Photo credit Leon G.

Everyone who has a dog seems to have an opinion on how to handle dog behavior problems and aggression is at the top of the list. Here is some of the worst advice for handing aggression in dogs that you should avoid.

  1. Being dominant, being “pack leader”, “alpha”, “top dog”, etc..
  2. Act like Cesar Milan and do “alpha rolls”.
  3. Using an
    1. E-collar, “stim” collar, or shock collar to control or correct your dog
    2. Prong collar to control or correct your dog
    3. Choke collar to control or correct your dog
  4. Hitting, smacking a dog or “rubbing the dog’s nose in it”
  5. “Correcting” growls with a leash pop, or spray bottle, or can of pennies.

How many people still give out this kind of advice for treating behavior problems in dogs? Answer? PLENTY. Why? Because most people learn from someone before them and they don’t stay up to date on current research.

Alpha rolls for example, are meant to dominant the dog. An influential training book written by the Monks of New Skete, originally recommended this technique back in the 70’s. Now they no longer recommend using alpha rolls and strongly discourage their clients from it.

Dogs do not become aggressive because they are dominant. In fact, dominance is not even a personality trait in dogs despite popular opinion. Dominance is really a word that has been used to predict a result between two animals during an antagonistic encounter. In other words, it describes is used to predict and where there is a conflict. So dominance is about the relationship and not about a personality trait. But the real focus should be, why is there a conflict? That is what you want to treat. Not behave like a dog when they are in one.

The word “alpha” was put into the dog trainer’s vocabulary as a result of studies on captive wolves. At that time there was no literature on how wild wolves actually structure themselves. Now there is.

Researchers learned that wolf packs are structured as families. The leaders of the pack; the so-called alpha’s, are the parents, while the rest of the pack is primarily made up of off spring. Aggression between wolves in a pack is relatively rare.

So why is being dominant or using methods to scare, hurt or otherwise intimidate a dog bad advice for handling dog aggression? Because it is dangerous. Alpha rolls are risky and can contribute to more dog bites. A dog that feels defensive in any circumstance can become more aggressive. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior actually has a position statement on the use of dominance theory and there have been studies that alpha dog training can cause more harm than good.

All indications suggest that hierarchies are not maintained by dominance at all, but by the dogs that choose to defer. In other words, dogs don’t gain leadership over others by behaving dominantly, nor do they enforce their leadership by behaving dominantly. Leaders are chosen. So the real question is, what can you do to make your dog want to defer to you?

What about a growling dog? Isn’t that behavior problem something you should “correct”? We shouldn’t just accept a dog growling, should we? A growl is a warning. Plain and simple. If a dog growls at a child, get the child out of there. But “correcting” the dog by scolding them, jerking on his or her leash may only teach that dog to suppress his warning. It certain does nothing to convince the dog he or she has nothing to worry about. We need to separate the idea of “bad behavior”, as in, the dog is acting in a way we don’t like from the concept that there is an underlying problem we need to address.

There are better and more effective methods.