Science-Based vs. Dominance-Based Dog Training: Part 1

Dog training is a somewhat divided profession. On one side, there are dominance-based training methods like those popularized by Cesar Milan and also reiterated by dog training professionals throughout the U.S. The opposing faction consists of the viewpoints of veterinary behaviorists and science-literate dog trainers who promote the use of positive reinforcement based training techniques. If you hadn’t guessed already, I do not subscribe to dominance-based training methods and this post is to illustrate why.

This first entry about why I have determined that science-based training methods are superior to dominance-based techniques will discuss how the theories behind dominance-based training methods have been debunked in recent history and the physiological and behavioral implications of using such methods with your dog.

If you have questions about any of the terminology used here, please see the Let’s Talk Vocab page.

1. Dominance-based training techniques are based on incorrect and outmoded wolf pack research. 

In the mid to late 1900s, publications by animal behaviorist such as David Mech [1] and Rudolph Schenkel [2] on the dynamics of wolf packs suggested these animals had an “alpha wolf” societal structure in which competition-based hierarchies ruled to pack. Schenkel in particular paralleled is studies of wolf pack behavior to that of domestic canines, a behavior mindset that pervaded American vernacular. Unfortunately, these studies were conducted on captive wolf packs (in zoos or wildlife preservations). Further ecologic study of wolves in their natural habit, including work done by Mech, have shown that the behaviors exhibited by resource-strapped wolves held in unnatural environments are not normal wolf behaviors. [3] Natural wolf behavior is much more complex than the “alpha wolf” concept an involves family-based packs and cooperation. [4]

Even if a competition-based social structure was true for wolves, however, it still wouldn’t necessarily be applicable for domesticated dogs. There are likely 15,000 years of selection by humans between wolves and dogs. [5] Because humans selected for social behaviors as well as appearance, dogs are not only distinct from their wolfish ancestors, they even look utterly different from one breed to another. From a scientific point of view, it does not make sense to apply behavior patterns from wolves to dogs on the basis of their shared lineage alone because they are clearly discrete populations.

2. Dominance-based training methods impede learning and cause aggressive behavior in dogs 

Anyone who says that dominance-based training methods don’t work are lying. Dominance-based training methods “work” because anything you to do a dog will impact its behavior because dogs are incredibly cognizant of human social cues. [6, 7] The problem with dominance-based training methods arise from these techniques causing stress in dogs that impedes learning and can result in aggression and fear in dogs.

Let’s take that sentence apart for clarity’s sake. Do aversive techniques cause stress in dogs? Frankly, yes. Researchers have long been able to link physiological and behavioral signs of stress in dogs during and after training sessions that included aversive techniques. [8, 9, 10 and many more]

Does stress impede with learning? Every mammal has an autonomic nervous system, which is made up of the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. A stressful stimuli acts on the sympathetic nervous system, which kicks on the fight-or-flight response. Physiological changes include the acceleration the heart rate, increased muscle tension and the inhibition of immediately unnecessary bodily functions, like digestion. After the stressful stimuli passes, the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body back down and returns to normal bodily processes. [11]

Under conditions of chronic stress – i.e. the stressful stimuli doesn’t disappear or continuously reappears, the body starts producing cortisol to replace the energy stores depleted during the initial sympathetic nervous system response. Long-term exposure to the stress hormone cortisol has many negative physiological effects, including damage to hippocampus cells leading to impaired learning ability and the inhibition of memory retrieval. [12] So, yes – stress impedes learning.

Do aversive, stressful training techniques cause aggression and fear in dogs? Recent work that has largely relied on surveys of owners has indicated that this is the case. [13, 14, 15] There are many potential root causes behind these connections: aversive training may make a dog less trusting of humans, owners who use aversive training techniques may report aggressive behaviors in their dogs for some yet-unknown reason, or something else entirely. A highly likely possibility is that aversive training techniques must be applied in a way that the dog successfully connects the aversive stimuli with the desired behavior, which involves precise timing in application and removal.

If done incorrectly, the dog won’t understand why an aversive stimuli is being applied and those painful stimuli will appear to be happen at random. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, wouldn’t you be edgy if someone yelled at you at random all the time? Or worse, the dog will connect the aversive stimuli to an unintended object or behavior: the often-cited example of a dog receiving a shock from an electric fence because the dog ran to the perimeter of the fence due to an approaching pedestrian and attributing the shock to the pedestrian, rather than the dog’s position in yard. Now the dog barks and lunges at all pedestrians near the yard because, in the dog’s mind, the pedestrian’s proximity means the dog will receive a painful shock.


Tomorrow’s post will be the final part of why I think science-based training methods such as positive reinforcement are appropriate for all dogs and dominance-based training methods should be avoided. Stay tuned!




References (for Science-Based vs. Dominance-Based Dog Training: Parts 1 and 2)

[1] Mech, L. David, and Luigi Boitani, eds. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

[2] Schenkel, Rudolf. “Submission: its features and function in the wolf and dog.”American Zoologist 7.2 (1967): 319-329.

[3] Davis, Lauren. “Why Everything You Know about Wolf Packs Is Wrong.”, 05 Dec. 2013. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.

[4] Cooperation, Evolution of. With Matthew R. Zimmerman and Richard McElreath. In: Sourcebook in Theoretical Ecology (Eds: Hastings, A., Gross, L.). UC Press, Berkeley (pp.155-162). 2012.

[5] Savolainen, Peter. “Domestication of dogs.” The Behavioural Biology of Dogs(2007): 21.

[6] Cooper, Jonathan J., et al. “Clever hounds: social cognition in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris).” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 81.3 (2003): 229-244.

[7] Hare, Brian, et al. “The domestication of social cognition in dogs.” Science298.5598 (2002): 1634-1636.

[8] Beerda, Bonne, et al. “Behavioural, saliva cortisol and heart rate responses to different types of stimuli in dogs.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 58.3 (1998): 365-381.

[9] Herron, Meghan E., Frances S. Shofer, and Ilana R. Reisner. “Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 117.1 (2009): 47-54.

[10] Beerda, Bonne, et al. “Manifestations of chronic and acute stress in dogs.”Applied Animal Behaviour Science 52.3 (1997): 307-319.

[11]”New Releases.” Understanding the Stress Response. Harvard Health Publications, Mar. 2011. Web. 02 Nov. 2014.

[12] de Quervain DJ, Roozendaal B, McGaugh JL; Roozendaal; McGaugh (August 1998). “Stress and glucocorticoids impair retrieval of long-term spatial memory”. Nature 394 (6695): 787–90. doi:10.1038/29542.PMID 9723618.

[13] Herron, Meghan E., Frances S. Shofer, and Ilana R. Reisner. “Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 117.1 (2009): 47-54.

[14] Rooney, Nicola Jane, and Sarah Cowan. “Training methods and owner–dog interactions: Links with dog behaviour and learning ability.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 132.3 (2011): 169-177.

[15] Blackwell, Emily J., et al. “The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 3.5 (2008): 207-217.

[16] Kathy Sdao. “Forget About Being Alpha in Your Pack.” Bright Spot Dog Training. N.p., 2008. Web. 05 Nov. 2014.

[17] Cooper, Jonathan J., et al. “The Welfare Consequences and Efficacy of Training Pet Dogs with Remote Electronic Training Collars in Comparison to Reward Based Training.” PloS one 9.9 (2014): e102722.



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