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Why I Disagree With Dominance Theory (Cesar Millan)

Updated on July 11, 2012

While I am not going to make the blanket statement that dominance theory does not apply to all domesticated animals, I do not believe that it applies to dogs the way some of us (cough cough Cesear Milan) seem to think it does. Here's why, in a nutshell.

The backbone of this theory is the idea that dogs should be treated like dogs, and that is initially what drew me into the whole idea. It has always bothered me how some people elevate their dogs to the status of little people.

Somewhere along the way this theory stops treating dogs like dogs and treats them like wolves- and that isn't right either.

Maybe the answer lies somewhere in between.

1. Animal Behaviorists (people who study animals for a living) say it's wrong.

Ph.Ds don't always make people smart, but my bet is an educated person is more likely to be knowledgeable. Those that are educated in animal theories, such as Dr. Sophia Yin, say dominance theory is wrong.

Here is her enlightening page. I encourage everyone on the fence about this issue to check out.

2. Dominance theory makes something simple into something complicated.

Most issues with dogs arise from one simple fact: They don't speak English. Wouldn't it be great if you could explain to your dog why she can't chew on the electrical wires? Most often it's confusion that causes problems, not dominance. If your dog could tell you she was lonely and stressed out and that's why she was chewing, you might react differently.

Does your dog really believe he’s dominant over you when you try to take his toy away and he resists? Or does he just not want his toy taken away?

3. Dogs aren't wolves.

We should assume that most everything a dog does is a struggle for dominance over its human owners, much the same way a wolf in the wild would struggle with it’s own pack for the top rank.

Fortunately dogs aren't wolves. Millions of years of evolution has ensured that and things have changed. A lot.

Furthermore, Recent research actually suggests that wolves don't even use dominance theory! Funny, right?

"As it turns out, this research was based on a faulty premise: wolves in the wild, says L. David Mech, founder of the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center, actually live in nuclear families, not randomly assembled units, in which the mother and father are the pack leaders and their offspring's status is based on birth order. Mech, who used to ascribe to alpha-wolf theory but has reversed course in recent years, says the pack's hierarchy does not involve anyone fighting to the top of the group, because just like in a human family, the youngsters naturally follow their parents' lead."

Read more:,8599,2007250,00.html#ixzz1zpTuiCvk

4. It's harsh.

Dominance theory doesn't try to be gentle. It tells you to shut off emotion instead. It asks you to do alpha rolls and "shh" your dog instead of work out solutions to problems. It teaches fear, not respect. Blocking a door with your legs might stop your dog from getting out, but wouldn't it be nicer if your dog willingly and gladly did it for you?

Many dog owners like dominance theory because it gives them an ego boost. I'm in charge. I'm the pack leader. I'm in control. It does a lot for controlling owners. Unfortunately it doesn't do much for the dog.

5. Dog hierarchy doesn't include us

Remember when we used to believe the sun rotated around the earth? Same concept. Dog hierarchy just doesn’t include us. We aren't dogs, and dogs know that.

There is an element of wanting to humanize dogs, and I think that’s okay in small portions. Everybody is going to want to talk to their dogs like they’re people every once in a while, allow them in bed to cuddle and treat them to human food. These things alone, in healthy dogs, will NOT cause any change to any pack structure there may or may not be, but most likely isn’t there to begin with anyway. At least, not with you in it.

6. It's taking the easy way out

So why do we watch shows like the dog whisperer and revere the theory? Are we stupid for doing so? I don’t think so. I think there’s an element of magic to the show. The hope that this
one simple easy fix will make everything better. Treat your dog like a dog and all his problems will go away.

But good dogs aren’t created by magic, and training doesn’t work like that. Training is hours of work, plain and simple, and there are no shortcuts. As for me, I’m turning off the idiot box and using positive reinforcement.

If you're looking for TV magic, watch Victoria Stilwell's 'It's me or the dog,' which promotes positive training techniques.


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    • Suhail and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 5 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      This hub reflects my take on the subject. It is very useful. Voted up and thank you for writing beautifully with lots of references.

    • profile image

      SassySue1963 5 years ago

      I agree with everything you've pointed out here. I do not watch the Dog Whisperer shows nor the new one for cats either. Unfortunately, I never could find something more enticing or negative enough to stop my Border Collie from opening up the refrigerator and helping himself to whatever pleased him that day. Go figure huh? :)

    • profile image

      DoItForHer 5 years ago

      Many times someone has asked me, "How do I get my dog to stop [insert negative behavior]?"

      I don't do that. If I must stop a negative behavior (such as an immediate biting episode), I make it a point to replace that negative behavior with a positive one. If the dog isn't given another behavior, a behavior of my choosing, to replace the behavior I took away, the dog will insert its own behavior.

      And what behavior will the dog choose? The only one he knows about- how to be a biting dog. The dog cannot be behaviorless; it must behave in some way. This is how animals work.

      Too often we punish the dog for an undesired behavior (barking inappropriately), then we ignore the behavior we want (resting peacefully by our feet).

      I feel I'm carrying on, but having a positive attitude and implementing a positive approach is extremely important. Not only is this more fun, it works better.

    • reptilia profile image

      Rachel 5 years ago

      Thanks for your comment, DoItForHer. I have no problem with disciplining a dog, being consistent in training and setting serious boundaries with consequences, so yeah. We are pretty much saying the same thing. Discipline doesn't have to be negative.

      Also keep in mind that I am not talking about dominating (or literally: being in control of) your pet, I am talking about Dominance Theory specifically, which is a faulty theory prescribed by people like Cesar Milan. It is based off faulty research, encourages things like alpha rolls, intimidation and suppression of bad behavior (as opposed to teaching good behavior.) Without doubt this is harsh stuff, and this specifically is what I have an issue with, not discipline in the general sense.

      Thank you for the opportunity to clarify. :)

    • profile image

      DoItForHer 5 years ago

      I wish dominance wasn't associated so strongly with negativity. When I start a new trick I reduce distractions, make sure I'm in a good mood, pull out my favorite clicker, and start capturing the latest behavior.

      In my view I am totally dominating my dog. I am exerting an extreme amount of influence (the dog isn't influencing me), the environment has been shaped to my specifications (the dog isn't controlling its surroundings), and my dog's and my behaviors are decided by me. My mastery of the situation is as complete as I can make it and this shows my dominance.

      Kinda like consequences; There can be positive consequences and negative consequences.

      Or like discipline. Discipline is too often thought of as using negative punishment to achieve a desired behavior. However, discipline is also about guidance. I have the self discipline to get up 30 minutes before work to have time for an early morning training session. This does not mean I beat myself awake.

      Dominance can be positive if we make it so; it is not inherently negative.

      I think I'm mostly saying what you're saying, but I wanted to emphasize how people tend to attach negativity to certain concepts while ignoring the positive.

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 5 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      You've argued your point well and included some valuable references to back it up. I think we still have a lot to learn about canine and lupine society - enough to keep us all intrigued for the next hundred years at least.