Two things that just might not go together, eh?  Actually, when it comes to our furchildren they really do.  You see, it has long been thought that dogs evolved from wolves, and this happened due to the intentional efforts of Mesolithic humans.  You’ve heard it, the cavefolks started keeping wolf pups, especially the friendlier (or just less fearful) ones, one thing led to another, and suddenly there are dogs helping humans hunt, protecting humans’ land and livestock, and even babysitting small humans.  There are about a jillion things wrong with that hypothesis (that Ethologist and Anthrozoologist Raymond Coppinger calls “The Pinnochio Theory” because turning a wolf pup into a dog is akin to turning a wooden doll into a real boy) but I will only illustrate a couple to make my point about ethics.

Dogs as a Subset of Wolves

It is very popular, especially in (bad) dog training, to talk about dogs as an inferior, domesticated (weak), juvenile (stupid), subset of the wolf.  What is pointed out is the genetic similarities of the two species, with complete and utter disregard to the genetic differences between the two.  All one has to do is look at a maltese and a timber wolf to see that they are not the same thing.  In fact, you can even look at wolfish kinds of dogs and see huge differences (the boxy skull and dark eyes of the malamute, compared with the sleek head of the wolf encasing yellow eyes, for instance).  But that’s not all!  Dogs have smaller teeth, smaller skulls, and smaller brains than wolves do.  But these are all just physical differences, what about genetic behavioral differences?  Interesting thing is that if you hand-rear a wolf pup, have it around humans from day one, not other canines, and totally isolate a dog pup, having it never see a person during critical developmental times, the dog puppy is still less afraid of humans than the wolf pup is.  Every time.  The “domesticated” wolf is still not a dog, nor is the “wild” dog a wolf.  They are different, and not just physically but mentally.  It is now thought that dogs developed first by natural selection, due to the changing environment around them (just as how any other thing evolves) and the changing environment happened to include humans living in villages.  Villages are a fabulous source of food for wolves (with garbage galore!) if they are not too afraid to go into the village to get it.  And thus the more naturally tame wolves who were less afraid of the humans in the villages ventured into this abundant food source and learned to co-habitate with the people.  They evolved to fit the garbage-eater bill (a much much less expensive and therefore hugely more successful lifestyle for the canine).  It is these village dogs–still seen in and around villages all over the world, by the way–that are the ancestors of our maltese, cocker spaniels, damatians and the like, not wolves.  They are THEIR OWN unique species that is wildly more successful than wolves (who are in serious danger of extinction, while dogs are slaughtered in thousands by the minute, still leaving about 4 million of them on earth) and they should be respected as such.

Why Dog People Should Care

Every single time you see a person “alpha roll” (flip, shake, and yell at a dog), or hear a person talk about “dominance” and gaining “dominance” over dogs through violent means, you are witnessing the sick false knowledge of the masses that has derived from this idea of dogs as a subspecies of wolves.  Wolves do have strict social hierarchy (they still don’t rule through violence, another topic) but dogs really don’t.  The evolved garbage dump canine is semisolitary, explaining why dogs have a longer reproductive receptivity period and also go through estrus twice a year starting when they are under a year of age, whereas wolves are not receptive (able to conceive) for long and don’t “come into heat” until they are two, and then only again once every year after.  That is less than half as reproductively receptive as dogs.  Solitary animals need to be able to conceive more frequently, since the availability of mates is lower.  They also need to have a longer period of reproductive attractiveness (that smell that draws all the neighborhood dogs to one yard with a bitch just coming into season) prior to becoming receptive to draw in these potential mates–hence the longer heat cycle of the domestic dog versus the wolf.  WOWZA.  Huge genetic differences that were not selected for by these villagers who don’t even care if the dogs live or die, let alone reproduce.  These are characteristics that would develop as the social needs of the dog died off.  Since the dog is now a scavenger and not a hunter it benefits the dog more to be alone than in a group.  And so it evolves.  This is why it is so ridiculous to try and treat dogs as wolves, and to try and consider social hierarchy when training them.  

Why Positive Training Methods Kick the Crap out of Traditional Methods, Every Single Time

While dogs are solitary in the wild when it comes to other canines, they still stick to humans.  Their natural attraction to our species is what makes them so very unique.  We have taken these village garbage dogs and made them into anything we desire.  We have dogs that gather livestock and still others that guard livestock.  We have dogs that hunt down and kill small animals for us, and we have yet more dogs that bring us animals we have slein virutally unscathed.  Try teaching a wolf to run and fetch the bird you just killed without having it devour the thing instantly.  You won’t succeed.  I promise.  We can’t even teach wolves to pull sleds (yes, people have tried), though the dogs that perform this task are arguably as physically close to wolves as dogs come.  Dogs and humans go together, and it is a remarkable interspecial relationship like no other in history, as far as we know.  Still, people excuse rolling dogs on their backs, shaking them by the scruff, hitting, kicking, yelling, blahdeblahdeblah, by saying “it’s what wolves do.”  The truth is, none of that is what wolves do, and dogs are not wolves anyway.  This is why when you hear popular dog trainers like Cesar Millan or The Monks of New Skete talking about “the pack” or gaining “dominance” or creating “submission” you should be furious.  It’s like saying that chimpanzees (almost as genetically similar to humans as wolves are to dogs) smack and bite  and sometimes even shake their babies (and each other, they are a far more violent species than wolves) and therefore this will work on your human infant.  It would be something to laugh histerically about if it weren’t causing so much harm to dogdom.  The truth is, anything you would like your dog to do or not do can be taught through positive reinforcement (giving a reward when the desired behavior occurs) and negative punishment (removing potential reinforcers from the environment until an undesired behavior ceases) and these are the only kinds of training that should be allowed today.  Traditional training that would tell you your dog is trying to dominate you when he commits normal dog behaviors like mouthing, counter-surfing, jumping up, and dog-dog aggression is absolutely unfounded, and lacks any kind of scientific reasoning or logic.  Your puppy mouthing on your hands is just trying to interact with you the only way she knows how.  Your dog that jumps up on the counter to eat food is only taking advantage of an available resource.  Your dog that knocks you over as you come in the door is attempting to greet you in the canine way (face to face).  Your dog that jumps other dogs at the dog park is uncomfortable socially, is socially unskilled, and only knows how to deal with his social unease through aggression (not unlike a few humans I know…).  It is your job as the highly-evolved, non-chimp, homosapien to whom the species canis domesticus has glommed itself for better or worse to teach your dog to behave appropriately, and remove him from situations in which he cannot.

So, Is There EVER a Place for “Dominance” in Dog Training?

The short answer is a resounding NO.  Do I believe in leadership and respect in our relationships with dogs?  Absolutely.  I believe that dogs (like all creatures living in social contexts) need leadership.  But they deserve the kind of leadership I think humans deserve as well.  We all deserve to be lead in life by confident individuals who show us with kindness and respect how to live in ways that are the most beneficial for everyone involved, created a win-win symbiosis.  That is what dogs deserve, and it is our job, as the species they look to for leadership, to give it to them.  Good leaders do not rule with force, fear, or violence.  They do so with respect, kindness, and knowledge.  Do trainers touting dominance/pack theory, tromping around with dogs on chains achieve obedience dogs who are lovely companions?  Yes.  But Hitler was good at what he did too.