Cesar Millan and Dominance
from our newsletter, 2009

Those of you who watch Cesar Millan's television show are familiar with the concept of dominance. Fifteen years ago, most dogs were trained using this concept, which led to training based on force and submission.  As Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS explains on her website: Traditional training techniques are based on the idea that we must become the dominant leader and rule our pets the way a wolf would rule a pack. That is, they assume most misbehavior in dogs is due to the dog trying to be dominant and then they employ techniques that they think a wolf (since dogs are seen as having a social structure similar to wolves) would perform in a wolf pack.  Since then, however, research on both canine learning and the social structure of wolves has led to new, scientifically-based methods of dog training that differ from those used by The Dog Whisperer  and other traditional trainers.

For a different perspective, please look at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) position statement on dominance. You'll find a short version below.  APDT's new "pet owner section" includes a longer, expanded article based on the position statement and a chart detailing some common behavior myths that are often confused with dominance.  The pet owners section is at (On the left, click on position statements under "About APDT".) The article also has a link to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) position statement on dominance.

You can take a specific, if disturbing, look at The Dog Whisperer at:

and also in The Whole Dog Journal, Dec, 2006.

If you have time and want to go through what is, in effect, a tutorial, including videos and questions, on Cesar Millan and dominance, go to the website of Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, one of the leading experts on dog and animal behavior whom I have quoted above:
Dominance and Dog Training
Association of Pet Dog Trainers Position Statement

There has been a resurgence in citing "dominance" as a factor in dog behavior and dog-human relationships. This concept is based on outdated wolf studies that have long since been disproven. Contrary to popular belief, research studies of wolves in their natural habitat demonstrate that wolves are not dominated by an "alpha wolf" who is the most aggressive pack member. Rather, wolves operate with a social structure similar to a human family and depend on each other for mutual support to ensure the group's survival.
Dogs are not wolves. The idea that dog behavior can be explained through the application of wolf behavior models is no more relevant than suggesting that chimpanzee behavior can be used to explain the intricacies of human behavior.  While wolves and dogs share some similarities in behavior, there are many more significant differences.  Dog training and behavior modification strategies that rely primarily on misinterpretations of wolf behavior are therefore irrelevant, ineffective and can lead to serious negative complications.
While dominance is a valid scientific concept, the term "dominance" itself is widely misunderstood, such as when it is used to describe the temperament of a particular dog. Dominance is not a personality trait but a description of a relationship between two or more animals and is related to which animal has access to valued resources such as food, mates, etc. It should not be used in any way to support the belief that dogs are out to "dominate" us, especially as that misunderstanding causes some people to respond with force and aggression. This only serves to create an adversarial relationship filled with miscommunication and even more misunderstanding. The unfortunate result is often anxiety, stress and fear in both dogs and humans towards each other. The use of techniques such as the "alpha roll" on dogs, which is based on these mistaken beliefs about dogs and wolves, has no place in modern dog training and behavior modification. Dogs often respond to this perceived threat with increased fear and aggression, which may serve to make a behavior problem worse and ruin the dog-owner relationship.

The APDT's position is that physical or psychological intimidation hinders effective training and damages the relationship between humans and dogs. Dogs thrive in an environment that provides them with clear structure and communication regarding appropriate behaviors, and one in which their need for mental and physical stimulation is addressed. The APDT advocates training dogs with an emphasis on rewarding desired behaviors and discouraging undesirable behaviors using clear and consistent instructions and avoiding psychological and physical intimidation. Techniques that create a confrontational relationship between dogs and humans are outdated. Modern scientifically-based dog training should emphasize teamwork and a harmonious relationship between dogs and humans that fulfills both species' needs. Most of all, it should be a fun and enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers encourages and supports continued trainer education in order to promote gentle, effective, fast, and fun ways to train dogs using the most up-to-date information and sound, scientifically-based methods.
For more information, please see related information on our web site at
Approved October 20, 2009

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers 150 Executive Center Drive, Box 35, Greenville, SC 29615 - 1-800-PET-DOGS (738--3647) -