3 Reasons Why Dominance-based Dog Training Still Exists
1. Because science got it wrong at first.
In the 1930s into the 40s, Rudoph Schenkel, a Swiss Animal Behaviorist, studies a pack of captive wolves, and concludes that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, with the winner becoming the alpha. Other studies confirmed his findings: unrelated wolves in captive environments do fight for social hierarchy. However, Schenkel's theory was incorrectly applied to wolf packs in the wild for years and years, and was spread far and wide to the public as “fact.”
Turned out, this wasn't what wolves did in the wild! A wolf pack = family: an alpha mated pair and their offspring of 1-3 years old. Two or three families may group together, but the offspring leave the pack and the alpha pair are the only long term members. Wolves are born into their social hierarchy, and don't fight for social status because the parents are teaching the offspring how to survive while they are together. A wolf who leaves the pack to find a mate has a better chance of survival and starting their own pack than one who would stay and fight to be alpha, and a wolf pack that would fight in their off time wouldn't really have the energy, nor the teamwork, to hunt and kill prey the way we have observed wolf packs in the wild do over and over again.
How in the world did this theory get applied to dogs? “Dogs descended from wolves → wolves live in packs with an alpha male ruling over them → humans need to dominate their dogs.” Seriously. That was how it was connected. You probably already see the fault in the logic, because you're super smart. These types of connections would be like saying: “Humans descended from primates → primates live in trees → therefore humans should live in trees.” The connections leave out a TON of relevant information, not to mention the fact that we're applying fact/theory/hypothesis about one species to a completely different species.
Oh, yes, in case you didn't know dogs really are a different species from wolves. Despite genetically sharing a lot of the same DNA, humans have done their part to alter and speed the evolution of dogs away from wolves fairly quickly.
2. “But doesn't dominance based dog training go really far back? And what about now? I hear this stuff all the time on television and in articles.”
Cesar Milan is not the only advocate of dominance based training, he just happens to be the most recent. This form of training has military roots since 1906 with Colonel Konrad Most in the German Army; William Koehler who was an American military trainer in WWII, a trainer for Disney studios for 20 years, and a civilian dog trainer for 50 years; and the Monks of New Skete in 1978. Things like the “alpha rolls” and “punishment” and “forced compliance” became popular terms with each new book or manuscript published by them.
Yes, you can STILL find new editions of these books today.
3. It's still in our vocabulary.
Dominance is one of those anthropomorphic traits we give to dogs when they exhibit behavior we don't want. I promise your dog is not trying to rule the roost! Dogs do what they do best: they be themselves. Some dogs are rambunctious, some dogs are sensitive, some are cautious. They are individuals.
Click here to read more about The Anthropomorphic Dog.
We talked about what dominance meant to us in this Facebook post: some said being the leader, or being successful, and some said respect. You know who else has respect from others? Who are called leaders? Who have charisma, and are successful every day?
That's what we are, us humans who have brought dogs into our world. They aren't born knowing what behavior is OK for them in our world. They just be themselves. It's our responsibility to teach them, show them, let them choose, and reward and praise and love them and have patience.