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With the excitement of a new dog comes well-intentioned, outdated dog training advice from EVERYONE. Your Aunt Sue swears by the Koehler Method (which uses corrections to tell the dog when it has made the wrong choice)–she’s been using it for decades. Your neighbor tells you that all you have to do is show your dog that you are the “Alpha”.
When you turn to the internet, you see people arguing about how these methods don’t work versus others claiming they are fail-proof. It can be overwhelming to figure out the best way to train your dog when bombarded by all of these conflicting opinions!
Some of these methods have been used for generations (Koehler’s method was first used in 1946). And these methods CAN change behavior, so there is a reason it may have worked for Aunt Sue.
However, animal science researchers have been busy studying dog behavior over those same generations. And when we know better, we do better. Thankfully, modern training now offers better alternatives, like Positive Reinforcement, with fewer chances of dealing with the negative side effects of traditional training (aka Fallouts).
Let’s see what science has to say about these outdated training methods, so we can all do better for our pups!
Outdated Dog Training Method #1: Dominance/Alpha Dog Training
Also known as Alpha Dog Training, dominance training involves showing your dog that you are the “alpha” by forcing it to respect you enough to respond to your commands. After decades of popularity, Dominance theory is riddled with misinformation. As of 2022, there are STILL professional trainers that swear by being the leader of your pack. And then there are the trainers that say dominance ITSELF is a myth.
Our understanding of dominance is continually evolving with ongoing animal behavior research. In fact, Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, says dominance is “one of the most misused and misunderstood words in the English language, at least in relation to dog training.”
What is Dominance?
First, what IS dominance? Dictionary.com defines dominance concerning animal behavior as “high status in a social group, usually acquired as the result of aggression, that involves the tendency to take priority in access to limited resources, as food, mates, or space.”
Dominance dog training assumes that dogs see humans as part of their social hierarchy. Jessica Hekman DVM, Ph.D. writes in her article about Understanding Social Canine Hierarchies that more research needs to be done before we entertain this theory.
Researchers Matthijs Schiller, Claudia Vinke, and Joanne van der Borg write in Dominance in Domestic Dogs Revisited: Useful Habit and Useful Construct? that while dominance is present in domestic dogs, “…enforcing a dominant status by a human may entail considerable risks and should therefore be avoided.”
The main issue with dominance in dog training? It’s the exercises used to establish the dog’s human as the alpha. Usually, the dominance exercises are, at best, a waste of time and energy. At worst, dominance tactics put you at risk of an aggressive response with confrontation.
Let’s take a look at some of the potentially risky training suggestions.
Dominance Training Says:
DON'T LET YOUR DOG WALK OUT THE DOOR FIRST
I found this suggestion to be accidentally helpful. I DO look outside the door first, before allowing my dogs out, so I can make sure the gate is closed, or that there aren’t any other animals in the yard.
Does this make me their alpha? No. McConnell points out that dominant members of the wolf pack are not always in the lead. Instead, the most dominant wolves are often found more toward the center of a hunting pack.
MIXED: Take a look before letting your dog out but don't force it to follow behind you.
DON'T LET YOUR DOG EAT FIRST
Being a leader means you control resources, which you technically do whether you eat first or last. For example, in wolf packs, the higher-ranking parents will often encourage their pups to eat first.
So, no need to stress out about when your dog eats. Find a schedule that works for you.
FALSE. Figure out a feeding schedule that works for YOU and your dog.
A DOG THAT JUMPS IS ASSERTING DOMINANCE
Dogs are social creatures. It makes sense to them to jump up to get closer to your face, to get you to talk and interact with them. In most cases, a dog that jumps is a dog that wants attention and has not been taught a better way (for example, training with the "off" cue) to get this attention from their human.
FALSE. A jumping dog is often an excited dog. Teach it the "off" cue.
DOGS THAT GET ON FURNITURE ARE DOMINANT
More likely they enjoy being comfy and close to their humans. Again, they are social animals. When my students ask me if they should allow their dogs on the furniture, I tell them that it is their house and their rules.
At home, my dogs can be on the furniture once I have trained a solid response to the “off” cue. The biggest behavior issue I see relating to dogs on furniture is when we try to physically move them. If dogs are sleepy or groggy, this motion can startle them. But if we can ask them to move, there is no risk of confrontation.
FALSE. Dogs want to be where you are. Teach the "off" cue and ask them to move.
A DOG GROWLING AT YOU MEANS IT'S DOMINANT
A dog that growls is trying to communicate its discomfort--the growl is a warning. If we don’t heed that warning, the growl will grow into a snap or even a bite. Signs of aggression, like a growl, are usually based on fear. Yelling and labeling the dog won’t help the situation, but investigating the growl's trigger with a qualified trainer CAN solve the problem.
FALSE. A growling dog is a scared dog. Find the growl's trigger with a qualified trainer.
ALPHA ROLL TO SHOW YOUR DOMINANCE
This risky training method is based on misinformation.
During early studies of wolf packs, researchers believed that a dominant wolf would pin a lower-ranking dog to the ground on its back to make the dog submit. This is what the alpha roll is attempting to imitate.
But more recent studies show us what is truly happening: the lower-ranking dog bellies up. So it is not forced--belly-up is a voluntary appeasement gesture. Forcing a dog into this position can make your dog feel threatened, increasing the chances that it will try to defend itself.
FALSE. Humans studying wolves made an interpretation mistake. NEVER force your dog to submit.
This term itself can be controversial amongst trainers because “aversive” methods imply using something repellent or unsavory to change behavior. Aversion is in the eye of the beholder–in this case, from your dog’s perspective. We’ll focus on two particular aversive methods: positive punishment and negative reinforcement, both outdated approaches.
Outdated Dog Training Method #2: Positive Punishment
Positive punishment involves adding something to decrease the likelihood of a behavior happening again. So, if your dog jumps up and you give them a collar correction, it may decrease the likelihood of your dog performing that behavior again.
Outdated Dog Training Method #3: Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement means taking away something aversive to build behavior. For instance, if your dog pulls on lead on a choke chain, it feels tension on its neck. When the dog has a loose leash, the tension goes away. If the dog finds the tension aversive, it can reduce pulling, reinforcing the behavior you want.
Here is where it gets interesting.
How are Science-Based Positive Punishment and Negative Reinforcement Outdated?
Both of these methods are science-based. They are two of the four quadrants of learning. So no science-based trainer should tell you that they won’t work to change behavior.
WHY are these two methods outdated? Because we now have a better understanding of the full consequences of aversive training. And, quite frankly, there are safer, healthier dog training alternatives.
Using tools that cause pain or fear can indeed change behavior, but they can also have costly side effects. It’s true that aversives can suppress aggressive behaviors, but they will not change the underlying emotion that creates the behavior. So, we trainers often see dogs that eventually explode (one of many types of fallout) as they are expected to deal with situations they were never prepared to handle.
But I heard that Choke Chains and Pinch Collars are Humane!
As you train your dog, you’ll inevitably hear that using a tool like a choke chain or pinch collar is humane if used correctly. Some owners and trainers claim that the dog barely feels it and that it is solely used to “get the dog’s attention”.
But that isn’t how behavior change works. For an aversive tool to change behavior, it has to be harsh enough for the dog to want to avoid the aversive. A dog (or human for that matter) won’t change behavior that it finds reinforcing unless the tool elicits enough fear or pain to avoid it.
Timing is Essential to Training Success
I have had discussions with trainers (those still using aversive methods) who say that fallout is more common if the trainer isn’t skilled, and the timing is off. Keep in mind, the average owner will not have the best timing, especially in the beginning.
Timing in all training is imperative. But an ill-timed aversive puts you in danger of creating a negative association with the dog and anything in the environment, including its handler. An ill-timed reward might create an annoying behavior that will need to be cleaned up. As a trainer, I can tell you the latter issue is MUCH easier to deal with.
A Final Word on Outdated Aversive and Dominance Training Methods
With more effective training options like Positive Reinforcement available, aversive techniques are not worth the risk to you or your dog.