For years mainstream dog training has been defined by stories of wolves, packs and the need for dog owners to set themselves up as pack leader. So it may come as some surprise that it’s actually a myth – and an unhelpful one at that.
The notion that dogs treat their human companions as pack members, constantly vying with them for authority over lesser members of the group, has long been debunked by behavioural science. The wolf researchers who inadvertently ‘loaned’ their various hypotheses to the dog training world decades ago, have been relentlessly challenging the misconceptions around their studies and dismissing their relevance to domestic dog training ever since. And the best of the best in wolf studies are now trying equally hard to shake the concept of hierarchical packs altogether and, instead, promote the idea of the wolf as a regular, family unit kind of a guy..... which is nice!
So why is the pack dominance stuff still around and why should we worry about it? It’s a sticky idea, that’s for sure. There’s no shortage of people using it, teaching it or even making television about it. It’s an easy-to-get, plausible explanation for things that are, otherwise, a bit of a challenge. It sounds like it makes sense. There’s mystique around it. And there’s something about it that calls to our human soul and psyche – after all, most of us quite like the idea of being a pack leader.
Clear, consistent expectations
There is an element about the leadership idea, too, that is valid. Dogs do need clarity and consistency from their owners – they need to know what you want from them and what they can expect in return – and that is pretty much what being a good leader is all about.
But the whole pack leadership, alpha dog notion is a myth, so why does it endure and why, in the face of so much evidence to dismiss it, am I writing this piece now? As one of the large group of force free trainers, it’s tempting, when faced with a methodology so diametrically opposed to our own to shoot it down in flames, to condemn it as nonsense and expect potential clients to be swept away by our rational and relentless journey towards the ‘truth’. But the reason it persists is because it works. That’s right – that’s not a typo and I haven’t gone mad or defected like a character in a John Le Carré novel. But it works for the wrong reasons. That’s why it is, at best unhelpful and, at worst - in cases of fear related aggression - downright dangerous.
What do I mean ‘it works’? Well, people see it working everyday with their dogs. It’s one of the reasons why positive reinforcement trainers lose credibility in the eyes of many owners. People who have been persuaded that pack leadership is the only way to harmony with their dogs do indeed witness reduction in unwanted behaviour all the time. That might be food stealing or snarking at other dogs on walks. Tails go down, physical stature is reduced and eyes are turned anxiously toward the owner. So when we say it’s wrong, that must be just sour grapes, right?
Before my colleagues in the Academy for Dog Trainers disown me, let me explain. If a trainer who uses aversive techniques to get desired behaviours from a dog tells you that it’s because of status, or hierarchy, or dominance or pack leadership, they simply haven’t understood the principles in play. That, amongst other things, makes them a danger to you and to themselves.
The myth is not in the method, it’s in the rationale for why it works. Science has a sound explanation for that and it’s not authority over the pack. So why does it work and why should dog owners avoid it?
Making associations – good and bad
The answer to the first question is conditioning. It’s how animals learn and get their information about what’s safe and what isn’t. They associate certain events or behaviours with either good stuff happening or bad stuff happening. Clearly, if it were that simple then everyone would be doing it and I would be out of a job. But in a nutshell, that’s what’s going on. (Check out the links at the end of this blog to explore the different kinds of conditioning that take place during learning). In brief there’s Classical conditioning in which events that are outside the animal’s control predict other events that may be good or bad. There’s Operant conditioning in which the animal can control events by his or her own actions.
Dominant control of any animal is about getting the behaviour you want by triggering a desire to avoid or escape an unpleasant experience and that’s how ‘pack theory’ actually works. Which brings two other questions into the mix. What do you want to achieve? and what kind of relationship do you want with your dog?
The first has a scientific base and the second is more about personal ethics, which is bias and I make no apologies for mine. I’m firmly against anything that involves fear to get a desired behaviour and proud to advocate for the use of kind, force free techniques to do the same.
Suppressing the signals
The desire to escape or avoid something unpleasant affects behaviour change. Fear is a powerful motivator. But what you witness is a suppression of the symptoms of a behaviour and not the cause. If your dog reacts aggressively towards another dog or to a person because of fear, that dog may stop reacting in that way to avoid an unpleasant consequence or to increase the prospect of escaping the object of their fear. But ask yourself this: has your dog’s attitude to the thing he or she is afraid of changed? Does he like it any better? He’s not suddenly reassured because you’re ‘pack leader’. Nothing about the scary thing has changed. He’s still scared. But now you’ve given him two things to be afraid of – the original object of his fear - other dogs or people - and your reaction to him when he encounters them and shows fear. And that now makes your dog's behaviour much more unreadable and unpredictable.
Aversive training makes you the predictor of bad stuff happening
Put it this way. If you are afraid of spiders and I tell you not to be and give you a slap each time you show your fear, do you stop being afraid or do you just stop showing me that you are afraid? What if your fear remains and you find yourself in a situation where you can’t escape the object of your fear, the spiders, but the risk of the slap is still present? Then there’s every chance that you will go into either a panic fuelled shut down or a fear induced rage.
The problem with using unpleasant consequences in training dogs – and that could be anything from a strong lead jerk to a shock collar - is that you run the very real risk of either developing or increasing negative associations with everything involved: the place, the time of day, the other dog, the car you travelled in to the training session and the owner. That last one is an eye opener isn’t it? You as the owner are the most consistent predictor of bad stuff happening. You are always there when it goes down! Think about that.
Now, it could be argued that in most everyday situations during training the application of an aversive is mild, a ‘ rebuke’ or ‘correction’ or ‘guidance’. But consider this: Whatever you call it, the laws of conditioning are such that for aversive training to work, it has to elicit a desire to escape an ongoing bad experience or avoid one happening. That means fear. It means something that your dog finds unpleasant.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Desensitisation and counter-conditioning (classical conditioning) that gradually helps the dog overcome fear and positive reinforcement (Operant conditioning) that reward good stuff are just as effective, and you get a bonus. Not only does your dog’s behaviour improve, but his attitude towards a whole range of things that he encounters in life does too.
So, what kind of a relationship do you want with your dog? You decide.
For more information about learning and conditioning:
Positive reinforcement training and force free dog behaviour modification.
Positive reinforcement training and force free dog behaviour modification.