A Vet Explains Why Dominance Doesn’t Work in Dog Training

Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB
Vet Reviewed
By Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB on Nov. 7, 2012
A Vet Explains Why Dominance Doesn’t Work in Dog Training

Maverick and I were at the beach one day with two of our friends and their pups — a Border Collie and a Black Lab — both Maverick’s age. As I described in a previous blog, Maverick and I spend our time at the beach seeking out dogs who are friendly so that I can use dog play as a reward for calm behavior on Maverick’s part. We were doing just that on this day.

As we were walking down the beach we came across an older man with an older yellow lab. As he and I talked, I learned that his dog Sophie was 8 years old. As I walked down the beach talking to her father, Maverick and Sophie played in the waves. Sophie soon learned that I had treats in my bag, which I was happy to give out for good behavior.

It was a fun walk. We eventually caught up with my friends and we ended our walk. Not surprisingly, Sophie wanted to stay with us. What’s not to like? There are three dogs to play with and the short human keeps giving me liver! So, as her father walked on, Sophie stayed with us. I might have missed it, but I never heard him call her to come to him. He got a ways away and I lost track of him as I watched Maverick play. I looked to my left and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sophie’s owner holding her down on her side. I turned to my friends and said, "Ick." In a minute, he had let her up and they went down the beach. I don’t blame Sophie’s dad for what happened, at least not entirely. This move of throwing dogs to the ground and holding them down is very pervasive on television.

The act of holding a dog down forcibly as a correction is generally called the "dominance down." It is inappropriate, ethologically absurd, and completely counterproductive when interacting with dogs. In a nutshell — don’t do it. Ever.

The fallacy of the dominance down first came out of the idea that submission is generally shown by canids when they expose their inguinal region (where the genitalia are) while they lie on the ground. So, someone thought that this action would be a good way to force dogs to be submissive and gain obedience by forcing them into this position. Complete bunk.

This is flawed in multiple ways.

First, before a dog offers submission to another dog, there are lots of other body language signals that are interchanged between the dogs. These signals are generally intended to defuse the situation to avoid a fight. If the fight can’t be avoided with these more benign signals, more obvious signals are offered, such as the belly up signal of inguinal exposure. Before an owner performs the dominance down, there are rarely any body language signals exchanged that would make any sense to the dog. This makes the interaction confusing for the dog. It comes out of the blue, which makes it scary, and for some dogs it looks like an invitation to fight.

Second, dogs offer this position naturally, they don’t forcibly toss each other to the ground without warning. Owners throw dogs to the ground without warning. This causes fear of the owner and puts dogs predisposed to aggression in a fighting mood. Consider how you would react if your spouse didn’t like what you were doing and decided to attempt to hold you down to "correct" you. How would you react? I would fight like there was no tomorrow and then call the police. This explains why so many owners are bitten while performing this misguided move.

Third, fear doesn’t equal obedience. It just equals fear. I would bet everything I own that what Sophie’s dad did didn’t cause her to be any more obedient when put in that same situation again. It did cause her to distrust him and fear him. These are two states of mind that generally cause disobedience, not obedience. The best trainers train their dogs to be obedient without ever attempting this move.

Finally, if you just won’t give up on the idea that your dog should submit to you, why don’t you just teach your dog to lie down on his side? Then, when you want to show him that he should be submissive, you can just ask for it. That seems a lot easier than holding your dog down. If you want to show your dog that you are more powerful, intelligent, and dominant, while also teaching him to be obedient, get a handful of treats. Then, use the treat to lure him into the down position. When he can reliably lie down on cue, you can start to use the treat to lure his head back toward his shoulder. When he is consistently falling onto his elbow, move the treat back to lure him onto his side. Then, pair this action with a verbal cue such as "lie on your side."

Easy as that, you have achieved your goal — an obedient dog who gets into the submissive position. And you will have done it all without fear, intimidation, or force. Everybody wins.

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: Honey99 by Paul Belson / via Flickr

Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB
Vet Reviewed


Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB


Dr. Radosta is a board certified veterinary behaviorist and owner of Florida Veterinary Behavior Service since 2006.  She is a well known...

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