Fair warning, there are citations of peer-reviewed articles in this post and it might get a little technical. Where I can, I have linked to a copy you should be able to access to read for yourself, otherwise you may have to check out your local library or university for access to scientific journals. Enjoy!
When observing a demonstration of the skillset of a working police K9 recently, my heart sank. It wasn’t because I saw a dog being abused, but because I saw the normalizing of a training method that has been proven to cause problems. This was all before the dog was out, too. The police officer was explaining the equipment to a small crowd, including a child who seemed to be 3-5 years old. The police officer was showing all the typical tools meant to cause… well, let’s just say discomfort to be diplomatic. Prong collars and shock collars were among the mix. It was being explained to the group that these things don’t hurt the dog at all. I had to walk away for a minute, because that was ridiculous. They do cause pain, or at least discomfort, otherwise they wouldn’t work. When a dog is highly aroused, like in police or military work, they are in a part of their brain that will only respond to pain. Saying that it doesn’t hurt dogs is a flat out lie. You know what else was once common belief about (non-human) animals? That they couldn’t feel pain; that even surgery could be done without medication. We were wrong about that one, what else could we have wrong? Training an animal should never be a situation where force or pain are status quo; the belief that it's the only way to get reliable behavior is simply not true. I do understand the importance of the work of military and police dogs and I love that they have such an important place, but I have seem military working dogs from European countries who can do all the same work, without the pain. Maybe it’s time to leave the past behind and move away from a training protocol that was developed for WWI.
When dog training first started on a big scale, for the war, it was commonly believed that the only way to communicate with any animal was to use force. It worked. Dogs learned quickly what not to do. There were also many dogs deemed “too stupid” for work because they could not learn this way. This belief was further cemented by a study done in 1975 on the behaviors of captive wolves. These wolves were not a familial group, as wolves in the wild are, and they were in what was to them, a very strange environment. The researcher, Zieman, saw some pretty intense displays of aggression including the now well known “alpha roll”. The animals sustained major injuries. He proposed that there could be a multitude of reasons for these incidents including time of year, standing relationships between the wolves and status, but seemed to harp on the status part. With this, the industry continued on this path and wolves were compared-incorrectly- to our own dogs. Despite the work of other researchers explicitly demonstrating that this is not normal behavior for wild wolves (Mech 1999; Fatjo et al, 2007), this fallacy persists. During 13 summers in Canada, on Ellesmere Island, Mech never saw displays as violent as the ones observed by Zieman. He saw what is most common in all animals- subtle and not so subtle body language meant to communicate in social situations (Kerkhove 2004 p 281). In the study by Fatjo et al, similar results were found in wild wolves: “overt aggression was rarely observed in the pack included in this study and never led to open wounds in any of the wolves involved in agonistic encounters.” It seems that the most logical conclusion to be drawn is that unrelated wolves in captivity is what caused the severe fights, not simple rank determination displays (Kerkhove 2004 p 281-2). Despite these findings, too many people out there still believe the words written in a 42-year old study.
Since the theory of dominance cannot be unilaterally applied to wolves, it is not logical to apply it to modern dogs, who diverged on the evolutionary path from wolves 11,000-16,000 years ago (Freedman et al, 2014, pg 1, 5). Furthermore, there is no need for dog owners or trainers to establish themselves as the ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’ in an effort to prevent or stop canine aggression since most aggression is actually in defense or due to general anxiety (Herron et al 2009 p 52). Punitive displays on the part of dog owners have a correlation with increased aggression displayed by the dog, so trainers and owners may be endangering themselves and family members when attempting to train this way (Herron et al 2009 p 52, Hiby et al 2004). The theory of dominance and the belief in a rigid social structure for wolves and dogs has simply been debunked. The rules of this theory do not accurately apply to wolves or their distant relatives who now occupy our homes.
To paraphrase another trainer, have you seen a wolf “dominate” a monkey? No, because alpha based dominance is within that species. The wolf could show aggression towards a monkey I suppose, but that would not be dominance. It would be something akin to “hey, outsider, get out of here!” Would the wolf go back to his wolf buddies and say “look, I totally dominated this monkey today, now he knows I’m the boss!” The type of dominance people refer to when excusing the use of force it called Alpha Regulated Dominance. It only exists within a species. By exerting ‘dominance’ over your dog, you are attempting to do something that a logical animal would not do (see above monkey example). By doing an alpha roll, you are being irrational and mean and your dog does not understand what is happening or why; they only know you are mad as hell and they will do everything they can to not make you mad in the future. A human attempting to ‘train’ using force in the name of dominance is bullying, plain and simple. Teaching our dogs to live this way seems to me analogous with staying in an abusive relationship because that person provides you with a place to live and food to eat. We tend to believe that people deserve better; don’t our dogs also deserve better?
Some of these I have been able to link to the full text and others are just the abstract, so again check with your library or local university for scientific journal access.
1. Zimen, E. (1975). Social Dynamics of the Wolf Pack. In W. M. Fox (Ed.), The wild canids: Their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution (pp. 336–362). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. (This one is a book)
2. van Kerkhove, W., 2004.
A fresh look at the wolf-pack theory of companion-animal dog social behavior. J. Appl. Anim. Welf. Sci. 7, 279-285.
3. Mech, L. D. (1999).
Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of
Zoology, 77, 1196–1203.
4. Herron et al (2009)
Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors
5. Hiby et al (2007)
Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare
6. Fatjo et al (2007)