Dominance theory is consistent with traditional dog training methods, but it has great potential for harm, both physical and psychological. Equipment like choke, prong, and shock collars as well as techniques like yanking the leash can obviously hurt the dog (with injuries to the neck, trachea, etc.), but few people can time their “corrections” so that the dog even associates it with the behavior the human intended to punish.
Furthermore, the pain generated by those “corrections” can become associated with anything or anyone else present at the time (such as children or other dogs), whether or not it was even remotely related to the behavior the human “corrected”. Using these forceful techniques can also result in psychological consequences – fearful and anxious dogs – and thus cause behavior problems such as general anxiety and reactivity, as well as the erosion of the dog’s trust for his or her human.
Cesar Millan’s espousal of dominance theory earned Esquire magazine’s dubious honor, the title “Misguided Expert of the Year,” followed by an article titled, “The Dog Whisperer Should Shut Up.”
Other trainers agree, albeit in different words:
Positive Training, on the other hand, stands in virtually direct opposition to dominance theory. The simplest refutation of dominance theory is that the dog already knows “who’s boss” because the human controls access to every resource valuable to the dog: food, water, walks, toys, treats, time with other dogs, etc. With total control over these resources, humans have no need to further “dominate” the dog. Another argument against dominance theory in favor of positive training is that positive training has been scientifically tested and proven to work whereas training using force has not.
Based on B. F. Skinner’s theories of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, as well as the simple observation that dogs, like humans, respond better to and are more likely to change their behavior when encouraged rather than criticized. Therefore, positive trainers reward desired behaviors – often through the use of clicker training – and punish unwanted behaviors by simply removing something the dog wants, e.g., withholding attention as a consequence of the dog’s jumping up. No force is used, but the dog learns what the human wants and is eager to do it in order to earn rewards.
In contrasting dominance theory and positive training, the Association of Pet Dog Trainers declared that, “Actions such as ‘alpha rolls’ and ‘scruff shakes’ have no basis in fact when studying wolf or dog behavior, and they only lead to creating unnecessary fear on our dog’s part toward us, fear that ultimately can lead to aggression because the frightened dog knows of no other way to protect itself other than using its teeth. We all owe it to our dogs to see the world from their point of view in order to create a more harmonious relationship.”
For an excellent article contrasting the two approaches, read Pat Miller’s article, “De-Bunking the Alpha Dog Theory,” in the Whole Dog Journal. Other resources on this topic include:
“The Dominance Controversy” by Dr. Sophia Yin;
“Pack Theory Debunked” by Victoria Stilwell;
the ASPCA’s “Is Your Dog Dominant?” and
the position paper published by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists.