Dog training day: Dominance theory |

Dog training day: Dominance theory

You can teach an old dog new tricks, especially when it comes to dog training.
Getty Images | Photodisc

This is the first in a two-part series.

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

It’s one of those time-worn clichés that seems to make sense. After all, don’t we have a harder time learning new things as we get older?

(D)ominance theory is based on studies of captive wolves conducted in the early- to mid-20th century, wherein researchers concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf.

Yes, but …

Think about Laura Ingalls Wilder (author of “Little House on the Prairie”) who didn’t publish her first book until she was 64.

Or Ray Kroc, who started the McDonald’s franchise at 52.

Or Grandma Moses, who picked up her first paintbrush at the age of 76.

Just like humans, dogs can and do learn at any age, which means that training doesn’t need to be limited to puppyhood.

Casey, for instance, was trained to be a therapy dog when he was 9 years old (somewhere around 61 years old in human terms).

But that begs the question, what’s the right way to train your dog, young or old?

That, my friends, is the $64,000 question — one that sparks a ton of controversy among dog trainers and owners alike.

Although there are many variations, you’ll find two basic schools of thought regarding dog training: the dominance-based approach (whose major proponent is “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan) and the positive reinforcement approach (á la Victoria Stilwell, of Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog”).

This month, we’ll investigate dominance-based training and its underlying theories. Next month, we’ll look at the positive reinforcement approach.

In a nutshell, dominance theory is based on studies of captive wolves conducted in the early- to mid-20th century, wherein researchers concluded that wolves in a pack fight to gain dominance, and the winner is the alpha wolf.

Based on this research, trainers concluded that in order to train your dog, you had to become dominant — the “pack leader” — to maintain the hierarchy of person over dog.

Again, this seems to make sense. After all, dogs are descended from wolves, so what applies to wolves should apply to dogs, right? Not necessarily.

There are problems with making this sort of philosophical leap, say behaviorists and researchers.

First, dogs are not wolves. They may share an ancient lineage, but they are not the same species.

Secondly, these were captive wolves, seized from different natural packs and merged into completely arbitrary, unnatural ones. These two factors alone created drastic and often volatile changes in the wolves’ natural behaviors.

Third, the fact that unrelated wolves were literally thrown together promoted a level of aggression that simply doesn’t occur in a natural pack.

More recent studies of wolves in their natural environment have shown that rather than being organized with an “alpha” wolf that fought its way to the top, a wolf pack operates more like a human family, with a breeding pair who share leadership, and their offspring, who stay with the pack until they’re old enough to leave and start their own pack.

While some trainers cite the earlier wolf studies as support for utilizing dominance-based training techniques, current researchers, such as world-renowned wolf expert Dr. David Mech, say that wolves don’t organize themselves in a hierarchy based on strength and aggressiveness.

Instead, rank is based mostly on age, with wolf parents at the top and older offspring with authority over younger siblings.

That would seem to undermine the premise that an owner must be dominant in training and behavior modification situations.

But even experts can’t agree on the “best” training method, which means it is up to you as a pet caretaker to research and determine what works for you and your particular dog.

Keep in mind, however, that there is little or no scientific evidence supporting the notion that authoritarian, aggressive leadership can ensure a dog’s good behavior.

In fact, utilizing force and domination when interacting with your dog can often result in him shutting down emotionally, especially if there is any evidence of mistreatment, neglect, or abandonment in his background.

Casey is a good illustration of this emotional flat lining. Shortly after I adopted him, we went to an obedience class in advance of getting him certified as a therapy dog.

He was already an adult, and it was clear that he was already trained and socialized, even though he’d been abandoned on the streets of Bakersfield.

At first, I was taken aback by the rules the trainer laid out — absolutely no socializing between the dogs before, during or after class; no interacting between the owners; no use of treats; and very strict home rules, such as prohibiting the dog from being on the bed or furniture. Then came the exercises, where the trainer demanded we walk in strict oval formation with our dogs in a precise spot at our sides, using only leash correction to maintain obedience.

At this point, Casey simply shut down and tried to stop walking. He wasn’t being difficult or belligerent; it was clear that he was feeling emotionally battered.

The following week I came back, albeit reluctantly, hopeful that perhaps the first week was just an aberration. It wasn’t.

Once again during our circular walking Casey shut down, simply putting one foot in front of the other in pure survival mode, all the light of joy obliterated from his eyes.

We never went back. Later we joined a class where we all laughed and petted one another’s dogs and socialized, and where Casey passed with happiness and flying colors.

Dominance-based training may work for some dogs and some people in some situations, but not for me and not for Casey.

Next month, an alternative approach.

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her golden retriever Casey (hence, “Casey’s Corner”). You can reach Joan at If you’re looking for a golden, check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.

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