UK: Leader of the pack?

Dog owners who seek to win obedience from their hounds by exerting dominance are barking up the wrong tree, new research shows. The study by academics at the University of Bristol's department of clinical veterinary sciences found that dogs do not seek to dominate one another in order to keep their place in a pecking order.

They observed dogs freely interacting at a re-homing centre for six months and re-analysed data from studies of feral dogs. They concluded that individual relationships between dogs were learnt through experience rather than motivated by a desire to assert 'dominance'.

In a report on the study, Dominance in domestic dogs - useful construct or bad habit?, the academics said instructing owners to eat before their dog or go through doors first would not influence the dog's overall perception of the relationship - merely teach them what to expect in these specific situations. Much worse, techniques such as pinning the dog to the floor, grabbing jowls, or blasting hooters at dogs would make dogs anxious, often about their owner, and potentially lead to an escalation of aggression.

Dr Rachel Casey, senior lecturer in companion animal behaviour and welfare at Bristol University, said: "The blanket assumption that every dog is motivated by some innate desire to control people and other dogs is frankly ridiculous. It hugely underestimates the complex communicative and learning abilities of dogs. It also leads to the use of coercive training techniques, which compromise welfare, and actually cause problem behaviours.

"In our referral clinic we very often see dogs which have learnt to show aggression to avoid anticipated punishment. Owners are often horrified when we explain that their dog is terrified of them and is showing aggression because of the techniques they have used. But it's not their fault when they have been advised to do so, for example, by unqualified 'behaviourists' recommending such techniques."

At Dogs Trust, the UK's largest dog welfare charity, veterinary director Chris Laurence said: "We can tell when a dog comes in to us which has been subjected to the 'dominance reduction technique' so beloved of TV dog trainers. They can be very fearful which can lead to aggression towards people.

"Sadly, many techniques used to teach a dog that his owner is leader of the pack is counter-productive; you won't get a better-behaved dog but you will either end up with a dog so fearful it has suppressed all its natural behaviours and will just do nothing, or one so aggressive it's dangerous to be around."