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— June 2, 2015 —
Deference vs. Dominance
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Dog trainers used to teach dominance, now days that is a dirty word in dog training circles. I still believe in deference, but how does “deference” different from “dominance.”

I read a book once that explained training in terms of dominance theory. The author related that if you stood over your dog and commanded “down” in a strong voice, the dog would lie down. If you were to lay on your back under the same dog’s head and commanded down, the dog wouldn’t comply. This was their proof that dominance was the key in getting our dogs to follow commands.

Now days, we understand that dogs, like humans, are usually responding to our body language more than our spoken commands. Dogs are usually “reading” us for visual cues more than listening to us for “language” clues. For an example of this, tell your dog to sit. If they have done any amount of training, they are likely to comply. Now, try turning your back to the dog and give the same prompt. If your dog complies, try going into another room. What you’ll find is that your dog’s ability to follow prompts will go down as the visual cues become less obvious.

Researchers tell us that over 90% of human communication is non-verbal. Our “body language” tells us more about what we are trying to communicate to each other than the words we use. Imagine how much more important this is to our dogs. They don’t talk…at all. The vocalizations our dogs make, barking, wining, etc are like laughing and crying. We have an idea what those sounds mean, but they are not “language” in the true sense of the word.

This principle is a small part of why the old school “dominance theory” isn’t really part of modern training methodology.

Deference is subtly different. Deference is a dog that, for lack of a better term, respects the hand that feeds it. When dominance demands compliance, deference inspires cooperation. When dominance relies on force, deference exercises leadership and technique. In simple terms, we want our dogs to defer to us, not feel dominated by us.

Another way to put is it is this. An average teacher explains, a good teacher demonstrates, a great teacher inspires. That is deference vs. dominance. A dog respects a trainer he defers to, a dog fears the trainer who dominates him.

The key to obtaining deference is learning to communicate with your dog. Trainers, if nothing else should be able to teach you how to explain your instructions to your dog.

Dominance relied of physical superiority, deference relies on communication. I hope to teach the latter.