There is quite a lot of debate on the idea of dominance and pack leadership among dogs. Scientists point out that many of the theories we’ve subscribed to up to now were based on watching wolves in captivity.
Dogs, they say, are not wolves, and when wolves are in the wild, co-operation is more apparent than dominance behaviours.
Those who say that dogs aren’t as interested in hierarchy as we have always believed, theorise that dog interactions are based on ‘learned behaviours’ rather than respect issues.
Others subscribe to the idea that dominance is important in training your dog and to keep the peace between your pets.
Learned behaviour versus pecking order, what’s the difference?
The difference is subtle. Behaviourists like Dr Sophia Yin, who subscribes to the ‘learned behaviour’ theory says that your dog isn’t trying to dominate you when he or she is naughty. What your dog is doing is ‘trying their luck’ in much the same way as kids try to push the boundaries.
How we react will tell the dog whether the new behaviour is rewarding or not. Like many other dog behaviour experts, Yin believes that any form of attention is a reward. So ignoring your dog could be the best solution.
But, as we know, some ‘naughty’ behaviours are a reward in themselves to your dog. In that case, stopping your dog from learning that behaviour by intervening is important too.
So far, there doesn’t seem to be much practical difference between the two approaches. Whether or not you believe your dog is trying to dominate you, allowing bad behaviour will effectively result in you carrying the can if wrong behaviours are learned.
The bone of contention in the dominance debate is ‘coercion’ – forcing a dog to do something or using fear to get co-operation.
More than one dog: do you have a pack?
Apparently not – at least not in the sense that wolves work in packs. The latest research shows that wolf packs are usually family units with well-defined roles for each family member. Mom and dad are in charge, but they seldom have to remind anyone that this is the case!
But the ‘pack behaviour’ that dominance theories are based on, occurred among unrelated, captive wolves, and here it would seem that there are some similarities in circumstances between the animals studied and our domestic dogs.
If roles aren’t well-defined, there may be trouble, so allowing one of your dogs to enjoy seniority that you clearly recognise might help to prevent in-fighting.
Usually, family dogs are able to settle down together and don’t even fight over treats and toys, but if you end up in a difficult situation in which your dogs seem unable to get along, it would be wise to consult your vet or an animal behaviourist.
What if you want to use toys to distract your pet while you’re not home?
If you have more than one dog, you can try giving them each a pet puzzle toy like the Foobler. Synchronise the feeding times and see what happens. Usually, the dogs won’t compete for each other’s toys and food provided the feeding times happen simultaneously.
It’s good to keep an eye on things though, just to be sure. If they get aggressive over the Foobler, you’ve learned something valuable – they might get just as aggressive over other rewards – even who is first to greet you when you come home. Get help before real problems develop.
Debate or no debate, everyone agrees with these points
Moving away from what appears to be some pretty hotly contested ideas, we can still find a lot of similarities between the two schools of thought:
- Dogs need play and exercise. We shouldn’t let them get unruly, but we can let them have fun.
- Training using gentle, positive methods helps to define the rules and limits your dog must adhere to and gets him or her used to you giving the commands.
- There have to be rules and limits that dictate what constitutes good behaviour.
- Although Caesar Milan subscribes to the pack theory and has been criticised for ‘coercive’ methods, everyone agrees with his maxim: “Be calm and assertive”.
- Dog owners often undermine good behaviour by rewarding bad behaviour or by pandering to it.
- Paying more attention to your pets when they are ‘bad’ than when they are ‘good’ is a recipe for disaster.
All in all, the key seems to be remembering that you are the human and your dog is… well… a dog. We’re inclined to agree that training should be a positive experience for a dog. If he loves training, he’s also going to love being obedient!