But this simple act with this easy-going puppy unleashed a wild side we’d never seen before. Our calm, friendly dog thrashed her body, whipped her head and snapped her jaws. Immediately, we let her back up.
Moments later, her owner shed light on this out-of-character behavior. She explained that she had used the “alpha role” technique on the dog whenever it had run across the street—pushing her to the ground, holding her down and scolding the dog. My jaw dropped. And because my mouth often works faster than my brain, I asked, “Wouldn’t a leash have been more effective at keeping her on her side of the street?”
How had this perfect pet owner—who had followed every recommendation for preventative care, had enrolled the dog in obedience classes and had diligently exercised her animal—come to use such an outdated method of dog training? We started talking about its effectiveness. Soon, the owner was nodding her head. Yes, what we had seen were signs of fear and panic in her dog.
The only time this puppy had been asked to lie on her side had been when her owner was in a state of anger. The owner was practicing “Dominance Theory,” a concept many of us have been following since it was described by Dave Mech in the 1970s. Dominance theory says people should dominate their dogs because we are mimicking wolves, from which dogs descended. Mech also wrote about the concept of “alpha” behavior.
Forty years later, after much follow-up research and evaluation of wolf packs and wild dogs, we know more. Mech will tell you that he meant “alpha” to refer to the breeding pair of wolves in a pack and that wolf packs have a healthy family dynamic, not one of forcibly challenging and putting down each other.
We also now know that wolf packs have a social hierarchy and that wolves behave voluntarily. And through evaluation of naturally occurring groups of wild dogs, we know that they don’t form family packs like wolves. In addition, we now understand that dominance is not a personality trait but rather a fluid relationship between two animals that only exists to gain access to a resource, such as a toy, food or a prized resting spot.
Recently, I attended a veterinary conference on dog behavior. The take-away lesson was this: If you can change the consequence to the dog, the dog’s behavior will change. In other words, look at what is reinforcing your dog’s behavior. Does he behave certain ways because it has worked for him before? Or does he behave those ways because he hasn’t been taught otherwise? It’s a question we all should ask when we have issues with our dogs’ behaviors.