"Dominance" Training Deprives Dogs of Positive Experiences

Dominance is an outdated approach to dog training – and it also means dogs miss out on fun.

Problems with dominance dog training and a dog playing in a blur of snow

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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 Unfortunately, this type of dog training is not just out-of-date and potentially risky, but modern approaches to dog training are also a lot more fun – for you and the dog.

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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:

Why you should not use dominance to train dogs, like this cute GSD puppy
Photo: Grigorita Ko; top, alexei_tm; below, oneinchpunch (all Shutterstock.com)

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 and my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.  

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.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:


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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  1. Nice essay, Zadie -- I just don't understand why some people think dogs do not display dominance, but you and others are so correct in maintaining positive reward training is critical -- no need to dominate a dog to get them to behave in ways so that we all can coexist -- i also wrote this that might be of interest to readers -- thanks for this! Marc

    Training Dogs: Food is Fine and Your Dog Will Still Love You -- https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201612/training-dogs-food-is-fine-and-your-dog-will-still-love-you

    1. Thanks Marc, I'm glad you like it. And thanks for the link to your other post too :-).

  2. My dog is an old failed foster who definitely had both aversive and clicker training in her past. She is food motivated, but I think what she likes about training (so much she comes up and asks to train) is the interaction and fun. One thing I rarely see mentioned in regards to aversive training is that it is hard on the dog physically. Things like alpha rolls can and do cause damage that shows up sooner or later in the spine and elsewhere. That can lead to the dog being discarded earlier because they aren't as active as they used to be.
    Another thing people may not note is the natural pitch of a dog's voice. Mine is baritone, so if she barks it sounds more threatening-when in fact it's just her natural voice, not a growl or dominance behavior. Finally there really isn't a lot of adequate discussion on canine body language. If it were common knowledge about emotional states and commissure length, eye expression, etc. I think there would be a lot less confusion for dog owners about so-called dominance behaviors. Thank you for this wonderful article and keep on keepin' on.

    1. You are absolutely right that we need to have more discussion of canine body language. It would really help people to understand their dogs better. And alpha rolls must be so hard on dogs.

      It's so nice that your dog loves the interaction and fun of training. I think that's one of the wonderful things about training this way - fun for the dog as well as the owner. Thank you for your thoughtful comment and kind words!

    2. Very true, also I've been able to spot health and emotional problems very early on when the dog feels safe to communicate. My service dog stopped sitting on cue, we worked on it force free, but it persisted. Turned out to be a very painful, degenerative spinal disorder. Caught early like we did, we had many treatment options available to us.

  3. I love your graceful style of writing, so comprehensive and complete, yet easy to understand and very kind to people who've had opposing views points. Overcoming that barrier of doubting themselves is tough enough without being taken to task for it.

    Funny how people could think that dogs were dominating us, when we control access to pretty much everything in their lives. The constant power struggle and conflict of a "dominance" based relationship must be exhausting and so affectionately unfulfilling. Most of my clients told me that they felt "mean", but thought that they had to treat the dog this way for the well-being of the dog. Most were very relieved to learn otherwise, and we're happy that they finally were able to fully enjoy a fufilling relationship.

    I would only suggest, because it's the number one complaint about food, that something is mentioned about phasing out to a non 1:1 schedule of food. Otherwise people start deflecting and backtracking with claims of bribery, and that dominance is better BC it's not "bribing" the dog.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words on the post. I've also had that experience, of people being relieved to learn that they don't have to treat the dog in a particular way. I think a lot of people feel much happier about how they are treating their dog when they use positive reinforcement!

  4. What turned me to using positive methods of training rather than "balanced" was agility. I started doing agility with my first dog Bentley when he was about 3 years old. I remember my trainer telling me not to correct my dog in agility and not to even let my dog know that I wasn't happy when he messed up such as a sigh or an "aww man". After seeing how much my dog loved agility and how accurate and responsive he was, it hit me. Why can't all training be like this? My dog, Bentley, would have a fire in his eyes during agility practice and I loved it. Obedience class was no where near that. That's when I started making the change. I read The Culture Clash and other books like The Power of Positive training. I also started working for people who used positive methods rather than my previous job that liked Cesar. I'm so happy that I made the change and my dogs are so happy too! I now have another dog who is a rescue and we are an awesome trio!

    1. That's a really lovely story! Thank you for sharing it. It's wonderful when you see that look in your dog's eyes.


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