On Dominance

This popped up on Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels email list today, and I thought it was a very nice read (as per usual, she is quite eloquent, not to mention sassy, and well-worth experiencing either in person or online).

In my less-than-a-month at work, I’ve already heard plenty of clients make the excuse that Fluffy’s jumping/counter surfing/leash pulling/dog reactivity is attributed to “dominance.” I always cringe inside when I hear this. I’ll have to write and rehearse a speech of my own for the day when I am teaching classes and I get dragged, reluctantly, into the “he’s dominant!” discussion. Luckily, I have plenty of time to prepare.

As per Sue Ailsby;

“I think it’s time for some serious talk about dominance.

I don’t want any of you to let the “dominance” thing go to your head!

The dominance model of dog behaviour is an easy one to understand, and supplies simple rules for people to follow. Unfortunately it’s partly wrong and it leads to people thinking unfortunate thoughts – like ‘he runs out the door because he’s trying to be dominant’.

Dominance, if it actually exists in a group, is not a linear situation. It’s circular, flowing. Possession IS 9/10 of the law. THIS dog may be the boss in THIS situation, but THAT dog is the final authority in THAT situation.

99% of dogs don’t give a hoot who gets to be the boss. The key point – THE KEY POINT – is that they have to KNOW what the rules are. Who’s going to pay the bills? Who do we report to? Who’s in charge of the food?

While typing the last paragraph I had a sideslip to a Hutterite colony. This is a communal community. Everybody works for the benefit of all. Within each colony there is a livestock Boss, a kitchen Boss, a vehicle Boss, and so on.

What this means is that there IS no Alpha dog. There Can Be Only One – or two, or three, or whatever – and that One is me. Not because I’m bigger, or stronger (or smarter), but because I make the rules and let everybody know what the rules are. If a dog is standing on my lap, or a child is throwing toys at my head, it’s not because they want to be Alpha, it’s because *I* have failed to let them know what the rules are.

When I’m talking about dominance, I often say this:

Every dog needs to know what the rules are and who makes them. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels know that the boss is the person with the money for Dairy Queen. If there’s no boss, there’ll be no ice cream today. Cavaliers sit around every morning talking like this: “Spot, are you going to be boss today? Me? Oh no! I was the boss yesterday! Too much responsibility! Hey, I know, let’s get mom to do it!”

Giant Schnauzers, OTOH, know that the boss is the person who makes the sun rise and the grass grow. When you wake up in the morning, they’ll be sitting beside your bed staring at you. “What do you people want?” “We just want to know if you’re on the ball today. It’s nearly time for you to make the sun rise!”

Dogs, like children, need rules. Rules provide stability, confidence, security. It doesn’t really matter what the rules are, as long as there are rules. Dogs and children, unaware of rules, will push their limits until they find some.

They play head games to determine what the rules are. And we frequently lose the games because we didn’t realize we were playing. All the “No Free Lunch” programs are designed to help humans play and win the games. This is truly a win-win situation, since, as I mentioned, the dog doesn’t care who actually comes out on top in any given situation, so long as the rules are clear to everybody. Some No Free Lunch programs are confrontational. This is not the way dogs normally operate. All group-oriented animals have huge numbers of body language “words” to help them avoid confrontation. Fights only happen when communication about the rules has broken down and the body language discussions aren’t solving the problem.

Leading The Dance is the name of my version of the No Free Lunch thing. It’s specifically non-confrontational . It’s designed simply to help humans establish or re-establish rules so everybody can live together comfortably.

Once in a while a dog (or person) comes along who doesn’t speak the language, or simply refuses to be a communal creature. These dogs (or people) or safest placed in situations where they can’t harm anyone or be harmed.”

Please read more by Sue and her Levels Training at dragonflyllama.com.


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