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Debunking Dominance

What do I mean by dominance?

Trainers and dog owners alike are all quite familiar with the term ‘dominance’ but it has come to my attention that most people do not understand what the science behind this term really is. Normally ‘dominance’ is a term I cringe away from, not because of what it means but because of its perceived theory and the actions this leads people to take. Due to a few damaging articles and ‘trainers’ this term has become quite a damaging label to be given to a dog. Not only does describing your dog as dominant provide no objective information about his behaviour, motivations or emotion; it opens up the chance of detrimental training methods being used.

Most often when people talk about ‘dominance’ it is referring to the belief that their dog is motivated to achieve a higher social status in the social group or household and is using aggressive behaviour to do so. This can lead to owners using fearful techniques to ‘dominate’ their dogs, employing an ‘alpha role’, in the more extreme cases owners are pinning their dogs to the ground in order to establish a higher social status. In my experience and studies, most aggressive behaviour in the pet dog stems from fear and insecurity and when people use those strategies it can be extremely destructive, not only by causing a breakdown in the bond with their dog but making the problem behaviour worse.

Photo by Alex Hammong from Colchester Zoo

So where does it come from?

Dominance theory originates from an early study on wolves in which scientists observed aggressive behaviour between individuals in attempt to access and maintain access to valuable resources and attributed this to a dominance hierarchy. It is very important to note that these wolves were a group of unrelated individuals living in captivity and this does not reflect a natural scenario. In fact, the original author of the study has gone on to state that these conclusions are incorrect.

The wild wolf lives in close-knit family groups consisting of parents and their offspring whose social interactions are based on cooperation not aggressive behaviour. Wolf parents are role models, teaching their young valuable social and survival skills, such as hunting. An ‘alpha’ role is not achieved through aggressive behaviour and fights will rarely happen as they are very costly when you don’t have access to medical care! Instead wolves rely on subtle body language to communicate with one another and a long-life ‘dominant’ characteristic has never been found.

What do we know now?

Dogs are not wolves, we know that their behaviour is quite different; even their physiology is altered yet the dominance theory stuck. Interestingly, research shows that feral dog packs do not act like their ancestors at all. Instead it was observed that they did not remain in family groups and their social interactions with one another were based on prior learning, social skills and communication, as well as context.

The terms ‘submissive’ and ‘dominant’ came about in early scientific animal research to describe relationship dynamics of individuals in specific contexts, such as when faced with only one bowl of food! If one individual valued the resource more so than the other, they were more likely to give clear signals of this, and the animal that placed less value is more likely to respond with appeasement signals to say ‘please go ahead, I don’t want to argue’. In my own household I see this a lot with my dogs, Rex like soft toys A LOT so when faced with Herbie also showing an interest, he will communicate to Herbie through a small stare and freeze and Herbie will move his head away and decide he does not really want the toy that much. HOWEVER Herbie really like our cats and if he is playing with a cat and Rex wants to play, Herbie may communicate with a bark and Rex will use his own appeasement signals to say ‘don’t worry, you can have this game’. Relationship dynamics between dogs vary hugely based on past interactions, the value they put on the resource and the context. Rex might be described as using a dominant strategy in one resource-based interaction and not the second, but that may change tomorrow, or the next day and their roles in the relationship will swap based on all of the above. I might add, neither of those dogs could ever be described as a ‘dominant dog’.

Social relationships between your dogs are not fixed, which means saying one dog is ‘top of the pack’ or ‘lowest in the pecking order’ has no real scientific basis: relationships are dynamic and ever-changing. Some dogs of course have more assertive personalities but in many cases those dogs behave emotionally and this is most likely related to frustration or fear and not a motivation to have a higher social status. Dog sociality is based on learning and communication, if competition leads to a fight it may be that both dogs find the resource extremely valuable, or that communication has gone wrong somewhere! Dominance is a property of a single relationship, it is not a motivation for social status or interactions, it is not a personality trait and it does not drive aggressive behaviour.

Things to take away from this

  • There is no such thing as a ‘dominant dog.’

  • Using fearful techniques to ‘put your dog in their place’ is dangerous; it can have negative impacts on your bond with your dog and cause or worsen behaviour problems.

  • Dogs are not wolves.

  • Dominance refers to a relationship property not a personality trait.

  • Your dog knows that you are not a dog.

Be your dog’s teacher, not their alpha.

Please contact me to arrange a 121 or behavioural consultation if your dog is displaying fearful or aggressive behaviour.

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