PetPsych

Animal Behavior & Training

The Dominance Myth



An important note on dominance (aka the 'D' word), pack theory, alpha status etc...

Forget about all this, it is old news these days, although unfortunately these theories are still very prevalent! But research in canine behavior has come a long way in the last 20 years and theories like this are not only inappropriate to the human/dog relationship, but also rather naive. Even wolf packs (which dogs are not) co-operate and work together as a team based on the individual strengths and weaknesses of the pack members. But dogs have no need to form a pack with their human owners as every need for their survival is already provided for – by us.

Dogs do what they do to get what they want or need based on their requirements for optimum survival (eat when they are hungry, sleep when they are tired etc). They do not do what they do to try to ‘dominate’ us or annoy us. In a dog’s universe it comes down to what they perceive as safe and what they perceive as dangerous/threatening, and they will react accordingly dependent on both their genetic make-up and their current environment.

Unfortunately, dog owners have been led to believe - often by popular dog literature - that a dog who barges past them in a doorway, who sleeps on their bed or who eats before they do is ‘dominant’. Sadly, this has led to some owners misinterpreting many canine behaviors as rank climbing. But are dogs really status-seekers who, given half the chance, will try to overthrow the 'leadership' in their family, regain their 'alpha status' and rule the household with an iron paw? Do we really need to have a (potentially) combative and/or confrontational relationship with our pet dogs? Of course not!

Instead, the key issue here would seem to be communication – or rather, miscommunication. Dogs generally do what they do as a result of some environmental, emotional or medical cause – not because they are seeking to be dominant (1). But dog owners do not always seem to realise this. As canine psychology expert James O’Heare so rightly points out, humans can quite easily manipulate dogs to behave the way they want them to behave by training them with positive reinforcement methods, so why would a dog even need to 'dominate' anything or anyone in the first place? It's a good question, which leads to another question:

Does dominance in dogs even exist?

The average dog owner may have never given this much thought, but it’s a good point. Even amongst experts, there is disagreement as to the definition of dominance. Some believe it to be an individual personality trait, others see it as pertaining to a specific relationship or situation (2), and others still suggest it is used only to describe an individual relationship, while using an alternative term such as assertiveness when describing an individual’s propensity to strive for a dominant position within a relationship (3).

To accuse a dog of dominance or 'being dominant' is just far too simplistic. For example, if your dog growls at you if you go too close to his food bowl, is he trying to dominate you? No! He's just guarding a precious resource (see resource guarding). This is a standard canine survival strategy. If you ignore his warnings, he may get more aggressive or he may not. It depends on his genetic make-up, his early learning experiences and his environment.

This school of thought has not only ensured that dogs have been widely misunderstood for generations, it has often caused immense damage to human-canine relationships by justifying harsh treatment of pet dogs. If you don’t agree, think back to the Barbara Woodhouse credo for dog training...

(See also Canine Aggression and Let's Be Friends)

References

(1)    Fisher, J: Why Does My Dog?, Souvenir Press 1991
(2)    Lindsay, S: Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Vol. 2 – Etiology and Assessment of Behavior Problems, Iowa State University Press 2001
(3)    Serpell, J & Jagoe, J A: Early Experience and the Development of Behaviour in Serpell, J: The Domestic Dog, its Evolution, Behaviour and Interactions with People, Cambridge University Press 1995

Copyright © Susan Nilson 2005/2006

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