Your dog jumps on the sofa, pulls on walks and rushes through doorways first. Does this mean he is trying to dominate you and become pack leader? Highly unlikely! Although you will still find articles and trainers who teach this, most force-free trainers and behaviourists believe this thinking is flawed.
Dogs share over 99% of a wolf’s DNA. However, fourteen thousand years of domestication has modified many wolf traits, making it possible to share our homes with dogs. Wolves have changed little over thousands of years, while domestication and selective breeding has produced many sizes, shapes and colours of dogs. There are other significant differences. Wolves can be tamed to some extent if they receive early human interaction but they cannot be domesticated to make suitable household pets. Their critical socialisation period ends much earlier, they rarely bark, they do not display life-long juvenile play and the males help bring up young. Wolves have sixty distinct facial expressions while a dog has twelve or fewer.
It was once believed that the wolf pack held a strict hierarchy. This belief emanated from the research done on captive wolves, but wolves in captivity display different behaviours. They cannot leave the pack by choice, unrelated wolves are forced to live together and the restrictions of captivity cause tensions to run high making them more likely to fight. In the wild there will be a breeding pair and as the youngsters mature they will naturally go off and find mates. The structure of the wild wolf pack is based on co-operation not coercion.
Pack leader rank reduction programmes may do more harm than good. Denying your dog certain privileges, eating before him, going through doorways first, ignoring him on your return and enforcing ‘alpha’ rolls can at best be tedious to implement consistently and at worst, harmful.
We control all our dogs’ resources: food, water, sex, play, beds, toys and even whether they live or die. We dominate virtually every aspect of their lives. A dog guarding his bed or his dinner is unlikely being dominant; he is simply doing what is necessary to protect his valuable resource. This is a training issue, possibly with a genetic predisposition. My Goldie Mabel will guard her teddy bear if necessary from another dog because Big Ted is a valuable resource, but she could take or leave the tennis ball that my Collie values so highly.
Your dog’s ability to live in a social structure – your family – is why you share your home with him. Few behaviour issues are a result of dominance but more likely due to a lack of training, inappropriate socialisation and inherited breed traits. Communication not coercion is the key to a harmonious household.
Ref: Eaton, B (2008). Dominance: Fact or Fiction? Greenford Printing, UK.
Pictures kindly provided of UK Wolf Conservation Trust. More information is available from www.ukwct.org.uk.
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