I think we’re all familiar with the coolest story in prehistory. Our ancestors used their wits to harness the power of wild carnivores and trick them into doing pesky tasks like tracking, guarding, and hunting. After many generations of selective breeding, the descendants of these wild wolves now live in our homes and share many of the same traits. Everything we need to know about training dogs we can learn by studying bad ass wolves! Cool!
Except, there are a few problems with this story. Science says that dogs and permanent human habitation popped up at around the same time, and there is a reason for that. Civilization makes trash, and clever wolves figured out how to make our ancestors do pesky tasks like gathering, hunting, and butchering food. This new niche favored vastly different traits than their previous environment. A shorter flight distance when startled by people, a longer imprint period for puppies, a smaller brain proportional to size, smaller size in general, a weaker teeth and jaw, and a more frequent and earlier estrus cycle. When dogs and humans started interacting, all of these things suddenly became adaptive advantages, rather than liabilities. Former wolves became a different species. A scavenger, this new species was genetically tame and had a wide enough window in their imprint period to imprint on humans. Unlike captive wolves, even those that have been hand reared, this was an animal genetically predisposed to live around people and not to pose enough of a threat to be seriously hunted.
Okay. So, cool story, bro! But… um…why do we care? Because, dogs are not simply domesticated wolves. They are their own separate but related species, just like jackals, coyotes, foxes, and dingoes. They had a species-specific social structure before humans ever got involved. It is not closely related to the rigid dominance hierarchy observed in captive wolves (a species which, upon further study, doesn’t tend to live that way in the wild).
In areas where wild, village dogs still exist in their natural form, they have not been observed to form a dominance hierarchy of any kind. They live in small (possibly family) groups, or singly. They defend a small territory, scavenge human waste, sleep, and repeat.
Do they exhibit aggressive and appeasement behaviors? Certainly, but many social and semi-social species display these sorts of behaviors without later deferring to the aggressor as if they were a leader. Scavengers have no need to hunt cooperatively, and therefore, banding together more than is necessary to protect a larger or more valuable territory has no adaptive advantage.
I suspect that those of us with more than one dog have seen evidence in our own homes to corroborate these assertions. I have 3 dogs, and no one of them is clearly “alpha.” The dog on the bottom of the play pile is most likely to shove his brothers out of my lap. During our various daily activities, they each take precedence at different times and in different situations.
I live next to my in-law’s family farm, and in total there are 9 dogs that either live there, or visit daily with their owner. They range in size, age, sex and temperament, but not one of them is in charge. My grandmother-in-law’s dog is mostly blind and has mobility issues. She should be on the bottom of the dominance chain, but all the dogs quickly learn that she doesn’t want to play and that she’s pretty cranky. They ignore her with almost no human direction.
Universally, in my experience, the dogs that “alpha roll”(snap, growl, or otherwise display behaviors which are commonly seen as “dominant”) aren’t deferred to as leaders; instead, they’re avoided and ignored. Even after they’ve decided they would like to play, snuggle, go on a walk with or engage the other dogs, they’re not welcomed into the group.
The dogs which make themselves fun to be around and offer more social behaviors, are sought out, and are better able to coax other dogs into games and activities they enjoy.
Why then, are humans trying to copy these aggressive behaviors? They don’t work for the species we’re copying and don’t facilitate learning and cooperative behavior. They do create fear and avoidance, but that’s not what I’m trying to teach my dogs. I’m trying to teach them to be polite, friendly, and well-behaved.
Some of the training methods based on dominance theory are harmless, or even effective, just not for the reasons we think. “Nothing in life is free” requires a dog to earn all their basic necessities by sitting or performing some other task before they get anything they want. This doesn’t establish a person as an “alpha dog,” but it does reward calm behavior, give the dog an appropriate alternative behavior to perform to get what he wants, create a habit of obedience, and teach them how to politely acquire resources from people.
Taking on the aggressive behaviors of other dogs, however, has been correlated with aggression, fearful behavior, and other negative outcomes in a higher percentage of dogs than training methods based on positive reinforcement.
Rather than looking to a vastly different species to teach us how to train our dogs, would it not be better to look at the results of behavioral research done on dogs themselves? That is the creature we’re living with, not wolves, not wild dogs, not coyotes. That research is there, but it lacks the compelling narrative and cool factor, so it’s been slow to trickle out to the general public. Our culture really loves the idea of a dominance hierarchy, and we’d like to keep it. Hell, even our fictional werewolves tend to have an aggressive alpha figure.
Positive training methods should not be a secret, kept by Animal Science PhDs, but something everyone is able to use. In principle, it’s simple. Dogs do what works. Reward the behaviors that work for you, and you’ll get them more often. When a behavior is displeasing, make it harder and reward an alternative, non-compatible behavior. There are many specific tips and tricks, but the heart is that simple.
Drop the dominance act, and see what happens. Play tug with your dog and let him win, feed your dog before yourself, let him out the door before you. None of these things are as integral to leading your dog as popular culture would have us believe. A bit of cleverly applied food and attention will do you better. Dogs evolved to score free food from humans, it’s what they’re adapted to do. Why not use that fact to our advantage?