LONDON, May 22, 2009 -- Trying to make your dog less aggressive by showing them you are the boss is a waste of time, researchers in a new British study say, especially when using popular new training techniques that urge owners to use physical force to make their dogs more compliant.
According to the study, physical control methods usually shown on TV or touted by celebrity pet trainers like "The Dog Whisperer," Cesar Millan are "ridiculous" and could do more harm than good by making aggressive behavior in dogs worse.
Researchers from the University of Bristol's department of clinical veterinary sciences studied dogs for six months They compared their observations to existing studies of wild dogs, like wolves, and concluded that generations of dog lovers have misunderstood "aggressive canines."
The study asserts that, contrary to popular belief, dogs are not trying to assert their dominance over their canine or human "pack" and aren't motivated by maintaining their place in the pecking order.
ABC News spoke to Rachel Casey, one of the scientists behind the study. She said that the blanket assumption that every dog is motivated by some innate desire to control people or other dogs is "frankly ridiculous."
Casey explained that methods such as instructing owners to eat before their dogs or go through doors first will not influence a dog's perception of the relationship but only teach them what to expect in certain situations.
Many animal scientists also argue that it's far more productive to train dogs using rewards rather than punishment, such as pinning a dog to a floor, grabbing jowls or blasting hooters, all popular new techniques touted on TV and magazines.
Casey added, "we very often see dogs which have learned to show aggression to avoid anticipated punishment. Owners are often horrified when we explain that their dog is terrified of them, and is showing aggression because of the techniques they have used but it's not their fault when they have been advised to do so, or watched unqualified 'behaviorists' recommending such techniques on TV."
One particular dog trainer whose behavior methods have come under fire is Cesar Millan, whose use of dominance-based techniques has sparked fierce debate in the animal world. His show "The Dog Whisperer'" appears on the National Geographic Channel.
Millan defends his methods, which include pinning your dog to the floor to show them you are the dominate one in the relationship, because, he claims, it's the only language dogs understand.
"If what you do is say, "I'm sorry, baby, [your dog] Mommy has to go, blah, blah, blah," the dog doesn't understand what you are saying. He only understands that you are in a soft state and he is dominating you," Millan told the New York Times in 2006.
Casey told ABC News that "punishing techniques" like Millan's are counterproductive. "We feel techniques like these compromises the dog's welfare and could make a dog's behavior worse by increasing fear and anxiety. We really wanted to get the message out there: please don't use these sorts of techniques on your dog."
Many Dog Owners Say Sometimes Only Dominance Works
However, dog owner Catriona Magee told ABC News that sometimes it's hard not to use a dominate tactic to control your dog. "We have a dog that likes to jump off the wall at horses going past and the horses get really spooked. She wouldn't stop so we had to resort to a collar that squirts a strong lemon scent that dogs hate and it briefly worked."
Magee said that for their own safety sometimes you have to be forceful but the key is you have to do it so the dog doesn't know it's you squirting the lemon using a remote control.
She added, "Sometimes my husband gets in the dog bed to enforce himself as leader of the pack and it lets the dogs know who is in charge."
Not everyone agrees with the study's findings. Dog behaviorist and obedience trainer Stan Rawlinson told ABC News that while he agrees in part with the study, he disagrees that dogs do not show dominate behavior.
Rawlinson also said that academics are slow to suggest alternatives usually because they don't know any. He thinks that many dog trainers have been "getting it wrong."
"They have been incorrect in their methods and beliefs for many years but they have not kept up with new ideas and techniques. In many cases, they are what I call one-trick ponies."
He added, "The problem with the people who advocate the Alpha and rank reduction route, is either they do not understand or they choose to ignore the fact that behavioral problems in dogs often have wide and differing backgrounds. Pack dynamics only involves approximately 15 percent of the cases that I have to treat."