Why Dominance Won’t Die

Before I proceed, I have to respond to the title of this post with, “I only wish I knew.” I have some ideas, but I suspect reasons vary from trainer to trainer and pet owner to pet owner.

leather clad torso with whipHowever, as someone who has done a bit more than dip my toes into the pool of information regarding dogs and their behavior, I am continually surprised by the perpetuation of certain myths and misinformation regarding dog behavior. I know I am not alone in my wonderment. Trainers, neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers also ponder the reasons and meaning of why humans cling to ideas that should have gone out of style ages ago having been shown to be based on inaccuracies, misunderstanding or outright lies.

Animal trainers know that we repeat behaviors we get rewarded for. That reward is defined by the animal. So what is it about believing that dogs are primarily concerned with establishing dominance that is so rewarding to us? What is it about the excuse this belief gives us for justifying our response to them that is so rewarding to us? What is it about our response to a dog we define as trying to be dominant that is so rewarding to us? What is it that prevents us from changing our perception of a dog’s behavior even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary regarding dogs and the idea that ‘dominance’ is so important to them?

Perhaps Tolstoy explained it best when he wrote:

“I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”

6 thoughts on “Why Dominance Won’t Die

  1. Unfortunately even when I say I’m the alpha in charge of the pack, it gets construed as dominance by trainers accusing me of dominating and abusing my dogs….(on training forums, not real life, in real life they tease me about being club med for domestic animals :)…) when what I’m saying is the alpha leads which is totally different than dominating, there are people who others naturally want to follow, that is how in a herd or pack you become alpha and in charge. Sometimes the oldest mare is in charge of a herd so it’s not strength or dominance it’s the ability to lead. It has nothing to do with abuse or dominance. How do we get that the issue of semantics in dog training solved?

    1. Yes Leslie, I understand exactly where you are coming from, and you are right. The word dominate, actually means to ‘take care of’ in the language that it originated from, which I believe is Hebrew, if I haven’t remembered incorrectly.
      Thank you for explaining this so well!

    2. The issue with semantics in dog training is the same issue when discussing anything. Either the terms are used correctly or not. The problem is that when a term is not clearly defined it is open to interpretation and we’ve seen lots of abuse of dogs because of this. Dogs don’t have alphas so many are scared and confused by human behavior that is performed to establish themselves as the ‘alpha’. The beauty of language is that we can use it to convey information and ideas very clearly. We can bake the same cake twice and share the recipe because we can specifically identify ingredients and amounts. The term ‘alpha’ has no identifiable application when speaking about dogs if we are using it terms of how animals organize themselves in a group.

  2. Us humans hATe to admit we are wrong.
    We have no humility.
    It’s our problem(not the pups) and I think it goes back eons where the strongest,smartest,most conniving live the longest. After “eons” of this thought pattern, how,with no humility-can we admit it’s not so?

    Most significant (in my view) is that dogs are emotionally more sensitive/capable than many humans – they have sense/senses (see the play on words?) that humans have lost.
    The dogs I foster as future service pups are brilliant!

    Love them !

    I have been pondering this question day after day. I read somewhere (possibly in one of Patricia B McConnell’s books) that dominating other animals or other humans for that matter can be somewhat addictive. Expressing our anger makes us feel temporarily better and the fact that it elicits an acceptable response the majority of the time (fear response instead of behavior that caused anger) is all the more reinforcing. Putting a reason to it allows us to dominate our animals publicly. Pretty pathetic indeed.

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