In 20 years of dog training, I’ve yet to find any subject more provocative that that of Power, Hierarchy and Dominance and its place in dog training. It’s a lightening rod that divides dog trainers into one camp or the other: those that train to achieve hierarchical dominance over their dog, and those that feel any training any training that involves hierarchy and dominance is, by association, inhumane.
Here’s my farm-girl 2 cents on the subject.
To assume that hierarchy and dominance is, by association, “inhumane” assumes that hierarchical decisions between dogs involve physical conflict, pain and intimidation. Now, if one gets most of their information and insight into the world of animals from Animal Planet or the Nature Channel…I can honestly see how that conclusion could be drawn. But the problem is this: television is more about ratings than education. Knock-down, drag-out fights between rival males are exciting to watch, but this method of deciding who the “boss” is, from what I see in real life, is the exception not the rule in the animal world. The assumption that hierarchy and dominance is determined through conflict and pain as the norm is just not true, in my experience.
Clear order in social groups, in fact, keeps the group running smoothly. That’s why hierarchy exists. And why animals strive to figure it out. During any given day at my kennel, there are dogs coming into or leaving a play group. Each change requires a new hierarchy arrangement, like musical chairs. In nature, dogs must refigure their pack hierarchy on a regular, ever-changing basis as new dogs come of age, others get older and less physically able, still others become sick or injured, and so on. Each “change” in the group – be it a wild, natural group, or a man-made one in a home or at a boarding kennel or dog park -requires a reshuffling of the hierarchical order. What I see playing out in real life is something quite different than what is aired on television and assumed by those individuals, who have taken up the Anti-Dominance banner in an effort to lobby for the well-being of dogs.
Hate to admit it, but I’ve been watching animal behavior for over 50 years (!) Instead of watching nature shows, I grew up on a ranch, and still live on one. I’ve lived with animals, not pets. I’m lucky in that way, because I’ve had a unique vantage point and have been able to observe animals making hierarchal decisions on their own – right in front of me – many times a day. Whether it’s the cows in the herd, the horses in the fields, or the dogs at my boarding facility, these everyday decisions re: Who’s on top? Who’s on the bottom? and Who’s in the middle? happen without bloodshed, pain or conflict. Who gets the hay? Who keeps the ball? Who can jump on whom? …is most often communicated and decided with a look, a posture, a bump, a low moo or growl – maybe a nip to underscore the point – but not a fight! It’s conversation, not confrontation, and it does the job. The hierarchy is confirmed or refigured and life goes on. Peacefully. Naturally. Think about it. If there were a hundred vicious fights a day, each time the order had to be revised and the power structure redefined… canines as a species would certainly be extinct by now! Don’t get me wrong – of course conflict can and does happen in nature, but it is a most rare exception, from what I’ve seen in my 50+ years of farm life, and from observing the thousands of dogs we care for each year in our kennel.
From this perspective, here’s what I believe.
Training dogs with hierarchy and leadership need NOT involve intimidation or overt dominance. Communicating rank is a good thing, because it’s what every dog really wants to know. Communicating rank and hierarchy can and should be subtle, like it is between dogs themselves. Training with leadership is a conversation that simply sets behavioral boundaries with body language, sound and physical cues. This canine-inspired conversation explains to a dog that their owner is driving and he is not. Rank order is made clear, confrontation is avoided, and the dog settles in for the ride and willingly accepts the owner’s “rules of the road.” It’s a beautiful and natural thing.
Wouldn’t it be fabulous if power, hierarchy and dominance were understood from this more natural perspective? Think how well we would all get along as trainers, and how happy our dogs would be!