Fixing a Dog Exposed to a Dominance Theory Trainer

By: David Codr

Published Date: August 5, 2014

Dom and Zzang-gu

This good looking pair of pooches live in downtown Omaha. Dom (on the left) and Zzang-gu’s owners are a couple, so the dogs have combined to make their own pack as well.

Zzang-gu’s owner called me for help after a bad experience with a trainer who practices dominance theory. Dominance theory is an old disproven fear based method of using negative reinforcement to get a response or reaction out of a dog. This theory has been proven to be cruel and unnecessary and has been abandoned by responsible trainers and behaviorists. Unfortunately a number of trainers who do not stay up to date with dog psychology still use this archaic and outdated method, to the detriment of the animals they work with.

In Zzang-gu’s case, this “trainer” slammed the dog to the ground for an “alpha-roll” on multiple occasions (after chasing the dog first). Pinning a dog down this way, using physical corrections or punishment and negative reinforcement has been shown to actually introduce the dog to the concept of dominance or aggression which can have an impact on the dog’s behavior.

Zzang-gu’s owner asked this trainer for help after being informed that her dog was snapping at some of the dogs in his daycare sessions when they got unruly or didn’t respect his personal space. While its not a behavior to seek out, growling and snapping to disagree are a form of canine communication. Usually only used after other communication attempts are ignored or not adhered to. Its possible to train a dog to not snap, growl, etc, but doing so usually only results in the dog moving to the next step when it needs to disagree – a bite. So the goal should never be to eliminate the growl itself. The better method is to help the dog learn other ways of coping with that stimulation or situation.

When I arrived for the session I saw an insecure dog with some pseudo-dominant behaviors from Zzang-gu, but I wouldn’t call it aggression. His pal Dom was barking at me as well, but I’m pretty sure Dom was simply agreeing and imitating his older pal’s behavior.

I took my time standing right inside the door, moving as little as possible as the dogs barked. I avoided any direct eye contact and remained motionless for a moment. Dom’s bark actually had more “bite” to it where Zzang-gu’s came across as less confident, but again, neither one was showing any aggression.

I turned to the side so the dog’s were both on my left and dropped into a lower, squatting position to help the dog’s understand I was not there to physically accost either of them. It took about 3 minutes, but the barking stopped and both dogs came over to sniff me once they relaxed.

As we discussed the dog’s experiences at daycare, Zzang-gu heard a sound from the apartment next door and let out a low growl in disagreement. He kept is low, but he was clearly disagreeing with the movement the dog couldn’t see.

I went over a distraction technique as well as how to disagree with the dog’s growl in the future. When a dog gets territorial, I find it most effective to have their owner strongly disagree. In Zzang-gu’s case, I had her owner stand up, walk in-between the dog and the door and use a sound to disagree with the dog’s objection. If Zzang-gu fails to stop, the next step is to move into his space to cause him to get up and move away.

By clearly disagreeing with the aggression this way, the dog will get practice at deferring to his owner which also helps elevate the owner’s status in the dog’s eyes. Because Zzang-gu’s disagreement was so low key, it didn’t take much for her owner to get her to stop.

By constantly disagreeing with his growling in a calm and consistent way, Zzang-gu’s reactions and attempts to control the situation should diminish. To help make an even faster transition, we went over a number of positive reinforcement and leadership exercises. As Zzang-gu masters these exercises, his confidence level will increase which will help his self esteem and overall attitude.

Zzang-gu is not an aggressive dog, his issue is he saw himself in a protector role and was exposed to someone who really didn’t have the basic or current understanding of dog behavior.

His owner told me that his daycare had said Zzang-gu’s attempts to correct other dogs like a baby sitter of sorts. For some dogs this is a natural position that they excel at. My Dalmatian Farley is a prime example. But where my dog Farley is calm, confident and a natural leader without being dominant or aggressive, Zzang-gu lacked confidence and was starting to use dominance and aggression. I can’t say definitively as I did not see Zzang-gu before the dominance theory trainer worked with him. but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of this new aggression was a result of the abuse from the former trainer.

By assuming the leadership role at home and disagreeing with him when he shows any territorial aggression, Zzang-gu’s owner will be able to help her dog stop stressing out by trying to do a job he was ill-suited for. Once he learns to stops trying to protect or control everything, he can go back to just being a dog again.

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