Training Theory: Two Choices

Dog training boils down to two schools of thought: Positive Reinforcement or Alpha/Dominance. 

At one time I was a practicing Certified Dog Trainer who learned in the 'jerk and pull, Alpha-Dominance' method of training, I can now tell you, this type of training is an insult to a willing, intelligent puppy like the Toller and most willing intelligent dogs or puppies of any breed.  I am now a convert to the power of kindness, rewards, and true dog psychology, not the kind that makes good TV.  

Splash was my first dog, and I pressured and yanked her through hundreds of hours of classes and drills. She was sweet and sensitive but the program I subscribed to caused her tension, stress and even fear. It involved not speaking to her for weeks at a time, refusing her access to any furniture and offering only verbal praise and minimal affection.  Many times she shut down, became neurotic, displayed fear and calming signals which my 'Mentor' called Avoidance, Manipulation, and Dominance.  I was just supposed to work harder to 'break' her. I then did the same thing to Topaz, but he was a stronger dog and was much better able to take my heavy-handed training. After awhile, all of this "battling for dominance" with my dogs started to go against my higher instincts. I wanted to snuggle with them on the couch and hated to see them cower if I raised my arm.  I actually believe, in hindsight that some of the dominance and pack-theory tactics involve mean-spirited abuse.  I wish I could take it all back.

Now I know better. I ended up turning the corner when I read a quote in an article that stated "Dogs don't want to take over the world. They just want to live peacefully within it." Having been a dog walker for years, I had thousands of hours' experience to support the theory. This was one of the truest statements I had ever read. I  began doing a lot of research and took a few positive reinforcement classes from other trainers. I abandoned my old thinking and have never looked back.  Why wouldn't you want to be on your dog's side, through a loving and compassionate, patient approach, especially if it achieves the same results, or even better ones?  All social animals appreciate acceptance.  Even mother dogs act in a playful way toward their puppies, never shoving or grabbing at them. If the puppies do something an adult dog doesn't like, the adult uses avoidance and warning. She may use ignoring or removing herself from the puppies if they don't like the behaviour, or snarls and growls before ever resorting to a bite. They almost never assert dominance in the way we are told that they do; it is in gentle ways and only on rare occasions.  We could learn a lot from this.


If your dog pees on something or someone, with Dominance Theory it is commonly thought to be 'revenge', 'dominance', or 'manipulation'.  This is a big myth. In Positive Reinforcement, we look at the fact that they don't think their pee is 'bad'. It is not used in spite or retribution. They pee on things the way a child colors on the wall.  It's a method of communication- their urine is uniquely scented and can mean many things:

  • a medical issue. (Think bladder/urinary tract or kidney infection or incontinence.)
  • they had to pee,
  • submissive urination (nerves, fear, an act of submission.)
  • they like the thing they are peeing on, or they want to claim it as their own.
  • they want to leave a trace of themselves on something. 
  • territorial behaviour.
  • it is not because they want to own you, be the boss, or wreck your stuff.

It never means they want to 'get back at' you.  That is something a human would do- not how a dog thinks.  (INTERESTING FACT: they pee on rugs and fabric before instead of washable surfaces such as lino or hardwood because they instinctively want their pee to be absorbed, not to sit there in a pool.)

example: leaving the door ahead of you

If your dog bolts out of the door before you, this is NOT an example of dominance. This is an example of a dog who is excited to go somewhere and who hasn't been taught/trained/encouraged to wait patiently until you want him to exit the doorway. Happy, well adjusted dogs are generally exuberant so the idea of leaving the house to go somewhere is a big highlight. They act instinctively, which also often means impulsively. They aren't thinking of how they might be dragging you outside with only one shoe on; they aren't worried about traffic on the road. Acting purely on the pleasure of going on an outing, they are not courteous- they are gleeful, happy and excited. If the humans take the time to positively teach the dog not to bolt out of an open door by using a command, food reward and frequent, consistent repetition, then it is very possible to have the dog learn to control the impulse by stating the command and then giving the signal when it's ok to leave the door. Dogs do not even consider leaving the house as any type of dominance. Anyone saying this is stuck on old fashoned thinking which is largely considered to by myth.

Here are some fantastic training resources:

  • Puppy Culture- a program designed to understand how puppies learn and just how much humans can shape their behaviour for life. 
  • Zak George- host of a training channel on YouTube. Fun, upbeat and dog friendly advice for all levels of knowledge.
  • Jean Donaldson, Behaviourist for the San Fransisco SPCA and author of The Culture Clash, one of my favorite dog psychology books.
  • Suzanne Clothier, who writes some absolutely spot-on, easy to understand articles on dogs and how they think, which allows us to better relate to them and stop punishing them for harmless actions, and to better understand how to communicate with them.