What's the deal with dominance?

It’s time to set the record straight and sort the fact from the fiction.

“Dominant” is one of the most common descriptive words thrown around when talking about dogs. It is often quoted to be the reason for almost any dog behaviour in any context, from humping people’s legs at home to displaying aggression at the dog park. The concept of “dominance” as motivation for dog behaviour is one that people have proclaimed as gospel and believed wholeheartedly for many decades, however, in reality, it is no more than a myth, a total falsehood and fallacy.

In fact, it is fascinating where the whole “dominance” myth came from. It arose from a study done in the 1940’s wherein a group of unrelated unfamiliar wolves were taken from the wild and put together in an enclosure. The researchers then observed their behaviour and as you can imagine, what they saw was a lot of unease, unrest, aggression and fighting. Some wolves used overt aggressive behaviour to keep others away and to keep themselves and their valuable resources safe. Some wolves showed fearful body language and withdrew or completely shut down. Some wolves used a combination of aggression and retreat - depending on the context.

As the researchers observed the wolves through a human lens and paradigm the conclusion they made was: wolves use physical force and violence to set up and maintain a linear social hierarchy of dominance in order to control interactions and resource distribution.  The aggressive wolves who displaced other individuals were labelled “dominant”, while the animals who withdrew or fled were labelled “submissive”. Unfortunately, this interpretation was completely inaccurate.

In reality, all that was happening was that the stressed, confused, conflicted and fearful animals were behaving in the best way they knew how to in order to cope and keep safe. Their choice of whether to use aggression or retreat when confronted with emotional distress and social conflict was based on their genetic temperaments, their past experience / learning and the relevant context at the time. The wolves certainly had no broader concept of “dominance” nor the desire to establish themselves as leaders of the pack or set up a social hierarchy of power and influence. They were simply trying to keep themselves safe.

Now, despite the fact the assumption made about dominance being the primary social motivator for the wolves’ behaviour was false and misleading; it was then applied to domestic dogs - a very unscientific leap! Dogs are descended from wolves but dogs have undergone approximately 15,000 years of radical domestication and are anatomically, psychologically, socially and behaviourally very different to wolves. Dogs in natural settings do not form packs. They may have preferred associates who they like to spend time with but they do not work together to form cohesive units. Even wolves do not have a linear hierarchical social structure with strict rank as once thought - rather they work as a cohesive close family unit and will often do things such as let the puppies or young animals eat first.

To put things in perspective, concluding from the research that our domestic companion dogs behave using physical aggression to establish dominance was akin to placing a group of unfamiliar chimpanzees in the Big Brother House, observing their unruly behaviour and then concluding that this is how modern human households and society operates. Completely inaccurate and inappropriate!

So why do dogs do what they do, if not to establish dominance?

To understand how and why dogs behave as they do we have to understand their cognitive abilities. Dogs have the cognitive and reasoning power of a young toddler - an 18-24 month old human child.

So if you picture two toddlers playing in a sandpit - one toddler pushes the other over and snatches their toy - you would not conclude from this interaction that the toddler who snatched the toy did so in an attempt to establish leadership and dominance and to exert social hierarchy over the other individual. Rather you understand that the interaction was based simply on the motivation of the child to obtain the toy. This is because, at the developmental stage of a toddler, they are self-serving and have no concept of broader adult human patterns of social structure.

In the same way, behaviour in dogs is the result of their underlying emotion and motivation at the time in that given particular context NOT any pre-meditated and thought out attempt to establish leadership, hierarchy or dominance.

Furthermore, scientifically, “dominance” was never meant as an adjective to describe an individual’s personality or drive (as we would if we describe a dog as “dominant”) - rather the definition of dominance is actually just the OUTCOME of a given SINGLE interaction between two or more individuals when they are competing for access to a specific resource in a specific CONTEXT.

For example, if Dog A is eating a bone and Dog B comes over, stares, stiffens, growls and scares Dog A away, then Dog B who ends up with the bone is said to have been “dominant” in this interaction. However, “dominance” is not an inherent trait of the individual (Dog B) who took the bone it is just the OUTCOME for that dog in that moment. In contrast, in a different setting at a different point in time Dog A who retreated from the conflict over the bone may win a contest over a different resource such as a toy or his owner’s attention. He may find toys or attention a more valuable resource than a bone and thus may be more willing to risk an aggressive conflict over this resource.

So, the outcome of any conflict depends on the motivation of the animals involved which depends on to what extent they value the resource compared to risking aggression or injury. It also depends on their confidence in their ability to win the contest - which is based on prior learning experience interacting with existing temperament.

So we need to understand that if a dog is showing aggression towards another dog or a person it is never due to dominance. Rather, in almost all cases of aggression in dogs, there is underlying fear, anxiety and insecurity which is causing the aggression - NOT DOMINANCE. In many cases, there may be underlying medical causes contributing such as pain, irritation, itchiness, hormones, disease or neurochemical imbalance. This is why it is always necessary to first investigate a dog’s general health when presenting with behavioural problems. In fact, if two dogs are persistently fighting or having aggressive interactions one of the individuals is almost always abnormal and is suffering an anxiety disorder or other underlying problem. If you think about it, from an evolutionary perspective, aggressive is not a good idea if it is irrational, persistent, out of context or excessive - it is costly and inherently unpleasant. Therefore the aggressive individual must have a medical or emotional problem compelling them to be anti-social.

Now the really important point is that falsely labelling dogs and misunderstanding them as dominant is extremely harmful to our relationship with them. If we believe our dogs are trying to be dominant and that this is their motivation for behaviour then naturally we assume that to deal with their behaviour we need to be dominant i.e. we need to be the “leader of the pack” and “show the dog who’s boss” to make them “submit”. Sometimes people may become confrontational and aggressive towards their dogs in a naive and misguided attempt to be dominant. They may use physical force or punishment in an attempt to ensure the dog knows its place. However, dogs have no comprehension of any of this. If a dog appears to be “submitting” in response to a person’s confrontational dominance techniques they are simply responding to the imminent threat of the person’s aggression by showing fearful non-threatening body language in an attempt to communicate, diffuse the conflict and avoid a fight. When we believe a dog is being submissive to us this is a false misinterpretation - they are actually showing soft appeasing body language because they are scared and are trying to calm us down.

Sadly, when people do use confrontation, aggression and physical force to try and control dog behaviour it inevitably involves increasing the dog’s fear, anxiety and confusion which in many cases will lead to worsening escalating aggression as the dog tries to defend itself and gain some control of the scary interaction. The human-animal relationship and bond can then quickly dissolve and our treatment of the dog may become abusive - as they have no understanding of what is going on or why we are being aggressive and frightening. This miscommunication and misunderstanding from our part often leads to a life-time of confusing stressful volatile punishment or relinquishment or euthanasia for the dog. This is why we have a moral obligation to understand our companion dogs for who they really are so that we can provide for the physical, behavioural, emotional and psychological needs.

In summary, the commonly quoted term “dominance” is not applicable to dogs as a personality trait, motivation or drive. It is not a reason for why dogs behave but rather is only the outcome of a given interaction. There is actually no such thing as a dominant dog.

Dominance is now considered a swear word in veterinary behavioural medicine!

So the next time you hear it tossed around in conversation when out and about you can know the truth and be confident in your true understanding of dog behaviour and psychology.  

When it comes to our dogs, let’s strive not for a false sense of dominance but instead for compassion, communication, cooperation and cohabitation.

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Behaviour
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behaviour
dominance
aggression
leader
pack
protective

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