Wednesday, 15 February 2017

"Dominance" Training Deprives Dogs of Positive Experiences

Dominance is an outdated approach to dog training – and it also means dogs miss out on fun.

A dog playing with her toy in a blur of snow

Approaches to dog training based on dominance rely on the idea that you have to be the ‘alpha’ or pack leader. Unfortunately, this type of dog training is not just out-of-date and potentially risky, but modern approaches to dog training are also a lot more fun – for you and the dog.

What is dominance in dog training?

We sometimes hear the phrase ‘my dog is being dominant.’ ‘Your dog is being dominant’ can even be an insult because it implies you are not confident enough.

What people mean by ‘dominant’ can be anything from your dog walking through a door in front of you, to jumping on you, or relaxing on the sofa, growling at you or winning a game of tug. For that reason alone, it’s not a very helpful description.

Let’s unpack these examples for a moment, because using a framework of dominance is taking away the person’s choice about things. It’s perfectly fine for your dog to walk in front of you, and it’s up to you if they jump on you to greet you or are allowed on the sofa (some people like it, some people don’t – of course strangers probably don’t like to be jumped on).

If your dog growls at you, it’s important not to punish them because this is their way of telling you they are uncomfortable; instead you should stop what you are doing and reconsider how you can fix it so you and your dog are both happy. A dominance-based approach would potentially put you in danger of getting bitten.

As for tug… dogs who win at tug are more involved in the game (suggesting they enjoy it more) and show more playful attention-seeking afterwards, such as nuzzling and pawing at their owner (Rooney & Bradshaw 2002). Games of tug can be fun for you and the dog, and are a useful way to entertain your dog at times when walks are limited. Arbitrarily saying people should not play tug or should not let the dog win is doing a disservice to both dogs and people.

Problems with dominance in dog training

When people apply dominance to dog training, it usually results in them using aversive methods, such as alpha rolls, because they think they have to make their dog submit. This can cause a range of issues.

Here are just a few examples:

  • There is a risk of an aggressive response with the use of confrontational methods (Herron, Shofer & Reisner, 2009). 31% of people who did an alpha roll, 39% who forced the dog to let go of something from their mouth, and 43% of people who hit or kicked the dog reported an aggressive response. 
  • If people use aversive training techniques, their dogs are 2.9 times more likely to be aggressive to a family member and 2.2 times more likely to be aggressive to a stranger outside the home than if the dog had been trained using reward-based methods (Casey et al 2014). 
  • Greater frequency of punishment is associated with an increased prevalence of aggression and excitability (Arhant et al 2010) 
  • Dogs trained to sit and walk on leash using leash jerks or tugs and pushing the dog into a sit position showed more signs of stress (mouth-licking, yawning, and lowered body posture) than those taught with reward-based techniques. They also gazed less at their owner, suggesting the human-canine relationship is not as good (Deldalle and Gaunet, 2014). 

A very cute German Shepherd puppy in a garden
Photo: Grigorita Ko; top, alexei_tm; below, oneinchpunch (all

What do scientists think about dominance and dogs?

“Dominance” as applied by so many people in dog training is not the same as “dominance” when used by scientists, which is a much more nuanced term. Even so, it does not adequately describe the relationship between dogs and people.

Writing in his Psychology Today blog, John Bradshaw, author of Dog Sense, explains that for dogs to think about dominance would actually require some important cognitive abilities – knowing that other creatures can think about us – which we have no evidence that dogs have.

He says,
“It is more parsimonious to interpret dogs’ behaviour as if they were simply trying to maintain access to essential resources, perhaps the most important being, uniquely for this species, access to one or more human attachment figures.”

So how does this relate to dog training? In the same post, Bradshaw says,
“Both for their own safety and to be acceptable to society, companion dogs need to be kept under control, but that can be achieved by reward-based training, without reference to their position in some illusory “hierarchy”.”

Now, you can find some scientists who think dogs have dominance hierarchies between themselves, and Marc Bekoff summarizes some of them in his blog. But he also says,
“I don't think that dogs need to be forced into submission to train or to teach them how to live harmoniously with other dogs, with other animals, or with humans. I favor positive training/teaching methods and they have been shown to be highly effective in achieving these goals.”

Let’s be clear about this: these two scientists have very different views about dominance and dogs, but they both say it’s not the way to train a dog.

It’s unfortunate that some people mistakenly believe the dominance or pack leader approach to dog training is based in science, especially since it has negative consequences.

Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog and Being a Dog, explains the problems with the alpha dog myth in this recent video for Business Insider.

Luckily, there is an excellent alternative to the dominance approach: reward-based dog training.  

Reward-Based Dog Training: Many Things to Like

Let’s look at reward-based training from the dog’s perspective. 

First of all, it teaches the dog what to do, instead of just what not to do. With reward-based training your dog knows, for example, to sit and wait while you come in from the car with bags of shopping instead of jumping all over you. Over time, if the behaviour of ‘sit’ keeps getting reinforced, your dog will sit in other situations when they are not sure what to do. That happens to align with what you would like too, but can you see how it’s useful from the dog’s perspective? It helps to give a sense of control e.g. “If I sit, I will get patted.”

Secondly, it’s something fun for the dog to do with you. Dogs love hanging out with their owners and doing nice things. The great thing about reward-based training is that your dog is guaranteed to earn some rewards, because you’re going to set the difficulty level to make sure that happens.

And did you know that dogs like to work to earn rewards? Ragen McGowan, the scientist who worked on what she called the ‘eureka effect’ in dogs (McGowan et al 2013) told me that it’s just like the great feeling we get when we solve a problem. Dogs in her study wagged their tails more and were more excited to get another go when they had to work to earn the reward, compared to when they just got the reward anyway.

A dog wants to take the ball from her owner's lap

Plus, of course dogs like the reward. Maybe it’s a piece of tripe stick (that’s a favourite in this household) or cheese or roast beef or tuna fudge… these are not the main component of your dog’s diet and so it’s a nice treat for them to get something different and tasty to eat.

Not only that, but a new model of animal welfare includes providing positive experiences as well as minimizing negative ones (Mellor, 2016). Training with positive reinforcement is a nice experience for your dog that provides cognitive stimulation, and so it can be part of ensuring your dog has good welfare.

These are just a few reasons why your dog will like reward-based training, and I’m sure you can think of others too. I will leave it to you to think about what dominance or alpha-based training is like from a dog’s perspective.

If you have been used to training using a ‘dominance’ or ‘balanced’ approach, you are not alone (especially since there is so much erroneous information about dog training on the internet). If you need some help to make the switch to reward-based training, find a good dog trainer, and/or start by reading some of the dog training classics such as Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson. You might also like my article on positive reinforcement in dog training.  

Of course, we can never know what it is actually like to be a dog, but sometimes it’s a nice exercise to put ourselves in their paws. If you already use reward-based training methods, I would love to know what you think your dog likes best about reward-based training.


Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123 (3-4), 131-142 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003
Casey, R., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G., & Blackwell, E. (2014). Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): Occurrence in different contexts and risk factors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 152, 52-63 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.003
Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (2), 58-65 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.11.004
Herron, M., Shofer, F., & Reisner, I. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117 (1-2), 47-54 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011
McGowan, R., Rehn, T., Norling, Y., & Keeling, L. (2013). Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs Animal Cognition, 17 (3), 577-587 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x
Mellor, D. (2016). Moving beyond the “Five Freedoms” by Updating the “Five Provisions” and Introducing Aligned “Animal Welfare Aims” Animals, 6 (10) DOI: 10.3390/ani6100059
Rooney, N., & Bradshaw, J. (2002). An experimental study of the effects of play upon the dog–human relationship Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 75 (2), 161-176 DOI: 10.1016/S0168-1591(01)00192-7
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Sunday, 12 February 2017

Happy Dogs: Photos

Gorgeous photos of happy dogs.

Portrait of beautiful Belle

"Belle is full of sparkle!  Her favorite treat is without a doubt string cheese... Her best trick is she brings in the paper every morning and takes it right to her bed then gives it to us, and she also does a lovely bow that we call "tada"!"
Belle has her CGC and is a service dog and a Pet Partner's Therapy dog.
Photo: Heidi Steinbeck.

Lola looking very cute

"Lola loooves any food but freaks over prosciutto or smoked salmon."
Photo: Claudine Prud'homme.

Turtle in a field of flowers

"Turtle will do almost anything you ask him for any piece of food you give. Some of his favourites are carrots, hotdogs and peanut butter. He is very food motivated.  Turtle's favourite thing to do is sit on the couch with the people he loves, and of course just looking handsome."
Photo: Charity Long.

Happy Howie smiling at the camera

"Howard's favourite treat is tuna fudge, and his favourite trick is waving hello."
Photo: Jennifer Phillips.


"Foxxy loves to train and learn and goes nuts for steak and string cheese."
Photo: Suzanne Bryner.

Idg and Gaby
Idg and Gaby

"Idg likes chicken so much she stole a whole cooked one from the kitchen counter and ate every bit of it by herself. She's learned to get in the tub and to open the door using chicken as a reward!
Gaby likes eating anything she can find and sleeping all day and telling everyone what to do!  Her favorite chew treats are Beams catfish skins. She likes to play follow the leader through the house (her version of hide-n-seek)."
Idg and Gaby have their own Facebook page.
Photo: Tery McConville.

Kuma's portrait

"Freeze dried liver is his favorite reward, and without a doubt, the Flirt Pole is his favorite toy"
Photo: Paul Arrighie.

Portrait of Molly

"Molly likes chicken and cheese but her favourite thing in all the world is an egg carton with interesting goodies hidden in it."
Photo: Sarah McLaren. (Twitter).

Portrait of Eddie on a hike
"Eddie’s favourite reward was probably liver treats, but he was so food motivated that anything edible would do! That was particularly useful when teaching him a reliable recall, one of his best-learned skills. His favourite activity, the thing that made him happier than anything else in the world (maybe even more than liver treats!) was off leash hiking."
Eddie passed away from a brain tumor in 2015, aged 11.
Photo: Jean Ballard.

Portrait of Freddy the Yorkshire Terrier

"Favourite treat? Anything edible.
His party trick is keeping a balloon in the air forever. He plays keepy-uppy better than any footballer."
Photo: Alan Mace.

Many thanks to everyone who shared photos with me! Look out for another photo blog post next month.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Timing and Attention Matter in Dog Training, New Study Shows

Analysis of videos of dog training sessions show that getting the dog’s attention and good timing of rewards are linked to better results.

A young Terrier plays in the snow

A new study looks at the interactions between people and dogs whilst teaching ‘lie down’. The results show the importance of the timing of rewards and of getting the dog’s attention in order to be successful in dog training.

The study is part of a wider research project at the University of Sydney into what they call “dogmanship.” I asked first author Dr. Elyssa Payne (University of Sydney) what this means.
“The formal definition for dogmanship is an individual's ability to interact with dogs,” she told me in an email. “So, someone with good dogmanship is more likely to get the best out of that dog (which could manifest in good obedience performance, working success or just a good companion relationship).”
The study analysed 43 videos of dogs being trained to lie down that the researchers found on Youtube. The scientists used sequence analysis, which looks at the sequential order of events (i.e. the person does X, then the dog does Y, then the person does Z…). They also used lag sequential analysis to see what happens after a lag of 1 second, 2 seconds and 3 seconds (e.g. person does X, 1s later dog is doing Y…).

They looked at it from both perspectives, i.e. what the dog does following the person’s behaviour, and what the person does following the dog’s behaviour. The results show the interactive dance between people and their dogs during a training session.

For example, the person bends over, and 1s later the dog might be recorded as lying down, pawing the owner, or jumping up. At a lag of 3s after the person bent over, dogs were seen lying down, in incomplete recumbency (i.e. partially lying down), or pawing the owner.

Dr. Elyssa Payne told me,
“The key results of our DogTube paper were that certain human behaviours (in this case looking at the dog and non-speech vocalisations such as kissing noises) are more likely to attract dog attention while dog attention was more likely to wane immediately after a food reward. So, dog trainers should be mindful of their animal's attention and time food rewards according to training goals. 
“Our analysis also highlights the usefulness of attention gaining mechanisms that are more unique to training sessions (e.g. kissing noises, whistles or tongue clicking), although these are time sensitive (dog is likely to respond within 1 second).”
After a food reward was given, dogs stopped looking at their owner. The researchers suggest several possible reasons, including the dog directing their attention to the food, preferring to look away from people whilst in possession of food, or because they were sniffing the ground (perhaps checking for any dropped food).

The two human behaviours of bending over and of both hands touching the dog tended to result in the dog pawing at them or making a noise (barking and whining were both included in this category).

A beautiful Siberian Husky with one blue and one brown eye

People responded to the dog’s behaviour too. They seemed to notice when their dog was looking away from them and responded by looking at the dog; they also noticed lip licks as this was another time when they tended to look at the dog.

Looking at the dog and making non-speech noises (such as the aforementioned kissy sound) usually resulted in getting the dog to look at the person.

The person’s body position was important for the dog’s behaviour at all of the time lags. If the person was bent over, kneeling or crouched down, the dog was likely to be lying down 1 second, 2 seconds and/or 3 seconds later.

However, when the dog was only partially lying down (i.e. the chest was not on the floor or they were in a play bow position instead), the human was typically bent over only at 2 seconds before hand, or crouching or kneeling at 3 seconds beforehand (but not 1 or 2 seconds before). I think this suggests the person has not held their position long enough. (In the early stages of teaching a dog to lie down, when using a lure or a large hand signal, you may have to hold in position for a little while and wait for the dog to lie down).

Most of the people in the videos used food rewards, and 143 rewards were given in total across all of the videos, with 42 instances of a clicker being used. Other methods people used included tightening the leash, leash corrections, and pushing the dog.

Of course, Youtube videos may not be representative of dog trainers in general, and information about the trainers and dogs (such as prior training experience) is lacking. The videos seem to cover a range of training methods and abilities which is nice. We can't infer a causal relationship from the results. The study takes advantage of an easily-available source of data, and the videos are likely more naturalistic than if people had gone into the lab to train in front of the researchers.

Although it’s no surprise that human behaviour affects dogs, the specifics of the results are useful. And there’s an important implication. The scientists write that “This information has implications for dog-human interactions in an obedience setting but also underlines the possibility that dogs that are perceived as difficult to train may be in the hands of people who lack the timing and awareness that characterize good dogmanship.”

The good news is that your timing, body position, and attention-getting are all things you can improve if you want to.

You might like my user-friendly guide to positive reinforcement in dog training, and my list of research studies on dog training (which includes links to places you can read about them). And if you want to work on your dog training skills in a class setting, see how to choose a dog trainer.

How have your dog training skills improved since you first started to train dogs?

Payne, E., Bennett, P., & McGreevy, P. (2017). DogTube: An examination of dogmanship online Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 17, 50-61 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2016.10.006
Photos:  Maksyn Gorpenyuk and gillmar (both
Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to
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