You will hear this all the time. You need to show your dog who is the "Boss". Who is "Pack Leader". You need to be the "Alpha". You need to be "Dominant"/"Top Dog" etc. The list goes on.
If this is something you have always thought was true, you may be surprised to hear that this was actually disproven decades ago! Sadly this is something that is still widely spread by Social media, Forums, Facebook groups, well meaning owners and even some "trainers".
So Where does it come from?
The idea that dogs need an Alpha/Pack leader etc. comes from the study of captive wolves. In a group of unrelated captive wolves, it was observed that one wolf would become the leader of the group. When this was revisited years later, the same scientist (David Mech) retracted his statements and instead found that wolves do not form structured hierarchies but form a family until between a breeding pair and offspring (much like humans). At around the age of two years, the young wolves leave the family unit and find their own mate. There is no “asserting dominance” etc. in this family unit. Not only was this research done on wolves and then applied to dogs, Dogs evolved from a common ancestor of todays wolf around 20,000 years ago. This means it is highly inaccurate to apply information collected from todays wolf and apply it to todays domesticated dog.
Dogs know we are not wolves. There is no recorded research of any species on the planet forming a hierarchical relationship with an individual of another species. Why, then do we assume that dogs would? The idea that dogs are out for world domination seems to take over the training world at times. This becomes the fix-all advice for every behaviour issue you can think of.
Your dog is pulling on the lead? He must be trying to be the boss! Isn't it more likley that dogs walk faster than us, are excited to go on a walk, have been inadvertently reinforced for this behaviour and to top it all off, not been shown what to do instead?
Your dog pushes out the doorway first? He must think he is the leader! Isn't it more likley that you've never taught your dog to wait before you exit the door, they are excited to go out and they don't understand they shouldn't?
Dogs know we are not wolves. There is no recorded research of any species on the planet forming a hierarchical relationship with an individual of another species. Why, then do we assume that dogs would? The idea that dogs are out for world domination seems to take over the training world at times with it becoming fix-all advice for every behaviour issue you can think of.
The fallout of this training
How are we recommended to assert dominance? There are some pretty crazy suggestions and unfortunately article after article on the subject. There is usually a lot of talk about "energy" with the suggestions that dogs have some form of sixth sense where they can read our energy - in actual fact, they are just reading our body language and through simple learning theory forming associations with what this means.
I am not going to pick apart every suggestion but I will highlight some of them just to inject some common sense back into training. Reminder: This is the advice to stop your dog being "dominant" I AM NOT ADVISING THIS.
1. You must choose when to start and end play with your dog - This is a very common one. Your dog will think he is the boss if he is allowed stop the game when he wants. We need to remember logic here. What if your dog is tired? Bored? Had enough? They aren't allowed to stop because you haven't said so? To me this sounds like a human who is obsessed with control rather than a dog.
2. You must never play tug with your dog and if you do, they must never win - If you watch dogs play, they take turns "winning". If one dog is repeatedly winning the game (whether this is wrestling, play fighting, tug, chase etc.), the other dog quickly gets bored and stops playing. When your dog "wins" the toy, it does not mean they suddenly have control and they are going to grab your bank card and car keys and head to the nearest pet shop to stock up on tasty treats. After all, he's the boss right?
3. Alpha Roll - this is another method that is supposed to make your dog "submit" to you. The idea is that the Alpha dog would pin his subordinates down to the ground to assert his dominance. If you watch wolf behaviour, the leader of the "pack" (I use pack loosely as, as we mentioned above, this term is misunderstood in regards to wolves), there is no force used when a dog rolls over. The "subordinate" will readily roll over himself - he is not forced down. You will see this in puppies who are nervous/unsure/uncomfortable or scared. It is a way of saying "I am not a threat!" Do you want your dog to do that to you? Is that the relationship you want. Your dog should know you are not a threat. Unfortunately many people do force their dog into a "submissive down" and many dogs learn to distrust their owners. Then what occurs is one day they will stand up for themselves and fight back, leading to a nip or a bite.
4. Take food off your dog whilst they are eating to show you control it - If you keep taking food off me, I will eventually slap your hand away. Dogs will do exactly the same. If you keep taking things away from them, they will become protective of these when you are around. You are certain to create an issue rather than prevent them.
5. Other forceful/painful methods such as holding the muzzle, yanking the lead - Again these just lead to distrust and fear rather than asserting any "power".
6. Rules disguised as being the boss: Dont let your dog on your lap/sofa/bed etc. - In reality, this is all personal choice. If you dont want your dog on the furniture, thats fine but if you do, your dog wont decide that they must be allowed to take over your household. Whatever you choose, be consistent to avoid confusion later down the line.
7. Punish growling - This is one that is mentioned a lot and is very dangerous! NEVER PUNISH A GROWL! Please read my blog on punishing growling to learn more about this.
There are many more points out there, each one as invalid as the next. Dogs need structure, consistency and guidance of what you WANT then to do. Dogs like routine and clear rules on what they are and are not allowed to do but this has nothing to do with supressing your dogs inner control freak!