The dominance theory! Is it still valid?

The dominance theory! Is it still valid?In just about every post I have written about dog training I have stressed the fact that you need to establish yourself as “the pack leader” thus the dog needs to consider you as its leader in order to follow and obey you. A lot of people consider this to be incorrect and they state the fact that so called “dominance theory” is incorrect and thus terms such as “pack leader” should not be used and that positive reinforcement is the best way to train a dog. In this post I am going to explain what the “dominance theory” is all about and how it came about. I will also give you my own view of what a true pack leader is and how you can get your dog to follow and obey you.

The dominance theory, what is it and how did it come about?

The theory of dominance came about through a study of wolves in captivity. According to this theory there is a strong hierarchy among wolves where the stronger individuals dominate the others through displays of aggression. The alpha male and alpha female thus rules the pack by force and fear. The wolves in question were not from the same family. It was then assumed that domestic dogs acted the same way since domestic dogs are closely related to wolves.

Traditional dog training is based on this theory, that you become the dominant leader and thus rule your dog using physical dominance. This is the method used by the famous dog trainer Cesar Millan on the National Geographic TV show the Dog Whisperer.

During the last few years a lot of people (included the people who conducted this theory) have discredited the dominance theory. There are a few reasons for this. To start with, wolves in the wild usually don’t live together with other wolves who are unrelated to them. Wolves normally live in families consisting of the two parents and the pups. Thus, the parents lead and the pups automatically follow. This sort of leadership is not based on dominance but is a natural state for most animals (and humans) the offspring learn from their parents.

The wolves in the study conducted was all forced to live together and since they had no family ties the strongest ones of them protected their space and resources (food, females etc) whereas other weaker members of this group submitted to the stronger ones, this being their way of surviving.

The dominance theory - is it still valid?
The dominance theory – is it still valid?

So do you really need to establish yourself as the “pack leader” or is all of this wrong? Yes you still need to establish yourself as the pack leader or “leader” anyway. Once you have done this, training will be much easier as your dog will automatically want to follow you. Now the difference with the traditional way of training dogs, there is no need to dominate your dog. Establishing yourself as the pack leader is not about physical domination. Physical domination might work fine when a dog is still a puppy but imagine trying to dominate a grown up Rottweiler. Only a very strong person could that and it can in fact be dangerous.

Establishing yourself as the pack leader is a question of being in control. That is showing your dog that you are its leader by the way you act. Being calm and self-confident is for example very important. Dogs are very sensitive to what signals you send out and they can detect nervousness and fear quite easily. Then there are certain things you do which you might not even think of but which are important for your dog.

For example when you leave your house, you leave first and your dog follows. In a dogs world the leader goes first, and that leader is you. One example is when you leave your house to walk your dog. You should be the first to go through the door and then your dog should follow. This will show your dog that you lead and it follows. This might seem like nothing to us but this is an important signal to your dog.

Another example is related to food. YOU keep control of the food, not your dog. If you give your dog a bone for example and it starts chewing it, then you should take it back as soon as your dog is finished with it. Don’t let it lie around. For a dog the one who is in control of the food is the one who leads.

These are just a few examples of acts that does not seem important to us but which has a big influence on our dogs, so remember that you are in control and that you should lead. You will thus be the leader and your dog will follow you.

So to summarize and answer the question: Is the dominance theory still valid? To be honest I don’t know. I am not an expert on canine behavior but I do know one thing. Regardless if this theory is valid or not, you will still have to be the PACKLEADER. Now let me explain exactly how I mean.

In your everyday life with your dog, you are still the one who has to be in charge and make the decisions. You decide when to walk your dog. You put a leash on it to control it. You recall it, tell it to stop, to get down from the couch etc. You decide and your dog follows. Your dog lives in your world, you do not live in his and therefore YOU need to be in charge.

The thing is: you should be a gentle leader. One who shows confidence and being in control. This behavior will make your dog feel secure and calm. The same goes for raising a child. Being aggressive, yelling and physically frightening is not a good way to raise a child, it only creates fear and aggression and even if you can make a child or dog to obey using force and physical dominance this is not a good way to do it. The child or dog will scared, lack confidence and might become aggressive as well.

Gentle leader

By using positive reinforcement, that is to reward and praise good behavior you create a great relationship with your dog (or your child) and your dog will be happy to please and obey you. Sure you need to be firm sometimes, but the tone of your voice will be enough to tell your dog off and ignoring it for a few moments will be enough to punish it.

I will still continue to use the term“pack leader”when I talk about dog training, but my definition of a “pack leader” is a gentle person who is calm, in control and who the dog looks up to and admires. Any dog will be happy to follow such a leader.

I hope you enjoyed this post and I would be very interested in hearing your comments and opinions on this matter. Just leave your comments below.

All the best.


Comments 17

  • Well, I agree with you , absolutely. Of course, any dog owner has to be the pack  leader.  I see nothing wrong with the term.  My daughter-in-law has four dogs and none of them are trained.  Instead, she yells at them when they bark, they mess in the house when she is gone. In short, they are completely uncontrolled. It’s a shame, because they really are nice dogs–they are just starved for some control in their lives. 

    Being the pack leader for your dog makes the relationship a real delight.  Your dog will gladly go with you wherever you go and will be the paragon of good manners. Your friends will love you and they will love your dog.  This is a happy, fun-filled relationship, not an overbearing one. It may be hard for some to believe it, but in reality, dogs want control in their lives, they are happier with a sense of order about things. 

    I didn’t have a dog until I was grown, but people marveled when I could control her with the tone of my voice, or a clap of my hands. Of course, she was the best breed for a companion- a Brittany.  I’m prejudiced. Really, there are many wonderful breeds. Thank you for a very good common sense article.

    • It seems like your daughter in law does not how to handle dogs. If you yell at a dog who is barking, that dog is going to think you approve with what he/she is doing and it will bark even more. To the dog, your yelling is just like barking and he/she will think you are joining the barking.

      Dogs are very sensitive of how you act and your state of mind. If you are calm and in control then your dog will be calm and in control as well. If you act nervously or aggressively well that is how your dog will act as well.

      When you teach a dog something you must do it any a way the dog understands. Dogs do not speak our language so if we simply tell them what to do and then yell at them because they don’t understand what we want from them we are getting absolutely nowhere.

  • i will agree with you dominance is the word to use you have to dominate the dogs or any other animal for that matter so they understand who is in charge. A pack leader can be overthrown at any time that is why there are competitions in the animal kingdom and that is why no animals are pack leaders for ever.

  • Hello, there!

    This is a great article! I had nothing to do with the dominance theory, but now it seems very interesting to me. Cats are my favorite animals, but I’m a nature lover, so I love all animals on earth as well and it is very nice to find so catchy and well-written content about dogs like yours.

    Almost all of my friends have dogs, so I’m a dog’s friend, even if I love cats and now that I’ve learned that, I think I can understand dogs better.

    Thank you for sharing! Very good article!

    • Thank you,

      I love cats too, I used have one many years ago and he was such a great companion. Cats are very different to dogs though. Cats are loners and don’t really accept a leader even though cats can be great friends with each others and they can be trained as well, they simply function differently for dogs as cats (apart from lions) live alone and not in packs such as dogs or wolves.

  • Thanks for your exploration of the “dominance theory,” Jojo.  Since it’s used very often in stuff about leading people, it does seem very relevant to me in all kinds of relationships — not just for training pets or raising children.  

    In every human relationship there is going to be a “jockeying for position,” it seems to me.  Certain people become persons of influence and, for better or worse, their choices do affect the way the other people around them behave.  

    The importance of gentleness and kindness when imposing limitations can’t be overstated, I think.

    • In the original “Packleader Theory” it was believed that the strongest members of the pack was physically dominating the others by the displays of strength and threatening behavior. This belief was due to a study of wolves in captivity. These wolves did not know each other and saw each other like rivals rather then members of the same pack. This is not how wolves live in the wild. In the wild the usually live in families and the offspring simply follow the gentle lead of their mother and father. So the sort of leader you should be to your dog is that of a mother or father, kind and gentle and firm when it is needed.

  • It appears that there is a fine line between dominance and being a pack leader. I suppose the same can be said in human behavior.  There is a difference between leading and physically forcing others to do things.  I imagine, much like in the huma world, dogs that are physically dominated may grow resentful and eventually rebel.

    • Exactly.You should never try dominate a dog using physical force. A dog might very well rebel against you if you do this and you can imagine the result if you have a big strong dog like for example a Rottweiler. This can turn into a very dangerous situation.

      Dogs love to please us and if you reward a dog for doing the right thing it will love to follow you. A dog owner must act like a true leader, be calm and in control and show the dog what to do and how to act.

  • This article has been very helpful. So simple things like leaving the door first before your dog can help your dog learn to be obedient. Dumb be, I never knew. I think show of affection and care and calmness would help your dog recognise you as it’s leader.  I quite enjoyed this post hope to read more from you.

    • Hi Louis,

      you will certainly hear more from me soon. More posts are in the planning.

      Really dog training is not complicated but of course you simply have to know how dogs act and what the things you do and how act mean to a dog. Leaving through the door first is one example of showing who is the leader. Having your dog walking next to you instead of pulling ahead is another. Simple things but very important.

  • Jojo,

    I see your progression from the old, discredited theory of dominance over your dog to one of quiet and calm leadership.  The pack leaders in the wild do use quiet and calm demeanor to maintain control of the pack.  

    I agree that humans need to display the quiet and calm leadership as a pack leader.  They should go through the door first and not let their dog walk in front during the walks.  The leader walks in front to look for danger to the pack.  It is better for our domestic dogs to walk at our side.  They don’t get stressed out by being in the leadership role, and we get a much calmer walk.

    I’ve walked dogs that belonged to other people.  They would let their dogs walk in front.  Consequently, the dogs would pull and misbehave on the leash.  I would keep them right by my side and never had a problem with them.  The dogs were definitely easier to train than the people!


    • I really do believe that this is the case, a human needs to be the leader, the important thing here is to be the right kind of leader, a gentle, calm and confident leader. If you act this way your dog will be gentle and calm as well. A dog will be happy to obey such a leader and will really do what you want it to in order to please you.

  • Great article Jojo, and thanks for sharing your insights. I feel the dominance theory comes in play with dog training. If the dogs do not consider you as superior, there is no way they would listen to you and follow you. I therefore reckon that there is merit in the story. This is my opinion.Thanks and best regards

    • Thank you, I agree with you completely, the dog owner has to be the packleader but a calm and gentle leader the dog respects and is happy to follow.

  • I totally agree with the continued use of the phrase ‘pack leader’.  

    One of my favourite programs on tv is Caesar Millan’s dog whisperer show.  And he uses the term pack leader.  And he definitely gets results with his training methods.  And from what I can observe, it’s all from establishing respect – somewhat akin to what you’re writing about above.  So yes, I agree … the dominance theory is still very much valid! 🙂

    • A lot of people still use the term “Packleader” and yes I believe it is correct. A dog needs a leader and if you train it correctly, show it by your actions and your calm and well controlled mood then the dog will automatically follow you and it will be happy to do so. What must be avoided at all times is shouting and harsh physical corrections. They simply do not work and will only make the dog aggressive and nervous.

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