Dominance theory is an outdated view of dog behaviour that became popular in the 1960s. It has since been disproved, evidence having been accumulated that shows that it is unhelpful and often very destructive. Unfortunately, some trainers still cling to the idea, reluctant to let go of something that they have based their training and careers on.
The theory sees dogs and their owners as a pack. Taken from wolf structure studies, "Dominance" explained our respective positions in that pack. To be at the top of the pack with total dominance would make you the "alpha", which dogs supposedly strive for, and this must be thwarted at all costs. It was a tidy explanation, until it was discovered that wolves don't live like this. And neither do dogs. Wolves live in intricate family structures which thrive on cooperation, understanding each other's needs and working together to meet them for the benefit of the group. Dominance theory has caused much misery for dogs and owners in the west, and the last embers of it need to be stamped out, because bullying animals doesn't work.
L. David Mech's book, 'The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species', was cutting edge in 1960, and largely responsible for the circulation of the Alpha myth. Police dog handlers in the 1960s-90s were encouraged to "dominate" their dogs using this information which was the best available scientific model.
More recent examination of wild living wolves has shown that their social behaviour is centred on the family unit, built around cohesion and co-operation, not conflict. "The model of the wolf's supposed fight for dominance and alpha status was replaced with one where parents and older siblings guide and lead younger offspring in order to enhance overall genetic fitness.".
In 1999 Mech published 'Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labour in Wolf Packs', in which he corrected his earlier mistaken ideas. In the 2003 book 'Wolves: Behaviour, Ecology, and Conservation' written by twenty three authors and edited by Mech and Boitani, the term "alpha" is only ever mentioned to explain why it has been superseded.
But studies of the domestic dog have also moved on. It is now accepted that the social behaviour of the domestic dog is unlike that of the wolf. The domestic dog is now proved to be a neotonised version of the wolf-type ancestor, that evolved scavenging on the domestic waste of human settlements and lost it's need to operate as a pack, evolving into an animal which will cooperate with others, including humans. Dogs will form groups around resources, but no longer operate in a cooperative pack in the way wolves do.
As explained by Behavioural consultants David Ryan "The concept of "dominance" itself has never been a quality of an individual, but the product of a relationship. Ethologists label an animal dominant over another once there is a trend towards the second animal deferring in encounters between the two."
Preferences will become established in repeated encounters, but pet dog relationships are far too complicated to be defined through a simple, "one individual dominates another". A smooth relationship is one in which each knows the other's preferences and defers accordingly.
Most problems that are dealt with by Pet Behavioural consultants, stem from a dog trying to perform it's bred for role, and in doing so, coming into conflict with humans (collies chasing joggers etc). "Jumping up" for example, is no longer seen as a sign of dominance, it is now understood as a dog trying to achieve a positive emotional outcome.
Like all species, some dogs are at the shy, timid end of the scale, others are more bold and confident. How we handle our dogs, their needs and the specifics of their personalities, will determine our relationships with them. Consistency and kindness are key. The use of dominance theories and aggression will only confuse and frighten our dogs and lead to conflict. One day, all mankind will look back and shake it's head at it's misguided actions in relation to dominance theory. Maybe dogs are smarter than us after all. As David Ryan explains, "we are witnessing the death throes of this one as it struggles to hang on to what little life it has left, existing only in the minds of the most stubborn or self-interested. As the groundswell of informed opinion moves against it, there will eventually be no hiding places left."
Caesar Milan take note.