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The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals (PDF)
The AVSAB recommends that veterinarians not refer clients to trainers or behavior consultants who coach and advocate dominance hierarchy theory and the subsequent confrontational training that follows from it. Instead, the AVSAB emphasizes that animal training, behavior prevention strategies, and behavior modification programs should follow the scientifically based guidelines of positive reinforcement, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, desensitization, and counter conditioning.
Why everything you know about wolf packs is wrong
Mech explains, his studies of wild wolves have found that wolves live in families: two parents along with their younger cubs. Wolves do not have an innate sense of rank; they are not born leaders or born followers. The “alphas” are simply what we would call in any other social group “parents.” The offspring follow the parents as naturally as they would in any other species. No one has “won” a role as leader of the pack; the parents may assert dominance over the offspring by virtue of being the parents.
The Dominance Controversy
Note that dogs evolved for the past 10-15,000 years as scavengers with a promiscuous mating system. That is, free roaming dogs mate with multiple members of the opposite sex. Virtually all males get to mate. Consequently a rigid hierarchy and high rank would not confer a huge advantage compared to, say high rank in a group of bulls or chickens... Wolves in the wild generally do not gain their high rank by fighting their way to the top. Instead a male and female breed and the pack is a family unit comprised of the parents and the offspring. The parents naturally become the leaders. The offspring naturally follow their lead. As a result of this discovery regarding pack structure, wolf biologists no longer even use the term alpha with wild wolf packs...One definition of leadership is the ability to influence an individual to perform behavior they would not otherwise perform. By that definition, pet owners do need to develop leadership skills. However we have a choice of leadership style... Instead of using coercion we can learn to lead like a leader in a dance. When partners dance as a couple, one leads and the other follows. The leader’s job is to decide ahead of time which steps to perform and then guide his partner in a clear manner so that the partner CAN follow.
De-Bunking the "Alpha Dog" Theory
Then, in the fall of 2004, the National Geographic Channel launched its soon-to-be wildly popular show, The Dog Whisperer. Dominance theory was back in vogue, with a vengeance. Today, everything from housetraining mistakes to jumping up to counter surfing to all forms of aggression is likely to be attributed to “dominance” by followers of the alpha-resurgence...Finally, the very presumption that our dogs would even consider we humans to be members of their canine pack is simply ludicrous. They know how impossibly inept we are, for the most part, at reading and understanding the subtleties of canine body language. We are equally inept, if not even more so, at trying to mimic those subtleties. Any attempts on our part to somehow insert ourselves into their social structure and communicate meaningfully with them in this manner are simply doomed to failure. It’s about time we gave up trying to be dogs in a dog pack and accepted that we are humans co-existing with another species – and that we’re most successful doing so when we co-exist peacefully.
Dominance and Dog Training (PDF) (position statement from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers)
Far too many times dog owners have been given advice to “show the dog who’s boss” and “be the alpha.” The unfortunate side effect of this thinking is that it creates an adversarial relationship between the owner and their dog with the belief that the dog is somehow trying to control the home and the owner’s life. Such misinformation damages the owner-dog relationship, and may lead to fear, anxiety and /or aggressive behaviors from the dog. Dogs cannot speak our language and they can find themselves thrust into situations in our homes that they find difficult to comprehend, by owners trying to behave as they mistakenly believe “alpha” wolves do. Rather than dominance, it is most often a lack of clear interspecies communication that leads to behaviors we find troubling.. It is the human’s responsibility to teach our dogs the behaviors that we find appropriate, and reward them when they do the things we like. Just as importantly, it is our role to show them which behaviors are not appropriate in a constructive and compassionate manner that does not lead to further anxiety on the dog’s part.
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