There is no doubt that positive trainers spend a lot of time debunking dominance theory. Recently, while doing some reading we were directed to an informative piece on the use of Dominance Theory in working with dogs. It was the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s (AVSAB) position statement. Heidi and I stand firmly in line with this science-based explanation. Dominance theory is a dangerous way of influencing behavior in dogs that often results in more severe problems.
Most non-aggressive behaviors displayed by dogs are unknowingly rewarded by their owners, making that behavior stronger with every incident. In that case, it’s a simple as training a rewarding a more desired behavior. For example, if a dog is constantly rewarded for sitting or laying down and gets nothing for jumping up, the dog will opt to repeat the thing that is earning the reinforcement. Using punishment in these instances has some real risk attached to it. There is a fall out. It is very easy for the dog to associate the punishment with something else that is present. Let’s look at a common scenario. The dogs jumps on people when they enter the house. Every time a person walks, the dog jumps and is punished. For the dog, it is easy to associate the punishment with people entering the house and become fearful of people visiting.
We know that aggressive displays are usually rooted in fear or underlying anxiety. Using dominance or punishment in this scenario will certainly increase the aggression by exacerbating the level of fear the dog feels in the situation. Punishment all has another pitfall. To avoid pain, a dog will learn to suppress any sign of his true emotional condition, leaving you with a loaded gun ready to go off. Think of it like this. You are afraid of spiders and every time you see one, you scream. Now, in this scenario, every time you scream someone hits you. What will happen? The fear will intensify because you are now afraid of 2 things and you will learn not to scream. But will this help your fear or emotional state upon seeing the spider? Of course not. Our dogs go through the same thing.
If you find yourself in a situation where a “trainer” is advocating for dominance or punishment and you feel uncomfortable, you have every right to stop at any point and protect your pet. Please feel free to share this post with anyone who you think may benefit. And of course, if you any questions, feel free to get in touch.
Here is a link to the Position Statement in its entirety:
AVSAB Position Statement on Dominance Theory and Behavior.