Top Dog: Uncovering the myths around dominance in the canine world

Dog Walking Nov 15, 2019

As a dog walker, you likely walk several dogs at a time. So you may be wondering how, since you're not the owner of any of these pooches, you should assert yourself as the leader of the pack and dominate these canines.

Well, the truth is, while you do need to be able to control your puppy posse, you don't have to rule over them with an iron fist. You see, it turns out that the idea of being the dominant human in the pack to control behaviour within the group is unnecessary and, in fact, a complete myth.

The research

The idea that a group of dogs needs an aggressive authority figure comes from research undertaken decades ago. This study focused on a group of captive wolves, which actually function very differently in the wild. But even more importantly, that don't behave like dogs at all. Because dogs and wolves, just like men and chimps, are separated by evolution.

The original research centred on stressed-out wolves in a contrived environment which was not a family unit. Meaning that the wolves felt forced to defend their resources and themselves. Where typically, in nature, reverence is key to their survival.

More recent studies tell us that packs actually function as a more traditional family unit. And, just like humans, parents take leadership roles, and the children follow.

The results of those early behavioural studies and the supposed role of dominance within the pack were misunderstood. And unfortunately, dog trainers use the results to understand dog behaviours.

Today's methods

These days, scientists and dog experts alike no longer consider that study relevant. And even the original researchers consider their findings irrelevant.

Of course, you will need to lead your canine crew to manage their physical activity. Still, you don't actually need the pups to submit to you to achieve this.

We are not dogs. Therefore we will never function as part of a dog pack. And we shouldn't use violence to control dogs as the captive wolves did. You can lead without domination or intimidation. And it doesn't matter the breed of dog or behaviour issue.

We now understand that most behaviour canine problems stem from:

  • Feelings of insecurity
  • A desire for safety
  • The need for comfort

Your role

From more recent canine behavioural studies, we know that physically forcing dogs into submission is counterproductive.

Language like 'alpha dog,' 'top dog' and 'pack leader' is generally accepted as dog-related terms. But in reality, dogs don't identify rank in the same way that humans do. Understanding this and, instead, focusing on canine personalities is key to developing relationships. And caring properly for the dogs in our care.

That's not to say that there won't be an alpha in the pack though generally, they won't assert themselves with aggression. In fact, canine groups will actively avoid conflict. A dog that does cause conflict within a group is usually the opposite of confidence. In this case, the pup will need to work with a professional to work out the root of the problem and treat it appropriately.

Treating these actions as dominant behaviour means not addressing the core issue. And delaying appropriate training or retraining - making life difficult for both the dog and carers.

Just because someone owns a dog doesn't necessarily mean they are fully aware of the problems or know how to deal with them. And it's completely fine to discuss this with them but ultimately their decision on what action to take moving forward.

In conclusion

Dominance in the animal world rarely means that force or violence is used to maintain order. But some trainers and dog owners still support punitive techniques to correct behaviour and train domestic dogs. And, actually, this is only perpetuating the problems they seek to treat.

Yet there is plenty of new research out there which contradicts the old dominance hypothesis, all written by a range of dog experts and respected scientists alike. And this information should be shared freely with fellow dog walkers and owners. Particularly if you believe a dog is being misunderstood or poorly treated.

Effective leadership and physical punishment never go hand in hand, even when it comes to our pooches. So don't get caught up in the out of touch doggy dominance debate. Instead focus on rewarding the correct behaviours, redirecting the bad and building confidence in the dogs you care for. The upshot is that creating safe boundaries when it comes to lousy puppy behaviour is an excellent practice. And physical or emotional punishment is not.

And if you stay up to date with the latest and most relevant doggy data, the easier your job should be. In turn, the more at ease and in control you are with your canine crew, the more in demand as a walker you'll be.

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