View Full Version : No such thing as a 'leader of the pack' with dogs

22nd May 2009, 01:24 PM
Daily Telegraph vet and pet columnist Pete Wedderburn's blog

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/peter_wedderburn/blog/2009/05/22/dog_training_why_theres_no_point_in_trying_to_domi nate_your_dog

Dog training: why there's no point in trying to dominate your dog
Posted By: Peter Wedderburn at May 22, 2009 at 08:09:03 [General]
Posted in: UK Correspondents
behaviour, dog training, dominance, pack order, research

So we've all been wrong, for all these years. A study released yesterday confirms that there's no such thing as the "leader of the pack" in the dog world.

Analysis of dogs in a rehoming centre combined with reviews of work done on feral dogs has shown that there isn't a "pack order" in dog society after all. All those efforts that people make to dominate their dogs are a waste of time.

It's with a little trepidation that I step into this arena: dog behaviour is a complex area, and one that some dog behavioural "experts" feel that vets should leave alone. They maintain that vets should stick to physical illnesses, leaving the animal behaviour to those whose training and experience is entirely dedicated to the subject. They back up this view with stories of bad advice given by some vets over the years.

In defence of my profession, a considerable chunk of the veterinary curriculum is given over to learning about animal behaviour. Vets discuss behavioural issues with owners on a daily basis. When we go to conferences, there are streams of lectures dedicated to animal behaviour. Vets would never claim to be behavioural specialists, but many of us do have enough training, understanding and experience of the area to be able to offer considerable help to our clients. Part of our training is to know our limits, and to know when we need to refer a difficult case to a true behavioural specialist.

So back to the issue about the structure of the canine pack. If there isn't an order of dominance, what is going on? I've learned about this from my own two dogs, and I find it easier to talk about the concept of "confidence" rather than "dominance". Each of my dogs is more confident in different situations, and each one could appear to be "dominant" depending on what's happening.
My territorial terrier, Spot, is in charge when the property needs defended. He barks, and rushes to the fore when a stranger appears. He looks like the "top dog" when you see him like this, but it's just that he's full of confidence when it comes to this part of his life.

My food-obsessed Labrador, Bessie, is less confident when it comes to defending the home, hiding behind Spot, but when it comes to food, she's definitely in charge. If a scrap of food falls to the ground, she'll see Spot out of the way. She loves food so much that when it's available, she's highly motivated and she's learned that in this situation, she can be the "top dog".

So you see, the "top dog" concept varies through the day, and as such, it's not very useful. The old theory suggested that the "top dog" dominated the rest of the pack in every situation, and that each animal was vying with the others to be dominant over each other. Old behavioural methods tried to teach owners to dominate their pets, to ensure that they remained in charge. Harsh methods, including punishment, were used to allow an owner to maintain this role.

The new research explains that dogs' minds don't work like this after all, and efforts to dominate pets can simply induce fear, anxiety and even aggression rather than creating a stable household.
Animal behaviour is difficult to understand, and we'll probably never fully appreciate what's going on inside their heads. There will always be different theories, and training concepts that work in some situations, but not in others.

To me, the biggest problems with dog behaviour happen when owners like treat their pets like spoiled children. People don't like to lay down boundaries, finding it difficult to be firm and consistent. One moment, the dog is sitting in their lap, being fed treats. Next, he's allowed up on the sofa, and when he growls, everyone backs off and leaves him alone. One situation is OK, the other is not OK, but to the dog, they seem similar.

The advantage of the old pack dominance theory was that it provided an easy way of explaining to people the importance of being consistent in their attitude to their pets. It gave owners justification to be more confident than they might otherwise feel.

The question is this: now that owners are no longer "allowed" to be dominant over their pets, how can they be taught to be consistent and confident so that they don't have their lives ruined by pushy little dogs?

22nd May 2009, 01:27 PM
The study he refers to:


22/05/2009 13:25
TV dog behaviour programmes 'useless and dangerous'

Television dog trainers use “ridiculous” techniques that can do more harm than good, according to

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent
Last Updated: 8:45PM BST 21 May 2009

Researchers found that methods to
assert dominance over pets, used by
the late Barbara Woodhouse, could
increase aggression in animals.
They claimed that each series “puts
back animal behaviour by 10 years”
because they are built on the false
assumption that dogs are constantly
trying to dominate the pack – whether
that be other animals or humans – and
must be put in their place.

Experts at the University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences said it was far more effective to train
dogs through reward rather than punishment. Behaving aggressively only made dogs scared and confused and more
likely to lash out, they said.
“The problem is that some trainers are not qualified,” said Dr Rachel Casey, a senior lecturer in companion animal
behaviour and welfare.

“They are just hired to look good. There are huge welfare implications in having this stuff on television.”

Dr Casey and her team spent six months studying dogs at a Dogs Trust rehoming centre, and reanalysing data from
studies of feral dogs. They found that rather than fighting to be head of the pack, dogs were much more co-operative
and tended to treat others like they were treated themselves. The researchers concluded that training aimed at
“dominance reduction” was therefore worthless and being aggressive only made dogs more likely to copy such
Dr Casey, who published the findings in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research, said
that methods such as instructing owners to eat before their dog or go through doors first would not influence a dog’s
perception of its relationship with its owner.
Techniques such as pinning dogs to the floor, grabbing jowls, blasting hooters or using an electric collar made them
anxious about their owner and potentially more aggressive, she claimed. “The blanket assumption that every dog is
motivated by some innate desire to control people and other dogs is frankly ridiculous,” said Dr Casey.
“Owners are often horrified when we explain that their dog is terrified of them, and is showing aggression because of
the techniques they have used, but it’s not their fault when they have been advised to do so, or watched
recommending such techniques on TV. Being consistent and rewarding good behaviour is so much better than
punishment.” Chris Laurence, a veterinary director at the Dogs Trust, said: “We can tell when a dog comes in to us
which has been subjected to the 'dominance reduction technique’ so beloved of TV dog trainers. Sadly, many
techniques used to teach a dog that his owner is leader of the pack is counter-productive — you won’t get a better
behaved dog, but you will either end up with a dog so fearful it has suppressed all its natural behaviours, or one so
aggressive it’s dangerous to be around.”
A spokesman for Victoria Stilwell said: “Victoria has been a vocal opponent of dog trainers on TV and in private
practice that continue to promote outdated dominance-based philosophies.
“As a passionate advocate of positive reinforcement training methods, Victoria is firmly against and has never
advocated practices such as going through the door before the dog, pinning dogs to the floor, grabbing jowls or using
electric shock collars (against which she has campaigned for years). She remains committed to debunking myths
surrounding outdated, scientifically-flawed, dominance-based philosophies.”
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2009

22nd May 2009, 01:35 PM
And this university study comes right on the heels of this US one ALSO making the same conclusions:

Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 117, Issues 1-2, February 2009, Pages 47-54

Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors

Meghan E. Herron, a, , Frances S. Shofera and Ilana R. Reisnera

Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, 3900 Delancey Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6010, USA

Accepted 22 December 2008. Available online 24 January 2009.

Prior to seeking the counsel of a veterinary behaviorist many dog owners have attempted behavior modification techniques suggested by a variety of sources. Recommendations often include aversive training techniques which may provoke fearful or defensively aggressive behavior. The purpose of this study was to assess the behavioral effects and safety risks of techniques used historically by owners of dogs with behavior problems.

A 30-item survey of previous interventions was included in a behavioral questionnaire distributed to all dog owners making appointments at a referral behavior service over a 1-year period. For each intervention applied, owners were asked to indicate whether there was a positive, negative, or lack of effect on the dog's behavior, and whether aggressive behavior was seen in association with the method used. Owners were also asked to indicate the source of each recommendation. One-hundred-and-forty surveys were completed. The most frequently listed recommendation sources were “self” and “trainers”. Several confrontational methods such as “hit or kick dog for undesirable behavior” (43%), “growl at dog” (41%), “physically force the release of an item from a dog's mouth” (39%), “alpha roll” (31%), “stare at or stare [dog] down” (30%), “dominance down” (29%), and “grab dog by jowls and shake” (26%) elicited an aggressive response from at least a quarter of the dogs on which they were attempted. Dogs presenting for aggression to familiar people were more likely to respond aggressively to the confrontational techniques “alpha roll” and yelling “no” compared to dogs with other presenting complaints (P < 0.001). In conclusion, confrontational methods applied by dog owners before their pets were presented for a behavior consultation were associated with aggressive responses in many cases. It is thus important for primary care veterinarians to advise owners about risks associated with such training methods and provide guidance and resources for safe management of behavior problems.

22nd May 2009, 01:57 PM
I have to say I often wondered about this as my three boys seem to all be leaders in different ways at different times depending on whats going on at the time.

I thought it was just my dogs and wondered if it was something to do with me and the way I was treating them all.

Gus does seem to be head of the pack (with them, not me) but in a very placid way. It's seems to be something the other two just accept, IF it suits them at the time.

That may be because Gus was here first.

Pippin seems to be leader in some things though and Gus lets him away with this. At other times although very rarely DJ will lead......DJ and Pippin will play together and sometimes pippin and Gus will play but Gus won't play with DJ.

Dj will sometimes try to mount or poke Gus but Gus will put him in his place.

I think it seems to be something they have worked out between themselves or is it just random depending on whats happening? Either way it seems to work and all in all they get on fine. Although Pippin and Gus always have to be fed seperately as in an x-pen to divide them or Pippin will start a fight when the food is finished?!!

22nd May 2009, 02:52 PM
So much of this interpretation of dominant leader began with wolf study and, although those interpretations have changed, the "dog" people got stuck in the theory and resisted moving toward different concepts. The video explains the new understanding in wolf study.


22nd May 2009, 06:23 PM
I like seeing the scientific results of studies like this, even if they are contrary to my personal belief.

I can't say I personally agree because I have personally seen much the contrary within both feral and pet dogs. I really want to find a study that measures the trainability and happiness levels using all the different methods. I currently use the 'leader of the pack with lots of love and praise and treats for good behavior and a cold shoulder for those naughty moments.' It seems to be working well. I just wish that Anna would get the potty issues done Sooner :cffee:.

22nd May 2009, 09:40 PM
At risk of showing my age here, does anyone else remember Barbara Woodhouse.I remember her when I was a small child in the 1970's.
She had this technique called the "Woodhouse chuck" where a dog who pulled on the leash would nearly suffer whiplash from the sharp correction applied to the leash.
Cover your eyes Karlin,this is Barbara from 1982 training William Shatner's Doberman.
Admittedly Caesar has better teeth:D


23rd May 2009, 04:46 AM
When I got my first dog at age 11, my mother signed me up with my dog (a cocker spaniel mix named ...BANDIT!) in an obediance class. The required equipment was a choke chain and the teacher taught to yank HARD to make the dog comply and just as hard to correct. I remember being very disturbed by the cruelty I viewed those methods as being. When I was home on my own, I trained him to do a zillion tricks on my own using cheerios as treats and praise. He learned so fast and so eagerly using those methods, yet he HATED obediance work. No wonder. I sure wish that I had never even been exposed to those abusive methods. I never use them.

23rd May 2009, 08:48 AM
I have to agree as well.No one likes to be dominated,its a very horrible feeling to be pushed around.Trust and understanding is the way to go and patients.Any thing being pushed around would be come defensive,it makes sense.I hated Woodhouse growing up,watching her made me cringe,esp. her annoying voice.

23rd May 2009, 10:22 AM
I quite liked William Shatner in that clip though,when trying to get the dog to stay, he was using the kind of hand signals that Captain Kirk would have used when backing away from a Romulan or a Klingon :D:D. I guess old habits die hard when the cameras are rolling:p

23rd May 2009, 01:00 PM
I can't say I personally agree because I have personally seen much the contrary within both feral and pet dogs. I really want to find a study that measures the trainability and happiness levels using all the different methods.


But this is exactly what the last study I cited DOES show -- and there really are only two methods -- punishment/corrections vs reward/positive motivation. icon_nwunsure The study cited was also published in one of the most prominent research journals in its area. I'd also suggest that casual observations by those who are not familiar with what species' behaviour (understood by a trained specialist) means can very easily assign the wrong interpretation to an area of study that involves a professional degree and many years of scholarly and field study which no one I believe on this board has (though some of our trainer members like TKC DO have several years' training and international professional qualifications). Untrained casual observation of packs of dogs (and there are no true 'feral' packs except in Africa so you are not seeing wild behaviour, you are seeing roaming former domestic dogs) is just as likely to be completely wrong as if I went out in the field to do your professional job without your qualifications. In addition this board is full of examples of how interpretations of casual behaviour very often is easily and wrongly interpreted -- going by how many times people assume their dogs are saying x when basic behavioural knowledge (of the type that sadly doesn't get onto as many TV shows :) ) would indicate they are saying y -- for example people who with the best intentions think their young dogs must be deliberately opposing and defying them because they haven't learned (choose the behaviour) housetraining, to sit, to lie quietly, to stop barking, to get off the sofa, to not fight over food. Many of these behaviours result because 1) the dog is too young to know yet to have learned a behaviour well enough to be reliable; 2) the owner has not put the time or consistency into training; 3) the dog has been 'taught' in such a way that the results are the opposite of what is wanted -- eg the dog is scolded for peeing inside and hence its obvious conclusion is -- I get scolded if I pee when someone sees me so I will do it secretly when my owner isn;t in the room -- not 'gee, that must mean I should go in some other location', a far more subtle distinction.

And given that a dog has absolutely no problem telling a cat from a dog -- why in the world do we have this ridiculous idea that a dog looks at a human and says -- "gee, that must be a giant dog and my leader of the pack!'. If a dog doesn't relate to another four legged animal about its same size, why are we so self-centred as to believe a dog is so clueless as to confuse a human with a lead pack dog? :sl*p:

One thing I have learned over a lifetime of owning dogs -- and especially from having spent so much time with professional trainers in the past 6 years -- is that dogs are not stupid. They do -- like 'non-pack' animals like cats or tigers or horses -- respond so spectacularly well to positive methods training used correctly that this type of training is used in every area in which animals must be trained with precision for predictable performance -- eg Hollywood, performance show animals, etc.

Dogs like any animal or humans do recognise calm positive leadership and guidance, and just like people, tend to work especially hard for a reward, be it praise, a nice meal, a salary raise for people -- or -- yes, praise -- or attention, or food if a dog.

NB the study doesn't argue that dogs do not live in pack structures at all; it argues that basing training techniques on ideas of what some imagined alpha dog does to maintain control (and that is the whole problem -- dog leaders do NONE of the TV trainer poking, hissing, alpha rolls etc to act as leaders) is not just wrong -- because it is based on totally wrong ideas about dog pack structure -- but dangerous. Dog pack leaders are not aggressive, they are benign leaders. And often there is more than one leader depending on the activity/task.

In general, it is wise not to make the common and significant error of assuming casual observation of our pets equates to professional observation and study of same -- especially with preconceptions of what behaviour 'means' taken from watching television programs and absorbing what has been popularised in pet ownership books despite being ~LONG DISCOUNTED~ in professional animal behaviour study.

I have posts in the training section and library with more info and links on why these studies were simply wrong from the start.

12th June 2009, 12:34 PM
More on this research:


Using 'Dominance' To Explain Dog Behavior Is Old Hat

ScienceDaily (May 25, 2009) —
A new study shows how the behaviour of dogs has been misunderstood for generations: in fact using misplaced ideas about dog behaviour and training is likely to cause rather than cure unwanted behaviour. The findings challenge many of the dominance related interpretations of behaviour and training techniques suggested by current TV dog trainers.

Contrary to popular belief, aggressive dogs are NOT trying to assert their dominance over their canine or human “pack”, according to research published by academics at the University of Bristol’s Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.

The researchers spent six months studying dogs freely interacting at a Dogs Trust rehoming centre, and reanalysing data from studies of feral dogs, before concluding that individual relationships between dogs are learnt through experience rather than motivated by a desire to assert “dominance”.

The study shows that dogs are not motivated by maintaining their place in the pecking order of their pack, as many well-known dog trainers preach.
Far from being helpful, the academics say, training approaches aimed at “dominance reduction” vary from being worthless in treatment to being actually dangerous and likely to make behaviours worse.

Instructing owners to eat before their dog or go through doors first will not influence the dog’s overall perception of the relationship – merely teach them what to expect in these specific situations. Much worse, techniques such as pinning the dog to the floor, grabbing jowls, or blasting hooters at dogs will make dogs anxious, often about their owner, and potentially lead to an escalation of aggression.

Dr Rachel Casey, Senior Lecturer in Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Bristol University, said: “The blanket assumption that every dog is motivated by some innate desire to control people and other dogs is frankly ridiculous. It hugely underestimates the complex communicative and learning abilities of dogs. It also leads to the use of coercive training techniques, which compromise welfare, and actually cause problem behaviours.

“In our referral clinic we very often see dogs which have learnt to show aggression to avoid anticipated punishment. Owners are often horrified when we explain that their dog is terrified of them, and is showing aggression because of the techniques they have used – but its not their fault when they have been advised to do so, or watched unqualified ‘behaviourists’ recommending such techniques on TV.”

At Dogs Trust, the UK’s largest dog welfare charity, rehoming centre staff see the results of misguided dog training all the time. Veterinary Director Chris Laurence MBE, added: “We can tell when a dog comes in to us which has been subjected to the ‘dominance reduction technique’ so beloved of TV dog trainers. They can be very fearful, which can lead to aggression towards people.

“Sadly, many techniques used to teach a dog that his owner is leader of the pack is counter-productive; you won’t get a better behaved dog, but you will either end up with a dog so fearful it has suppressed all its natural behaviours and will just do nothing, or one so aggressive it’s dangerous to be around.”

Journal reference:
John W.S., Bradshaw , Emily J., Blackwell , Rachel A., Casey. Dominance in domestic dogs -- useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, May/June 2009, Pages 135-144 [link]

Cathy Moon
12th June 2009, 10:51 PM
I like Patricia McConnell's training methods and her understanding of dog behavior. She uses the term 'leader of the pack', but not in the way which you're describing. I have several of her booklets, which I bought from a CPDT (APDT) trainer: http://www.patriciamcconnell.com/category/dog-behavior-problem-solving-booklets