If you’ve been following the bouncing ball, we’ve been talking about how the concept of “dominance” and social status may or may not relate to dog behavior. Now I’d like to summarize a bit and discuss how we might handle conflict between dogs within the household. After all, whether you buy into it or not in relation to dogs, the proper use of the term “dominance” is as a form of conflict resolution. First, some comments of my own in relation to your excellent additions to this inquiry:
WHO CARES? A few of you mentioned that you don’t care about labels, and so why waste time worrying about what to call a behavior? Why not just reinforce what you like and train out what you don’t? I can see the logic here, but as a few others mentioned in the comments, I just can’t leave it at that. I am fascinated by all aspects of behavior, including the inner life of a dog. How do dogs see the world? How is that different, or the same, from how we see it? Can understanding “dogness” help us relate to them better? It’s true that BF Skinner and others made tremendous strides in our understanding of learning by only focusing on observable behavior. And it is also true that we can get into trouble by reading too much into the actions of non-verbal animals. Believe me, as an ethologist, I’m all about accurate, objective observations. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a rich internal life inside every sentient being, and I can’t help wanting to know as much about it as I can. And so do most dog owners, so the more we understand about behavior, the better we can help them understand how to relate to and train their dogs. I think there’s value in understanding all that we can about animals, for both their sake and our own.
IS THE ‘D’ WORD RELEVANT OR USEFUL when evaluating interactions between dogs? Well, here’s my answer at the moment: I almost never use the term “dominance” any more when talking about relationships between dogs. The term is so loaded and so mis-understood that it rarely feels useful in any way. However, and this is a big however, I still think that the evidence suggests that the concept of “social status” is relevant to domestic dogs. As in our own species, social status is interwoven with issues related to personality, context, reactivity, resource distribution, etc, etc, and is only one of many factors that influence and explain behavior. But as members of complicated and complex societies in which all the bells and whistles of social hierarchies are evident (visual displays, some dogs with unquestioned priority access to some resources, living in an environment with “clumped, high quality resources” etc.), it seems reasonable to argue that status is relevant, in varying degrees, to domestic dogs. That in no way takes away from the importance of different levels of desire, confidence or a lack of it, an individual’s charisma, an obsessive need to control the world in order to decrease anxiety, etc.
I suspect that part of the confusion about status (and the D word) is that people want it to mean too much. It’s simply a way of describing how others in a group view one individual, and how that one individual would like to be viewed in relation to others. This makes it a much more general term than “priority access to a resource.” One could get priority access because of one’s status in the group, but they are not the same thing. Make sense? Surely social status could only be relevant in complicated societies, in which individual animals have complex perceptions of the role of others in the group. Dogs and wolves appear to fit within that category, and in my mind their advanced sociality is one of the reasons that dogs and people have developed such profound social bonds. I also think this shared social structure is part of why the “dominance” model of training is so seductive. Not only is it sometimes successful (for a variety of reasons, as pointed out in the comments), but it plays to our inherent understanding of the power of social status within our own species’ interactions.
[Note: A quick comment about the problem of a word, like “dominance,” having a different definition in science than in general use. Ah, yes, it is so frustrating, but it is not unique to this issue. “Positive” and “Negative” punishment” are great examples also related to dog training. “Positive” means “good,” right? “Negative” means bad, right? Argghh, no wonder people struggle to learn the true definitions in operant conditioning paradigms! Perhaps the most problematic example is the word “theory,” as in the Theory of Evolution, meaning in science a “model of reality” or an underlying fundamental process explaining a variety of phenomenon. In general parlance, “theory” means hypothesis, which is something completely different. But I digress…]
WITHOUT THE ‘D’ WORD, WHAT DO WE CALL DOGS who greet all other dogs tail up, head up, body elevated? Who stare hard and stiff-bodied at another dog over a bone on the ground? Confident? Rude? On Offense? Several of you have asked great questions about how to describe different types of dogs, and I think therein lies one of the problems. The word “dominant” provides a short, handy way of describing a particular way of behaving around others, and we are all hard-wired to try to find terms that allow our brains to sort the world into categories. But again, that word is so loaded and defined differently by the general public) that I think it is best avoided. That’s why I am more comfortable talking about “high status” dogs or “status-seeking” dogs if it seems relevant to the conversation.
For example, Luke was a high status dog who never had to work for his social position. He was benevolent, loved other dogs, calm and confident. He had what one commentator called “charisma,” which is a great way to achieve social status around others in both species. (And why the training techniques of those that have charisma often don’t work with those who don’t?) His nephew Willie is a status-seeking, anxiety-ridden dog who attacked my seemingly super “submissive” adult dog Pippy Tay when he was 9 weeks old over a piece of food on the ground. (And, argh, there’s that word problem again, this time ‘submissive”… sometimes it is SO useful to describe a dog with this kind of term…you all know exactly how Pip behaved around other dogs now, right?) When Will went after Pip his commissure was forward in an offensive pucker, and there wasn’t one sign of fear in his rude, little body. If anything, he looked angry. My evaluation of him now is that, at his worst around other dogs, he is status-seeking, easily frightened and easily frustrated, sound sensitive, reactive, and controlling. Thank heavens, he is also incredibly biddable, smart and truly seems to adore many other dogs once he gets over the evil twin that sits on his shoulder. I get the strongest sense from him that he desperately wants to do the “right” thing, that he understands that there are “right” and “wrong” things (in some simplistic doggy way) and that he finds great relief in learning that he can get what he wants by being patient and polite. I am the first to admit that I might be reading things into him, but all my gut says that he desperately wants to be thought of as way cool by other dogs, but that he doesn’t have the confidence or serenity of his uncle.
BUT FOR NOW, WHAT IS THE BOTTOM LINE in terms of the way we manage multi-dog households? There’s no ultimate truth here, but I’ll give you my perspective. Remembering that there are many ways to get what one wants, here’s what being high in the social hierarchy gets a dog in my house. Nothing. Or, not much anyway. I’m not saying that I could somehow manage the environment such that two status-seeking females of equal power and intensity could get along, but I can create a world in which dogs learn that they get what they want by being patient and polite, not by throwing their metaphorical weight around.
For example, when Luke used to push in between me and another dog when I went to pet it, I’d quietly ask Luke to “get back and wait” while I continued to pet the other dog. Luke learned that he’d get a food treat as well as attention IF waited his turn, but being pushy resulted in a being backed up in space and told to sit and stay. When I had 4 or 5 dogs in the house, all the dogs learned to sit and wait while another dog was eating out of a plate on the floor (see a video of this in the Feeling Outnumbered DVD, including Tulip’s hysterically funny inability to keep from licking the air after being told to back away from the plate.)
I describe teaching dogs to be patient and polite in detail in the booklet, Feeling Outnumbered, which Karen London and I wrote after working with so many clients whose dogs weren’t getting along. I used it on a daily basis with Will. Right after he went after Pip over food I’d dropped on the floor I said “What did you do?” and backed him up into a sit. I told him to sit and stay (he knew sit and was just learning a “puppy stay”) and fed Pip some more food. As I did, I praised Will (I’d conditioned him to like the sound of praise already), gave him his own treat for staying in place and then released him. We repeated that 2 or 3 times and I spent the next 6 months teaching Will that if he sat and waited his turn while I fed/petted/played with another dog, something wonderful would happen. He’s been wonderful with my other dogs since then, (though he did always take Lassie’s Kong away if he’d finished his first) but it’ll be interesting to see what happens when a new dog comes to the farm. I suspect I’ll be right back to reminding him of the benefits of being patient and polite. Thus, I take a very functional approach, using both operant and classical conditioning to shape the behavior I want. (And I can understand why some would then say… then why worry about labeling it? Why even bring up issues like status, etc? My answer goes back to how I started this: because to me, it’s not enough to be able to manage and control their behavior, darn it, I want to understand it!)
Can this solve all the conflict between dogs in a household? No, not at all. Personality is just too, too important. Some dogs just hate other dogs. Some dogs have serious issues with emotional control and impulsivity (a topic for another blog soon!) Some turn into the bullies of the world, the canine equivalent of a boss from hell who wants to control everything but doesn’t have the chops to do a good job at anything. But teaching dogs to be patient and polite seems to be the best solution to dealing with what can at least be described as “competition” for resources.
Soon I’ll talk about this in relation to dogs and people, but I thought we should work our way up to it in a logical manner, first looking at the issue in terms of one species before we throw another one into the mix!
Meanwhile, back on the farm: We had one of those barn-busting thunderstorms last night, complete with hail and rain so hard and plentiful it looked like water coming out of a faucet as wide as the sky.
Amazingly the flowers seemed to make it through. Here are some Bloodroot flowers, a native ‘spring ephemeral,’ just before opening early this morning.
And best news of all: Willie is back to playing with his frisbee outside, and worked sheep last night when I let the ewes without lambs out onto the front lawn. No sign of any lameness still, but I am still holding my breath!