No that’s okay it’s a very common misconception (and one that needs to die).
Firstly, dogs are not wolves. And dogs do not form cohesive packs like wolves do (and dominance-submission relationships are purely based on access to resources btw).
Dogs have diverged significantly from wolves in the last 15,000 years. Ancestral wolves evolved as hunters and now generally live in packs consisting most often of family members (Mech 2000).Pack members cooperate to hunt and to take care of offspring. In a given year, generally only the alpha male and alpha female mate, so that the resources of the entire pack can be focused on their one litter. Dogs, on the other hand, evolved as scavengers rather than hunters (Coppinger and Coppinger 2002). Those who were the least fearful, compared to their human-shy counterparts, were best able to survive off the trash and waste of humans and reproduce in this environment. Currently, free-roaming dogs live in small groups rather than cohesive packs, and in some cases spend much of their time alone (MacDonald and Carr 1995). They do not generally cooperate to hunt or to raise their offspring, and virtually all males and females have the opportunity to mate (Boitani et al. 1995)
So now that we’ve established that, let’s look at how dogs interact with each other. Dogs have specific behaviours called appeasement behaviours which are designed to diffuse conflict and ask for space. This is because getting into a fight by being overly aggressive is a really really dumb thing to do. Avoiding injury by diffusing conflict is an evolutionary survival mechanism.
Okay. So what has this to do with training?
Dogs don’t want to fight with us for ‘dominance’. Dogs are not interested in rank or hierarchy in the domestic environment. Dominance is about access to resources - you control your dog’s entire life. Their food, their water, their shelter, their happiness - technically you’re already the ‘dominant’ one. If you really want to look at it that way…
The thing is… Dogs know we’re not dogs. Dogs do not see us as dogs. We don’t have tails or ears to mimic their body language and postural positions. So why should we be pushing around, growling, pinning and being a downright bully to our dogs? They don’t see you as another dog. You’re only proving that you’re a scary, unpredictable bully.
When you apply dominance theory to dogs you insert this really horrible, harmful, egotistic mentality that you need to “be the boss” and you need to be aggressive. You also instantly assume that misbehaviour is an attempt to “outrank” you. Which is so so wrong oh god
Dogs are just trying to cope with the challenges in the domestic environment. Misbehaviour such as jumping up occurs because he/she has been unwittingly reinforced for it rather than taught how to sit when guests come through the door. Not because they’re trying to be dominant.
Aggression is often due to underlying anxiety and fear - when you assume it’s because your dog’s “challenging” you and that makes you want to fight it and show it who’s boss by using confrontational and aversive techniques like hitting, growling, alpha rolling ect. All you’re doing is making that underlying anxiety even worse. You’re giving the dog even more reason to react. And sure you might be able to suppress the growling, lunging and barking if you punish it enough. But you haven’t removed the anxiety, the root of the aggression is still there. That’s when you get learned helpless and shut-down. That’s when you get redirected aggression, when you get bites that occur “out of the blue” because the warning signs were punished and suppressed.
Confrontational techniques are aversive - they work by causing pain and fear. We’ve established that dogs do not see us as other dogs - so no, they do not see it as another dog “nipping” them. They see it as you causing them pain or discomfort, which is scary and confronting. And that might cause them to want to defend themselves against you. It is our responsibility to teach our dogs the right behaviours that will allow them to cope in the domestic environment. To reinforce when they get it right and, when they don’t, ask WHY. Work out the root of the problem, don’t just assume oh he’s trying to get the better of me. Because he’s not. Dogs are so much more mentally and cognitively advanced than people give them credit for. They’re not mindless machines out to achieve world domination. Every behaviour has a purpose - it’s your job to find out what caused it and, if it’s undesirable, how you can fix it.
Sorry that got a bit long and convoluted but I hope I got the point across well enough!
Here’s a couple of links for you that further debunk pack theory:
- Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs
- Comments on “Alpha” Dominance Theory
- De-Bunking the “Alpha Dog” Theory
- Forget About Being Alpha in Your Pack
- Misconceptions of the Mythical Alpha Do
- New Study Finds Popular “Alpha Dog” Training Techniques Can Cause More Harm than Good
- Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals
- Whatever Happened to the Term ALPHA Wolf?
oh god where to start
it’s a long topic because CM is VERY charismatic and /seems/ like a cool dude…but he’s really awful, like seriously seriously awful.
I was brainwashed by his philosophy at one point. It’s still a struggle sometimes to unwrite the impulse to “correct” a dog, but I’ve seen first-hand the damage it can do and I know that science based training is more humane, more effective, and faster.
This is my “why CM is awful” tag (and I just realized I’ve been spelling his last name wrong, whoops?), so there’s a lot of stuff in there. I’ll pull the most applicable posts and link them here.
Watching videos of him with the sound off can help you see how horrible he really is to the dogs. Watch a clicker trainer with the sound off and you can often still tell when the clicker starts clicking because the dog (or horse or bird or mouse or fish or…) immediately responds and engages in a happy, excited way.
His methods lead to aggression from the dog:
The highest frequency of aggression occurred in response to aversive (or punishing) interventions, even when the intervention was indirect:
• Hitting or kicking the dog (41% of owners reported aggression)
• Growling at the dog (41%)
• Forcing the dog to release an item from its mouth (38%)
• “Alpha roll” (forcing the dog onto its back and holding it down) (31%)
• “Dominance down” (forcing the dog onto its side) (29%)
• Grabbing the jowls or scruff (26%)
• Staring the dog down (staring at the dog until it looks away) (30%)
• Spraying the dog with water pistol or spray bottle (20%)
• Yelling “no” (15%)
• Forced exposure (forcibly exposing the dog to a stimulus – such as tile floors, noise or people – that frightens the dog) (12%)
In contrast, non-aversive methods resulted in much lower frequency of aggressive responses:
• Training the dog to sit for everything it wants (only 2% of owners reported aggression)
• Rewarding the dog for eye contact (2%)
• Food exchange for an item in its mouth instead of forcing the item out (6%)
• Rewarding the dog for “watch me” (0%)
(source) (CM uses 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, a version of 9, and 10 extensively; I’ve never seen him use anything from the non-aversive methods shown here except one time when he threw carrots at a dog and called it positive reinforcement. Not threw them /to/ the dog, purposefully hit the dog with bits of carrot.)
His misogyny (in general he is always saying that women can’t be pack leaders because blah blah blah, but here are some specific examples):
Women are the worst offenders in his world. In one of the outtakes included in the four-DVD set of the first season of “Dog Whisperer,” Mr. Millan explains that a woman is “the only species that is wired different from the rest.” And a “woman always applies affection before discipline,” he says. “Man applies discipline then affection, so we’re more psychological than emotional. All animals follow dominant leaders; they don’t follow lovable leaders.”
(source) (By the way, that last bit about animals following dominant leaders instead of lovable leaders is BS - I’ll try to find the source, but there was a study done on feral dogs that found that dogs prefered to follow the “leaders” who had the most friends, not the “leaders” that were most confrontational, like CM’s dominance mess is. Think about it: who’s more popular, the friendly teacher who jokes around with the class, or the hard-ass who doesn’t even allow talking in the halls between classes? Who would you willingly follow?)
Another instance, from a touring show in Victoria, Canada:
…THEN he kicked off the second half after intermission by comparing dogs to women in third world countries. Not even kidding you. You see Lainey, dogs today have too much food and affection. They are fat and loved but they have no discipline and exercise and therefore are unhappy…. women in third world countries, well they have no food and no affection but plenty of discipline and exercise and they are unhappy too. You see? Dogs and women need food, love, discipline and exercise, all FOUR….just imagine if you tried to tell a woman to go to the gym… you have to TRICK them into doing it HAR HAR HAR… just like dogs. The arena went SILENT. This comparison carried on for about 5 minutes while he tried to dig himself out. It didn’t work and he has lost me and I HOPE any other woman in that arena at that point.
I’m here to answer any questions in specific, but in general:
-He promotes ABUSIVE, ineffective, DANGEROUS training
-He is sexist in a very bold, demeaning way
-He refuses to educate himself further in the field of dog training, though he now has the time and resources to do so
Thankfully it seems his fame is winding down; “The Dog Whisperer” is done, his show where families competed to win a rescue dog is done, and his new show where he was doing something with experienced dog trainers is dead before it even started.
If you want some examples of good dog trainers, I recommend checking out:
- Nando Brown
- Victoria Stilwell
- Emily Larlham (Free YouTube videos under username “kikopup”)
The following trainers have wonderful, useful books:
- Dr. Sophia Yin
- Dr. Ian Dunbar
- Susan Clothier (haven’t read them personally but they’re recommended by people whose opinions I trust and value)
- Dr. Patricia McConnell
- Jean Donaldson
- Karen Pryor (I LOVE her book about clicker training.)
For specific issues:
- Scaredy Dog! Ali Brown (fearful dogs)
- Feisty Fido, Patricia McConnell (over-excitable dogs, reactive or “aggressive” dogs)
- I’ll Be Home Soon, Patricia McConnell (separation anxiety)
- Train Your Dog Like A Pro, Jean Donaldson (basic training)
- Control Unleashed, Leslie McDevitt (next-level training)
I’ll round this out with my last little anecdote about Opal.
Opal is my family’s German Shepherd. When she was a puppy I was still half-in, half-out of my CM brainwash phase. She began getting nervous and excited around other dogs during her second fear period, and began to bark and lunge at them. Our trainer at the time fitted her with a prong collar and told us how to use it.
It didn’t work. It made her worse. And yet, for a couple years we continued to use it because how else were we supposed to handle this ferocious, out of control dog? My dad, who is both tall and heavy-set, had to sit and hold her around the chest because he couldn’t hold onto the leash when a dog walked by on the other side of the road. She pulled my sisters down and across our entire front yard and down the driveway to get at other dogs. Once when I was walking her, she lunged at a dog in a (luckily) fenced in yard, and the prong collar broke off of her (another reason they’re shit, besides the pain-causing design). That was the turning point for me. I managed to catch her again while she was fence-running with the yard dog, got her home, and researched other ways to stop her from pulling and lunging.
Thank goodness for Victoria Stilwell’s “It’s Me or the Dog.”
After a couple months of focused desensitization/counter-conditioning (making her feel good about other dogs through gradual, at-a-distance exposure coupled with good things happening when she sees other dogs, for the non-training-geek), she was loads better. (Harnesses are brilliant and awesome and I love them.) I was able to attend a dog training class and have her focus on me and learn. By the fourth hour-long session, she was lying on her side (not cued or forced by me!) while the trainer was explaining new exercises - which is big, because that is a very vulnerable pose for a dog and she was in a room with five other dogs, including two mini schnauzer sisters who would often start fights with each other during lessons.
I now can take her running on a popular trail, where we pass dozens of dogs on each trip. She will walk by them and barely turn her head if I give her the “on-by” cue (on a good day. On a bad day I stand between her and the dog and she looks at them as we pass. Still loads better than before!).
We went to the dog park after our run yesterday to get her some water before driving home. The only other occupant was a slightly fearful pointer mix, who wasn’t sure if she wanted to play with Opal or not. Opal, in a complete opposite fashion from when she was younger and we were CM groupies, gave big, obvious “I am not a threat” body language. She approached on a curve, she did lovely loose body language and floppy goofy tail wags, she did play bows when the pointer started to play with her, and when the pointer had had enough and went “BLAARRRARARARRRRGGH” Opal looked away, then calmly walked away. (The pointer did not have the same clear body language as Opal. This happens often with punished dogs - they’re told “No, you can’t growl, no you can’t lunge, no you can’t say “I’m scared” so they bottle up their emotions until it’s all too much and it explodes.)
After that, the pointer started playing with Opal again, chasing Opal as Opal chased a frisbee. Pointer didn’t want Opal to engage with her, so Opal and I played fetch and pointer just ran after Opal wherever she went. It was sad to see the pointer acting as Opal had years ago, but such a contrast between the two was a striking illustration of just how far Opal’s come along once I understood her and started working with her rather than against.