Breed Specific Legislation & Alpha Dog Myths

2 small dogs looking at cameraAs smart as we humans consider ourselves to be, we can be remarkably short-sighted or inconsiderate of the effects of our beliefs or actions. Antibiotics have saved countless lives and I consider myself among the lucky in history to have lived in an age during which we have access to them. But we have also learned that unless we use them judiciously, the fall out of resistant bacteria is very real and can be deadly. Yet for many, including, surprisingly, doctors, they continue to be misused.

When I meet trainers or dogs owners who believe that dogs need to be dominated in order to be appropriate pets I rarely doubt that they enjoy having dogs in their lives. However the perpetuation of the myth that dogs need to be ‘shown their place’ in the household pack hierarchy may have had serious consequences for breeds of dogs some trainers and advocates have specifically targeted for image improvement. This impact goes beyond the routine effect on a dog who has been ‘dominated’ displaying increased fear and aggression. That alone should be enough to reconsider the practice.

Touting the concept that dogs are inclined to seek a higher status in their relationships with people, including displaying aggression to do it, is scary. Growling, used by dogs to indicate that they want to maintain or increase their personal space, which may include food, locations or toys, is upsetting enough that many pet owners and trainers will punish a dog for it. It scares us. It scares us even more if we believe that it is a rung on the ladder up to domination. ‘Nip it in the bud’ is the tactic employed by many, and can have unintended consequences. Stopping growling does not necessarily stop the preference the dog has for being left alone, anymore than if I was punished for asking the fellow standing next to me on the subway to stop touching me, means I welcome his behavior because I’m afraid to speak up about it.

As sophisticated as humans are we are still ‘animals’ and have retained many of the responses that kept us alive long enough to evolve and achieve our own level of global domination (germs and cockroaches aside). We are as concerned about being attacked as the next fellow mortal regardless of how many limbs they use to walk, or whether they swim or fly. When we incorporated the myth that status seeking in dogs is a powerful enough desire that they are willing to attack and kill humans to get it, red lights started flashing in the parts of our brains that respond to immediate threats which affect our survival. This unfortunately has led to less use of the parts of our brains that are capable of critical thinking.

There is plenty of information, provided by biologists, ethologists, behaviorists, and writers, far more skilled than I, to include the research done on both wolves and dogs which indicates that both animals interact within a system that promotes cooperation far more than it does conflict, especially conflict which might lead to grievous bodily harm, in this post. I welcome readers to include links to that information in comments. My goal for this post is not to address that, but rather to suggest that when you convince people that dogs need an ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’ in order to be a safe, ‘balanced’ pet you instill a level of fear in people about dogs which may have led to the increase in breed specific legislation and heightened laws regarding which dogs communities feel safe having in them.

I have rarely doubted that trainers like Cesar Millan and others who follow his ‘premises’ about the relationship between people and dogs, like and love dogs, but the unintended consequences of maintaining the ‘alpha’ and pack leader paradigm, including practices and handling techniques which can increase aggression, may be proving to be deadly to the very dogs they claim to care about.


30 comments so far

  1. kdkh on

    Thank you. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one that sees C.M. As a bully. People are often so quick to condem bullying of children, but quite willing to bully their dogs.

  2. Lou on

    Amen to that!

    I’ve trained more than 3,000 dogs (classes, rescues, etc.) over the years. I rarely raise my voice, never use a shock collar (except for two dogs that chased cars – as a last resort, and because their lives were at stake), don’t push or pull or hit, and find the whole “dominance” thing laughable. I tell students that they already have total control over their dogs as they control their food, water, shelter, exercise, play, toys, etc. If their dogs don’t respect them, it is because they aren’t consistent with their training or they are abusing/neglecting them in some way. I usually work with large breed dogs, “banned” breeds, and “challenging” dogs – and I am a frail, tiny, older woman.

    If the “strongest dog” was the one the others all looked up to, why is the pack leader so often a small, mature, female? In a house, why is the cat or smallest dog the one often deferred to by other dogs? Simple observation supports your argument.

    • Cheryl Huerta on

      Dominance has NOTHING to do with size, strength or the ability to pysically control another. Anyone who understands dominance in reference to canines knows that. The reason, if you are really interested, that many times the smallest in size can become the most dominant is because of their ‘attitude’ and the ‘energy’ that they project which is picked up by the other members of a pack. It’s mother nature’s way. If we are going to ‘be’ with animals we truly need to study their nature and learn how they live among eachother rather than insist that they become human!

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thanks for your comment Cheryl. I am interested enough to have just returned from several days attending a canine behavior seminar at Wolf Park. It was fascinating.

  3. pawsforpraise on

    There is never any reason to impose a “rank reduction” strategy with dogs. The simple solution is to employ some control over resources that dogs seek. That’s all we are doing when we use positive reinforcement. We’re telling the dog that he can earn what he’d like by exhibiting behavior that we like. Fear and pain are used in training when the trainer’s knowledge is insufficient. If we are indeed the smarter species, we should be able to figure out how to get a dog to sit, or not chase cars, by using what science has already investigated and proven about how dogs learn.

  4. pawsforpraise on

    In answer to the question about why small females seem so powerful, I would suggest that David Mech’s current contention about how wolves form their social groups based more on breeding pairs than on “alpha” dogs is a good hypothesis. It isn’t about “domination” at all.

    • fearfuldogs on

      David Mech isn’t the only one who acknowledges that wolf ‘packs’ are typically family units. I think of it as a matter of who is willing to defer to who within a social group. There are any number of characteristics that impact an individual’s choice in regard to who they are willing or unwilling to defer to. Some may be obvious physical reasons, size for fitness, when teeth can be used to settle disputes. But that is only one among a myriad of ‘reasons’.

      There are people who will relinquish their seat on a bus for someone elderly, infirm or pregnant. Others will not. Even among the ones who do not of their own accord, there will be those who will willingly give it up if asked.

  5. Jennifer on

    I love coming here just to read how you explain things in a way that I can’t quite do myself. That’s a great summary of the alpha dog myth and I appreciate you opening yourself up to comments from folks who may read the writing on the wall, yet still dig their heels in and refuse to accept it. …Coming to see you in Santa Cruz in September – can’t wait!

    • Debbie on

      Thanks Jennifer!

      Debbie Jacobs

  6. KellyK on

    Stopping growling does not necessarily stop the preference the dog has for being left alone, anymore than if I was punished for asking the fellow standing next to me on the subway to stop touching me, means I welcome his behavior because I’m afraid to speak up about it.

    I think this is an excellent analogy. People often put up with situations they are deeply uncomfortable with because they have been punished for speaking up. (If I hate being hugged, or just don’t want a specific person touching me, but get a ration of crap every time I try to enforce my personal boundaries, I may suck it up, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.)

    I have family members who have a dog who exhibits what looks (to my untrained eye) like fear aggression. She barks, growls, and charges at people coming into the house, and will go from seemingly relaxed to snarling at sudden movements. Even when they get her calm, there’s a lot of lip-licking and other nervous body language. (I have to wonder if her previous owner was training her to be a guard dog, because she seems happy and relaxed when they take her out.)

    They’ve taken her to a training facility that’s heavy on punitive methods, including shaking something loud in her face when she barks and frequent, hard, use of a choke collar. To me, this makes being around her more scary, not less, because not only is she being punished for reacting, but I’m worried that if she barks at me for getting up, and gets choked or frightened, she’s going to more strongly associate “Kelly moves” with “bad things happen” and I’m going to get bitten. To make it even worse, it makes me really uncomfortable to see an animal be physically punished, so I’m sure my stress only compounds hers.

    I’m torn between refusing to be around her ever at all and wanting to be a calming and comforting presence. Once I’m sitting down, she’ll come up to me, acting happy and relaxed, and she loves to play fetch with me. But if I’m just arriving, or I (or anyone else) move in a way that startles her, she freaks out.

    I know, that was a really long way to say that I’d rather be around a dog who lets you know when they’re uncomfortable, rather than one who’s been punished for barking or growling, so you may not know there’s a problem until you’re bitten.

    • engineer chic on

      In response to your curiosity that perhaps she was being trained for guard work because she acts fearful and aggressive at home but is okay in public… I can only say that my fearful dog was taken from a hoarding situation at 8 months old and over time we have socialized him so that he is good at walking past strangers, can go to Petco and the like, and even enjoys walks some of the time. But he is still very reactive at home and wants to drive strangers from the house (unless they bring a dog with them, in which case he is instantly comfortable). It’s definitely fear based, he’s expressed his anal glands and pooped in abject terror of the new person.

      Long way to say: I have a dog with similar behavior and he was never trained for any guard work (not that anyone would fear a smallish white dog anyways). I haven’t figured it out yet, either.

  7. wholedogtraining on

    Nice information. We never need to hurt a dog to train them.

  8. Debbie Tringale on

    I also work with fearful dogs and I was very happy to find your blog. The whole dominance and alpha thing is misleading because it is constantly changing and evolving. One of my dogs is really good at digging so he dominates when it comes to underground dangers. One of my other dogs is really good at catching mice and moths, so he is dominant when there is a bug in the house. I think it is a myth that there is a “pack leader” among domestic dogs. Each dog seems to do what they are best at to promote the survival of the pack.

  9. pawsforpraise on

    If only people would listen…….it’s so sad to see so many damaged dogs when it doesn’t have to be that way. I love that you have added such an eloquent post to the many voices for change, and a more humane and reasoned approach to training and behavior modification for all dogs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting. We all are doing what we can and hopefully we’ll see progress.

  10. sarahj on

    Coming in late on this discussion, but wondering if anyone can weigh in on the issue of “status seeking” &/or “height seeking” behaviors, mostly dog on dog related. I am definitely anti-CM approach, am working with some wonderful positive-only trainers. Have been reading and watching dvds (McConnell, Trish King, Sarah Kalnajs, Donaldson) like crazy to get a real handle on this. Interested because it is fascinating and also I have 2 same-aged females. The one that is more anxious and fearful is the one who bullies the other on a regular basis, more psychological than physical. Also am seeing very interesting behaviors at the dog park regarding dogs who seem to want to control dogs and sometimes people too, that doesn’t appear anxiety or fear based. Would like a deeper, nuts & bolts understanding. Any suggestions?

    • fearfuldogs on

      I am familiar with the concept of height seeking, though it has not really gained ground in the dog training community. We can hypothesize about why dogs do what they do, and even if there are dogs who care more about whatever we think ‘status’ is to them, at the end of the day all we can know for sure is what the behavior is that we’re seeing. Is a dog trying to ‘control’ other dogs because they are a herding breed and are aroused to perform certain behaviors when in a crowd of dogs? Is a dog trying to ‘control’ other dogs if they go take a stick away from one of them because they really like sticks and have been successful at taking sticks away from other dogs in the past? I don’t know the answers. As the UK trainer John Rogerson has said, we have all the theories, the dogs have all the facts.

      We know that behaviors are likely to reoccur if whatever happens when or after they perform the behavior is an outcome the dog finds reinforcing. Is a dog ‘height seeking’ or aroused and finds jumping up reinforcing? I would never be comfortable saying that they were seeking status, because I will never be able to prove it. In my own home with my own dogs or boarders I focus more on being aware of what conditions exist when I see a behavior, and what happens afterwards. I think that dogs are as varied and unique in their interests and concerns as people are in theirs. And just as there are some people who even if they care about something are not inclined to fight about it, there are dogs like that as well.

      There is a book on this page that might be of interest to you; Dominance: Fact or Fiction?

      If you come up with any other good resources, please share them. You’ve already got a good start on your education. If you haven’t read Don’t Shoot the Dog, add that to the list too.

      • sarahj on

        Thanks for the response. I did read Karen Pryor, thought it was wonderful. And I am familiar with the training “black box” perspective, that you can’t truly know what is going on inside the dog’s mind and it doesn’t really matter anyway from a training standpoint. Something either works or not.

        But in my readings, I was comfortable with the notion that dominance is not something that needs to be in our vocabulary vis a vis our dogs. There seem to be many wonderful trainers who feel that way. However then I began to notice Trish McConnell, saying, well, from an ethologist’s perspective, social status and status seeking are important for really understanding social animals like dogs and people. It has to do with resources, are they concentrated or dispersed, and all that stuff. Is it a natural social structure, like truly wild wolves, or artificial, like wolves in a domestic setting as Mech saw. All these things have strong impacts on how social cohesion plays out. And it is fluid. Probably these are all things you have read about a bunch. And of course the wide range of individual temperaments, all the wonderful diversity. Then you have Trish King saying that for dogs who tend to resource guard, that space is the ultimate resource (hope I paraphrase ok). And Sarah Kalnajs discussing height seeking in individual dogs as something that really concerns her when doing an evaluation, as a big red flag. She feels strongly that it really does reveal something about that dog’s tendencies that are important to recognize. So I guess I feel like there is really important stuff in that realm of dog social structure and how it meshes with human social structure, and that if one reads a situation that way perhaps one can find more potential solutions to issues in dog behavior.

        Sorry for the rambling. In what I find written on the internet, it seems that due to the whole CM realm that won’t completely go away (die already! 😉 thoughtful dog people are skirting the issue of social structure and status defensively. I hope to find more info on this stuff. Thanks for the site.

      • sarahj on

        HI again, just a note that I reread your reply & noticed the booklet you suggested. Maybe he will help clarify some of this stuff for me. Thanks again!

  11. Debbie Jacobs on

    You bring up a good question. I think the problem that many have these days is that the construct of ‘dominance’ has been used by trainers like CM to steer our interactions with dogs. Whether it exists or not in the minds or motivation of dogs is not something we know for sure. We do know that dogs are social animals and within a social unit there are animals who behave in ways in order to get or maintain access to certain resources. Jean Donaldson describes the dog itself as the ultimate resource the dog has, if I remember correctly. Within packs of wolves this access includes breeding opportunities.

    I see what you are describing as ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ in regard to looking at hierarchies within social groups of dogs. I suspect that the reality of ‘status seeking’ among dogs, should it exist is far more fluid and flexible than the model assumed by many to pertain to dogs. I’m going to be attending a lecture by Ray Coppinger who studied groups of village dogs. I look forward to hearing what he has observed.

    I think that many trainers, when faced with the damage caused by the application of ‘dominance’ or ‘status’ to dog behavior challenges, for simplicity’s sake, and I’d guess because odds are against it being the issue, deny its existence.

    As a trainer, the idea of status or dominance as a motivation for a dog’s behavior is not relevant to me when devising a plan for changing behavior. It doesn’t mean that I’m not making judgements about what I see in the dog. A dog might appear confident or fearful. Within a household a dog may be targeting one dog and not another. A dog may display a willingness to behave aggressively toward one member of the human family and not another. I have no way of knowing how I would change a dog’s motivation for dominance, in a way that was safe and effective (we know that CM’s way is often not!). If being ‘dominant’ is reinforcing to a dog, and we’d have to assume it was if behaviors were maintained by it, I don’t know how I’d use ‘being dominant’ as a reinforcer for building new appropriate behaviors. Or how to force a dog lower down the status hierarchy to serve as a punishment to end behavior.

    It’s an interesting area of study and I like to think that like dogs themselves, is more complicated, sophisticated and diverse than the labels we are currently using.

    • Cheryl Huerta on

      Wow. So we ‘KNOW’ the mind of dogs through science. Nature seems to have a different view. It is NOT the ‘methods’ that damage a dog it is the human being using them. This is why Cesar Millan is able to curb negative behaviors and elicit positive behaviors in dogs he works with but the dog owners cannot!!!

      It is way past time that we humans stop holding the dogs we choose to bring into our homes and under our care for all of their negative behaviors. Those negative behaviors are a direct result of the HUMAN BEING on the other end of the leash, living in the home, etc. It is high time we humans stopped blaming the victim and started to take full responsibility for our knowledge about, our actions and our interactions with our dogs and most of all for our feelings when we are with our dogs.]

      CM’s way is not about dogs or dog training. It is about the HUMAN and ONLY the HUMAN!!!

      Time to grow up folks and take responsibility for us and what we do!

      • sarahj on

        Hi Cheryl, I appreciate your passion on this. Just an aside, I wouldn’t want CM as a teacher for humansand he would not be welcome as family! Shudder to think of him teaching kids 😦 I don’t think he is exactly pro-human, i think he is pro-CM. Not a great representative of the human species…

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        Actually we don’t know the mind of dogs through science. Science cannot even tell us if dogs even have minds. What is a ‘mind’? They have brains, they may even have ‘thoughts’ but I sure as heck wouldn’t even begin to try to claim I knew what they were.

        I’m not sure how one can interact with another being, dog or otherwise and think that what matters is only half of the relationship, in this case the human. To say that CM is only about people’s behavior is disingenuous. It is the dog’s behavior we are trying to change. Methods do matter. We know they do because we see how they effect behavior, regardless of who applies them.

        Whether one is training or rehabilitating, they are changing behavior, and we know a lot about how that works from the decades of research and study into it.

        I do agree we do need take responsibility for our behavior.

  12. sarahj on

    Thanks for the great reply. I agree. And the term hierarchy itself sticks in my craw. I would rather think in terms of relationships. One thing that set this line of thinking off in my mind was watching Trish King’s dvd Multiiple Dogs, and she discusses dogs as being, ideally, lower on the totem pole than the owner, akin to the way children are in a family. She describes one case she dealt with where the strife between two dogs was caused in her opinion by the owner not recognizing that one dog was establishing higher status over the other dog which she happened to favor, and so the owner was not letting the dogs find a peaceful solution to their relationship as it changed. I don’t know if Trish King still thinks exactly like that but she was clear in her presentation. Nothing along the lines of CM, but I felt almost like a cold bucket of water was thrown on me, that I needed to reassess my approach and what I had learned thus far.

    Thanks for the fascinating discussion, and I loved the Coppingers’ book and can’t wait to hear what you find out, if you have time to share!!

  13. Sarahj on

    Well we can agree or not to disagree, I suppose. Spiritual leader or con artist? Sorry I seem to have struck a nerve with you. For myself, I could never imagine him as a role model for training dogs or otherwise. Yes, he is charismatic, but that doesn’t cut it with me. I think this has verged off topic, sorry if I have led us this way. But in your very last sentence is the key, I think, to why so many have objected to some of his methods. It is fine if the people who use his methods deal with their dogs in this manner: “…..not a threat to other living things”. But is he consistent with this himself and his dog training?

    • After going to see CM live when he came to San Diego last year, I can tell you that he is nothing like on TV.
      He not only got very angry with his stage crew when a mic stopped working, his dog Junior started to attack a young dog that was on stage at the same time. Had CM not turned to look (I’m sure that Junior growled) he would have gone after the other dog. Any one that understands dog body language would have seen it, just like both my friend and I did.
      The worst of it was CM talking about women. He said that women are the worst at exciting dogs with their high-pitched voices (as he mimicked a woman’s voice). Then he took the roll of the dog and humped the air saying that the woman overly excited the dog, and that, “She deserves it.”
      That is rape talk, and I was so shocked at how insensitive he was, and that he said something like that.
      The end all was when he brought up a standard poodle and owner. CM explained that they were therapy dog team. A portion of the money from that night was going to their group. So CM goes on about how therapy dogs have to be steady about everything, including all handling, etc. The owner then pushed the dog’s top knot back and the dog snapped at her several times.
      Without the cutting room, CM is not the charming guy so many say he is. What I saw was a very sad, and insecure man.

  14. Sarahj on

    My reply about agree or disagree was addressed to Cheryl H, I was replying to her message about CM, but I don’t see her message, just to clarify. (?)

  15. Debbie Jacobs on

    I should have known better than to respond to a comment about the glory of CM. I’ve been swamped by the DW ambassadors in the past, and though it’s great for hit count, it’s not how I want to get them.

    It’s my blog, and I do not in any way want to provide a forum for someone to either heap praise or affirm to other disciples that CM is anything other than a celebrity who is very good at selling snake oil. And making TV executives heaps of money doing it. If someone wants to castigate me for this opinion, or try to convince me that I’m wrong, do so in your head, not here. I’ve heard the arguments. So the guy takes dogs for walks. It’s does not balance out the crap.

    I am not scolding anyone for joining the conversation, just letting folks know that when it comes to ‘discussing’ CM, and trying to be reasonable, you might as well be Galileo trying to convince the church the earth is not the center of the universe. It doesn’t work and the conversation usually ends up frustrating me, even though I know how it’s going to go.

    So in the name of unfair and unbalanced, be forewarned, I will not keep comments from the CM fan club. I am the alpha in this kingdom and I will use my dominance the same way he does, to stop behavior however I feel like it.

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