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— January 10, 2012 —

Who’s Flying the Plane?
A brief explanation of dominance.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

I tend to do a lot of training with “difficult” dogs. I deal with dogs that have been kicked out of classes, or that wouldn’t let trainers in the house. What you hear about dogs like this is usually, “You have to show them who’s boss. You gotta be DOMINANT.”

In recent years, there has been a mountain of paper used defending and debunking the concept of dominance. Old school trainers cling stubbornly to the concept that “dominance” is critical in dog training, while modern “behaviorists” say that it’s all hogwash.

One exercise which was used to support the old school dominance theory was this. Give your dog a command, which he knows, like “down.” If you stand over your dog and tell him “down” he’ll do it. Now, lay on your back, under your dog’s nose. Tell him down. He’ll more than likely look at you like you’re crazy. Some trainers point to this and as evidence that you must be in a “dominant position” to get your dog to comply.

What we now understand is that dogs are hyper-specific. If you taught your dog to do the down position while standing over him, he will be confused by you laying under him. It’s not your submission that causes him to disobey, it’s that he’s confused.

Does this mean that we can throw everything related to dominance out the window? Not so fast. There is still a need for dominance, it’s just not what you may think.

Imagine you’re a passenger in an airplane. You’re enjoying your flight and anticipating your arrival. The pilot is in charge and you accept it. Suddenly a flight attendant runs into the cabin and says to you, “We need someone to fly the plane. You have to do it!” Now imagine you are sitting at the controls trying to fly the plane. I imagine you’d be pretty stress and uncomfortable, right (unless you happen to be a pilot). Being shoved into that situation might just cause you to act in ways that you wouldn’t normally act, right?

This sounds ridiculous, I know. But we do it to our dogs every day.

When trainers use words like dominance, it sometimes conjures up the image of harsh, forceful treatment of dogs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dominance simply means that we are in control of our dogs everywhere we take them. It also means that we control the resources that we give our dogs. It means that we don’t allow our dogs to demand that we do things for them or give things to them (like petting or treats). Dominance means that we expect our dogs to sit before running up to meet someone on the street.

A big mistake new handlers make with their dog is this. They wait to see how their dog will handle a situation versus instruct the dog on what is expected. One of the things I stress in my training program is to tell your dog how to handle any given situation. Obedience commands, when applied properly, can help eliminate a majority of bad behavior.

What happens when we allow our dogs to demand resources or control situations is that we give up our seat at the controls. Our dogs are then forced by their pack nature to assume leadership. This is not a good position for a dog, because they are not equipped to handle the responsibility. They often begin to exhibit any of a number of problem behaviors. A strong confident dog may become over-protective and a timid dog may become a fear biter.

By teaching our dogs certain behaviors like sit, down and so-on we begin the process of teaching our dogs to follow us through situations rather than lead us through them. The way this works is this. If your dog wants a treat he has to down. If he wants to get petting from a stranger, he has to sit. This will help you in two ways. It gives you ample chances to show your dog that you are in control and it helps with the whole consistency and repetition thing. Also, it helps you keep your dog from approaching people you don’t think he should approach. (Remember, Fido may be adorable to you, but some people are going to be afraid of him.)

Another benefit of all this instruction throughout the day is that it causes your dog to work his brain. When he has stuff to do, he has to expend mental energy. Draining this energy off may help reduce other problem behaviors like separation anxiety and destructive behaviors.

The last point I will make is this. It’s the little things that matter most. Alpha rolling your dog does nothing to teach him that you are good leader and it might just get you bit. (Yes, I know there are trainers that still tell people to do it. Please don’t listen to this little piece of outdated advice.) It’s what you do from morning to night that trains your dog. Make no mistake about it: for better or worse, you are your dog’s most important trainer.