of the cases that we see are referred to us from the Veterinary Surgeon as displaying ‘dominance aggression toward owners’
Meet a typically ‘dominant dog’
A prime example, I visited the owners of Barney, a young entire male. He was pleased to meet me, and tried very hard to get my attention by climbing over me. His owners instructed him to ‘get down’; he first ignored them, before mouthing at their hands when they took him by his collar.
Barney’s owners reported that he had shown aggressive behaviour towards them on a number of occasions, particularly when they attempted to retrieve an item that he should not have. From a pup he had been stealer, for items such as post, slippers, socks, tissues and mobile phones, and as he grew up he began to hide furniture with them and growl and curl his lip if approached. He was described as a ‘generally stubborn and wilful character’, and also growled and snapped if being asked to do something that he did not want to do, such as grooming or picking him up. He had bitten his owner quite badly once, when he had accidentally stepped on his tail. On probing his history I discovered that from 6 months of age Barney began to experience episodes of stomach problems.
Is his aggression due to dominance?
As well as being a dog trainer, I am a scientist by training and career. This requires me to be able to critically review available evidence in an objective manner. The idea that wolves and pet dogs live by a method of pack hierarchy is an intriguing one, an idea that I will admit attracted me into this profession in the first place. In a way I would like it to be true, as it is a catchy explanation of why a dog does something. However, here is where my problem lies: firstly, science shows that the domestic dog does not form a linear hierarchy (actually, neither does the wolf); secondly, in my 8 years of work as a professional dog trainer, I am still waiting to meet a truly ‘dominant’ dog. Potential dogs would be the independent, strong-willed ones; precisely the type of dog that will stick two fingers (paws?) up to anyone trying to intimidate them into doing things.
Thirdly, advocates of the need to ‘be the pack leader’ ethos often quote in their defence one study of 711 pet dogs published in 2009 from the University of Corboda. It claims that spoiling a dog (letting it sleep on the sofa, bed, feeding tit-bits) can lead to dominant aggressive behaviour and physical punishment is required. Unfortunately the study falls far short of ideals, due to amongst other things a flawed case definition of the dominance aggressive behaviour and statistical techniques which leave much to be desired. In contrast, there is plenty of robust science to show that fear, pain and frustration can lead to aggressive behaviour in many creatures. Plus, we all know that dogs do things because they like it, or avoid things because they don’t like it. I’m more than happy to consider potential evidence to support the dominance theory, but for me, the jury is still well and truly out.
Lloyd Morgan’s Canon (1894) urges us to never interpret an action as the outcome of a higher physical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of one which stands lower on the psychological scale. After examining Barney’s history I saw simpler motivations behind his aggression. It is true to say that he was a very clever and ‘pushy’ character, but that does not necessarily mean that he was trying to be ‘top dog’. Barney had been punished for stealing, both verbally and physically; he needed to learn that it was wrong. Thus, Barney continued to steal things, because it was worth the attention he got for doing it, but once he had the item, he knew that he would be told off, making him defensive – a vicious circle.
Barney’s unwanted behaviours were probably made worse by anxiety and stress due to his medical problems; commonly feeling uncomfortable or in pain, and frequent visits to the vets for procedures and overnight stays. His aggressiveness was compounded by fear; fear of being punished and fear of pain due to his medical problems. Aggression became his generalised method of stopping unwanted things happening to him, as it was extremely effective.
The alternative solution
During the consultation, I put a houseline on Barney. Every time he pestered me, the owners picked up the end of the line and moved him away from me, without looking at him or speaking to him. He quickly learnt that it was a pointless exercise, and instead settled in his bed. At this point we gave him positive attention, with praise, with petting and cuddles, and the odd biscuit. The owners were very impressed with his new attention seeking behaviour! We also taught Barney a ‘give’ command, by swapping one item for another. If needed, the houseline could also be used to stop him running away with items whilst they patiently waited for him to get bored and drop it.
A few weeks later I received a phone call describing a dramatic change in his behaviour. The key to this case was teaching the owners the most appropriate way to react to Barney’s behaviours; once they understood how to recognise and reward good behaviour, avoid confrontational situations, and had new methods to manage unwanted behaviour rather than punishment, all aspects of his behaviour improved.
Would a ‘leadership’ program have helped Barney? Probably, in that it would provide his owners with a guide of how to interact consistently with him rather than yo-yo-ing between giving him attention and telling him off. However, I have a feeling that Barney was clever enough to try to think of a way around any new ‘rules’ enforced, and it might have led to further ‘head to head’ encounters where aggression might occur. Walking through doorways first and eating before him would not have removed his stomach pain, neither addressed his desire for attention from mum and dad. In addition, Barney’s owners did not want to have him neutered yet and it turned out they didn’t need to. If anybody had tried to ‘alpha roll’ Barney to make him submit, they would have very likely received a nasty bite.
It’s all in the interpretation of the motivation for a behaviour. Labels such as ‘dominance’ give the wrong impression. Why try to enforce fanciful ideas of higher order plotting to take over the household, when the simple rules of learning theory will suffice? Barney turned out not to be ‘dominant’; his only crime was being a smart little chap with his wits about him, but because of this he just as quickly learnt that he had no need to use aggression anymore.
Carri Westgarth
Full Member of the APBC
Carri Westgarth was a dog training instructor for an assistance dog charity before her career in research at the University of Liverpool Veterinary School.