Science-Based vs. Dominance-Based Dog Training: Part 2

In this first part of this essay, I discussed why dominance-based training methods like those popularized by Cesar Milan and other dog training professionals are outmoded, inefficient and potentially dangerous. In this part, I will discuss why science-based training methods like positive reinforcement are superior training techniques and finally, discuss the implications of the training methods you choose to use with your dog.

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


3. Dominance-based training rarely tells your dog what to do

Let’s face it, if your dog lived with only other dogs, would it really be a problem if the trash was raided every night? Do you think another dog would mind if there was a designated potty spot in the corner of the spare bed room? Would another dog be opposed to barking at the delivery person until he or she went away? The answer is no: the only reason getting into the trash, going to the bathroom a spare room and barking at people who approach the house are “problem behaviors” is because we, as humans, have a problem with them!

The mentality behind dominance-based training methods is that your dog is constantly training to upstage you as the owner and obtain mastery of the house. This is just a baseless assertion: there is no evidence that dogs engage in hierarchy-building with humans [13] and even a cursory understanding the domestication of dogs suggests that dogs evolved as food scavengers, not power usurpers [5]. Furthermore, attempts to tell your dog, “I’m the ALPHA of the house!” don’t tell your dog, “I really want you to sleep on your dog bed, not my bed,” and the many other directions your dog needs to get along with you and other humans .

Dogs are incredibly human-social creatures – they want our attention, food or toys – and we can capitalize on that disposition by providing dogs with clear instructions about how we’d like to interact with them. Positive reinforcement and science-based training methods focus on telling your dog what you want them to do, because most of those things are contrary to a dog’s natural instincts, and they work because dogs want to get rewards like treats, affection and playtime from humans.

4. Your dog does not live in a vacuum

In some ways, the choice to avoid or use aversive training techniques and subscribe to the dominance-based training theories is a moral or personal decision. It is your dog and it is your choice to take the available information about dog training and reduce your dog’s exposure to stressful training techniques. It is your decision to look at your relationship with your dog and decide if “lovable scavenger” or “Et tu, Brute?” best describes those exchanges.

In a lot of other ways, however, it is a public health issue if you choose to train your dog with aversive techniques. A fearful, aggressive dog poses a real bite risk to your veterinarian, a person walking past your house and anyone else with which your dog interacts.

Given what researchers are discovering about aversive training techniques and the stress they cause in dogs, in addition to the scientific evaluation of positive-reinforcement training techniques as equally effective and efficient in achieving desired behaviors [17], I believe that aversive training techniques and dominance-based training methods should be considered at best inhumane. I also believe that the dog training tide is turning this way, and I hope it continues!



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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