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Wilde about Dogs Blog


Leadership vs. Dominance

By Nicole Wilde, CPDT

I recently attended a lecture given by a self-styled "dog psychologist" on how to improve your relationship with your dog. One of the main points made was that dogs don’t need a loving leader, but rather, a strong leader who uses "domination." Owners were advised to use the alpha roll (forcing the dog on his back and staring until he submits), to "show him who's boss." I was saddened to hear this regurgitation of the old, strong-arm techniques, in this enlightened day and age. The truth is, you can be both a strong and a loving leader.

Techniques like the alpha roll and scruff shake are purportedly based on the behavior of dogs’ ancestor, the wolf. Studies done in the wild years ago reported that wolves use the alpha roll to discipline and control other pack members. In later years, those studies were disproved. What ethologists found was that when a wolf wanted to dominate another, he would "muzzle pin," i.e. place his own muzzle, mouth wide open, teeth bared, gently over the muzzle of the other. The pinned wolf would then roll over and submit voluntarily. That’s an important distinction. In fact, if a wolf forcefully slams another to the ground, teeth around his neck, staring hard, chances are he means to kill that animal. Is that really the message you want to send to your dog?

If your dog has any aggression issues, using force will only make the problem worse. It may look for the moment like you’ve solved the issue, because the dog stops the aggressive display immediately. Of course he does; you’re physically stronger and are threatening him. That’s called self-preservation. In reality, you’re only suppressing the aggression, and causing stress that will assuredly resurface--and it won’t be pretty. It may reappear as other seemingly unrelated behavior problems, or even worse aggression. Besides, what happens if one family member uses force, but the others are not as physically or psychologically capable of doing so? I can tell you, because that’s the case with many families I’ve been called in to work with. When the domineering person (usually the husband) is gone, the dog challenges the one he sees he might have a chance of dominating, which is usually the wife.

Another fascinating fact from the world of wolves is that the "alpha" or top-ranking wolf does not need to prove a thing. Good alphas rule with a calm air of dignity. They are assertive when necessary, but are not bullies. At Wolf Park, a research and educational facility in Indiana, those alpha wolves who ruled with a heavy paw were quickly deposed by other pack members. Those who ruled wisely ruled longer. It’s actually the middle-ranking, wanna-be alphas who do all the squabbling. They have something to prove. You shouldn’t.

So remember: Be kind, be firm, be fair. Be a good leader. Your dog will love you for it.

Copyright 2001 Nicole Wilde. All rights reserved.