The Dog-Wolf Link and Dominance Training

Author/trainer Katarina Behan with Ben

By Katarina Behan, for Pet News and Views

If you own a dog you may have been told that your dog is a wolf in dogs’ clothing, and that your dog is always watching you for signs of weakness so that he can elevate himself to the position of top dog – or alpha. The trend is moving away from this dominance theory of dog training.

Hundreds of years of human influenced breeding has led dogs to loose the ability and need to hunt for their own food source. Most free roaming dogs live off human dumps. This is very different from wolf behavior.

Research found that free roaming dogs come together fleetingly for breeding, and occasionally spend time together. It would probably be best to refer to them as open groups, rather than packs. These free ranging dog groups are usually made up of unrelated dogs and the female dog will often raise her pups by herself. This is also different from a wolf pack.

One study, probably the first of its kind, on domestic dogs in a domestic setting that began in 1994 and is still continuing follows a group of dogs living with humans in a group of two or more dogs. These dogs have been video recorded 24/7 to ensure that no behavior, or pre-cursor to a behavior, was missed.

This research showed that dogs prefer stability in their relationships, and would avoid confrontation. It was also found that dogs who live together do not organize themselves in a linear hierarchical structure.
If you live with more than one dog you can see evidence of this nonlinear structure in your own home.

Dogs with behavioral problems are often labelled ‘dominant,’ and people believe they must reassert their authority as alpha or top dog. In the past, most dog trainers used the umbrella ofdominance aggressionand thedominant dogto explain away problems. Understandably this stuck, because it made sense, and there was nothing to suggest otherwise.

The advice was to never eat before your dog, never let them sleep on the bed or couch, never allow your dog to walk in front of you on a walk, and should your dog misbehave, push your dog on their back and hold them there until they stop struggling or ‘submit.’ It was all about creating a winner and a loser–thereby making the dog/human relationship adversarial.

This kind of advice is too general and can be harmful to your dog. Specific problem behaviors in dogs should have specific answers, be based on canine (not wolf) behavior, and should also have a scientific solution based on the science of learning–all of which a progressive trainer should be able to help you with.

My dog, Ben, is sitting with me on the couch. Is he being dominant? No, he just likes the couch (and me). Ben walks in front of me on walks. Is he being dominant? No, he’s just interested in lots of smells. Ben often wins tug of war; does he think I am weak? No. Ben heels when I ask him to, comes when I call him, and sits when I ask him. I always feel better when Ben is with me, and I have fun training him. This is what sharing my life with a dog is all about for me.

Katarina Behan operates the Gentle Modern School of Dog Training, and has been a dog trainer for over nine years. Katarina’s blog, Dog Life Training, is filled with helpful training tips. It was created to give dog parents a free resource to better understand their dog so that life becomes more enjoyable for both. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband, five-year old daughter, 10 month old Irish Setter, Spencer the Burmese cat, and Norbert the Bearded Dragon. She also wrote the article Dog Trainer Trains A Piglet, which shows the intelligence of pigs and how gentle dog training tips can be applied to other animals.