The Problem with Dominance Theory

May 24, 2015

The domestic dog (Canis familiarus) is closely related to the gray wolf and it is this that first encouraged the use of the Pack or Dominance theory. Wolves are pack animals with a complex social structure including a hierarchy where an ‘alpha’ male and ‘alpha’ female take control of all the resources around them. Trainers went on to introduce the idea that dogs were also pack animals; that they interpreted their human family as their pack and would constantly aim to become the ‘Alpha’. This theory was encouraged further by a study on captive wolves by Zimen in 1975. This study used an unrelated captive wolf group and it was observed that all of the wolves would fight for the dominant role among the group.

























(Behaviours like begging and walking in front when on walks is considered dominant behaviour)




This pack theory was then directly applied to dogs and used as a training method. A number of behaviours were identified as dominant dog behaviours. These included pulling on the lead, chewing household objects, jumping up, begging either for food or attention and sitting or sleeping on furniture (Donaldson, 1996 ). These behaviours would then be ‘corrected’ using the pack theory. Observers researched the way in which wolves corrected unwanted behaviour and then applied this to dog training. Examples from trainers such as the Monks of New Skete included making prolonged eye contact, striking the dog until it yelps and even rolling the dog onto its back into a submissive position. (Monks of New Skete, 1998)

Many believed that this was the way forward as it was “effective in suppressing behaviour at that moment” (Stilwell, 2013) however this type of training does little to solve the long term underlying behaviour and does not offer a correct alternative behaviour for the dog.


There is however evidence disputing the dominance theory. For starters the Zimen Wolves did display some dominant behaviours but this was later concluded to be because the wolves were completely unrelated and had been forced together in a small captive space and were in fact very stressed. This was not a natural environment or situation for the wolves.

Wolves usually form family groups, the parents being the alpha male and female. The first generation of pups are born and will be naturally dominant over the second generation of pups, similar to an older sibling looking after a younger one. (Eaton, 2008) Wolf social structure is a lot more complicated than just a linear hierarchy with one wolf at the top.

To refute this evidence further “Wolves don’t always pack: some populations never pack.” (Coppinger & Coppinger, 2001 ). Even feral dogs (also knows as village dogs) found scavenging in small landfill sites have been known to roam alone, small groups may form for a temporary period but these do not last very long and the dogs will quickly separate if a human offers one food or attention. In these small groups there is no alpha or leader, another key difference between the wolf and the dog. Not one animal has complete control over all the resources available.


Dogs have been domesticated for between 10,000 and 15,000 years and have been selectively bred for traits dissimilar to that of wolves for just as long.  Dogs are sociable animas that actively seek out humans for company, wolves on the other hard are difficult, if not impossible to tame and will actively hide away from human contact.  

Owners of multi dog households may suggest that one of their dogs is more dominant than the others. This is half the case. In a house of two dogs, one may be more food motivated and so may take more control over any food that is present, however the other may be more toy motivated and so take more control over any toys that are provided.  Dogs are not likely to try and become dominant over their owners, for starters humans and dogs are two separate species.


“Continuing research and investigation has shown Pack Theory to be inaccurate, inappropriate and ineffective” (Fisher 2012). The learning theory however focuses on operant and classical conditioning and the idea that if a behaviour is rewarded it is more likely to be repeated in the future. This type of training uses positive reinforcement and encourages a dog to carry out a particular behaviour rather than punishing a dog until it gets it right. Learning theory is innate to dogs; it’s the natural way that animals learn. The pack theory does not take this into account, even though operant and classical conditioning is scientifically proven by scientists such as Pavlov, Thorndike and Skinner.


Evidence against the use of the pack theory as a way of training was published in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour, it “concludes that confrontational training methods practiced by many trainers and handlers are a contributing factor to increased incidences of dog bites” (Stilwell, 2013, pg27). This shows that when using the dominance theory that dog behaviour can actually be made worse to the point the dog feels he has no option but to resort to biting. This type of training can stress out the dog causing high anxiety and fearfulness.


Dogs are closely related to wolves but they do not share many of the same behaviours. There is a 15,000 year evolutionary gap between the two species. Dominating and acting aggressively towards a dog with a behavioural problem is only going to make it worse. The domestic dog is not a pack animal and could not survive without the relationship it has with humans. I think positive reinforcement is the way forward, a theory that is scientifically proven to work. After all “To be descended from a wolf is not to be a wolf” (Donaldson, 1996, pg81).


Coppinger, R., Coppinger, L. (2001) Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and

Evolution. Chicago: The Univeristy of Chicago Press.


Donaldson, J. (1996) The Culture Clash. United States: James & Kenneth Publishers


Eaton, B. (2008) Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction. Washington: Dogwise Publishing.


Fisher, J. (2012) Think Dog. Great Britain: Cassell Illustrated              


Monks of New Skete. (1978) How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend. Canada: Little, Brown & Company



Stillwell, V. (2013) Train Your Dog Positively. New York: Ten Speed Press.

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