Social Dominance Is...
~Extensive detailed notes on the phenomenon of social dominance (rank, hierarchy, etc) in canids - in dire need of editing.~
Hopefully we can all agree on the basics. Most people don't want to abuse their dogs. People want dogs to be obedient, and it keeps them out of the pound. Dog trainers vary in skill levels. Casual owners vary even MORE in skill level! Dogs came from wolves. Wolves are pack animals. All social animals have species-specific behaviors...cats are not the same as dogs, who are not the same as humans, who are not the same as horses, etc. Understanding dogs' body language is good--it helps a lot in communication. Understanding why dogs do the things they do is good; it also helps in communication. A lot of what dogs do is derived from their ancestors, minus the things we have changed through genetic selection. Some breeds are still very similar to the wolf (for example, huskies and malamutes and German shepherds) , although a pass through domestication sure makes a difference! ;-) Other breeds are still very similar to Asian pariah dogs and dingoes, such as Shiba Inus, Basenjis and chows. Still other breeds are more man-made, and diverge quite a bit from their primitive roots. While some methods (such as reward-based training and operant conditioning) work on all dogs, other methods work better on some breeds than on others. While some dogs have stronger prey drive, pack drive, defensive drive, and so on...others are naturally more tractable and require less structure to thrive. It's not "all in how you raise them"--genetics certainly plays a role. It determines your starting point, and your range or behaviours. Training, handling, and management determine where in that range the individual dog will end up...and that's an ongoing process, which continues throughout the life of the dog. An old dog CAN learn "new tricks", new behaviour patterns. Change of ownership also frequently produces dramatic change in a dog, which is why shelter temperament tests will only get you just so far. Confidence (or lack thereof) travels down the leash, and most of us have seen cases where a good trainer will take the leash and the dog's behaviour improves almost immediately. Focus is an important part of dog handling--if you have the dog's mind, the body will follow. Building focus can be accomplished in a variety of ways, some better than others. None of this is controversial, and I expect all experienced handlers already understand all of the above. How do you build a strong and reliable focus, and a dog who is attentive and responsive to your words, actions, and body language? There are many ways, all of which dovetail together nicely. Most people already understand building focus through positive reinforcement and/or NILIF/No Free Lunch. Most understand the importance of practice and patience and timing, while instilling impulse control. http://wolfdogproject.com/impulsive.html For many dogs, a solid base in just these two things is enough to get you through! This essay is for the OTHER dogs...the ones who are less biddable, more independent, closer to their roots. Perhaps they've had no structure or stability or boundaries before. Perhaps their owners have tried basic training, "by the book", but it wasn't enough. Maybe it's time to think like a dog--to use their own psychology and "canine culture", to guide them into safe and mannerly behaviour. This is not a story about struggle or physical force. The best leash to use, is the one in their mind.
Definitions and values.
You can't teach about group behaviour in a social species, without discussing the concept of "social dominance"--the hierarchy within a pack, herd, flock, or tribe. Whether dominance is practiced by dogs, and whether it's effective, depends a LOT on your definition! It wasn't until joining online dog forums that I discovered how many different definitions were out there. In this guide, I'll be referring to the kind taught to me, and other experienced folks, directly by the experts--dogs (!) and wolves. It's the kind that large-scale dog handlers use every day. True social dominance, as practiced by dogs, is not about a violent hierarchy maintained by force, but rather a framework of rituals and structure designed to PREVENT violence, and promote harmony. ALL social species have this in place, as a way to manage resources with a minimum of infighting or damages to other group members. If you learn how to properly apply this framework, as practiced by the dog, you won't be hurting him in any way...and you'll experience far less conflict, and a more secure and responsive dog.
A lot of our choices in dog handling are shaped more by our values, than by straight-up objective facts. (Of course, past experiences come into play as well. People can talk all day about the "right" way to do things, but if you've been doing it a different way and that works out great for you, most folks don't care to fix what isn't broken ;-) and will place a lot of weight on their own personal experiences.)
If you see your relationship with your dog as sort of a parent/child relationship, and your view of child-rearing is that children should respect and mind their caregivers because adults are better equipped to make good choices, then being your dog's benevolent leader should come pretty naturally to you. Now, if you prefer to be on 100% equal terms with your dog, respecting his choices as much (or more) than your own and being uncomfortable with requiring him to do anything he doesn't choose to, then your values may not be compatible with anything other than a force-free series of "requests"...and if you can still manage a dog you can live with on that program, of course that's totally your choice. Some dogs have been modified to be highly biddable and easygoing, and you might make it work! However, if your dog has behaviour issues such as anxiety, aggression, or ignoring commands, you might want to look into a dog's eye world view. Make no mistake: in their own society, dogs do not live according to democratic principles. They come pre-programmed to follow a strong, calm leader who provides for their needs. This is part of their culture, and they have social needs related to the submissive and affiliative rituals that all canids practice. They enjoy their appeasement rituals the same way humans enjoy shaking hands, or saying "Good Morning, how are you today?" They also expect to be held accountable for their behaviour, and they don't take offence to being swiftly and fairly corrected by their packmates when they transgress. Dogs are compulsion trainers! They also forgive immediately... as does the one who corrected them. We could learn a LOT by watching how dogs operate in their own society...and what I'm going to talk about in this essay, is the details that I, and many others, have learned by having the good fortune to spend tens of thousands of hours observing assorted groups of wolves and/or dogs interacting according to their own rules. Some were large groups, some small; some were fixed packs, some had an ever-changing array of dogs coming and going. Some were breeds who have a natural talent for getting along; some were more fractious, and had to learn canine social skills, the same way another species might learn them. But, learn, they did...and you can too!
Packs are not maintained by *violence*--but they are maintained by leadership, and have a (flexible) hierarchy. Once the pack structure has been established, very few overt dominance displays are present. What does occur is more subtle,and easy for people to miss, especially with less dramatic, physically modified, and less active domestic dogs (vs wolves or primitive, natural dogs).
On the online dog groups, a lot of people (who haven't worked with wolves or large groups of dogs) have a definition of dominance that means "dogs violently take control by force, and are always plotting, on a human-sophisticated level, to take over our households". Obviously that's not true, and never was (it's not "outdated"--dogs are still the same dogs they used to be) but some people misunderstood it from the start. The only thing that's been "debunked" w.r.t. Mech is that people used to interpret his studies as saying it was "rule by force", and he's since tried to clarify that for those people, and said 'maybe we shouldn't use the word "alpha", if that's what you people think "alpha" means'. Mech, like any experienced canid biologist or ethologist, knows full well the existence and function of social dominance. He's been stressing that as recently as 2010. There's no controversy amongst canid scientists wrt dominance; that's a "new school" dog trainers' thing. Here's some science stuff on that for folks who want to learn more about it: http://wolfdogproject.com/domquotes.html Dominance has, of course, never been "debunked", and never could be--dogs are still doing it. Anyone can experientially verify a *correct* understanding of dominance at any time. (Now that's SCIENCE! ;-) ) However, it is widely, and thoroughly, misunderstood. You can raise many dogs without it (after all, many people don't even understand canine body language and still do okay with dogs) but if you're good at it, understanding "dog culture" really adds to the relationship, and it sure does make problem solving 100x easier and more efficient with the hard cases! :-) For example, it doesn't take months or years to fix resource guarding if you understand canine social structure. I've come to the realisation that the people who want to learn, will...the people who are happy doing it the long way and not studying as much about dog-SPECIFIC behaviour (only all-species operant conditioning) will either get there eventually, or give the dog to someone who does understand pack structure, or pts. Unfortunately there are too many dogs in that last category, so folks like you & I need to make sure the info is still available for those willing to learn. Dominance is a *relationship* between animals. One thing (walking ahead, or sleeping in bed, or eating before, whatever) does not make or break that relationship. If you have a dog whose behaviour is getting to be an issue, then you should consider cutting back on things that can aggravate it, like letting them drag you around on leash, letting them bolt out the door, leaving stuff around for them to guard, etc.
Some behaviours SHOULD be inhibited! Just as I shouldn't tell my boss off when I'm having a bad day, or a child shouldn't hit his sibling when frustrated,there are things that are inappropriate for a dog to do. Having the self control not to act on his every whim makes him a better dog...not a ticking time bomb. It's like they say--maybe you shouldn't just "be yourself" if who you are is an asshole. Those in power tend to act on their impulses, without inhibition...and that lack of inhibition is a BAD thing. A reduction in power reduces that urge, in humans and in other animals too.
A training component based on the leadership model--and note that it is only ONE component, not an entire system in itself--does assume that you believe, on some level, that a dog (like a child) is less equipped to deal with the hazards of the modern world than an adult human, and would fare better as a follower than as an independent equal who calls their own shots. If this is not your value system, by all means don't waste your time here...it would be better spent refining highly technical methods of reinforcement, and understanding your individual dog's motivations and reward rankings. Those things are important under any system, but if it's pretty much the only angle that you feel is ethical, you'd best get really, really good at it! ;-) To those who believe dogs should be guided like children, and overruled when necessary, read on.
You're probably already doing it.
The heart of being a high ranking / dominant leader of dogs, is simply: confidence, controlling the resources, enforcing boundaries, and meeting their physical and psychological needs. A true leader isn't constantly asking people to recognize his position; he is comfortably in charge of providing direction, and he knows it.
Dogs should have a reason to feel like they need a leader. (Like humans, the Big Man is important in times of crisis, more so than during peace & prosperity.) Games, travelling, feeding, and security provide a group purpose.
Food is just one method of social reinforcement. Treat training = a method of "working together to procure food", which is important to survival. It becomes about more than food (which is why treat-trained dogs will respond in the absence of a treat, if you do it right). It's partly about social cohesion. Nothing In Life is Free (NILIF) operates on the same principle.
If there IS no leader, not only is that socially uncomfortable, but the dog's need for protection and direction are not being met. How do you fill their needs? If a well fed +R dog who doesn't have a high rank drive has what he perceives to be packmates, then all needs should be met--safety (in numbers), the hunt (in training), social interaction. What is your value to the dog? What do you provide? You address his physical needs (food, chewing, exercise, shelter/comfort, touch) and psychological ones (pack companionship, emotional security, leadership/direction, mental exercises/challenges, consistency/reliability/solid boundaries). Physical needs are easy, common-sense & any reasonable person provides them. Psychological needs are less obvious or well-known, and some training & handling styles address them better than others. This is one reason to NEVER free-feed, by the way. He should value you as a food provider...and not making him work for his food is dropping the ball on one of your best opportunities!/span>
Many of these concepts are unknowingly fulfilled by people who don't "believe in" dominance! The normal give & take relationship of a dog within a structured household, who is regularly trained in manners and obedience commands, can often provide enough leadership for an easygoing, stable dog with a moderate to low pack drive. However, for those who enjoy knowing "Why" a dog does what he does, the underlying principles above explain how his needs are being fulfilled.
You are doing a lot of things that are socially appropriate (to dogs) demonstrations of your proper position, regardless of WHY you do them. This is usually the case with most "dog people"--even having the dog work for you via positive reinforcement is an exercise in leadership! So is setting boundaries and enforcing rules. For the average dog, enough "socially dominant" things get done (with the human not necessarily even aware of them, or why they're relevant) that you never have a problem. It's just those dogs on the margins... Likewise, dogs who perform dominant behaviours aren't thinking "look at me, acting all Dominant, I will show those humans who's boss!" They're just acting on their instincts, & following their social protocols. It's we humans who try to verbalize a framework for what's going on, & how best to respond to it.
A lot of dogs are pretty easy and biddable; just rewarding what you like will often get you pretty far with these dogs. Add to that, most dog trainers are Type-A's and are naturally confident and proactive enough to fill that leadership role and gain the cooperation of a dog, without specifically trying! I had dogs uneventfully for many years before I met one who overtly challenged me & forced me to learn the details of their social psychology. Where it really comes in handy is with ferals, primitive breeds, adult rescues with rough backgrounds, fearful/undersocialised dogs, and really pushy or independent breeds. A lot of those get written off as unfixable or "just how they are" but most of the time, in my experience, it boils down to a relationship problem, lack of effective leadership.
Science--they know we're not dogs.
The very first objection to using social dominance as a psychological tool to guide dogs, is that humans are not dogs. A fair point! However, an enormous amount of evidence suggests that dogs can only be dogs--that their worldview is not sophisticated enough to develop a separate language specifically for communicating with each other species in their life. They don't possess a complex enough theory of mind to understand that other species have other mental perceptions, look at things differently, have different ways of communicating. In all of their interactions, simply, they are dogs. When a child leans over a dog in a way that resembles another dog standing with his head over the dog's back (in a "dominant" pose), the dog responds in the same way he would respond to another dog. When a cat approaches his food bowl, the resource-guarding dog "speaks" his own language to tell the cat to go away. Dogs have been observed to display calming signals to many other species. People are quick to acknowledge things like "Don't stare or lean over him, because that's threatening in Dog Language" or "When he play-bows, he is inviting you to play." It's no different when the topic is dominance or submission. Dogs are dogs ALL of the time, & they have only their language to work with. They clearly interpret other species' use of it. http://wolfdogproject.com/notdogs.html
A dog raised away from its own kind can even display sexual behaviour towards humans or other species. http://www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?pId=11242&meta=Generic&id=3860840 This is also common in livestock; see "humanization" in livestock and other social animals--horses, cattle, llamas, sheep, birds, wolves, primates. When humans are their primary social influences, dogs can "imprint" to the point where we are their social competitors and "pack". It is well documented that a social (group-living) animal whose primary social influence is human, can consider humans their conspecifics. We become their surrogate parents, in a sense. Why would dogs be a special case?
Example from Temple Grandin: http://www.grandin.com/references/safe.html " However, in some cases, aggression causes a bull to attack a person because he perceives the person as a conspecific (herdmate), and he attempts to dominate. ... " Bulls that grow up with other cattle learn that they are bulls. Individually reared bulls may think they are people, and when they become mature, they may challenge a person to exert dominance." Lots of good info there about the effective use of social and spatial pressure, as well--which are both highly relevant to handling canids, albeit with different species-specific applications.
Another explanation: http://www.albertafarmexpress.ca/2011/02/28/bottlefed-animals-dont-stay-gentle-pets/
In primates: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10764-006-9040-5
Gordon K. Smith, an early pioneer of wolf/dog crosses, notes in his book "Slave to a Pack of Wolves" that a female wolf who was hand-reared would sometimes present herself (flag) to him, as though he were another wolf.
You can use another herd animal as a companion for a horse, & a dog is able to substitute humans for companionship, some dogs will even adopt the family cat as a packmate.
But should we "pretend to be a dog"? Again, this is a matter of preferences and values. It's perfectly legitimate to assert yourself as an alien species to your dog. There are advantages and disadvantages to either perspective. For example, if you're viewed as the dog's conspecific, he has an inhibition against causing you true harm, because he intuitively needs his packmates undamaged. However, he may compete or socially jockey with you in ways he wouldn't with a coyote or bear. Then again, if the coyote (an outsider species) is a threat, he can kill it with no strategic fallout to himself - as has been hinted at in certain books on dog-related fatalities to humans. (!) As for myself, I ENJOY immersing myself in their world! I want as deep and complex a relationship as I can get. If I moved to France I should learn French; I have to move to Dog Land because dogs can't develop their frontal lobes and start speaking English. Only-French and Only-English-speaking roommates can live together without killing each other, but will never have the deep complex conversations they could if they spoke the same language.
Science--do scientists reject dominance theory?
Let's be super clear about this: It is ONLY dog trainers (and only a certain wedge of them, whose ideologies are threatened by the idea of species-specific social behaviours) who deny the effects of hierarchy in a social species such as a dog.
If you want the science version instead of the common-sense version, look no further than "evolutionary game theory", especially w.r.t. social dominance. There are more papers than I care to copy/paste. ;-) Dominance is a stable payoff equilibrium (evolutionarily stable strategy) in which fighting and damages are minimized, reducing fitness cost and promoting cooperation which benefits all group members.
Also see Clutton-Brock's paper on punishment in animal societies.
The game of aggression isn't a simple matrix, since in a pack there will be many iterations, and "players" have plenty of time to work out a balance. The matrix may be a lot bigger than 2x2. They may adopt a mixed strategy, choosing one response with some players and a different response towards others. It may also be asymmetic, since not all dogs want the same resources & will place different value on them...and not all dogs have the same abilities. There's also uncertainty as to each other's strength and strategy. (So why would anyone assume that a hierarchy would have to be strictly linear?)
It's verifiable. Denying dominance is like having a long discussion about whether it is raining outside when you could just step outside and check. (And when you come back in wet, please stop telling the rest of us that it's not raining.)
The dominance strategy does fall apart in some breeds, such as bully breeds & terriers, because the loser often doesn't submit and if he does, the winner won't walk away and leave him without damages. Therefore, there is no benefit to cooperation or surrender, and everyone is best to adopt a "hawk" strategy (aggression)--if they don't, they always come out on the bottom (or dead). Bully breeds are also superior fighters, so their conflict with another animal often exists as more of a hawk/dove situation...a hawk isn't especially motivated to avoid fighting with a dove, since he knows he will win, and at little cost to himself.
Note that dominance can suppress initiative, which can have good or bad results. (Stops "bad" behaviour, causes the animal to offer fewer behaviours on its own.) If you are shaping behaviours for an animal actor, you have to consider the effects of creating an animal who is more interested in the social implications of his behaviour, than in brainstorming new behaviours without worrying about any negative consequences!
Sociologists have long studied the connection between status and influence. (See Webster and Foschi, 1988, for a survey.) An early example is provided by Berger, et al. (1977), who argue that the degree of influence that one person has on another derives in part from status differences. They examine the effect of specific (such as task-relevant expertise) and diffuse (such as rank that is not task-relevant) status characteristics on influence in an experimental setting. Subjects are of high or low status, and face a counterpart with high or low status. Subjects make an initial choice in a binary-choice decision task, then they observe the other person's choice, then make a final choice. They find that both specific and diffuse status characteristics rank can significantly influence choices in a simple decision-making exercise. Both high and low-status subjects are more likely to imitate the choice of a high than a low status counterpart's choice.
"Nel", J.A.J., "1999". "Social learning in canids": an ecological perspective
See also this: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201208/rank-and-dominance-matter-when-trying-teach-dogs for another scientific paper on the importance of rank.
The effects of hierarchy upon learning even apply to humans. You're watching your family & neighbors, but *everybody* is watching the Royal Family. See also this Berkeley article on power dynamics: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/power_paradox
Ethology discusses the measurable nature of dominance & its relevance to behaviour. http://ethology.eu/canine-ethogram-social-and-agonistic-behavior/
Anecdotal data in large amounts IS data. Repeatability IS science. Good science can be experientially verified.
Jared Diamond explains how humans step into the alpha role to domesticate a species--including dogs. -- According to evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond, animal species must meet six criteria in order to be considered for domestication. Among wild mammal species that were never domesticated, the six main obstacles proved to be a diet not easily supplied by humans (hence no domestic anteaters), slow growth rate and long birth spacing (for example, elephants and gorillas), nasty disposition (grizzly bears and rhinoceroses), reluctance to breed in captivity (pandas and cheetahs), lack of follow-the-leader dominance hierarchies (bighorn sheep and antelope), and tendency to panic in enclosures or when faced with predators (gazelles and deer, except reindeer).
What it's good for, & why it matters.
Leadership (i.e. dominance) solves--or partially solves-- for resource guarding, ignoring commands, anxiety, leash reactivity, and some varieties of biting. Not that you can't also fix most of those in other ways, but they're ways that take more time & effort, & don't have the bonus of a dog who feels stable/secure because you met him partway. Also, you solve many potential problems in one fell swoop, by convincing the dog that he is not entitled to make decisions and deal out physical corrections (!) as opposed to desensitizing him to one thing after another after another...which never inhibits him from “punishing” what he doesn’t like – it only reduces the number of things he is inclined to punish you for. Dogs are compulsion trainers, after all.
SOME inhibition is a great thing! Even in the wild, dogs (and wolves) need to display inhibitions against inappropriate behaviours, much as we humans do. Responsiveness to the acting leader, respect for his personal space & possessions, etc are built-in to Canis lupus and we fare well by using them, especially in the case of more assertive dogs who are inclined to guard resources, ignore commands, jump on and crowd people, or bite to enforce their will.
Think of it this way. If you are an entry level employee, do you tell the manager what to do? If you are the manager of a Burger King for example, and a new shift employee walked up to you and told you that you should drop your paperwork and go in the kitchen and start flipping burgers, because he said so...would you do it? Of course not. When you are the manager, your dog expects to be directed by you...but if you're not, he may find it downright offensive that YOU (a socially lower ranked individual who reports to him) are demanding he stop what he wants to do and do something else that he doesn't prefer.
Does being perceived as the "pack leader" or whatnot make your job as a dog owner easier? Omg, hell yes. It solves a ton of problems before they even start. Submissive dogs don't resource-guard, they don't ignore commands they know, & it takes a bite out if separation anxiety. But--again with the buts!- that's only if you know how their social structure REALLY works. Most dog trainers don't know much about it, & believe all sorts of incorrect things..so their arguments against pack structure are strawmen. For example, wolves/dogs don't forcibly "alpha roll", it's offered by the submissive dog. Wolves don't maintain pack order by fighting and force --it's psychological. (That's the part that's been "debunked", the "rule by Force"...although it's questionable how many believed it to begin with. I learned directly from wolves, so knew it was merely age & force of personality...not physical aggression. "Fighting" in wolves is mostly just posturing.) So...useful? Very much so, if you take the time to learn how it really works. But don't bully your dog, flip him to 'show him who's boss', take food out of his face, etc. None of that is actually "dominance", and it's likely to get you a tooth sandwich.
You may not have time for a long, complex article that goes into much detail. Most folks don't! But, social hierarchy IS complex, and the value is in the details. If you want to use this very valuable inherent framework to improve your relationships with dogs, you have to study the heck out of it, because it's NOT able to be condensed into a simple black & white rule, or a "sound byte". Also, there are lots of things attributed to dominance by novices, that actually have a different cause. Even dominance itself is often attributed by novices to violence, when in reality it is psychological, and serves as an *alternative* to violence. I agree with Dr. Abrantes in that we are better to help people understand how dominance really works, than to come up with a whole new vocabulary to skirt around the issue, or to bury our heads in the sand and just say "Oh, we can manage without ever learning this". I can tell you firsthand that dogs LOVE when we learn this; it is communication on their own terms, and I consider it a matter of respect, to honor how *they* view the world. I can also tell you that Camp Dominance-doesn't-exist is for modern dog trainers, not for field scientists or people who spend their lives working in depth with large groups of dogs, especially the higher maintenance dogs. There are many other scientists who try to explain dominance to folks, including Dr. Mech who is often misrepresented as saying "I was wrong, there's no such thing", when what he really said was: "wolves fall in line behind their parents, by default, rather than constantly attacking other wolves in takeover attempts". This is a HUGE subject, but well worth learning if you want to be a really good communicator.
Social structure/dog culture:
The golden rule may suggest to treat people as you would want to be treated, but perhaps a better rule would be to treat others as THEY would like to be treated. Dogs and humans have very different world-views, and what you want out of life is probably not what a dog wants. While most of us love our dogs like children, they have different needs than human children...that may sound obvious, but when you look at the way many dogs are treated, clearly it's not so obvious at all.
So what does a dog want? First and foremost: Community...and harmony within that community. Dogs as a whole are pack animals. No, it's not in any way under dispute. Most dogs, if undamaged and given the opportunity to learn good social skills, gravitate towards being pack animals if given the chance. (Certain breeds have been greatly modified by humans to the point where they have become dysfunctional and naturally dog-aggressive - yes, terrier folks, you are correct.) Of course, one lone dog, raised by humans who don't "play dog", does not have a pack! But a group of dogs quickly sorts out all sorts of social details. For dogs to cooperate and interact as a group, you need a group, a reason for cohesiveness (hunting, games, live together), and a leader to unite the pack.
Dogs want to communicate. They are intelligent animals with plenty to say. Reducing our communication to a series of yes/no questions is a huge oversimplification...and misses out on so much of what the relationship can be. Dogs in the Real World have emotions, drives, and depth. They're not chickens learning to dance or rats navigating a maze. I suppose if all you want is a dog who performs actions in exchange for rewards, you could get away with that, but what I want is a true relationship.
There are lots of ways to work with dogs. Aside from +R and +P, you have leadership , body language, canine social customs and needs, drives, breed-specific traits, building rapport, motivation, controlling the environment, target training, developing interdependence and self-control, and even the effects of biology such as physical limitations and hormones. Several of these dog-specific things fall under the umbrella of the science of ethology, which often gets completely swept aside in favor of the (limited in scope) all-species operant conditioning. Then there are all the various tools, why they work & when they don't...and how to develop the most effective protocol for a given individual personality. All of these things are so interesting, but so ignored, rejected out of hand, or under-utilized.
The origins & values of the pack
Method of providing resources, controlling space & movement
Leadership, engagement, fulfillment, boundaries and (fair) social rules.
Evolution created the canine hierarchy to maintain peace, belonging, & social harmony. Humans slide right into this existing framework, if they're not ham-fisted about it. Dogs learn a second language (ours) by immersion... and it is so much easier if we meet them partway.
Dogs are social predators, who can & sometimes do work together as a group to get things done (usually, the "things" they get done involve killing food or driving off intruders). They have a communications system and (like all social/group-living animals) a social hierarchy. The neat thing for us as humans is that, although they know we aren't dogs, they can easily interpret our version of their social behaviours. ;) Dogs respond exceptionally well to proper leadership, so it's the perfect way to create safe dogs who look to us for cues and direction, instead of far-less-safe dogs who bite when their natural behaviours are interrupted or prompted. Proper leadership used to be called "being alpha", but the term has been so misunderstood & used incorrectly, that a lot of folks are ready to scrap it. Unfortunately many of them want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, & end up with dogs who snap over food/toys, growl people off the bed or couch, can't be taken by the collar, and are hideously insecure. I would worry less about the terminology, and more about understanding dogs' social needs: group travel, foraging/hunting play, physical contact, confident & consistent leadership.
This seems to come up a lot, so...here are the basics of social dominance in canines.
Dogs came from wolves, which are pack animals. Exactly how long ago and by what method the split occurred is still unknown. Stray and feral dogs today still gravitate towards packs. In places where prey is small, dogs are more likely to hunt solo, but they still have social needs. Feral dogs, dingoes, and coyotes are flexible enough to pack up to hunt larger prey, or split up to more efficiently hunt small prey, as dictated by the environment. Adding to this, some breeds of domesticated dog are becoming farther and farther removed from their roots, and some breeds have less 'pack drive' than others, and/or are more willing to substitute human companionship for that of their own kind. Regardless, all dogs still have a deep seated need to belong to a group.
In wild canids, the social hierarchy is largely determined by birth order. Pups come hard-wired to defer to adults, and adults (the parents) lead the pack. This "early brainwashing" for deference to one's elders tends to last until the elders become old and weak. Canines despise weakness, and at this point will often challenge the old (or injured) for higher status. In fact, both dogs and wolves have been known to kill a sickly or injured canine outright! Dogs may be more likely to enforce a less flexible hierarchy, overall, due to their behaviours being a more watered-down version of wolf behavior (most don't have the amazingly fine-tuned social skills of a wolf). They rarely get to live together as family packs, but even when they do, the WORST infighting often comes from sister-sister or mother-daughter pairings.
When unrelated adult wolves or dogs are mixed together in a 'forced pack', each wants to know his place in the pack, and here you will see a lot more of the overt dominant and submissive posturing. Once the animal understands how he fits into the group, any status interactions are normally more subtle. Dominance hierarchies exist to REDUCE violence within the pack, and most dogs do not care about being "top dog", so much as they simply want to know their place.
Humans factor into the social hierarchy for multiple reasons. Dogs absolutely know we are not dogs (!) but they are simpler animals than humans. They know their own language, and they interpret the world in terms of their own perspective--as do many humans, for that matter. If you lean over a dog, it sends the same signal to him as if another dog were leaning over him, and his emotions or instincts react accordingly. This is why so many children are bitten for hugging a dominant dog. (Even more children are bitten for hugging a *fearful* dog. "Fight-or-flight" minus "flight option" = defensive bite.) It's why a dominant dog attacks the front or face--where a fearful dog would sneak up from behind. When a resource guarder is eating, he sends the same signals--stop eating, freeze, stare, growl, lip raise, etc-- out to any animal, be it other dogs, people, even the cat...and he expects you to understand those signals. Their programming does, to some degree, apply to everyone around them. Add to that, dogs can recognize human emotions and they watch our faces for information. They are interacting with us as surrogate packmates and they really, really appreciate an effort to meet them partway.
Dogs NEED to be part of a group, and they need the security of a strong leader within that group. Confident dogs who see a leadership vacuum feel the need to fill it, however uncomfortable and inappropriate that is for them, and insecure dogs fall apart without it. Dogs who are forced to take leadership test higher for levels of the stress hormone cortisol than dogs who are safe and secure in their proper place as a follower. People are NOT doing dogs any favors by failing to provide leadership. Being the boss is stressful, and dogs make poor decisions within our modern world.
Ruling out any effect from social dominance because "wolves are not dogs", means failing to take into account the effects of environment. There are many variables. For example, whether an animal packs up or feeds on its own, is determined partly by the food source. Like coyotes, feral dogs and dingoes will pack up to hunt larger prey if necessary, but will hunt alone if only nabbing mice and rabbits, or scavenging at dumps. It also depends on whether we are talking about dogs who have been strays for only a few generations, retaining the dysfunctional behaviour of many modern cultured breeds...or the indigenous pariah dogs, natural animals, many of whom still act as fathers to their young. Wolves have a greater fear of humans, but part of this is environmentally based as well. Arctic wolves, which have historically not been persecuted , are far less afraid of humans and will approach them. Also the dog was domesticated from Southern wolf, not Northern (grey), which can make some studies misleading.
Here are some studies discussing feral dogs in packs. Most hands-on people who work with ferals (not free-running owned dogs out on a lark, but actual ferals and pariahs) are well aware of their tendency to run in packs. Dogs are very flexible and, like coyotes or dingoes, will pack or not-pack depending on food source and other needs.
Here are some links on feral dogs.
As most field scientists, including basically the #1 expert on feral dogs will tell you...
"Many people want to rid themselves of dominance so much that scientific studies are being interpreted to support their beliefs (which is always the weakness of science) and people are coming up with new interpretations of what wolves have always been doing. "
Always be wary of agendas. Watch the canids themselves, if you want uncorrupted data.
Being the "Boss".
Dominance is about social structure, not violence. I think an easy analogy for non-technical folks would be that you having a boss at work is about social structure. Your boss doesn't come in and whoop your @$$ every morning so that you will do your job. He doesn’t even stand in front of your desk constantly and keep telling you, “Hey, Hey, hey you, you know I’m your Boss, right? You know that, right? Because I’m the Boss, look at me, Mr Boss Man right here...” Ideally, he motivates you far more than he chastises you, and gives you 3 compliments for every "correction" :-) and you probably have a friendly relationship with him. However, when something needs done, and he brings it to your desk, you do it...because he is higher in the company hierarchy and if you don't do it, there will be consequences, namely the loss of something you want, like a paycheck. ;) A dog who understands you are "the boss" because you've already earned his respect and won his mind, doesn't need to find additional reasons to do as you ask. This solves a lot of behaviour problems before they even start. It's not really a "training thing"...your boss doesn't use his status to help you learn a new task. However, since he's the one who directed you to the task, it is assumed that you will do it. It would be very stressful for you if people were always expecting you to do your boss's job - you don't know how to navigate his world. He takes care of the higher-ups, you do the job *YOU* have been trained to do, and you feel pride in your work and you get a paycheck, and everybody's happy.
Also consider, adults vs children. If you tell ME not to do something, I'm well aware that I should use my own judgment, rather than just defer to yours. If you give instructions to a child, however, your instruction carries more weight...as it should, because in an ideal world, you are far better equipped to make decisions than a child (or dog).
Dogs AND people watch, learn from, & accommodate those who rank socially above them, & maybe beside them... often ignoring or even hazing those beneath. The Powerful have more freedom to act upon their impulses. We all keep aware of the consequences of our actions, though, when it comes to those we answer to: those above us in the group hierarchy. Humans often dislike the idea that we are a social, group-living species who still answers somewhat to Natural Law...but no matter how great our progress towards genuine democracy, dogs are not there, and they never will be. They aren't wired that way and it is NOT optimal for them - again, don't do what you imagine "you would want if you were a dog". Do what's best for the dog...which is to provide the leadership and structure they crave.
The dominance framework, far from being violent, is a means to AVOID violence. As Ian Dunbar so eloquently explains, if there are two dogs and only one bone, the ownership of the bone is pre-decided, so there is nothing to fight over. If you think that bedtime should be 9pm and your toddler thinks it should be midnight....yes, this is the level at which hierarchy works. If your boss says he needs a paper today but you don't feel like doing it until tomorrow (or at all), you do it anyway because that's the point of having someone in charge. Ideally, it's because they are more knowledgeable and aware of any potential consequences; that may not always be true with humans, but hopefully it's at least true between you and your dog!
Dogs don't understand how our world operates, and they are ill-equipped to be the Boss, or the Parent. They don't know that running into the road instead when you say "Come" can get them killed, or that biting a toddler or killing your cat can get them rehomed (or worse). It's important that they defer to you without question, because you are the one capable of making the best decisions.
Consider a group of workers in any company/business. House builders, ad agency brainstormers, any project where people work together. Are they a "team"? Sure, by definition. Are they a GOOD team? Depends on the people. Some people are better team players than others, and some are better at their *job function* than others. So if you collect your best & brightest, with a high emotional IQ who get along great with people...that's a smashingly good team, like a wolf's team. And you know what? Your dog KNOWS when he’s on a good team, one with a good strong leader, where he is set up to be his best self and contribute successfully. They are "culled" by nature for being crappy packmates, so they're the best at it. Now, some teams are more dysfunctional, not great at reading body language, too excitable to be a good hunter, easily distracted, etc. Dogs CAN be great teams or they can be crappy teams. (I would place my bets on a shepherd, husky, & border collie team over a beagle, bully breed, chihuahua one.) Do dogs perform full pack behaviour when they go feral? Some do, some don't. Do people like rollercoasters? Do they like lasagna? Some do, some don't. Dogs are genetically varied enough, like us, that you can't always say for sure what "dogs do". The further you migrate from their roots, the less pack behaviour you are likely to see. I am used to primitives, so I see tons of pack behaviour all the time, & I couldn't properly keep my dogs & foster dogs without understanding how it all works. To someone with a single Pomeranian, or a pair of Boston terriers, who knows....it may be hardly applicable at all & the dog would behave fine & never miss it. I think people want short generalised answers for something a lot more complicated. Regardless, understanding pack behaviour is valuable and enriching for humans, because it helps us understand dogs more & see where they came from. In my experience, they enjoy being understood on that level, and they respond to it. They certainly respond to cues from other dogs that are based in the language of the pack. So, the model helps us to easily interpret what Dog A will do when he sees Dog B doing something. And again -- that's good science! Developing a model that makes accurate predictions? One that you or anyone else can test experientially? That's really the whole goal of the scientific method right there.
What does a leader look like? Confident and somewhat aloof; subordinates come to come to them, they don't seek attention. The leader controls their own personal space, controls the resources, gives direction (proactive, not REactive!) ... and corrects swiftly when disobeyed or disrespected. "Alpha" at its core is simply an attitude.
So, how does a true leader act? This is the meat of being the socially dominant member of the household. A leader carries themselves with authority. They are calm and self-assured, knowing they are in charge and confident that others will follow. They take accountability for the group, providing for their physical and social needs, keeping track of them, rewarding followers with their approval and swiftly correcting rude or anti-social behaviour as needed. They forgive transgressions immediately, simply ignoring the rebuked member for a short period, while that member will normally offer submissive appeasement behaviours (an "apology", if you will). They don't follow around behind lower ranking members and beg for attention; the subordinates come to them and solicit acknowledgement, grooming, and affection. Leaders control space and resources, choosing which items and privileges belong to them, and often delegating these things to other members or especially to pups. Leaders don't rub others' noses in their rank; they don't need to. A constantly squabbling dog is not a true leader. (If you have to argue whether or not you're in charge, you probably are not.)
Dominance should be SUBTLE. You don't need to be constantly called out by your boss and "put in your place", and neither does your dog. If someone specifically challenges you (for example, an employee telling his boss "you're not the boss of me!" then you need to be overt, but in daily living it should simply be implied. Multiple little things each day should just happen, without confrontation, to remind him that HE works for YOU. Basic obedience training and a"No Free Lunch" program are part of that working relationship mindset.
You can't be a good leader, without also understanding how to be a good follower! If you've never seen good leadership modeled, you are likely to struggle with capturing the energy of a beloved leader. People follow a good leader because they WANT to. Allegiance is freely GIVEN...it's not taken by force. Think of the people in your life that you look up to, whose advice you would seek and whose confident and appropriate handling of life's ups and downs you admire. THAT is who you want to be! That is the true Alpha personality.
When you are in the role of the Provider of Food, that generally earns you some attention and allegiance from the dog. Food is relevant to the *relationship*. So is providing direction, guidance, and protection.
Canine social structure includes far more affiliative interactions than conflicting ones!
Don’t drop the ball on bonding: Utilize canine culture to communicate--meet them partway! That includes prosocial behaviours in their own language, such as the muzzle grab (per Abrantes), scruff grab, and gently laying them on their side for belly rubs. Submissive gestures and rituals are affiliative behaviours. Make it a reassuring habit to practice greeting, grooming, assertive petting and physical restraint (they’re not fragile!), and friendly social dominance rituals. Play games, & other "team building" exercises. Take long walks (or drives) to new & exciting (and intimidating) places. Run errands together. Utilize +R training--get them working for you. Dogs love to show their competence & earn rewards. Work on indirect access, to get life rewards instead of just treats! This can be another pack building mechanism. Introduce novel forms of enrichment-especially prey games (running, hunting, flirt pole, nose work). Provide solid & reliable leadership; pet 'em like you own 'em. This builds their sense of security, and confirms that they belong to your "pack". Make them work for food! (NEVER free feed...hand feeding is good, esp with nilif.) Be the provider of bones & interactive toys, and other good things. Reward for checking in with you, especially on walks or when crossing thresholds such as gates and doorways. Teach and reward eye contact! Be reliable & consistent. Don’t forget ENRICHMENT. Some fun ideas here: http://wolfdogproject.com/enrichment.html
What you want is psychological influence over him, not confrontation or force. You have to win their minds.To that end, I suggest a Nothing in Life is Free program, lots of positive -reinforcement training so he gets in the habit of working for you, impulse control exercises such as Susan Garrett's Crate Games, the Sit on the Dog exercise, and indirect -access exercises where he has to go through YOU to get what he wants. Set and enforce boundaries & rules (if you can't enforce a command, don't give it...and control the environment to keep him from things that could cause a conflict). Teach loose-leash walking & walk him regularly. All of these things will help him understand how to relate to you appropriately. :-) While a firm stare CAN remind a dog to defer, it only works in the context of a proper relationship, and maybe you're not there yet. More on good leadership / being a worthy master here: http://wolfdogproject.com/master.html
These are the important concepts in maintaining social dominance over a dog. Note that NONE of these involve violence of any sort--only psychological "hacks" to establish yourself as the role model your dog needs. If you’re having problems with a dog who doesn’t respect human leadership, I would brush up on your proactive guidance and structure, put him back in the mindset of deferring to humans. No physical corrections are necessary! Just psychological tactics: aloofness/social isolation, No Free Lunch, yielding exercises, controlling the environment, enforcing commands, indirect access exercises, things like "Crate Games" (to establish the concept of thresholds) and "Sit on the Dog". ..and practicing obedience to help him remember that *he* works for *you* (not the other way around). What you are developing is a permission-based lifestyle; he should be seeking your cues, not ignoring your existence and trying to handle all the decision-making on his own.
Please be aware that it's super disrespectful (in their own language) to just grab something out of a dog's mouth--there's a right way to do it, and once you have earned the right to do so, you want to either teach an Out/Drop command and a Leave it, or alternately stand over him and "claim" the object, and when he gets up & walks away, you can pick it up. (The 2nd one is trickier to pull off smoothly, so you'd be better with Out/Leave it.) DON'T force the dog down into an "alpha roll", either. Now, because the mind follows the body, "alpha rolls" can be taught as a behaviour. Many dogs naturally offer the behaviour, and it means, "Sorry, I was out of line". Again, you don't physically roll and pin the dog. You point at them, lean over them, or at most grab a handful of scruff & tug gently to the side (aka the old "Gordon K Smith roll"). If your dog doesn't roll, he may NOT be sorry, or he may be afraid to expose his belly, or you may not have earned a position to be asking that of him. Remember, this is a built-in appeasement gesture. It should be accompanied by tail wagging and licking. If your dog is growling and/or has his tail tucked against his belly, STOP STOP STOP, things are going wrong. Your dog is miserable and you are likely to be bitten.
If the dog is new to you, don't automatically assume you "own" his mind and soul. With a new dog, you may still claim your personal space bubble and expect mannerly behaviour towards you, but remember... you are an "alpha", but you're not HIS alpha! " Respect my space & I will respect yours." You want to be confident, but not pushy...because perhaps you haven't yet earned the right to be calling the shots for him.
With your own dog, you want to be confident yet loving...like a benevolent god.
Canine management all fits together like a puzzle, or like a recipe. Too much salt or not enough yeast, and you don't get the end product you wanted. Your dog wants to feel safe and know you love him unconditionally, but he also needs direction, and has to know that ignoring you doesn't work--that, like a god, what you decree WILL happen, with or without his approval, and it's much better for him to cooperate. For your part, you don't doubt that he will follow; you're not expecting a battle of wills. (That's just a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Your confidence convinces him to follow along.
Why being your dog's "social superior" is GOOD for dogs
Aside from all of the behavioural advantages of a "follower" mentality, and the security that secure leadership brings to a dog, they also reap additional benefits from being treated as both lower ranking group members and as dogs, specifically. They enjoy appeasement rituals the way humans enjoy shaking hands or saying "how are you - fine thanks". Wolves in particular are HUGE about submission. They love the whole ritual. They will *beg* you to go through dominance motions just so they can offer the affiliative, appeasement behaviours. I've also found that a fearful pup will come around FAST if you speak that language...they want to feel secure, & being a follower who performs the known rituals and is rewarded for it by you playing your role, can really help them.
Don’t forget about intrinsic vs extrinsic motivators. Pack drive is an intrinsic motivator. It's self-rewarding. It's not so much "eager to please", as a strong desire for affiliative behaviours and a preference to avoid social rejection. I use it a lot with my primitives. The beauty of utilising pack drive is that you are entering the dog's own world, communicating in ways he intrinsically understands. It's a very full relationship, and I feel like the biggest downside to strict behaviourism is that instead of becoming part of the dog's world and acknowledging all of the things that make them unique as a species, it tries to pare everything down to the lowest common denominator, make it a sterile, left-brained "source code" instead of a richly rewarding emotional connection. Dogs are not robots; they have thoughts and feelings. It's true that that can be taken too far, into anthropomorphization...but behaviourism can also be taken too far. While I am well aware of the reinforcement quadrants, that's not "all there is" to dogs. This isn't Westworld, my 2 cents. And even if I'm wrong, how I do things works *really really well* wrt companion dogs (maybe would be less effective for competition!) and my dogs and I are extremely happy connecting in this natural way.
Dominance is about internal motivations and rewards, not external ones (such as treats or leash pops). Dogs have an internal moral compass, much like we do, and that compass points towards group cohesion--maintaining their place in the pack. This generally includes following along with group flow, and appeasement of the lead dog...those are internal rewards. Yes--your dog is getting REWARDED for being a follower.
An additional bonus is that follower dogs have lower cortisol (the stress hormone) than leaders. Being in charge is stressful! Link to a related study - https://academic.oup.com/jmammal/article/86/2/255/890750
Extrinsic rewards can actually UNDERMINE good social behaviour, as studies with humans have discovered! Altruism and compassion are rewarded by the effects they have on one's social group. It may sound counter-intuitive, but studies have shown that secondary, external reward such as candies or money can actually rob the giver of the pleasurable hormones and neurotransmitters that accompany "doing the right thing" according to one's social contract! Our brain attributes the reason for the action as "getting an extrinsic reward" rather than "team-building" or "fitting in successfully with my social group" or "being kind to others". This is very likely no different for other mammals, than it is for us.
Internal "punishment" is to be rejected; that's why social isolation (ignoring the dog) is so effective. Of course, external punishment is common amongst dogs & wolves as well, but even then, the internal component of the external punishment is REJECTION. For wolves, and most dogs, corrections and arguments are mostly painless, ritualised affairs. The lead dog doesn't actually hurt the subordinate with a muzzle grab or knockdown...but he hurts his feelings, and the subordinate complies and normally offers appeasement gestures to get back into his good graces. Unless you are over-the-top violent, even physical correction is more about psychologically rebuking the dog--getting his attention and rejecting him for his behaviour--than about causing him discomfort.
There is a general perception that "pack theory" and physical corrections go hand-in-hand. In reality, they are two separate things. Many people do not understand or use pack drive at all, yet are heavy on corrections. Others use pack drives with great skill, but never need to correct. The two are certainly not tied together. That said, taking a "dog's eye view" of the world does imply that, once you have established your position and are authorised to lead your dog, an occasional and fair correction for direct disobedience is in order. A lead dog will not hesitate to correct a subordinate when needed. Corrections should be firm, fast, fair, and immediately dismissed. No lingering grudges should be held, and if the dog offers affilitive rituals such as chin licks or a raised paw to "apologize", these should be promptly accepted. Corrections are generally few and far between, and are never applied when the dog doesn't understand what he did wrong. Remember that in a dog's world, a poor quality Sit or a bout of urine marking are not things he would automatically know are "wrong"! Fair correction means that 1) the dog knows from past experience that the behaviour is unacceptable and 2) whoever is giving the correction, is authorised to give it. If your dog outranks you, a phsyical assault upon him is grounds for him to put you back in your place! Many people are bitten while "correcting" a dog who doesn't respect their social 'superiority'.
There's no proof of damage from P+, because properly used corrections don't damage dogs. Any skilled balanced handler proves that by example, every single day. Look at how often & how hard dogs correct each other; & it's no big deal to them. If you're actually ruining dogs with corrections, you have poor handling skills and need to make some changes.
The key to destructive corrections is, "cannot avoid or control". The dog should always have the ability to avoid the correction. (This is my #1 objection to the "head halter" tools, for what that's worth. The dog is punished by having his sensitive muzzle grasped by the halter, even when he's doing everything right. It's an unavoidable correction, and the most common result is a subdued dog whose owner sees him as "now obedient".) It can also happen in situations without direct aversives, for example a dog on a chain. No one is punishing him for his actions...but nothing he does makes any difference, which is the essence of learned helplessness. Personally, I don't shy from physical aversives, in some situations, but ONLY when the the stakes are high enough, and the dog knows what is expected but chooses to do otherwise.
I can honestly speak to this phenomenon from a very personal level...both of my parents were big on "aversives". My dad was very predictable, and although he was FAR stricter than my mom and punished harder, I was only "corrected" fairly - when it was to be expected. My mom was erratic. You couldn't necessarily avoid her wrath, even when you were as conscientious as I was! I lost trust in my mom. I adored my dad, and we're still close. It's not aversives that cause issues. It's *improper use of* aversives, and a lack of a surrounding cohesive structure and bond. I have always used (fair) aversives, even though almost all of my canids were reactive, independent, and often shy. I have never had a single occasion when aversives "ruined the relationship"...in some cases, the social interaction provided even in a "corrective" framework only made it stronger. I could explain why that's so, but it would probably take me all night.
Of course confrontational methods are more often met with aggression, when the dog & owner are already having problems and there was a lack of trust & respect. That's common sense. Isn't ANYone more likely to fight when restricted or confronted, than when they're being given what they want? How many people would hit another person for handing them free money, as opposed to telling them "No"? That doesn't mean we should always throw money at everyone all the time & never address their bad behaviour.
Just because you had two whole easy dogs who didn't need corrections, does not mean no one's dog EVER needs correction. That's a sample size fallacy, for starters. Also, not everyone has the time, skill, or is willing to take 10x as long to teach... +R is the fastest way to teach NEW behaviors but +P is the fastest way to break bad ones. Sometimes the owner wants the problem solved asap or they will give up on the dog. And, not everyone even agrees that punishment is a big deal. Physical contact, even the rough stuff, is a big part of canine social life. (Properly done) corrections are really no big deal to most dogs, & not something it's even worth trying to avoid. I'd rather have a dog get "red light" or "getting colder!" feedback sometimes, than have to deal with the frustration of a lack of feedback. Constant feedback is a pretty big thing with dogs; they don't subscribe to "no news is good news". They don't subscribe to democracy. Dogs are not humans, & part of respecting them as a species is understanding their culture, rather than trying to force them into ours.
*Corrections should not cause pain. However, if someone thinks a leash pop is "pain", especially to a dog, they need a broader perspective.
Also, I would not use corrections on a human-aggressive dog, nope nope nope. I know some folks would & it works for them, but I would be using psychological pressure, redirection, environmental controls, & rewards there. A NON CONFRONTATIONAL rank reduction program is the ticket with human-aggressive dominant dogs.
I'm also not convinced that a trainer who is a stranger to the dog should be using punishment, since it can't be delivered within the context it was meant to be in.
While dogs do correct each other for infractions, physical punishment and social status are two different things. Unpredictable aggression has nothing to do with increasing status, and will actually undermine it by removing the trust that the pack structure is built upon. Scruff pulls, "alpha rolls" (which are requested by the alpha through posturing, and OFFERED by the subordinate), muzzle grabs, and pinning are methods used by dogs to correct one another--mainly by the mother dog or wolf, towards her pups. Dogs do understand these things when practiced by humans, but the situations in which they would be appropriate are few & far between. However, just like leash pops and sharp "Ahhh!"s, these are *corrections*, not "dominance". Striking someone with the hands is a primate (monkey) reflex, and has nothing to do with dogs on any level, let alone socially. A leader has the right to fairly correct an underling for infractions, without recourse.A disrespected bully, on the other hand, who holds his rank by force, is likely to be displaced by his own method of choice: aggression.
High ranking packmates have the right to species-appropriate corrections. Grounding (pinning), hard stare, AAH, leash pop, and muzzle grab would be acceptable; they are fair, & comprehensible to the dog. Hitting, emotional outbursts, and trying to cause pain would not. If you don't already have authority & some degree of cooperation, physical corrections should be off the table.
Break the habit by controlling the environment. (Prevent rehearsal of the things you don't want.) Enforce boundaries, and make sure 'bad' behavior never gains them anything.
The "Alpha" mindset includes an assertive attitude. Get them in the habit of working for you, and going thru you to get what they want. Get them into a routine of expecting you to handle it, while they decide it's not their concern. Build value for your attention, and for anything else that will motivate them.
Power is given, not taken...so make them want to be part of your group (!), and have shared goals. Have far more positive interactions than negative ones (lots of compliments to balance out each "correction" or disagreement) so they keep a good attitude & want to work with you. Corrections are like a bank account. Social interactions and rewards increase the size of the account! Some corrections may be seen as withdrawals. A "balance" of both, means FAR more reinforcements than corrections. Corrections "cost" more/are heavier. They also should take place within the context of a proper relationship, which can take time to build & is not always ideal for a trainer who's new to the dog--which increases the cost!
"Correction", which interrupts and demands a stop to the behaviour, should be followed by redirection to what the dog *should* do.
Resource guarding is, first and foremost, a relationship problem. Go through a followers' boot camp, while avoiding confrontation in the meantime, and very few dogs will resume resource guarding. It's worth noting, though, that dogs have a concept of fairness with respect to resources that is different than humans', and challenging the dog in an unfair way can force the dog to instinctively react badly. If you watch wolves, or dogs with good social skills, they never run up and rip a bone out of another dog's mouth. It is beyond rude and they do not do it! The game of "I am Human, I will take the bone, give the bone, taking your bone! Ok, here it is--oh! give it back...", which the dog is expected to endure without a growl, is not acceptable in Dog Culture. Don't do it. Dogs should be desensitised to having people around their food, adding more food to the bowl, being petted or stepped over while eating, being hand fed, and so on...but not having their meal taken right out from under them. Only the most socially inept of "alpha" dogs will take from another's mouth, even if the owner of the bone is the lowest ranking member. If you must take something from your dog, and you are completely sure you have the right to do so (!) then the procedure is as follows. Stand *near* the dog, claiming his space, and the space around the bone. Slowly move closer. Stare at the bone, and at the dog. The dog will get up, drop the bone, and walk away. Then & only then can you pick it up. The subordinate surrenders. Then the dominant animal can lay claim. Remember that social dominance is nature's way to PREVENT violence--not an excuse to start some.
You might believe some of the new "dominance myths"--that being in charge is about violence (definitely not--it's nature's way to DEFUSE violent conflict), that rank is held by force or punishment (not at all; it's entirely psychological and is actually more *etiquette* than coercion), that dogs actively think things like "I need to be in charge, how can I manipulate them?" (which is a very human-centric way of looking at the world--dogs react based on things like instincts, drives, and energy, rather than philosophizing or plotting to overthrow), or that dogs have to 'believe we are dogs' in order for actions or body language to mean anything to them (which is silly; there's plenty of evidence they apply their rules & language to other species). There are social rules about how we treat each other, and those rules are different for those who "outrank" you, than they are for a subordinate. This is true in dogs, people, horses, or any other social species. Having an elevated social rank--which, btw, most people do simply by enforcing boundaries, practicing basic training, and requiring that the dog work around their schedule & needs--means the dog is more responsive to your commands, and more respectful of your personal space & anything you claim. Dominance is fluid, not necessarily linear. There are a lot of variables.
If dogs assume the dominant position/try to take control of situations, space, or objects from humans, it's usually an uncomfortable filling of a leadership void, rather than an inherent drive. There’s an exception to every rule though. More & less assertive pups in a litter are apparent at only a couple weeks of age!
When a GSD herds people, she doesn't consciously think "I need all these humans in a tight group, like sheep, so I don't lose track of them and so none of them run off and get hurt, on MY watch". That may be really what's going on, but much of behaviour is not a conscious thought process, the same way counterconditioning (for example) isn't. The dog doesn't consciously say to himself, "Hmm, every time I see that dog I don't like, good cookies appear. I am starting to feel less angst over that dog because I pair his presence with cookies....does he make the cookies appear? Maybe he's a good dog after all..." A lot of this stuff goes on on a deeper, instinctive, subconscious level...even in humans! I can operate my hand, and type and email or pick up a coffee, without knowing anything about the mechanics or biology of the nerves and muscles of the hand. So, why would dogs need a conscious human-level understanding of the social dominance mechanism, in order to act on their instincts?? Heck, when someone stands too close to me, I'm not necessarily analysing exactly why that bothers me, but I AM uncomfortable and I instinctively move away. Social pressure is a major factor in interactions between animals. That's why it is present in pretty much any social species: dogs, horses, primates, humans (think about how much of human behaviour actually involves a social hierarchy. And unlike dogs, we often don't want that & may actively fight it, but we still have bosses, peer pressure, role models/idols, team leaders, gurus etc). Having a social hierarchy is one of Diamond's six criteria for domestication--we wouldn't have dogs without it. But, we don't have to be ham-fisted about utilizing the mechanism. Social pressure with dogs involves controlling the environment, being in charge of food, controlling & using space and movement, proactively leading them into interactions or activities. It's not about old fashioned ass-whoopin'. Good, proper social dominance is subtle. In many domestic breeds, it's so subtle now that it can slide right beneath the average person's notice. But the rules are there for a reason. As Ian Dunbar points out, if there are 2 dogs & one bone, the ownership of the bone is pre-decided & there's no reason to fight. Dominance AVERTS violence, not causes it. The lead dog may have priority access, but he also has higher cortisol levels from the stress of his *responsibilities*. Any job needs a "point man" or a team lead, to keep things on track & avoid confusion.
Why do I even care?
Why would I bother to swim upstream, and try to help people understand this information rather than going along with the modern movement to get rid of pack structure entirely? Given my extensive background with canids and the success of the methods, I find it interesting that trainers are so eager to dismiss the concept, while only a handful of experts still study and disseminate this information...and no one asks WHY that might be the case.
Because I actually research any concept I'm aware of...both by reading about others' experiences, and by testing it out myself & verifying the data...and seeing if it is repeatable (Science!) ...Many years ago, when I first saw click n treat, like many folks I suspected bribery...and although there is the likelihood of that and it's frequently used that way today, it also can be used effectively...so it quickly became a large component of my programs.
Because no real behaviour scientist thinks that "dominance doesn't exist", and they say so over and over again. They are mindblown that some dog trainers are so desperate to have it not be true, that they will deliberately ignore, misrepresent, and deny what biologists are actually saying. It's intellectual dishonesty at its finest. Likewise, any good trainer knows that properly done corrections don't create miserable, terrified, un-bonded dogs, and we have hundreds of years of proof for this. Direct lies spread to further an agenda will eventually be seen for what they are, by anyone with hands-on experience.
Because I see social structure in action every day. Whereas with a spaniel or pom, it might be less obvious...I worked primarily with GSDs, huskies, mals, & actual primitives and ferals, where it is far more obvious. I realise that many think reading a few books is enough for their purposes, or that a tv personality's opinion trumps all...my ~50,000 (conservative estimate) hours of hands-on and widespread research base does mean something to me when it comes to solving complex problems and understanding the Big Picture.
Because I don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because many people these days have changed their definition of the word "dominance" (for example), doesn't mean that social hierarchy doesn't exists or that leadership isn't important. Just because some dogs are easy (we ARE breeding further and further away from dogs' roots!) doesn't mean that ALL dogs are easy, or that the dogs who aren't acting out are not still insecure and stressed and unfulfilled. Too many people these days can't read body language well &/or don't understand canine social customs and psychological needs.
Because I'm tired of seeing perfectly normal dogs put to death, whose owners have "tried everything" but really only tried positive reinforcement and drugs. They would rather kill their dog than use nondestructive but politically-incorrect methods that would have quickly & easily fixed their dog 20 years ago. Balanced trainers are FULL of stories of dogs they saved, whose dog was on the eve of being pts but after 1 lesson from someone who understands how dogs think and uses the most appropriate method for that specific dog & situation, is now on the road to recovery. So so so many stories like that...and I don't throw that data away. For anecdotal data collected in large quantities IS data...and IS Science. I'm not even a for-pay trainer, balanced or otherwise. I just help people keep their dogs.
Because DOGS love to be understood.
Because I am morally obligated to speak the truth, even if people on Teh Internets get annoyed with me, and especially when it helps those who really need it, and saves lives.
If you want to accomplish something, learn from the person who is doing it successfully--not the person who says it can't be done. ;-)
Dogs are emotional creatures, not machines, and they live in the real world, not in the lab. Simplified mechanistic routines like operant conditioning (positive reinforcement &/or punishment) are not enough. Dogs have rich inner lives and deserve to be treated as sentient fellow beings, and to me that means making some attempt to understand their language and social customs, and to meet them partway in navigating this complicated world that we all share.