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Dominance Theory in Animal Training

Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Animal Training

It is the position of the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) that dominance theory is an obsolete and aversive method of interacting with animals that has at its foundation incorrect and misinterpreted data which can result in damage to the animal-human relationship and cause behavioral problems in the animal.

Rather, the PPG advocates for effective animal training procedures focused on the use of behaviorism, the natural science of behavior which emphasizes natural science assumptions and avoids speculation and theoretical constructs for explaining behavior.

Behaviorism has two main branches: experimental analysis of behavior, which identifies basic principles of behavior, and applied behavior analysis, which applies basic principles of behavior to changing problem behaviors in real-life settings. Further, it is the position of the PPG that the general pet-owning public should be educated by organizations and associations on dominance theory and the many problems it can create for animals. This position statement is consistent with leading animal behaviorists

  • Definition

Dominance theory, or “social dominance” as an ethological construct describing features of a social relationship, - addresses the management of social conflict including but not limited to the allocation of limited resources- through the exertion of control and influence. This takes place in a way that minimizes the risk of overt aggression by the use of conventionalized ritual display behaviors. This minimization of risk involves a cost–benefit evaluation of the benefits of seeking to win a particular social conflict versus the likely associated cost of losing the conflict(O’Heare, 2004).

This definition describes only interactions between beings of the same species; - it is never used in science to describe or label inter-species interactions. Instead, the American Society of Veterinary Animal Behaviorists notes in its 2008 position statement against the use of dominance theory in the behavior modification of animals, “most undesirable behaviors in our pets are not related to priority access to resources; rather, they are due to accidental rewarding of the undesirable behavior.” (AVSAB 2008)

  • Foundations of Dominance Theory in Animal Training

The idea that humans should exert physical control over animals was first widely-popularized in the 1970s in the book “How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend" by the Monks of New Skete, which recommended the “alpha roll” to deal with undesired behaviors. The alpha roll, in which a human flips a dog onto its back and pins it until it showed submissive behaviors, was founded on 1960s studies of captive wolves kept in an area too small for their numbers and composed of members that wouldn't be found together in a pack in the wild. These conditions resulted in increased numbers of conflicts in which one wolf would appear to pin another wolf. However, current scientific knowledge have recanted the findings of these studies, acknowledging that this behavior is not typical of wolves living in the wild. (Mech, 1999). Despite these findings and the great disparity in behavior between wolves and dogs, dominance theory became popularized and remains a widely-propagated training style for pet dogs.

  • Application of Dominance to the Human-Animal Relationship

Ethologists agree that while dominance theory does not describe interactions between different species, it is frequently applied to animal training in a way that promotes adversarial relationships between the animal and human. The term is often used to label an animal’s counter-control behaviors, often as a result of aversive stimulation and coercion. In short, dominance theory is a counterproductive construct that distracts from the functional relationship between behavior, and the environment, which actually causes and explains behaviors. (O’Heare)


It is the position of the PPG that all training be conducted in a manner which encourages animals and focuses on the use of behaviorism, and that all PPG members encourage and use functional analysis to identify and resolve problem behaviors. Further, the PPG and its members actively eschew the improper use of the term “dominance” and all training methods employing dominance theory.


Using 'Dominance' To Explain Dog Behavior Is Old Hat, Science Daily. Click here to read the article

Canine Dominance: Is the Concept of the Alpha Dog Valid? Current research challenges the idea of the alpha dog. Published on July 20, 2010 by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C. in Canine Corner Click here

The Dominance Controversy, Dr. Sophia Yin. Click here to read the full article

Scientific Articles

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on The Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals. Click here to read the full statement

Steinker, A. (2007). Social–Psychological Dynamics in Dog Training: The Power of Authority and Social Role Designation and its Possible Effects on Dog Training. Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior, 1(1), 7-14. Click here to purchase this article

Steinker, A. (2007). Terminology Think Tank: Social dominance theory as it relates to dogs, Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2, 137-140. Click here to access this article

John W.S., Bradshaw , Emily J., Blackwell , Rachel A., Casey. Dominance in domestic dogs -- useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, May/June 2009, Pages 135-144 Click here for the abstract

L. David Mech (1999) (PDF). Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Click here to access this article

Educational Videos

Dr. L. David Mech talks about the terms "alpha" and "beta" wolves and why they are no longer scientifically accurate.

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