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February 21, 2017
All Interesting and Stuff
February 21, 2017

A conversation about that Darned Dominance Debate

I recently had a very interesting email conversation with Dylan Boyce, a trainer who took issue with my article That Darned Dominance Debate. With his permission, the interchange is posted here. I deeply appreciate that Dylan took the time to contact me directly. It is far less easy (and sadly, more common) for people to just take shots at trainers who they have not seen work, whose work they have not studied, whose philosophy or perspective they do not understand. Dylan took a direct approach, demonstrating a real willingness to learn rather than to simply indulge in histrionics. Thank you for that, Dylan, for the questions & and for allowing me to post this here.

Note: I have edited out only comments that have nothing to do with the subject.

Dylan wrote:

I recently read this article and commented on a public forum about it and someone told me I should ask you about it so here I am.

Here is the comment I made:
"She never really addresses the elephant in the room, which is that there is a prominent, highly influential trainer who puts forward a very different view of dominance which can help explain why people think dominance is fixed and associated with force and coercion. The dominance she puts forward does exist, but the dominance put forward by this famous trainer most certainly does not. Blaming "trainers" while refusing to acknowledge the cause behind the current understanding of dominance in popular culture seems unfair, to say the least."

It seemed to me you set up strawpeople to make your point and that by failing to mention the culpability of dominance trainers who use spurious methods you are creating an umbrella for all of dominance theory.

After a cursory glance at your other articles I can see that is probably not the case but reading this article on its own that was the conclusion I came to. I would like to hear any response you may have to my concern.

I do have to say that although I have only read a bit about you I really like your statement about operant conditioning. For myself (I am just starting out) I am very interested in the concept but BF Skinner did his work in the 60s and it's nice to see people suggesting that his theories might not be the end-all be-all of dog psychology.


Suzanne wrote:

Hi Dylan
Interesting take on my article. Not sure what you think I should have done - pick a well known trainer and jump up and down and point at him as the reason dominance is such a loaded, misunderstood word? Not my point at all. My point is that trainers and any serious student of the dog should do some careful thinking about a very loaded topic, rather than react in emotional but not particularly informed ways.

Here's the deal: I am an old trainer. Long, long, long before Cesar Millan made his way to the NatGeo channel, the dominance argument was featured far and wide, loud and clear in just about every popular dog training text. Guessing based on my experience of the last 10-15 years, many young trainers haven't a clue how much Cesar is a new kid on the block, but hardly bringing any new ideas. Just good marketing. But he makes a handy target for many. I'm not a fan of CM for many reasons, but all this began long ago.

Go back to Konrad Most, for example, one of the earlier dog training texts here in the US (translated in 1954 into English, first published in German 1910). See the Monks of New Skete, who I believe just celebrated their 25th year of their "How To Be Your Dog's Best Friend", first published in 1978. Don't forget Bill Koehler, of course, and for a poetic take on dominance, be sure to read the late Vicki Hearne and "Adam's Task." Tons more out there - these are just the easy examples. I would assume those are all on the shelf of any serious trainer who really wishes to master their craft and think deeply on the subject of dogs, training, human/dog interactions, and the history of training.

Far from setting up "straw men" I am (perhaps foolishly) assuming serious trainers who wish to discuss dominance have

  • a) done their reading
  • b) understand the history of dog training; and thus
  • c) can put Cesar into the proper perspective as just a popularized pusher of very old information.

Culpability? Any trainer who has not read, thought and sorted for themselves based on (always additional, always cumulative) information. Just as an uninformed, mentally lazy public will always have to bear the blame for swallowing wholesale and perhaps unwisely what is marketed to them.


Dylan wrote:

Hi Suzanne,

Thank you for your quick response. I guess I simply thought that one way to explain what dominance is would be to explain what it is not. Considering its, uh, dominance in at least the US popular culture it seemed curious to me that you said nothing of it. Whether you bring up Cesar Milan would have been immaterial but relating it to the idea of what dominance is in the public mind might have helped clarify your meaning, at least for me I suppose.
Regardless, as I said once I read your blog and put the article in context it read quite differently. Thank you for your time and of course for the book recommendations. I have put them on my wish list.

Suzanne wrote:
I'm a bit puzzled by your comments. It seemed pretty clear that I did explain what dominance is not when I wrote, early on:"Dominance is not necessarily synonymous with pecking order or rigid hierarchies. It is not synonymous with aggression, coercion, abuse, force. And yet many trainers persist in talking about dominance as if it were synonymous with all of the above."I think you'll find those books interesting in philosophy and technique. A very good article series to hunt from the old Dog World
would be Patricia Gail Burnham's history of dog training. Really outstanding! No idea when it came out, as the years keep speeding
past.Thanks for a thoughtful discussion. Appreciate it! cheers

Dylan wrote:

Hi Suzanne,

My apologies, you do address it in the article. Thanks for pointing that out.
I didn't come up with anything through a web search on those articles but I will keep trying. If nothing else her book "Playtraining Your Dog" looks excellent. I seem to get the same book recommendations all the time so it's nice to find some that are new to me.
I am about to begin my training certificate course, so I am reading up as much as I can to prepare. Again, thanks for your response.
Be well,

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"A conversation about that Darned Dominance Debate" by Suzanne Clothier

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