Moving Beyond Dominance

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As you are probably aware, there are camps in the world of dog training. Divergent perspectives on how to reduce unwanted behaviors and even eradicate them entirely. It’s become a sensitive and often heated topic of debate between professionals. On the one hand, we have the authoritarian, strict, and sometimes – totally absurd set of beliefs in Camp A. I want to be clear at this point and say that I am not being bashful of the individuals themselves that may practice out of these more traditional models, for in many cases they are simply doing what they have heard or been taught by someone else. My issue is with the bizarreness of the ideas themselves: ideas that have been objectively demonstrated to bring psychological and often physical harm to a dog’s health. In the other corner, we have the progressive, science-based, and nonviolent positive crew. While I am certain that a small amount of investigation would lead you to know where I personally stand – I would like, if it’s okay with you, to explore this issue a little bit further.

There is an overwhelming and continuously growing body of evidence suggesting that our previously held beliefs about ‘dominance’ in dogs in domestic environments are entirely irrelevant to the practical training of dogs. Despite being rightfully accused of being a tremendous misapplication of sophisticated social structures, they continue to be popular amongst certain circles in dog training. For the purpose of today’s topic, I want to excuse myself of the task of exploring why they are incorrect, as that has been done remarkably well by many writers. I want to highlight how they may be maintained and why it is important to change the paradigm. Before we can do that, we have to face a troubling reality. Even though much of it has been discredited by notable scientific exploration, some people might be shocked to know that to a certain degree – training out of this dominance based paradigm ‘works’. While I do not personally condone intimidation (physical or psychological) as a strategy to train or control a dog, I have come to know that many trainers who involve themselves with that type of training will firmly attest to its effectiveness. But the real question is:

How do dominance-based techniques ‘work’?

Dogs learn through repetition and consistency. They are also magnificently capable of picking up emotional cues from their humans. These are the ingredients for a catastrophic misattribution in judgment. For example, say that you vow to keep your dog off the furniture at all times in a misguided attempt to somehow lower their status in the household, elevating yourself to the rankings of the superior and unrivaled ‘leader’. You may do this by making sure that his every attempt to get on furniture is thwarted. Over time and repetition, as a function of how the dog actually learns, he will learn to no longer bother trying to get up on any furniture. In addition, he may also learn that his parent means business, and always follows through and makes sure that his demands are met. While this information may lead him to test the limits of his obedience less – it is simply not because he has accepted the subordinate position, but because he is an intelligent animal that like most of us, will not waste energy towards something that never works. Almost all dominance-based techniques, when effective, have a similar misattribution associated with them which (ironically) positively reinforce the behavior of the trainer to continue acting and training in a way consistent with his set of beliefs.

Moving beyond why harmful ideas are maintained, we may ask: do they work for every dog? The simple answer is no. A misattribution is an incorrect understanding of the mechanism altogether. While it may appear that this miscalculated approach is working with some dogs, for others it will be entirely ineffective at best, and irreversibly damaging at worst. It is appalling how rampant the problem of dog behavior is in our society, and anyone that has worked in a shelter can attest to it being the number one reason why dogs are abandoned or released from ownership.

One may also ask: if it works, then why not keep doing it? Because we are sensible and intelligent human beings. There is nothing wrong with having a belief or idea that is problematic. Just like our furry companions, we too – are sometimes guilty of incidental learning that is problematic. It is far more important that we recognize when we have erred, and accept a more progressive attitude. We are also responsible for the life and care of innocent animals that depend entirely on us, a duty that should not fall in the shadows of superstitious thinking and unsupported ideas. In addition, we are involved in a society whether we like it or not, and our behavior and ideas are fed back into the system where they can hurt or help others. Our ways of doing things, as ‘effective’ as they may be in our given situation – have the potential to bring tremendous grief to another person’s situation. Why not advocate for a better and more compassionate perspective to help others learn that punishment does not need to be nasty, cruel, or painful to get the job done?

At a time when humane dog training resources for dog owners remain limited, and what is out there continues to be difficult to discern as being either helpful or harmful, we must become responsible in promoting the information that we know works for all dogs in all situations. The simplest way to do this is by vouching for these positive approaches with our words, and voting for them with our own behavior. We must also seek to understand the basis of any dog training approach by demanding explanations that extend beyond pseudo-science, and adhere closely to the true nature of how dogs actually learn.

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With a background in psychology and animal behavior, Tab has combined his professional expertise and experience to promote non-violent dog training. A strong supporter of a progressive and relationship-focused approach, he believes that compassionate and educational dog training resources need to be more accessible in today's world where more people are living with dogs than ever before.

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29 comments on “Moving Beyond Dominance
  1. Kelley says:

    Thanks for the post, I have learned do much from you! So my question is this: how do you keep the dog off the couch then? It’s not that I want to dominate him by not letting him up there, I just prefer not to be covered in dog hair when I leave the house. How would you address it positively?

    • Tab Shamsi says:

      Great question! I didn’t mean to imply that there is anything wrong with preventing your dog from getting on the couch. If that is your preference – I don’t see the harm in it. You can teach your dog to stay off it by rewarding them first for alternative behaviors (teaching them where you would like them to relax), preventing them from getting on the couch (this will require active supervision), and finally avoiding them from getting reinforced for being on the couch. Persistence is key so while the dog is still learning, you don’t want to set them up for failure by leaving them with full access to the couch.

    • Tiina says:

      I let my dog go on the couch but only on a blanket I put up there for him so he doesn’t leave hairs all over the couch. He knows that’s his place and he is allowed there when he wants to relax. 🙂

  2. Frank says:

    Thanks for all the videos you posted in YouTube. They are very inspiring in the ways of training a dog the proper way.
    Unfortunately I don’t have a dog, as I live in an apartment and I would like to have a Golden or a German. But when I was young I did have a Labrador.

    I have a question about a story I was told. Imagine a dog who is presented to another small dog and bites him or a dog that bites other animal in the house.
    I know that the dog isn’t a “criminal”, as he was never taught he should not do it.
    My question is what is the best way to deal with this situation, without compromising the health of the other animals involved?

    • Tab Shamsi says:

      Dogs need to be properly socialized and taught how to behave so that the situation you are describing does not occur. Having said that, there are endless ways to modify existing behavior that are positive and force-free.

      • Lynn says:

        Please elaborate on the “endless ways to modify existing behavior that are positive and force-free”. We just spent over $300 for a behaviorist to come to our house last week. We have 3 chow brothers – we got Stuffy at 8 weeks of age, Bear at 9 months of age and Fozzie at 11 months of age. (Bear and Fozzie were owned by a person who got them the same day we got Stuffy – I don’t think their lives were the best with their previous owner). Stuffy gets along fine with both Bear and Fozzie. Bear attacks Fozzie and we have been playing “musical dogs” for almost 10 months now. There has never been any injuries/blood during these attacks, just fur. We also have to keep our cats out of Bear’s reach. Don’t get me wrong. 99% of the time, Bear is a very loving dog and he is also extremely intelligent. But this “behaviorist” last week, without even observing Bear and Fozzie together (they can be in the same room if we have them on leashes) told us “My primary recommendation would be to place Fozzie or to consider euthanizing Bear. This is the only way you will have a fully integrated peaceful household.” So even though it was very hard for us to come up with the money for this “behaviorist” (which sad to say, is “certified”), we might as well have thrown the money away. She was told from day one that giving any of them up would never be an option. The funny thing here is that actually we were never supposed to get Bear, only Fozzie. But the day the previous owner came to bring Fozzie, he changed his mind at the last minute and we got Bear instead. Then, two months later, he called and asked if we were still interested in Fozzie. We never expected there to be a problem between the two of them but have learned since then that they fought when he had them, also. They were not neutered when we got them (we had them neutered right after we got them and Stuffy was neutered at 6 months of age). But I am very glad that we did end up getting Bear because he does have some behavior problems and if someone else had gotten him, they probably would have given him up to the dog pound for his little quirks and they in turn would most likely have put him to sleep. And he does not deserve that. I’m sure his problems stem more from how he was raised his first 9 months than anything else. This is already getting to be too long of a message (I’m sorry about that) but suffice it to say that he has come a long way since we first got him. Any suggestions on how to help Bear and Fozzie to get along (or even just to tolerate one another) would be appreciated more than words can say. I have been in contact with Doggy Dan (the Online Dog Trainer) in New Zealand since April about this and he has been trying to help as well.

        • Tab Shamsi says:

          Hi Lynn,

          It is unfortunate that you had a negative experience working with someone that claimed to be an expert. It is also very upsetting that you were charged so much and not given anything useful in return. Sadly, this does happen in this profession from time to time which is one of the reasons why I have committed to making good training resources available and free of charge. It would be mere speculation for me to offer any advice without getting more information from you. I will say that it is a very hopeful sign that your dogs are able to be in such close proximity on leash, and in my opinion points to a good outcome if they are given the training that they need. Behavior modification comes in many different shapes and sizes and some techniques that are helpful for one dog may be powerless in a different situation. My most responsible recommendation would be to find another professional – and I realize that you probably don’t want to hear that. Let me see what I can put together on finding the right dog training professional to work with you.

      • Frank says:

        thank you a lot 🙂

  3. maureen tomkinson. says:

    all my dogs, past and present, have been brought up in a loving atmosphere,, they were never dominated, they just new what they could do and what they could not, they never got on the furniture, unless invited, and they all knew their positions in my ‘household pack’,,, the one and only time i did take one of my dogs , a german shepherd girl, to training,was a bad experience for her,, the trainer wanted her to ‘down, but she was loath to do it, and so the trainer tightened her choke chain, and dragged her down to the floor, buy which time my dog was crying,,, so i stepped in, and took her away, and never went back,, she learned to ‘down’ at home, by kindness and love, and that is the way it should be, along with socialising…. i have loved all my dogs and they love us as a family,,, and strangely , all my dogs have been set in the same ‘mold’… they are well balanced beings…

  4. tpn says:

    Tab, I really like your videos. We just got a german shepherd and I want her interactions with us to be as positive as your interactions are with your dog. Could I ask you a couple questions?

    1 – Do you ever say “no” to your dog?
    2 – Our dog (10 months old) plays a little too rough sometimes with another dog (5 months old) and he will yelp sometimes. Should I worry about that? And how could I train her to play more gently?
    3 – What dog treats do you use?

    Thank you for your videos! They are very helpful.

    • Tab Shamsi says:

      1) I don’t find having to say ‘no’ to be a necessary thing. There are mixed opinions about it depending on who you ask, what’s most important is that you teach your dog what to do instead of spend time and energy telling them to stop doing things you don’t like.
      2) Hard for me to assess what’s going on, but if you think play is getting to be a little too rough, you can enforce a calm time-out for a few minutes to discourage the behavior.
      3) I use mostly just dog food for training as it’s easier to maintain portion control. However, this isn’t motivating enough for some dogs. There is no special treat, it is all about finding what your dog finds motivating enough to work for.

  5. This is a very clear and well written article that will prove useful to those interested in dog behaviour and welfare. It addresses subjects often ignored by others (why the application of positive punishment training methods work on the average dog) which is why they are so popular and suggests suitable alternative strategies. Good work, nice to read it! Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy, Animalytics http://www.animalytics.nl.

  6. Jessica says:

    I just wanted to say THANK YOU for your help. I am 3 months into a relationship with my adopted shelter dog and it has been an emotional rollercoaster. Coming from an animal background, including dog day care (where i first learned positive training), dog sitting, and lots of companion animals, I still was not prepared for when I took my 15 lb chi mix home. Scared of strangers, growling at strange noises, reactive to other dogs, and developing sep. anx. I have struggled to remain lighthearted and positive. It has required SO MUCH patience, at times I have ran out. Your information, the delivery, and the use of social media and resources is one of the BEST i have found so far and truly gives me so much inspiration. Your discussion of dominance training has completely erased any trace that may have been left in my brain. Thank you 🙂

  7. celine says:

    Hi Tab,

    I’m not sure if this question is directly in line with this post, but it might relate…

    I currently own a 7 month old male shiba inu, whose testicles have recently descended. Around the time that this happened, he’s began a habit of mounting on mine or other family members’ legs and on rare, extreme (and growing number) of occasions, he will start nipping at us or our clothes. Most of the time, when we tell him to “stop”, he will do so, in which case we follow-up with a down or sit and wait a few seconds before giving him a food/toy reward. Recently though, he has started to snarl and refuse to stop even with a food reward. In this case we put him on a tie down or a time-out.

    We go to a positive reinforcement dog obedience school on weekends, and the senior behaviourist suggested that we can solve the problem by de-sexing him, as they’ve attributed his behaviour to him trying to test our authority and dominate us.

    While I do plan on desexing my puppy later on(for health benefits), it just seemed like a generix and lazy answer.

    While I believe it may alleviate the situation, I can’t help but question if there may be a method to train him out of it. Could this really be a case of dominance/aggression?

  8. Sudeep says:

    tab i just wanna say tht i love your videos. i didnt have a dog. But became fond of dogs when i see your videos. n soon ill have one :).

  9. suzanne says:

    Dear tab i am subscribed to your channel on u tube also u do great videos i just read your qualifications and i agree with positive reinforcement eg food clicker etc
    I have a dog who is basic trained, but im finding im running out of things to do with him he is very intelligent finds things fetches sit down wait come recall etc

    any tips on how to tax his brain a bit more i hide things around house in toys food in toys too but he seems to work this out so quick ., i would like to excersice his brain more as i know he is intelligent as well as loving any tips for me ?
    thank you so much suzanne 🙂

  10. Tab,

    Thank You for all of your YouTube videos. They are really quite good. Please keep up the GREAT work and please visit the east coast to do a seminar or show or event!

  11. RaVy says:

    Hello Tab ,

    I Am Having A 4 Months Old Labrador And She Was Very Good At Commands Like Sit , Come ,Down , Shake Etc. But She Often Start Biting Legs Not Like Tough But Just Calm And Excited Bites , She Bite Clothes Many Thing I Was Just Unable To Remove This Habit From My Dog Please Help !

  12. Siloh says:

    Hi Tab,

    I recently came across your videos on YouTube after adopting a 4-month-old American Bandogge earlier this week. I have three dogs (ages 16+, 6, and 1.5 years–dachshund, beagle/basset, and chihuahua) already but really want to get precise training down for the bandogge as he will easily weigh 2X the others put together.

    My question is this. Do you think that there is a mid-ground between these philosophies and approaches? I believe in and have often used positive reinforcement training on many dogs, but I have also used dominance in the sense that I ascribe to Cesar Millan’s philosophy of maintaining “calm, assertive energy” and a sense of clear ranking. While my childhood German shepherd responded almost always to positive reinforcement training, I have found my beagle/basset only took to positive reinforcement for “trick” training (sit, down, stay, and more frivolous commands) while responding to a firmer control-based (and by this I mean me showing cool and collected but firm control of our situation) when working out her issues from her past home of anxiety and fear, especially concerning socialization.

    Is my use of the tenants of Cesar’s rank-oriented approach a dominant approach, or do these approaches co-exist peacefully? My beagle didn’t have any language or social skills at all when I got her, so I relied on my “energy” (positive, in control, calm, and compassionate) to aid me in communicating my intentions and desires, but also I’d say to communicate that I was taking over the situation for her (like an alpha).

    Penny for your thoughts? I’d love to hear from others as well.

  13. Cyntha Craton says:

    I want to thank you for sharing your insights and experience with us. I just adopted a Pomeranian puppy and he is now almost 3 months old. With your “off” technique, our battles with puppyhood have been smoothed over IMMENSELY! Before, we were trying to play alpha and saying, “no!”, blocking him from seeing our eyes, freezing and saying “no!” when he grabbed on our pant legs and we couldn’t even walk across the floor without a lot of frustration on our part, and anxiety on his. After watching your video on this technique of positive reinforcement, he became MUCH calmer. We taught him how to sit, lay down, cha cha, roll over, come, leave it, and now are working on how to stay. I am amazed!!! He just wants a job, to know he is pleasing us, and everyone is happier.

    I would love to see more puppy videos. You are my new dog guru and rank 10 stars over Cesar Millan anyday!

  14. Nik says:

    Hi. I recently adopted a dog from a shelter and your videos have helped me a lot and made me change the training. Often schools encourage throwing a leash when the dog does not respond or poke them and I was advised to pull when she stops.
    If you have the time, do you have an advice to do it properly? She would sometimes stop on leash and stare at me, while I don’t see any distractions or anything that might have poped up or scared her. It also happens on the way to the dog park, so I’d think she’d want to get there. When the dog pulls, you can stop, and have the dog walk behind you like you showed and reward with continueing going forward, but what about when the dogs stops, sits or lies down. I’m pretty sure it’s not fear or tiredness and there are no problems off leash. I’m training to give in to leash pressure and a let’s go command.
    Also could you elaborate on how to teach the go sniff command? You’d have to stop the dog from sniffing after you say “let’s go” but how would you do that without positive punishment.
    Would you also happen to have advice for not running up and barking at some dogs? I’m trying to intercept it before she takes off or reaches the dog but I’m not sure if that doesn’t make her do that to ge treats.
    Sorry for the long post.

  15. Pablo says:

    Hi Tab,
    very excellent and instructive training videos and I applied but I have a question, I have a shibaInu 6 months he understands the command to sit but I don’t have a lot of attention to the sometimes and is very excited always which took him out to run make hiking but still does not address my call. They told me they are very dominant and difficult to train. excite some method or trick to them ?

  16. Joey Ladkany says:

    Dear Tab,
    I would like to feature this great article in blog.
    It would be a pleasure for me to promote your great page

  17. Antonia says:

    Hello Tab,

    After reading several books, and watching several dog communication videos, I was so pleased to come across your videos on YouTube! Thank you so much for all your wonderful advice! And for your extreme generosity in sharing your methods!

    Could you please advise me on how to go about relieving a German Shepherd of “Separathion Anxiety”? We recently took care of a friends German Shepherd due to her increased need to be away at work for extended hours. We had him for several days and he immediately bonded with me and I with him (he has a lovely personality). However, unfortunately, we discovered he has severe separation anxiety, to the point that he cannot loose sight of me for even a few seconds (he must be with me every second). It is so severe he went through a window (thank god he was not injured!) and completely destroyed our house. My friend has decided she does not have enough time for him and wants to give him to our family. We all love the dog and would love to give him a forever home, but after he destroyed our home when I left him for an hour, my husband does not want to commit to bringing him into our home unless it is possible for him to be relieved of the anxiety and the behavior stopped. What can I do to relieve him of his anxiety and end the behavior? We would be so grateful for your help.

  18. Jay says:

    We just got a 2 month old male German Shepard (Rolf). He has been with us for the last 2 weeks now. Just after 3 days of him being with us, he was attacked by our landlord’s spitz which got into our apartment and bit him on his spine. Luckily he survived the attack and only damage he sustained was to his tail which he can’t move anymore. That means no more wagging or curling etc. So its hard for us to know exactly how be feels anymore. More than I, my wife can’t recognize what he feels anymore.

    Ever since then he is too scared to be left alone or when he sees other dogs and meets new people. We just can’t leave him alone at home anymore he howls and screams the whole time we leave the room.
    The main problem is his aggression towards my wife. He listens to me but not my wife. I know he is going g through the puppy biting phase and also going through his dominance phase too. Today he bit my wife all over when she was trying to play with him. He barked and bit on to her and didn’t let go until she pryed him forced him off.
    I am trying to socialize him with other puppies and dogs and children too so he calms down a bit. With the dogs he is petrified (though its just been a couple of days, I know it will take a lot more time ) and with the kids He keeps snapping and trying to nip them ( I know again its just a few days and will take time ).

    I have been trying to find something or someone who could help me out with these doubt’s when I came across your videos and found your techniques useful. He has already learnt sit, down , come here. He is a fast learner and active too but we are worried about his aggression and his trauma more than anything else. Hope you can tell me how to approach this matter and bring him up as a happy puppy.

    • Coulinjo says:

      How can all this happen to a pup who should still be with his mum and littermates? Of course he cries on being left alone, but I don’t believe there is ‘aggression’ at 8 – 11 weeks old. If he knows sit and down, then all he needs is time out…after lots of exercise.

  19. Dany Brown says:

    Hello to you!
    I was wondering if the tutorial you give for training dogs tricks would work for more advance training. I want to train my puppy in recognizing difference odor to help me with my job, do you think that, given that I can put training as a daily priority, an amateur can train a dog to search a place for let’s say rats or specifics insects? Any link you could propose on how to do such training efficiently?

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