Welcome to Understanding Dominance in Domestic Dogs, I’m Tristan Flynn and I’m a certified Pet Dog Trainer operating in HRM, Formerly I ran Golden Rule Training but will be opening Jollytails doggie daycare in Late July in Halifax Offering daycare along with group training and behavior rehabilitation for aggression and other issues.
Dominance is a traditional ethological concept that pertains to an individual's ability—generally under controlled conditions—to maintain or regulate access to some resource. It is a description of the regularities of winning or losing staged contests over those resources. It is not to be confused with status and, in fact, does not need to confer priority of access to resources.In situations in which the concept of dominance has been used with regard to status, it is important to realize that it is not defined as aggression on the part of the "dominant" animal but rather as the withdrawal of the "subordinate.“The behavior of the relatively lower status individuals, not the relatively higher ranking one, is what determines the relative hierarchical rank.Rank itself is contextually relative. Truly high-ranking animals are tolerant of lower-ranking ones.Dominance displays infrequently lead to actual combat. Instead, combat ensues when these displays are not effective.If there is no assumption of a dominance-based system, one is seldom identified. When free-ranging baboon interactions were classified by behavioral types (e.g., friendly, approach–retreat) and then analyzed according to specific behaviors of the participants, no dominance system was noted. This research was also done by John Bradshaw in the Paper, Dominance in domestic dogs, useful construct or bad habit
“Dominance theory is so muddled that it often contradicts itself. For example, if a "dominant dog" is acting aggressively and the solution is through "calm-assertive" energy which makes the human the "dominant pack leader," wouldn't a dominant dog act calm-assertive instead of aggressive?”Lindsay (2000) – many aggressive displays that are currently diagnosed as dominance aggression are aimed at avoiding some perceived aversive outcome rather than establishing or maintaining the offending dogs social status
Thirty to forty years ago, dominance theory was the basis for dog training. All behaviour and methods linked back to the idea that social interactions take the form of either dominance or submission. Some of the very first dog training books that came out linked to a popular book at the time titled The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species (First published 1970, University of Minnesota Press). In this book, Biologist David Mech outlines his studies of captive wolves and their behaviour. He concluded that order was maintained in the wolf pack by one wolf being an alpha leader, which was established through force and physical strength.One of the most popular dog training books that followed was How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend by the monks of New Skete (first published in 1978). Many of their methodologies reflected this research and focused on the importance of being a pack leader, being seen as alpha, and the use of physical force in training. They were responsible for the technique known as the “alpha roll” which advised physically flipping a dog on his stomach to force him into a ‘submissive’ position, a practice still done by some trainers today.Dog training, still in its infancy to the general public, became much more popular with these publications. Finally, dog training seemed to be easily explainable and anyone could do it. Trainers jumped on the bandwagon, agreeing that many behavioural problems were due to the dog being ‘dominant’ and trying to raise his status within his human ‘pack’. The remedy was based on what science at the time told us wolves would do to resolve the problem.
Dr Mech States:“Labeling a high-ranking wolf alpha emphasizes its rank in a dominance hierarchy. However, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none. Thus, calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so "alpha" adds no information. " The Monks have also re-released How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend with 40% new material and the following notation:“The Monks of New Skete advocate the philosophy that understanding is the key to communication, and compassion with your dog; whether it is a new puppy or an old companion. From The Art of Raising a Puppy we have learned that our monastic environment offers us a unique perspective. Here we are forced to re-examine our attitudes about everything, including dogs. We are constantly challenged to become more open to the language dogs use to communicate with us. “
DNA similarities between the two comparisons are about the same
Prof Ray Coppinger (2001) stated: “Dogs can’t think like wolves because they don’t have wolf brains. We descended from apes but we don’t behave like them and we don’t think like they do. We are a much different animal than apes and in spite of our common ancestry – the same is true of the dog and its ancestor the wolf”.
It seems ridiculous to talk about a linear dominance hierarchy in such a group of dogs, the composition of which may change from minute to minute as the dogs interact in a dog park, since rank, which is a statistical construct, can only have meaning within in a group that stays together long enough for a statistical pattern to emerge.
But since captive wolves don’t have access to this natural method of reducing stress, or of offloading their natural predatory aggression, or of fostering group harmony (you can’t hunt large prey without working together), captive wolves find themselves fighting instead over little things; that’s what they do with their aggressive energy—they scrimmage.The same process would be apparent in both village dogs and domesticated dogs. Village dogs don’t usually hunt together; they mostly scavenge. So they tend to have the same build up of tension seen in captive wolves, and skirmish a lot. With pet dogs, who are like both village dogs and captive wolves in that they don’t routinely hunt as a group, it’s often the most “dominant” dog in a household who doesn’t know how to play, for example. And since play is nature’s stand-in for the hunt (it teaches young predators how to catch prey, and young prey animals how to evade predators), it’s a great tension reducer, as well as a kind of social “glue”—it bonds dogs and owner together emotionally. And for dogs, in fact for all animals, social play is probably the best tension-reducer there is. That’s why when a “dominant” dog is taught how to play hunting games in a harmonic social context, or when his owner or trainer find another way to reduce his inner anxiety, you’ll find that all his supposed instinctual dominant behaviors begin to magically disappear.So it turns out that what we’ve all been taught was dominance is really two things: a build up of internal stress, and a form of resource guarding, which is an anxiety-based behavior.
Generally a stable wolf pack consists of a mated pair and their immediate offspring known as a nuclear family. Pack dynamics are not necessarily straight forward as packs can have extended families with siblings and their offspring, a disrupted family where one or both of the parents are missing or a step family which has accepted a wolf from another pack (Packard 2003)Many wolves at the age of about two or three leave the pack and go in search of another lone wolf to start their own pack – these are known as dispersers. Rather than stay in the nuclear family where there is little chance of passing on their genes and mating they risk the elements of the wild.Original pack observations were from captured wolf packs. In a natural wolf pack dominance is not manifested as a pecking order and seems to have less significance than the results of studies of captive packs had implied. In a natural wolf pack the dominance rules bear no resemblance to those of the packing order, that of similar individuals competing for rank. ( mech 2000)Captured wolves are unable to leave the pack and build their own as a free wolf would hence the domination ranks that develop.
Dr Ian Dunbar studied the hierarchy and dominance of Dogs for 10 years in the 1970’s, I was fortunate enough to be able to meet with Dr Dunbar and discuss his research.
Some trainers may not use the word ‘dominance’ in regards to their training methods, but rather market to the idea that using punishment and force is the “natural” way to train dogs. Their theory is that a dog’s natural communication with each other is through punishment and correction. These trainers also normally tie this idea in with the dominance model of needing to use corrections and force to maintain order and control. It’s true that dogs do learn through corrections from other dogs instead of positive reinforcement (you don’t’ see other dogs giving each other bones for a job well done) but the biggest problem here is – a human isn’t a dog.Humans struggle to communicate with dogs in their language. A study showing how humans played with dogs examined methods for encouraging play. Despite a play-bow being one of the top ways for dogs to encourage play - a human play-bow was found to be least effective to encourage play from another dog vs. other normal human methods such as jumping around, making noise, etc.Humans are unable to communicate with dogs via language in the same way because communication takes into account all aspects of body language. Humans don’t have a tail to communicate with, pay very little attention to how their weigh is shifted, and do not use their teeth, mouths, or eyebrows the way a dog would. While it’s clear that our body language can impact a dog’s behaviour, we simply do not have the same communicative repertory that a dog does.It’s been shown that dogs that more closely resemble wolves have a much higher communicative repertoire than those that do not. A German Shepard for example displays many more signals than that of a Pug.Humans also cannot hope to have the speed at which dogs correct themselves. Many humans punish their dogs numerous seconds after an event occurs – a dog’s correction is normally the instant the behaviour occurs.
Suppose you have four groups of four dogs and you toss a juicy bone into each group. Likely there may be fighting and one dog will likely emerge with the bone. Now put the four dominant animals in the same group and toss a bone. Only one dog will get the bone and they will just form a new hierarchy. Therefore three of the four animals will lose their dominant standing.You could argue that the overall winner of the bone was the most ‘dominant’ dog however establishing one animal as dominant based on their personality trait can again be problematic.The resource used in this example was that of a juicy bone. What if three of the dogs were just fed? Likely the forth and hungriest dog would be the one to emerge with the bone, given he would have the strongest motivation to obtain it. What if all 4 dogs were starved for weeks? Likely they would all fight, perhaps to extreme injury, to obtain the food. Dominance relationships will break down if resources, such as food, are too scarce for the subordinates.Experiments on chickens which coined the phrase “pecking order” have shown that all animals will attack each other regardless of rank if deprived of food.
Understanding Dominance in Domestic Dogs Presented by: Tristan Flynn, CPDT-KA June 23rd 2012
Contents• What is Dominance? (Misconceptions, Definition)• Popularity and Origin of Dominance• Dogs vs. Wolves• Dog Social Structure• Is Dominance a Personality Trait?• Dealing with “Dominance” Behaviors in Dogs• Sources / Additional Reading• Conclusion / Final Questions
Dominance - MisconceptionsThe term “Dominance” has been twisted and no clearmeaning exists among the average dog owner.Dominance is not a behavior, it is an attempted explanationof behavior.Growling, biting, staring, mounting, etc. are real observablebehaviors.Generally, dominance is explained as a characteristic oraction.“I have a dominant dog”, or “My dog is dominant with otherdogs”
Dominance - MisconceptionsGeneral assumption of many average dog owners and trainers:1) Wolf research showed a clear linear hierarchy between pack members with the alpha wolf being at the top. The alpha wolf must remain strong and use force to maintain his position or risk losing it.2) Dogs are directly descended from wolves, so the same must be true of them3) Humans must be seen as the ‘alpha’ to their dog, or risk misbehavior and disobedience. Eating and walking first, not allowing dogs on the bed, forcing submission are recommended as ways to show you are alpha.4) When dogs meet other dogs they assess rank and determine who will be dominant. Any fights or aggression are labeled ‘dominance aggression”
Definition of Dominance Definition of DominanceDominant behavior is a quantitative andquantifiable behavior displayed by an individualwith the function of gaining or maintainingtemporary access to a particular resource on aparticular occasion, versus a particularopponent, without either party incurring injury.Relationship isn’t established until one individualconsistently defers.
What is DominanceDominant behavior is situational, individual and resource related.Dominance is a fluid relationship based on motivation. Ex: A starvingdog will not give up a bone as readily as before!Fact: Dominance is driven by environment and learning – it is not set instone. “High quality, clumped resources” tend to create stricter socialhierarchies, while “low quality, evenly disbursed resources” tend tocreate looser social organizations. Which would describe house dogs?Dominance relationships are particularly important for social animalsthat need to cohabit and cooperate to survive. No animal wants toexpend energy constantly fighting for resources. Many animals mustcooperate in order to survive (wolf packs, family dogs)Each animal must make the decision how bad they want the resourcerelative to the other
What is DominanceA dominance relationship will be based on several factors:1) The motivation for the resource of each animal (Environment)2) Their history of how to control the resource (some use aggression, some ‘sneak’ the resource) “Learned behavior”3) Their relationship with the animalThese factor will be re-evaluated in each situation and with eachanimal thus dominance is very fluid. Factors may howeverremain very similar over the course of a relationship
What is Dominance?Is this cat being “Dominant”?
What is Dominance?Is this dog being “Dominant”?
What is DominanceIn the previous examples:• The cat was defending itself from an overly excited dog.• The young puppy was jumping up because it was friendly and excited. It stole food because it could and had not been taught otherwise!“Dominance”, priority access to resources, played no part ineither example.Why is terminology so important?Without proper diagnosis, the solution may be flawed. In theseexamples the “dominance” of the animal absolved the owners ofblame for the behavior.
Popularity and origin• Early wolf and dog publications such as “King Soloman’s Ring” (Lorenz), “The Wolf” (Mech) and “How To Be Your Dogs Best Friend” (Monks) advocated the need to “Dominate” your dog.• Schenkel’s 1947 “Expressions Studies on Wolves.” is the study that gave rise to the now outmoded notion of alpha wolves.• Dominance allows for a simple and ‘sexy’ explanation of behavior with a simple solution (You need to be more dominant!)• Absolves owner of responsibility and justifies harsh or abusive treatment in the name of training.• Human social order has many strict linear hierarchies (Military, Countries, Church, Companies, Royalty, etc)
Popularity and Origin• Science is in flux and many experts have recanted their earlier research.• Dominance continues to be a central topic of TV dog trainers and shows since the concept is easy to explain.• An unregulated dog training industry is very dangerous.James O’Heare Wrote:I think it is intuitive for humans. We, as a species, are veryconcerned with who is winning and who is over or under who.Social dominance makes an intriguing narrative and humans arevery story oriented beings. It has drama. I think that is justbecause many people just dont take the interest in familiarizingthemselves with the “boring” principles of learning.
Popularity and Origin Confused Yet?“A dog that growls when approached near her food bowl mightbe labeled dominant. Then if you ask the owner why the doggrowls, she’ll answer, “Because she’s dominant.” So the labelbecomes a pseudo-explanation for the behaviour.”“Dominance theory is so muddled that it often contradicts itself.For example, if a "dominant dog" is acting aggressively and thesolution is through "calm-assertive" energy which makes thehuman the "dominant pack leader," wouldnt a dominant dog actcalm-assertive instead of aggressive?”
Popularity and OriginL David Mech, Author of “The Wolf” and many otherpublications who has studied wolves for over 35 years
Dogs vs. WolvesDo these animals look similar? Is their behaviorthe same? how about these?
Dogs vs. WolvesComparing wolves to dogs holds as much weight as comparingchimps to humans when discussing behavior.Wolves are concerned with hazard avoidance, hunting andreproduction – dogs are concerned with social joys andcompanionship, retrieving and herding and other breed specifictraits.16,000 years or more of domestication has greatly changed adog and while many similarities exist in DNA between dog andwolf, those small changes have profound effect on behavior.
Dogs vs. Wolves• This evolution of dogs from packs of hunting predators to opportunistic scavengers is an important change. It is a change of survival tactics that seems largely responsible for the highly flexible and creative social capabilities of dogs. Dogs are a species that seems to be able to easily adapt to life, not just with other dogs but with other species too.• Wolves spend most of their lives in stable family groups which normally do not incorporate outsiders Domestic dogs form loose, temporary groups and/or interact fleetingly with each other during outings with a human caretaker.
Dogs vs. Wolves Early Wolf Studies• Early studies on wolves were done on captive wolves from multiple packs.• Wolves were not able to hunt or burn off natural aggressive energy• Wolves had no prior relationship and were forced into an unnatural family• Aggression and “submission” was frequently observed, giving rise to the idea of alpha wolves and the need for physical dominance
Dogs vs. Wolves Early StudySince captive wolves don’t have access to hunting, their naturalmethod of reducing stress, or of offloading their natural predatoryaggression, or of fostering group harmony, captive wolves findthemselves fighting instead over little things; that’s what they do withtheir aggressive energy—they scrimmage.Scrimmages were taken to be a battle for dominance, rather than anoutlet for pent up anxiety and aggressionDogs need outlet for their energy as well such as play and socialbonding. Dogs deprived of this can show aggression which is thenmistaken for ‘dominance’. The degree to which this happens is still farless in dogs than in wolves, who by nature do not socialize withoutsiders (putting together a group of unrelated wolves causes muchmore aggression than unrelated dogs).
Dogs vs. WolvesPacking: Packing has been proven to be a product of the environment,not an innate trait.Wolves pack to:• Cooperatively hunt large game. Wolves that have no need of cooperation to hunt have no need, and do not pack.• Wild wolf packs will not tolerate outsiders on their territory to protect resources• Packing also defers priority access to mating in order to cooperatively raise young to control population.• Wolf mates both cooperate in raising the young and collecting food for them.All wolves wish to pass on their genes and will leave their pack to formtheir own and become the Alpha Wolf (or breeding pair)
Dogs vs. WolvesDogs live in a very different environment than wolves and are adifferent animal!Dogs do not form packs because:• They do not hunt game in groups• Males/females mate as often as they can with no specific partner• Males do not take care of the young, pups often scavenge for food at a very young ageFact: Dogs do not form ‘packs’ as wolves do, but certain aspectsmay present depending on the environment (Ex: defendingresources from other dogs should they be scarce).
Dog Social Structure - DunbarDr Ian Dunbar studied groups of domestic dogs for years in theearly 1970’s and made some key observations of theirinteractions.• Dogs pick very distinct sleeping partners and friends to play games with. Dogs have very clear preference for other dogs.• Females wouldn’t take bones from puppies – 50% of males would – as puppies aged they did take the bones.• Taking bones was noise and there was no touching, rolls, grabs, shakes etc – usually done with eye contact alone
Dog Social Structure - Conclusions• Socialization is the KEY to avoiding aggression and unstable dogs• Dogs don’t want fear, physical pain – aggression is abnormal!• Dogs need to be taught rules to keep them safe and because we are smarter – not because we are alphas.• Dog social system is not that much different from human system – friend, enemy, parents, well socialization, etc. there is no clear hierarchy in total social structure.
Dog Social Structure Dominance vs. Submission SignalsStandard “Dominant Standard “Submission”Aggressive” position position We discussed that you cannot have dominance without a resource. Is this fair labeling of these positions?
Dog Social Structure Dominance vs. Submission SignalsThese previous postures should correctly be identified asthreatening and non-threatening.A “Submissive” dog is actually a more socially confident dog inthat they are attempting to ‘turn off’ the aggression of thethreatening dogFighting and aggression among dogs is not natural and has to dowith human meddling (poor training, lack of socialization)Wolf pack fights very rare – only 2-3 fights in wolf park in years.Free roaming observed dogs had no link between aggression andpriority access to resources.
Dog – Human Social StructureDogs are clever scavengers. They will try to get what they want.They will develop behaviours and strategies to get us to givethem more of the things they want and to keep us from doingthe things they don’t want. But isn’t that more like being anopportunist than a power-mad status climber? And if we fall fortheir strategies, isn’t that more our fault than theirs consideringwe have control of all of the resources?
Dog – Human Social Structure• Dogs do not display aggression or disobedience by a drive to obtain rank or leadership but rather by their desire for a resource and the associated learning on how to best obtain the resource.• Dogs know we are not dogs and have very different means of communication with us than with other dogs.• Using force and correction is not the ‘natural’ way to train. Dogs do not use force to teach other dogs to “Sit” – aggression and force is only used to say ‘get away from me’.• Most dog-dog aggression follows the rule of using the least amount of force required (sometimes only a threat). Do humans follow the same rules?
Dominance Behavior in DogsTrue behaviour motivation is normally a hedonistic one. Dogbehaviour usually reflects a need or want that makes the dogfeel better. Dogs steal food because it tastes good, pull on leashbecause we follow along, or they guard bones because bones aretasty, not because of rank. In the wild the overall drivingmotivation for resources is normally to mate and pass on onesgenes.Many aggressive displays that are currently diagnosed asdominance aggression are aimed at avoiding some perceivedaversive outcome rather than establishing or maintaining theoffending dog’s social status
Is Dominance a Personality Trait?• No. By our definition, dominance is a relationship between individuals in regards to a particular resource• Can dogs be more predisposed to using aggressive methods to obtain a resource? Yes!• This is not a fixed personality trait, but rather behavior increased via operant conditioning that can be modified.
Dealing with Dominance Issues Aggression• Aggression is generally a fear based response, not a confident one.• Using force (alpha roll, corporal punishment) will stop the aggression, but not the reason behind it. When threat of punishment is gone, aggression may return.Being dominant by force is a relationship you can create and your dogwill submit the way anyone that has less power and is being controlledwould. This is not required.Labeling the dog as “dominant” creates conflict between the dog andowner and often is seen as justification for harsh training methods.Most people would not want to shock, hit or choke a dog labeled as‘afraid’.
Dealing with Dominance Issues Dog-Dog Aggression• Dogs meeting each other for the first time are often assessing if they have friendly intentions (not determining rank!)• Aggression will be based on previous history (perhaps with sex, breed or movements of the dog)• Lack of positive outcomes may predispose the dog to continued negative encounters as they become classically conditioned that dogs are a threat• Mostly based on anxiety (unsure if dogs are a risk to their safety)
Dealing with Dominance Issues Resource Guarding• One of the most frequent ‘dominance’ behaviors – guarding / using aggression to control a resource.• Isn’t this the definition of dominance from before? YES! You could call this dominance, however what you do to correct it is key!Resource guarding manifests because:1. Resources are scarce2. The dog has been conditioned that humans will take their items (not something that dogs often do, possession = ownership)3. Using aggression to defend the resource has worked in past
Dealing with Dominance Issues Resource GuardingObject guarding and possessiveness are not necessarilyindicators of dominance, even though superficially the behaviorappears to be motivated by dominance- related incentives.Among wolves, there is little correspondence between objectguarding and dominance, with wolves of all ranks exhibitingheightened possessiveness over objects located within theirownership zone around the mouth. In addition, allwolves, regardless of rank, will attempt to steal food from otherwolves irrespective of dominance (Mech, 1999)Retaining a resource is a natural behavior in all dogs. To avoidthis issue we do not need to alpha roll, ‘force submission’ orpunish our dogs.
Dealing with Dominance Issues Resource GuardingTo correct or prevent resource guarding in dogs:1. Provide ample resources (not high value, limited resources)2. Teach dogs to trade using reward based methods3. Do not create confrontations over resources, this causes anxiety and stress
Dealing with Dominance Issues Leash WalkingMisconception: Dogs walking ahead of you is a display of theirdominanceReason: Alpha wolves are always in front of the pack, thus youshould be in front of your dogNot only is this irrelevant, alpha wolves are often not walking infront of the packWhy do dogs walk in front or pull on leash?1. Dogs move faster than us – they must be taught to move at our slow pace and to wait for us2. Often owners allow the dog to pull by moving forward, thus the behavior is rewarded and continues (learning).
Dealing with Dominance Issues Leash Walking By rewarding a dog for walking beside you and stopping whenever they pull, a dog will easily learn to walk on leash. Dogs can be asked to wait at a door by teaching a stay. All can be taught using food, positive reinforcement and clear communication. It is that simple.There is no need to invoke ideas ofdominance, alphas and other humancreated reasoning for the behavior.
Dominance – Misconceptions reviewGeneral assumption of many average dog owners and trainers:1) Wolf research showed a clear linear hierarchy between pack members with the alpha wolf being at the top. The alpha wolf must remain strong and use force to maintain his position or risk losing it.2) Dogs are directly descended from wolves, so the same must be true of them3) Humans must be seen as the ‘alpha’ to their dog or risk misbehavior and disobedience. Eating and walking first, not allowing dogs on the bed, forcing submission are recommended as ways to show you are alpha.4) When dogs meet other dogs they assess rank and determine who will be dominant. Any fights or aggression are labeled ‘dominance aggression”
Dominance – updated informationCorrect information for dog owners and trainers!1) Early wolf research on captive packs was unnatural and showed increased aggression due to anxiety. In natural, wild packs, the alpha is simply the father and dominance is based on relationships, not force.2) Dogs are directly descended from wolves, however their environmental and genetic differences result in huge behavior variations3) Humans should be seen as leaders that provide information and resources for cooperative behavior from their dogs.4) When dogs meet other dogs they assess the social ability and safety of the other dog. Encounters will be based on previous experiences.
ConclusionDominance is simply a description of a relationship – it shouldnot infer the need to use physical force to become the ‘dominantone’. Dogs are not looking for a dominant ‘personality’ they aresimply looking for clear instruction on how their world works andhow to live within it.Only a rather incompetent leader would go about challengingand agitating deferential subordinates. In short, the process ofmaintaining dominance is about regulating social limits andboundaries while making oneself an object of social attentionand affection—a true leader.“To lead people walk behind them.” Lao Tzu