Dog Training and the Dominance Question



A whole lot of dogs lovers are carrying around a heavy burden. I want to take a moment to lift it off our shoulders. Well-meaning friends, family, even some of my fellow trainers set it on us. It’s just words really, but those words weigh us down and too often we end up dragging them around like shame. The most common variations of this verbal yoke sound a bit like this: You need to be your dog’s pack leader. You aren’t dominant enough. You need to show your dog who is boss. Like all words, these are illusory until we assign them meaning. What do they mean to you and how hard must they be to carry around? This kind of  “advice” (and really it’s just cheap reprobation) is a huge disservice to our dogs. The implication is that we need to assert ourselves over them with violence (Cut their airways; Pin them; Shock them). It’s also a disservice and an insult to our own human intelligence and accomplishment.

We humans split the atom. We turned the ancient remnants of dinosaurs into fuel and made cars and airplanes and leaf blowers. We learned to roast coffee beans, grind them and press them in hot water. And, we discovered how to ferment the press of grapes. We invented jazz. Humans created spoken and written language, more than 7-thousand of them. There is no place on earth to which humans have not laid claim. Most of it we’ve cleared, burned, paved over, built out, and lit up. That is dominance. We have, for better or worse, clearly won the evolutionary race.

Street Dog in Saigon

We have nothing to prove to our dogs. We are all that and more, and we have been since the beginning of dogs. Most dogs are not really “owned” by humans. All around the world street dogs simply live near us, but depend on us nonetheless. They survive on our wasted food and our generosity, taking shelter under our lean-tos and outside our doors. Dogs in the U.S., for the most part, live in our homes, eat from bowls in our kitchens, pass their days in comfort and good health. But, they do so only if we see to it.

They die, too, at our discretion. It’s usually because of behavior we deem unfit for dogs or unacceptable to us. They die by the needle, by the gun, by the knife, by our hand. They die, too, abandoned and alone. They die from convenience and inconvenience. They die and live, just as we decide. There is, in fact, no dominance battle between us and dogs. It was over before it started. We win. Always. No matter what.

Stewie Enoying a Private Concert

That leaves us with a question that spans much wider than our life with dogs. What do we do with all this power? That’s a big philosophical ask for evening chats drinking wine or coffee. Maybe the more immediate question is how do we responsibly use this power to help our dogs, who are so much farther down the evolutionary ladder? How do we help them fit in to our complex and often dysfunctional human lives? How can we give them what they need from us and still get what we want from them?

Here’s my answer. Lead with compassion and intelligence. We don’t have to be rocket scientists or nuclear physicists. And most of us have the compassion part at least started (We love dogs, after all). But, there is a science of dog training that is grounded in kindness. There have been volumes written on this and the data dates back a century or more. This is the bottom line. We can use our superior intelligence (Think: dominant species) to 1) teach our dogs what we want them to do without frightening or hurting them and 2) teach them to enjoy learning – to love learning – dare I say, to do our bidding with enthusiasm and joy. It works. It’s measurable and reliable. It works with easy dogs and with hard dogs. Intelligent human-driven training works with aggressive dogs, too. In fact it works especially well with them. And, it works with more than just dogs.

If that’s the case (and it is), then why are we so hung up on dominating our dogs? Why do we turn to harsh dog training methods when easier more effective ones have been available all this time? I have some ideas (and some links for deeper dives). 1) Punishment is reinforcing for the punisher; our brains fool us into thinking it’s the best choice. 2) Celebrity dog trainers lie to us (Real dog training is rarely as glitzy or simplistic as a well-edited TV show). 3) We humans are fixated on dominating (wait for it) each other. Humans, like many primates, have a hierarchical social structure. We are all about power, who has it, where we can get it, and how we can keep it. And, a big part of dominance for us in our broader lives is fueled by punishment. The scientific term is coercion. We conquer; We take; We oppress. Underlying all that is fear, pain, and the threat of death. How ironic that we so often use the phrase, “it’s a dog eat dog world,” when the reality has nothing to do with dogs at all. We are describing ourselves.

We humans are carrying around this heavy burden and really I just want to lift it off our collective shoulders, ease our suffering. It’s too big to do all at once. So, let’s start where we can. Learn what coercion is and then forget about ever using it again. Even better, seek out inspiration for ourselves, for each other, and for our dogs. Teach the way we already know we love to learn – joyfully, patiently, intelligently. Cast this burden to the side and leave the reprobates behind.

Let us all, together, boldly reclaim what it really means to be the dominant species on the planet. Be smart enough to be kind. Be powerful enough to care deeply. Let’s make our evolutionary victory lap a celebration of healing. And, let’s begin with our dogs.

Michael Baugh is a human being in Houston, TX. He specializes in aggressive dog training and other behavior related to fear and anxiety.