Dominance Theory training, No thank you!

For 26 years, I have consulted and worked with clients that own dogs that are either fearful, reactive, confident, resource or human aggressive. During our consultations, the owner generally states they are “alpha” to their dogs, or that they want to learn how to be an “alpha” to their dogs.

I listen to the concerns about their dogs behaviors, and generally they are similar: the dog reacts to strangers or other dogs, redirects on the owner in an excited state, guards it’s food or bones, hides under items, has severe anxiety, or shows fear aggression when corrected. After listening to the presenting problem, I normally ask, how they have become an “alpha”, or what they think an alpha truly is.

The response is usually the same, “I correct them if they don’t listen, I correct them for being ‘dominant” or I hear “An alpha is the ‘boss’ of the pack.”

My question is, when does society praise? Do we endure so much “correction” from others in our lives, that we too feel the need to correct our dogs in order to feel superior?

The corrections I have seen over the years range from physically rolling the dog, spanking the dog, using a prong or shock collar, and some tie a dog to an object and walk away. All of these so-called solutions are what we call dominance or “alpha” dog training.

Dominance or “alpha” dog training is purely based on fear and pain, with the use of prong collars, shock collars, “alpha rolls”, abandonment and physical punishment to get the behavior the human would like. The problem is, with pain and fear the behavior we would like is not really going to happen. You are going to achieve fear, anxiety, lack of trust, and a dog that needs to protect itself from you, or the variables that caused the corrections in the first place.

With pain and fear, you will be successful in making your dog an omega (the “punching bag” of the pack) in front of other dogs and people. This will make a dog try to display their strength even more to avoid being viewed as weak. You will also achieve increased reactiveness, and a dog with a high frustration level. This in turn results in a dog that shows extreme anxiety, and destruction of their surroundings (or sometimes themselves).

If you were to observe a natural pack of stray domestic dogs, there is no full mouth biting for corrections, they are not inflicting pain on each other while they are walking together, and they are not attacking each other when another dog comes into sight. They are working together to protect each other, period.

Spanking, prong collars, shock collars, rolling dogs, and thinking “a dog needs to understand you can take their life away” are not training techniques, they are fear and pain causing techniques used by humans that like to project their thoughts on canine behavior.

Most times, dominance or train with pain trainers will explain the dog is aggressive because they are “power hungry”; when in fact they are not fighting for rank, they are fighting to survive. Survival is achieved with a strong protector in charge, not an unstable, confrontational one.

Protective/positive based training, is all about teaching your dog that you can protect them, and that you recognize they did an awesome job. You show your dog his successes, repeat those successes, and build on his trust and confidence that you are a fair and understanding protector. This tells your dog you are not looking to make them an omega, you are not asking for “submission or fear”, but rather you welcome them to make mistakes, let them learn from them, and praise them for their success.

Protective/positive based training teaches your dog exactly what you are looking for; there is no guessing on their end, it is clear through praise and reward.

That reward can be anything, verbal praise, affection, playtime, massage, and yes treats. There is nothing wrong with using treats to pay a dog for doing a job well done. For those that feel treats should not be used, I ask you to work free of charge. You obviously do not need to be paid either, except with praise. Makes sense if this is what your belief is.

So, when someone asks you what an “alpha” would do, or how they should become an alpha, tell them; “they would protect their pack with loyalty and dignity”. Dominance training is human, not canine.


Protect first.


Tara Stermer and the pack


The Big Debate on Pack Behavior in Dogs

  The debate is firing up about dominance and pack behavior in domestic dogs. On one side of the fence, you have professionals stating dogs are not like wolves therefore do not follow a hierarchy. On the other side, you have professionals that say you must be a leader in order to have peace in your pack. So who is right? Both sides have research to prove their theory is correct, but they bash each other and say the other is completely wrong. In my opinion, they are both right and wrong in different ways.
    After researching and learning from the dogs themselves, I do believe they follow a pack order but they do not achieve this by constantly showing aggression to make other pack members submit. The calm, confident dog controls, protects, and keeps order in the pack. They use body language or a quick correction to communicate with the rest of the pack, not brute force or fear tactics. The aggressive dog is the unstable pack member looking for rank. These dogs do not see you as a leader, but rather just another unstable pack member striving for the same rank. Why? Because we act just as they do to gain that rank. We use outbursts of physical force like spanking and rolling a dog to correct behaviors (impulsively aggressive), we yell and scream (bark in a high pitch) if we can’t control a situation. Some people even have temper tantrums and full discussions as they clean up a mess (pacing and being destructive). It is no wonder our dogs are so confused by us. We strive for leadership but act unstable.
     The debate about whether or not dogs follow a pack order started very recently, simply because of one TV show in particular. There have been hundreds if not thousands of people battling over this since the TV show aired. Up until then, even our well-known behaviorists out there believed in pack behavior. I personally, will not put 20 years of personal research and experience aside because I don’t like the way this show portrays gaining leadership. I will continue to educate people on how fear will not make you a strong leader, but rather an unstable pack member. Many trainers out there believe it should be taken off the air because of the physical corrections that are used. I personally, do not think it should be taken off the air, because it does point out that dogs are not humans. I do think we need to keep educating people that physical force is NOT the answer. TV is not the only problem; I have been on quite a few breed bulletin boards that have behavioral tips with internet links to certain aggression trainers. I have seen trainers and veterinarians that still to this day, recommend extremely harsh methods to correct aggression. There is no way to stop bad information from surfacing but to say domestic dogs are not pack animals because of this is ridiculous.
     Too many times I have had people with multiple dogs call me because either they are fighting or a weak member has been killed. If they are not pack animals and they follow our human emotions (because we have genetically made them evolve so much), doesn’t that make this behavior, in human terms, a mental disability? If a human killed one of their family members, we would view them as mentally unstable or evil. So does that mean since we “filtered” out the dog so much, that these occurrences mean the dog is mentally unstable? That they should be immediately placed on some behavior-modifying drug and kept in a cell for its entire life as we do with humans? No, it simply shows their instinctual behavior survival by keeping a pack strong. The younger, stronger dog will challenge for leadership when the time is right. For example, a news article was brought to my attention of a disastrous shelter incident. The shelter had five dogs housed together, all of which had been getting along fine. The female went into heat and the younger stronger males attacked the weaker older male of the pack. We see this as barbaric, but this is their true instinct. The right to breed belongs to the strongest male. This is a great example of how their “wild” roots still exist. If the wolf were filtered out of our domestic dogs, these dogs would not have acted as a pack and attacked the older male. For more info on this incident click here:,0,6542657.story?track=rss

     Our domestic dogs are domestic now because we have helped them adjust to it. So what does this mean? We provide food daily, medical care, shelter, toys, and affection. These amenities are not available in the wild. We readily say how we have changed today’s dog to be non-wolf like but then state that they should be allowed to roam freely like a wolf. We blame their aggression on their “instincts” but will quickly say they are not pack animals; therefore they do not need to follow normal pack behaviors. In short. we are constantly contradicting ourselves.

    Yes, we have helped them adapt to our style of living, but their “wild” nature still confuses us. We feed them but they still thrive on hunting and killing prey like their ancestors. We provide shelter with big roomy houses, but they still love to be in a den like area (under tables, beds, crates) like their ancestors. We give them an incredible amount of affection but they still bite if they don’t want it like their ancestors.

   Some professionals refer to our living situations with domestic dogs as a “forced” pack. They say we should allow dogs the freedom of being dogs and having rank amongst themselves. I completely disagree with this, because we are forcing dogs to live as we do and in surroundings like we do. In the wild they will eventually fight over food, territory, and mating. It would be unacceptable and dangerous to the humans to allow your dogs to fight each other over these things in your home. In a natural pack, they have plenty of space where one dog can leave to start their own pack if they are unsuccessful in the battle for leadership. In your home, you are forcing them to stay in the same territory, therefore you must be able to control the pack. If you were to allow a “wild” pack mentality where the dogs have rank and sort things out themselves in your house, you are creating a dangerous situation in an unnatural setting. If we are asking them to live as we do, it is important to remember they should abide by the same rules as they would outside with a wild pack, but adjusted to confined quarters and human pack members. Otherwise, we leave room for dogs that challenge humans for position in a pack.