It can be challenging to understand a dog’s behavior and what compels them to act in a certain way. As a dog trainer who helps people modify behaviors such as jumping up and leashing pulling, I spend a lot of time exploring this very subject.
As I discuss in my new book, Zak George’s Dog Training Revolution, I am surprised by how many of our attempts at understanding dog behavior are based on false information. One of the biggest myths I’ve come across is that dogs are essentially domesticated wolves.
Some trainers argue that ancient wolves abided by a social structure based on physically dominating other members of their pack. They argue that we should borrow from this line of thinking and apply it to the domestic dog. However, it turns out that not only are these trainers basing their philosophy on an archaic understanding of wolf behavior that leading wolf experts have repeatedly discredited, but they are also ignoring the fact that humans have purposefully bred dogs for thousands of years to take our direction. We simply can’t discount this human influence.
Also, the term “dominance” is now defined in so many ways that it offers little help when addressing specific situations with dogs. And even the accepted scientific definitions of dominance in animal behavior are so broad that they offer little relevance to our day-to-day interactions with canines. For instance, how many times have you heard that a dog who jumps on you, gets up on the furniture, or walks out of the door first is showing dominance? Most of us who teach with modern methods and ethical standards reject this idea wholeheartedly because there is no scientific rationale or credible study to support these claims. Furthermore, they just don’t pass the common-sense test either: When a dog is jumping on you after a long day’s work, he isn’t trying induce you into a state of submission. He’s simply excited that you’re home and wants to engage you.
I get it: We all have busy lives and want to get straight to the point when it comes to teaching our dogs. So if we can attribute a behavior to dominance or submissiveness, then everything else should be easy, right? There’s no harm in responsibly simplifying behavior. However, it doesn’t come down to a dog being dominant or submissive, but rather to how the individual dog perceives the outcome of their behavior. If the outcome of an action is favorable to an animal, they are likely to repeat that action, and if the outcome is unfavorable to that animal, they are less likely to repeat it.
Unfortunately, far too many “dominance trainers” emphasize the latter part of this statement rather than the first part. These quasi-professionals teach that applying a correction with a collar designed to cause discomfort or pain is the ideal way to teach a dog. This is why building a training strategy built upon an unsound hypothesis can be detrimental to the training as well as to the relationship between you and your dog. The fact is, if we go out of our way to acknowledge and provide a good consequence when our dogs behave the way we like, we will have a dog who is much more enthusiastic when working with us, which usually leads to faster progress.
Don’t get me wrong: We certainly should also provide undesired outcomes to behaviors we don’t wish to see repeated. For example, if your dog is barking and lunging at another dog while out on a walk, turning around and increasing the distance between the two dogs until you can verify that your dog in a compliant state is not likely the outcome your dog wants. He might prefer to interact with the dog, but we have to show him the proper way to do this over time. See my YouTube channel for videos on this topic and everything else you need to teach your dog.
Lastly, when it comes to the whole concept of dominance, it has more to do with us, the humans, than it does with our dogs. There is no credible evidence that dogs assert dominance toward people as part of their natural behavior. However, there is a lot of evidence that humans do exhibit dominance toward dogs, as well as toward other humans and many other animals. From my perspective, it seems some humans are quick to resort to imposing dominance upon dogs, not because it is natural to them, but because it is natural to us.
Luckily, one of our unique traits as humans is the ability to override our instincts when a more effective way is presented. I’m sure you’ll agree that when we make an honest attempt to be objective and separate ourselves from our more impulsive nature, we often accomplish exceptional results. This is how we will help raise the standards in the dog training industry.
About the author: Zak George is a celebrity dog trainer and author of Zak George’s Dog Training Revolution: The Complete Guide to Raising the Perfect Pet with Love. His YouTube channel, Zak George’s Dog Training Revolution, gets more than 15 million views annually. Zak lives in New Orleans with his girlfriend, Bree; their dogs, Venus, Supernova, Alpha Centauri, and Indy; and their cat, Angela.