Ah, here I go into the fray. Picture my loins girded. In some ways I’d love to avoid this topic altogether, because as most of you know, conversations about “the D word” can sometimes turn into arguments that make the American health care debate seem like a day at the spa. (I was going to say “like a tea party,” but then . . . ) But I think the issue is important, and deserves consideration. So EEEEE HAH! here we go.
This post will only be a beginning, because the topic of “dominance” and social relationships is actually a big one, and I’d like to facilitate a thoughtful, meaningful discussion about it in dogs. As you all know, some people think that just about all of our problems with dogs relate to “dominance” and advise owners to “be the alpha dog.” At the other end of the spectrum, some argue that “dominance” and even the concept of “social status” are completely irrelevant to a dog’s behavior, and that the terms should be struck from our vocabulary. I don’t agree with either extremes of the spectrum (but I’m a lot closer to one than the other!), so hang onto your hats, here we go . . .
First of all, it would be good to start with a definition. The simple definition of ‘dominance,’ as the term is used by the general public is something like: “control or command over others.” However, (and this is a huge “however”) that is NOT the definition as the term is used by people who study animal behavior, the ones who first coined the term to describe a certain kind of social relationship in non-human animals. In ethological terms, “dominance” refers to “priority access to a preferred, limited resource“. In other words, if there’s only one really great table open at a restaurant, who is going to get it? You, or the famous actress standing beside you?
Relating this to dogs, if someone dropped a pork chop between two dogs, who would get it? If you repeated this numerous times and the same dog got it every time, that dog was described in the literature as “dominant” over the other IF both dogs wanted the food equally. The “dominant” dog could get priority access to the food in a variety of ways; s/he could simply look toward the other dog with a hard stare, could try to be the fastest one every time, or could fight for it. The problem is that fights are dangerous if you are a predator who can rip open elk hide with your mouths. (For a reminder of the power of the canine jaw, try making a gash in a leather purse with your teeth. If you are successful, please send video….heck, send one if you’re not successful!)
The potential of injury in social predators, is the reason that many argue why social hierarchies developed in animals like wolves. (Yes, I know dogs aren’t wolves. Bear with me here.) If every time one had to fight for what one wanted, the genes that predisposed an individual to fight would be eliminated out of the gene pool. That’s the explanation for the existence of social hierarchies: they allow individuals to get ‘priority access’ without having to fight for a resource every time it was available. Note that serious fights do happen in some species: In many ungulates (hoofed animals like elk for example), the males fight every breeding season for priority access to females. They are continually challenged by other males, and spend so much energy guarding their females that even if they aren’t killed or injured in a fight, (it happens, but not commonly), they sometimes die over the winter, having been unable to spend enough time feeding in fall to put on body fat to get them through the winter. However, before they are mature, young male ungulates often spend years in “bachelor herds,” in which they may play at fighting, but no one individual has priority access to anything else during that period. Their food is widely dispersed and the only ‘resource’ they need to compete over is females during a breeding season. As this Elk examples shows, a ‘resource’ can be many things, from a pork chop, to the best sleeping place, to a female in heat. But, remember, the “D” word is about “priority access to a resource,” not about anything else.
Here’s what “dominance” ISN’T: It has nothing to do with decision-making about the actions of a group or one other individual. There is no relationship in the literature between who decides when to move on, where to go or what to do. Period. (Bookmark this point!)
It has nothing to do with “who’s in front.” (In prey animals, the ‘dominant’ member of the group is often found in the middle of the herd if the group is in an area that might be dangerous.)
It is not fixed and immutable: Who “has dominance” can vary in time (as one individual ages for example), in space (one individual can have it in one area and not another) and in context (perhaps one individual with dominance doesn’t like pork chops.) In some species it appears to be linear (as in chickens, for example, in which if A is over B, and B is over C, then A is always over C). In most social mammals, it is non-linear and much, much more fluid and complicated.
It is highly influenced by resource distribution: “Clumped, high quality resources” tend to exaggerate social hierarchies, which probably explains why captive wolves appear to be absolutely obsessed with hierarchy, while wild wolves appear to be more relaxed about issues related to social status. (Keep this in mind for later when we talk about studies on feral dogs versus owned dogs.)
It is usually maintained by visual or chemical displays that are innate and are species-specific. It can be achieved by an initial fight in which one individual wins and the other backs off, or, more commonly, by nothing more than the types of display specific to that species. (Think high tail, erect ears and forward posture of a captive wolf). If the individuals continue to fight over a resource, then there is not an established hierarchy.
It is not a relationship desired equally by all individuals in a group. In complex social societies, not everyone is equally motivated to be first in line for the goodies. In our species, for example, some people would love the status associated with being famous, while others would consider a guarantee of a great table at a restaurant to be a poor trade for losing their privacy and would avoid it at all costs. In some species, high status is associated with increased responsibility, which can be dangerous and burdensome.
That’s a good starting place for our discussion. In my next post, I’m going to write about how all this might relate to domestic dogs. But I will say here that the misuse of the term “dominance” in dog training is so pervasive that it causes ethologists like me to want to poke pencils in our eyes. The examples are endless: “Your dog won’t come when you call unless he accepts you as alpha!” (Uh, not relevant, see above.) “Teach your dog a “Dominance Down” and he’ll respect you in the morning!” (Uh, not relevant, see above….). I suspect that much of this comes from the two different definitions of dominance used by the biologists versus the general public. I also think, although I admit to just guessing, that our species loves the idea of control, and anything that suggests we can get it easily is seductive. Whatever the reason, the mis-use of the concept of “dominance” is pervasive.
I’d love to hear your examples of the misuse of the term. I suspect there are some egregious ones that will allow all of us to have a good laugh… and then move on to talk about whether the “D” word is ever (ever!) relevant to dog behavior. Do be considerate please, and don’t assume that everyone believes that way you do. Remember, thoughtful and considerate . . .
Meanwhile, back on the farm: UW is on spring break and besides running the business (and writing blogs!) my life is full of two other things: grading term papers (right now it’s the ones on: “Biological Issues Related to the Use of Non-Human Primates in Biomedical Research” — both ‘sides’ must be covered objectively; next it’s Cloning Pets) and of pacing the barn floor. I have 4 ewes who are overdue, one by 5 days. A day or two is, of course, meaningless, lambs paying no more attention than babies to when they are supposed to arrive. But 5 days? Jeeeez, Dorothy, have your lambs already!
Here’s the first of the lambs: A twin boy and girl from Lady Godiva. The all-black ram lamb is lying behind Lady G and the ewe lamb with the white body and black eye spot. I’m calling her the Lassie Lamb.
Here’s the first flowers of the season, crocus. Color! Whaaa Hooo! Daffodils are JUST starting today…
And lest you think it’s all lambs and flowers out in the country, here’s a photo of just a few of the hundreds of Asian beetles that invade my house for 2 weeks every spring and fall. They were brought over to control aphids, and the person who made the decision to import them wouldn’t last a day in southern Wisconsin. They are a scourge, somewhat akin to locusts. What you are seeing was taken about 10 minutes after 30 minutes of vacuuming, which followed another long session of vacuuming earlier in the day. They look like our native “Lady Beetles,” but they have no natural predators, bite when they’re hungry, smell horrific, land in your drinks, fly into your food and generally make life miserable. You can spray for them, but the active ingredient makes me sick and and is not safe for cats. Now you know why I went out for dinner tonight.
Hooray for spring flowers! Down south the daffodils are just finishing and tulips will be out soon. I hope Lassie Lamb becomes a permanent member of your herd – I can’t imagine anyone eating her for dinner now that you’ve named her! She’s too cute.
In the dog park one day I remember overhearing a woman comment that she just couldn’t do a thing with her 18-month old golden retriever because he was “too alpha.” I kept my comments to myself since I didn’t know this woman, but I had a good laugh later because her “dominant” dog was obviously just a big oaf-ey puppy who just needed more regular exercise and basic training. I hope they turned out ok… I know that if I were a dog I’d bite the first person who used a choke chain on me to teach me something without even trying to explain it first. The example I use with people who do ask me for advice is, “How would you feel about me if I started smacking you on the back of the head with a ruler out of the blue while speaking a foreign language? Eventually you might figure out that I stopped bopping you when you walked at my side and slightly behind my left shoulder. Does that make me a good leader? Do you want to follow me?”
Really terrific post! There is a lot work through on this topic, thanks for an informative introduction. I love your lamb pic, hope the rest of them come along soon and safely.
You said: “I also think, although I admit to just guessing, that our species loves the idea of control, and anything that suggests we can get it easily is seductive.”
I don’t know much about other primates, but I have observed that humans are a species addicted to hierarchy. Almost nothing is more important to us relationally than knowing our status, especially in groups… and we will sometimes fight to the death to defend our “higher” position! Concepts like “pack” and “alpha,” however flawed they may be when applied to dogs, make good sense to us, perhaps because we’re describing ourselves. It’s hard for us to NOT equate “power” with “control.”
In light of this discussion, I just want to know if dinner included a Caesar salad?
Oh, I find this topic so interesting!
I grew up on a farm, so we continually had dogs (and cats, and rabbits, and cattle, and a pony….), but I recently acquired my first “grown-up” dog – a 2 year old male AmStaff mix from our local humane society.
For a dog that was picked up as a stray, Charley is remarkably well-behaved – housetrained, doesn’t chew, super friendly, loves people, good with cats and kids. However, he wants to do what he wants when he wants. He’s incredibly distractable and is not food, toy or praise motivated, if there is something that he thinks is more interesting around. He’s ridiculously high energy and STRONG.
Some of the trainers that we have seen has said that he is dominant dog and have pointed out “dominant” behaviours – such as sitting with his back to me, claiming space, leading while walking and “talking” back to me. However, others have said that he lacks self-confidence and needs lots of encouragement and extremely gentle handling, as he is used to fending for himself and isn’t very trusting.
So, is he a dominant dog or is he just stubborn and used to doing what he wants? I think it is both, depending on the situation that he is in. When he is somewhere that is comfortable for him, you can see his stubborn, independent, pushy side, and when he is somewhere new, he is very obviously uncertain and needs reassurance. I think it is a combination of his personality and some learned behaviours and that what was learned can be modified to be more suitable to live politely with people.
I was walking once when I saw a woman and her very excited large huskyish dog coming toward my 1-yr-old dog and I. I pulled over to practice some sit, look at me, etc as my pup thinks everyone wants to meet him. I had my head turned away from the approaching walker but never heard them pass so I turn and see that the woman is on top of her dog. Then she got up, the dog started lunging and she laid down on him again. I yelled up to her, “Do you want us to stay here or go past you?” She replied that she would love for us to stay there so we kept drilling. Finally she attempted to pass us and her dog lunged at the end of his leash the whole way. As she continued on the owner said, “You would never know we have had this dog since he was a puppy. Now he is 15! That’s like a 100-year-old man and I still can’t get him to behave.” My first thought was, if you have been trying the same (failed) tactics for that long, maybe you should try something else!
“It is usually maintained by visual or chemical displays that are innate and are species-specific.” I can not agree more. Dogs don’t think we’re a fancy hairless breed that walk on our back legs. I think there is a dominance factor among dogs, but not between species.
My philosophy on inter-species resource guarding is more of classical behavior. Your dog growls at you and you back off. The dog gets rewarded by keeping the toy and therefore is more likely to repeat the behavior. It has nothing to do with it’s position in the pack, it just wants the toy.
Just about every time I’m around other dog owners I hear about dominance. I’m starting to wonder if one of the most well kept coups is about to happen. On one fretful day all the dogs will finally act on the dominance they’ve been testing out on us and we’ll be slaves to feed them, buy them toys, and take care of their health….oh wait….it must have already happened.
I recently attended a very disappointing puppy pre-school with my puppy. In one lesson we were told that desexing male dogs prevents them from becoming dominant, and jumping on people and pulling washing off the clothes line is dominant behaviour. Sigh.
Anne J says
I know we’re mostly talking about dominance as it relates to dogs here, but I was recently watching a video about sheep and leadership/dominance in the flock, as well as how to tell who is your leader sheep when moving the flock with a dog. The video pointed out that when the flock is approached by a possible predator (sheepdog) the dominant sheep can be found in the middle of the group. The weaker/less dominant sheep are nearest to the predator. As the dog approaches slowly the front sheep will flip around and try to hide behind the group, referred to as “rolling sheep”. The middle sheep are now confronted with the dog, and if he holds his ground they will turn and move away, then the whole group will move away calmly. If the dog comes in too fast from the beginning, those weaker front sheep instead of “rolling” will bolt, split and run. Then the dog’s predator instinct may kick in and he gives chase, which doesn’t lead to orderly flock movement.
We then went out and tried this with some of our dogs, and did see the sheep rolling effect, as well as were able to pick out the leader/ or perhaps dominant sheep, who generally does stay right in the middle, well protected by sheep flunkies I guess.
Interesting topic, and I have more to say than I’m going to tonight. It’s been a long day, and tomorrow will be worse, I’m afraid. I’d better try to get SOME sleep. But I thought I’d post a quick response.
Shortly after we got Bear, a friend agreed to come over mid-day to let him out to potty. She came over first when I was home to see where he’d be and his leash and treats and all. We’re out in the yard with Bear, and she keeps saying, “Oh, he is SO trying to dominate me!” Because Bear was looking into her eyes. He was about 2-3 months old. She spent about 5 minutes staring at him, trying to get him to look away from her first, thus proving her “dominance”, I suppose. I think he was looking at her thinking, “Why does this crazy two legged female keep STARING at me??!!”
After this, when we were in obedience class, the trainer was teaching “watch me”, and I thought, “This is a little nuts. Some people say that if your dog stares directly into your eyes, he/she is trying to ‘dominate’ you. And others say to train your dog to pay attention by teaching him/her to stare directly into your eyes!” Crazy.
I decided for myself that teaching “watch me” was the way to go, and the whole eye contact = “dominance” thing was a bunch of hooey. It’s wackadoo. Yea, that’s a great word. Even while my friend was saying it – repeatedly – I was pretty sure Bear was staring at her, just because he was waiting for her to move, so he could jump on her and bite her feet. Much more likely.
Can somebody PLEASE pass along this helpful defintion/explanation of dominance to all veterinarians? (and I apologize for the generalization..I am sure my story does not apply to the majority of you).
My dog is terrified of being examined by the vets. As soon as she gets on the table her tail is tucked, her ears are plastered to her head and she beings panting and licking her lips. She will also growl and snap (and would bite) when being examined. The first time I took her to the vet just after I got her (I got her from a shelter when she was over a year old) and the vet saw her snap and growl I got a lecture on DOMINANCE and the vet handled my dog very roughly and reprimanded my dog when she growled etc.My dog did not like being examined and was thus DOMINANT and the vet told me that she had no respect for either me or the vet herself. She then went on to give me behavioural advice about how to act like a leader at home (going through doors first, not letting her on furniture).
Thank God I had done my homework and knew better than to accept the dominance diagnosis. As I looked at my poor dog, all I could see was a very terrified dog. I switched vets immediately and what a change it has made! He not only is extremly gentle and calm but examines her on the ground (part of her fear was being on the slippery surface of the exam table) she still doesn’t like being examined but it’s amazing what a gentler touch can do.
I always think what if I had listened to her advice? The first vet we went to recommended that to exhibit dominance I basically force my dog into submission to get her to ‘used to being handled.’
The sad thing is is that even though I knew better, the first vet’s comments made me doubt my dog. Even though I knew the vet was wrong I looked at my dog a different way and doubted myself (was i being too permissive? was I allowing my dog to walk all over me?did I have a delinquent dominant dog in need of strict dicipline/). Did I know all of this was un-true? Of course! But when someone is in such a position of authority (veterinary) it’s difficult to argue with them and I am sure many would have followed her advice. If I had I am sure I would not only have had a dog who was even more terrified of being handled, but would have gotten bit.
Thank goodness for the slew of positive dog training books and the positive dog trainer’s in my dog’s life who have reassured me that my dog is far from dominant. This is especially important for people who do not have stereotypically ‘submissive dogs’ ….they are most at risk of being labelled dominant.
Trish, Would comment on this: http://feraldog.wordpress.com/2010/03/25/using-dominance-to-humanely-catch-a-wolf/ (especially the video)
and particularly Dr Johnson’s use of the term “dominance” in this situation
Great BLOG! Thank you so much! Could you say something about what *is* the concept that properly describes the influence of one animal over another animal’s actions or inactions? Or, reframe that notion altogether?
Betsy C says
I love your definition of “dominant”, thank you. One type of dog that I still find challenging is the adolescent who seems to start out uncertain and fearful. But then over time he appears to find it reinforcing to increasingly control his environment (including toys, food, space but also important people and other dogs.) He starts to appear “dominant” but it seems to actually come from a fear of lack of control, rather than a winning natural presence. So in this case, thinking about “dominance” just gets me off track in the treatment plan.
I’ve never posted to this site before, being just a “lurker” but I have enjoyed the discussions immensely and have been a fan of your publications, Patricia, for many years. Thank you so much for bringing up this topic! Avoiding the discussion or trying to eliminate the word from our vocabulary will not help to solve the misunderstanding surrounding the subject. Thank you!
My funny dominance story happened recently when I received a call for a private obedience consultation from a lady who had a 10 month “alpha beagle.” “Well, what is she doing?” I ask. “She does whatever she wants and she just won’t come when called!” I think I did manage not to laugh and instead explain that it’s no accident that beagles are often called Noses on Legs and that it will take a lot of training to teach her that you have a better reward for her than following her nose. That doesn’t mean she’s is an “alpha” it just means she’s being a beagle! (Thank you to my friend Joanne for taking that referral!!)
I really appreciate your taking on this important (and touchy) subject! My guess is that another possible reason that the concept of dominance is so compelling to us is that we like to put things in categories…in tidy boxes with neat little labels on them. We actually do the same thing with each other, whether it’s trying to figure out someone’s race from the way he/she looks, or referring to children as “ADHD kids”.
It’s much easier to say that a dog is “dominant” or “alpha” (or not) than to take the time to figure out the complexities of that dog’s individuality and its relationship with those around it. But so much less fun!
Leah Roberts says
Awesome article! I’m a dog trainer, and I totally grok the desire to poke pencils in my eyes when the “D” word is mentioned. In my first loose-leash walking class, I ask my students why their dogs pull. It’s a trick question. I want to know if anybody’s going to invoke the dreaded “D” word and nip it in the bud. Dogs pull to get over there. And they do it because when they pull, their owners go with them – i.e., it works. Plain and simple. They are displaying no desire to take over the world.
Social hierarchies do exist. Put any two high-thinking sentient beings in a room together, and a social hierarchy will develop. So it’s refreshing to hear you acknowledge that there is a place for the “D” word, just not in dog training, and certainly not in the context in which it has currently been popularized.
I believe that the social behavior of dogs and humans are quite similar (though dogs are far more peaceful and forgiving of each other), so I use a human example when I’m trying to explain to my students why it’s not very useful to use labels like “alpha” or “submissive.” At home you may be the boss of the house. At the same time, at work you might be a peon. In a social setting with people you know well you may emerge as a leader, while in a group of strangers you may fade into the background. Are you a dominant or submissive person? Neither. Social status is fluid and changes with the circumstances.
Can’t wait to read your next installment!
By the way, Lindsay, if your dog is sitting with his back to you he isn’t showing you disrespect by trying to ignore you. That’s a calming signal, a way to let you know he isn’t any threat to you. If you watch a well-socialized dog greeting a dog who isn’t quite sure how he feels about it, the social savvy dog will often sit or lie with his back to the other dog and sniff the ground. I kind of think it’s like saying, “Chill out, dude, it’s cool.”
I love the idea of being able to forget about trying to be the dominant one in our ‘pack’. I am of a meek nature and a my tendency is to nurture. I have a hard time making anybody do what they don’t want to do.
Strangely, my dogs listen to me – most of the time.
Between dogs though, I do think the ‘boss’ concept does apply. I know that our Jasmine always takes control of other dogs who enter our house. They always get along, happy to be here, but Jasmine clearly rules the roost.
She likes her rules. She is amazingly kind and patient with fearful and shy dogs, and she doesn’t mind submitting to a dog who is truly dominant (male or female). She will not stand for ambitious pushy dogs who have no respect and no real strength to them either.
I have no illusions that she’d ever consider me dominant no matter what face I’d try to put on. But I love her, I think she loves me and I know she’s happy. She is way too smart for me to even bother to pretend I’m something I”m not with her.
Wild Dingo says
Oh GROSS! (that last pict of the bugs.) I really like this discussion. I don’t have anything to offer at the moment in terms of misuse of dominance, but i’ve worked with many types of trainers for a dog that i rescued that had some behavioral issues in the beginning. “Dominance” was never a term used by either positive trainers or trainers using “correction” or even “compulsion” (which I now see correction and compulsion as two entirely different concepts).
It’s funny, I don’t look at my relationship with my dogs in terms of dominance. I mean, who wants to work for a dictator, right? I look at it in terms of a partnership. Though I’ve invested 2 years of training obedience and other sports, I find that it takes a partnership. Nobody works for free. Even humans. I’ve had clients during Therapy Dog services tell me “your dog wouldn’t do that trick if you didn’t give her a treat.” My dog is a Siberian. In my eyes, it’s amazing she’s so friendly and not as shy as her breed tends to be and able to do the Therapy services. doing the trick for a reward is getting paid for services. for her age (2.5) and breed, she’s working very hard and should be compensated accordingly! She’s doing roll-overs and bows and all sorts of behaviors that other breeds do. but again, it’s a partnership. she works, i pay her. she doesn’t always need payment but it’s all about motivation and partnership. not about enforcing my will on her.
when i got my siberian female, i had a gsd mix male in the house for 3 months (the one with challenging behaviors). I could see the struggle for leadership between the two, (she eventually won, duh she’s a girl and it didn’t take strength). But i certainly wouldn’t call it dominance. I don’t know, it seems my GSD mix male is just more willing to give her what she wants, though he is 4 times sronger. again, motives figure strongly, when playing tug the GSD male ALWAY S wins (the sibe could care less about the tug toy usually and is there just for the game). if there’s a toy or food resource (like a hoof hanging around the house) and the siberian wants it, the GSD backs down and doesn’t try. I’ve actually witnessed the Siberian set him up by leaving a bone one day. in this house, though i rarely leave bones around (they get picked up and tossed if not being used) the dogs understand an abandoned bone is fair game and they often play the “switch bones” game. when i saw her set him up and he went for it, it was amazing, scary and amazing from a behavioral standpoint. she obviously challenged him, he responded, she got served by him (he’s stronger) and she came away with the scratch on her head, BUT he still let her have the resource. and he looked mighty confused when i broke them up (it was about a 20 second fight). but he looked at me, completely confused, as if “did i break a law?” i assured him he didn’t and nobody got in “trouble” but it was fascinating none-the-less. the two get along famously well, and i’ve seen her since then try to set him up over and over again and she’s met with complete ignoring from him. when feeding a raw bone to each, the GSD finished his first and she went over and plopped right next to him within about 10″ on his blanket and ate her bone right next to him, she gave him a few stares and he never looked at her once. Is this dominance? Probably.
Perhaps humans/owners don’t need to physically express dominance with dogs becasuse humans are a dog’s access to food resource. It doesn’t take them long to figure out where their food dish is filled. And looking back at dog domestication, this is how it started, with dogs hanging around humans for food resources, willingly partnering with them at times in hunting.
Today, I’ve come full circle with understanding dog behavior, starting out believing i had a “dominant-aggressive” dog. Looking back, i see I had a fearful dog. He still barks when visitors arrive. I still don’t have that “sit at the door quietly” behavior down. but is he dominant for barking? No way. He’s a GSD mix with a lot of GSD in him. I look at his motives and drives. they are wired to herd and protect. and I act appropriately. I put him away. when he’s quiet, he gets to meet visitors. I don’t treat it as aggression as much as I treat it as him in his breed’s natural “drive.” His ability to quiet down is so much faster now. He’s a friendly dog and when he realizes things are fine with guests, he’s a sweetheart. Is he dominant for not shutting up when my guests come to the door? I don’t think so. Afterall, there’s no food involved.
i think when we start looking at our relationship with dogs as a partnership and understand their specific drives and motivations (each dog is genetically predisposed to behave differently in different circumstances … a retreiver may never herd but let the record show, my siberiand RETRIEVES! LOL), anyway, when we consider partnership, drives and motivation between humans and dogs, dominance really isn’t such a factor. now among dogs, maybe it is. (I’m curious to know if this is a plausable theory).
Lindsay, your dog is not stubborn, dominant, or unmotivated. He’s simply untrained. Find a positive trainer who is used to working with bully breeds and who is willing to think outside the box when it comes to how to motivate him. Remember, dogs want resources (the ones that they have interest in, not what we want them to have interest in). So, for example, if my dog wanted to go smell a pile of poop and was trying to pull me over to it, I might use the opportunity to teach him to sit/stay, and when he did, the reward would be “Yes!” (or click) and letting him have access to the smelly pile of poop for a quick sniff (snacking…not so much lol). But, you can see how you may have to get creative with an independent dog or one who has pretty much governed his own activities for a period of time, so that you can gain control over the resources he wants and use them to teach him the behaviors he should do to get access to those resources.
Melanie S says
Thanks for ‘being brave’ Trish and taking us into this topic. I really enjoy what you’ve said so far and am keen to hear more from you. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the appropriateness of otherwise of using concepts such as ‘assertion’, ‘authority’, ‘respected leader’ or ‘friend with authority’ instead of the D word (which has so many confused and negative connotations) or ‘alpha’.
I read the “friend with authority” idea in a dog book just the other week in a bookstore. I can’t remember the title of the book or the author’s name, he was a British guy I think (I’d remember his name and the book title if it were mentioned to me!). It appealed to me ’cause it seemed to combine the notions of empathy, mutual respect and leadership, and offers dignity, not subjugation, to the dog while acknowledging that in many situations, especially where safety is at stake, the human has to be able to call the shots.
Looking forward to more on this topic…
Oh, and my horse has just suffered through a month of March flies – persistent biting buggers that they are – so he’s had a small taste of your decidedly perturbing bug bothers.
So I have a question: if “dominance” only refers to priority access to resources, then what term should we used to refer to leadership and hierarchy of control. Because I have seen from experience that some dogs lead and some prefer to be lead. And that some dogs will have some humans they feel they have to listen to and others whom they think should listen to them.
I mean, I would say most people who have owned multiple dogs have at least had the experience of a dog who won’t listen to the wife or children when the husband is present, presuming similar amounts of time are spent by each person. Heck, I had a dog where I was the one who worked with him and trained him 90% of the time, and he listened me amazingly when I was the biggest one there and completely ignored me when my dad was around.
I’m fine with the idea of saying that much “dominance” theory is bunk when you talk about dominance rolls and such, but there are some real behaviors being described here. If you don’t want to call them dominance, what do we want to call them and how should we evaluate them?
Great post! I’ll need to memorize some of the explanations and definitions so I can try to convert the dominance fanatics at the rescue I work with.
Hmm, the most ridiculous misuse of the “D” word probably happened while I was at an adoption fair for the previously mentioned rescue. A sweet and shy pit bull by the name of Stella was brutally alpha rolled by her foster (literally picked up into the air by her neck and slammed to the ground) because she alarmed barked at a kid, and was struggling wild-eyed for about ten minuets until she finally stopped, gasping for breath. Then her foster (leader of the dog team, ugh!) called on another volunteer to “walk threateningly towards Stella!”. At this point, Stella emptied her bladder in fear. So while this person is walking stiffly and menacingly towards Stella, starring directly into her eyes, her foster comments “she is just so dominant! She always acts scared when someone threatens her!”.
I have no authority at this rescue, and while I was almost crying about what was happening, I couldn’t do anything about it.
Jenny Ruth Yasi says
Can’t you vaccuum up the beetles?
I did a dog owner survey (http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/SHCKGPD, and asked people to choose amongst phrases to describe their training philosophy. And different philosophies really did correlate with different training results! Clearly having this dominance idea doesn’t lead toward more effective training techniques! Maybe that’s because people think they are supposed to “fight” against dominance, instead of yeilding to give an animal whatever it REALLY needs (and it trying to earn through dominance).
But I say this having had more than one dog try to boss me around! I even had a dog BITE me! But I would never bite back! The solution to dominance isn’t to oppose it with dominance!
Anxiety, and expression of “need” is a weird thing. Recently a four year old human has been coming to visit me, and he also tries to boss me around! He wants me to carry him up and down the stairs and here and there! He gets into mischief because he is so anxious and he hasn’t been hugged or cuddled enough, and so he “dominates” the environment. The best answer to him seems to be to yield, and give him what he needs.
Thank you for another intelligent and funny post! Love your blog.
Thank you SO MUCH for this post!! I can’t wait to read the next one. Frankly, I’ve heard dominance given as the reason for every “misbehavior” and natural behavior in both the canine and equine world.
What I try to explain is that animals in natural social groups don’t try to teach the other members of their groups to *do* anything. They say “Don’t do x,” but they don’t say, “Go stand by the rock and wait until I call.” Even if dominance is a big part of their world, it isn’t used to teach them to *do* things, so why should we spend so much energy on it?
Menopausal Entrepreneur says
First, my sympathies on your stink bug problems. Also a HUGE issue here in PA and I’d love to alpha roll the person who brought them to this country! Love your discussion on dominance. It is such an over-used term. I particularly liked your comment about what dominance isn’t – it’s not the one who’s in front. Nothing annoys me more than when trainers tell people to ensure that their dogs don’t walk in front of them or to make sure that you go through the door first. The power struggle that ensues can be so detrimental to the relationship. Looking forward to more posts on this topic, especially concerning the term “leadership” which can also be misunderstood.
Thank you for starting this much needed discussion. I can’t wait for the next installment.
I wasn’t going to post, but then I remembered that somewhere I heard, or read that you should never expose your neck or your belly to your dog because it is showing that you are (the counterbalance to the “D” word) Submissive or Submitting to your dog. Sheesh, we had better start walking around on all fours then because my tummy and neck are always exposed when I stand (or sit or lay) by my dog!
Bravo! Great article. Not that I expected any different, but still it’s wonderful to have it spelled out in such a way. A few things really hit home:
“It is usually maintained by visual or chemical displays that are innate and are species-specific.”
Yes yes yes! It’s something I’m always telling people who go on about having to show their dog “who’s boss.” We are not dogs. Dogs know we’re not dogs. We cannot “correct” dogs as if they’re going to believe we’re a mother dog or what have you. It seems so silly to me, but I know a lot of people believe we can “act like dogs” and the dogs will be stupid enough to believe we are.
“I also think, although I admit to just guessing, that our species loves the idea of control, and anything that suggests we can get it easily is seductive.”
I almost stood up and applauded this one before realizing my work mates might think me nuts. 😉 I’ve been saying that for a long time. Human beings are really into hierarchies and control. Not all of us obviously, but as a general rule the one species I’ve seen that has been SUPER concerned with dominance and being the “top” is our own species. I don’t think dogs are nearly so concerned with it as we are.
I think the silliest dominance-related things I’ve seen were when one trainer insisted that a dog was being dominant over light. Yes…light. Chasing light = being dominant over it. The same trainer, I believe, has also identified dogs as being dominant over various inanimate objects. I thought it was one of the funniest things I’ve seen, yet a lot of people believed it. Craziness!
Looking forward to the remainder of the posts on this topic!
I love Lassie Lamb! So cute and the patch makes her perfect. I can understand your dislike of the asian beetle; my parents have a similar problem with boxelder beetles. ICK.
Thanks for writing about this issue, I appreciate the chance to learn more about it.
D. Sakurai says
Great post! My favorite “dominance” related advice is when people advise owners to eat dinner before their dogs because that is what “alpha” wolves do. At my house my dogs eat before me because it is more convenient for me and guess what, no fall out from this practice.
Also with multi-dog households you can see where the whole strict dominance hierarchy concept goes out the window because you often find that a different dog will have first access to different resources even at different times (people, space, food) depending on their particular motivation.
Thank you for this post. I can’t wait for the next installment! (Your blog helps fill the gap left by the demise of “Calling All Pets”.)
Pat Blocker says
As a trainer, I often need to hold my tongue when I hear the “D” word bandied about. I decided to lighten up the subject a bit on my blog. Enjoy: http://peacefulpaws.net/dog-human-relationships/
Renee S. says
I see a lot of people who mistake confusion or lack or confidence for The Concept Formerly Described As Dominance, especially in horses. Hoo boy, definitely in horses. I cannot count the times I’ve seen horse kicked, whipped, spurred, or jerked in the mouth for being “disrespectful” or “dominant”. 99.9% of the time the horse has no idea what the human wants, or doesn’t feel confident to do what is being asked. So, all the violence really does is confuse or scare the poor horse even more, and many times everything falls apart. That’s a big part of how I got my horse: his former owners couldn’t deal with his “disrespect” (read: spooking and shying) and sold him to me very cheaply. Now, I can ride him bareback and bridleless and jump him.
I think the mislabeling of almost every behavior we don’t like as dominance has killed many animals over the years. Such a shame. 🙁
I do realize that Charley isn’t a “dominant” dog, and that he is untrained and used to doing what he wants. If he were “dominant”, he wouldn’t give up toys/food/attention to the neighbours 18 month old golden retriever when they play together. He also probably wouldn’t let her drag him around the yard by his face when they wrestle.
I’ve managed to determine the heirachy of treats that he will work for – freeze dried liver is okay in the house or in the car; smoked liver or heart is okay somewhere outside that is relatively calm, cheese works when there are other dogs around and salmon works (most of the time) during classes where there are lots of dogs, and people and activity. However, rabbits, magpies and fast movie objects (like vehicles or bikes) are a complete distraction and I haven’t found anything that will get him to focus in these situations – as rewarding him by letting him chase any of these items is completely unacceptable. He is slowly learning that calming himself down in these situations is rewarding, as he gets offered all kinds of treats and praise when he chooses not to try to chase (even if he doesn’t accept the treats or seems to acknowledge the praise). “Go smell” is the only reward that I find works when we are walking, when combined with a focus item.
The one thing that I have found that helps him focus a huge amount is an obvious signal that we are going to be “working”. We currently use either a backpack, or a slip (chain) collar for training sessions or walks, or activities where he needs to pay attention. I’ve tried using a halti and a front clasp harness, but he hates the halti with a passion, and I can’t get a proper fit on the front clasp harnesses that won’t rub under his front legs or allow him to wiggle out of it, and having him spend the entire session struggling to get the equipment off is counterproductive.
Most of the positive trainers in my area focus their work on puppies and youg dogs and the “dominant” (for lack of a better word) trainers deal with older “problem” dogs adn powerful dogs. Also, Charley, as an AmStaff mix, is considered a restricted breed in the nearest major city, which limits who is willing to work with him (although I also consider that a good screening tool) and where we are able to work.
The biggest step for me was realizing that it is okay to consult a trainer, or attend a class and then pick and choose the bits of advice and technique that work the best for Charley and I, as I know my dog better than a trainer who sees him for one hour each week. So, our training is a bit of a hodge podge of different techniques.
His behaviour is improving, so we are going to keep working and eventually he will be a well-mannered dog.
Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart says
Thanks for this thoughtful piece. The lamb photos made the visit even more worthwhile.
Great discussion. I’ve long thought that dominance in dogs, and between dogs and humans, is a pretty nuanced topic. Thanks for writing about it and answering many questions. I’m looking forward to the next post.
Kudos to you for entering the fray. You presented the information in an interesting, easy to understand, and makes sense way, the best I have read on the subject.
I find owners have an incorrect picture of dominance mostly because trainers and ‘behaviorists’ have reinforced the concept in classes. If trainers would learn what dominance is and isn’t, I believe owners would have fewer problems with their dogs.
I am inclined to believe that many of us suffer from being the “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” generation. I still remember watching that show around the dinner table, listening to Marlin Perkin’s over-simplified explanations of what we were seeing voicing over the carefully edited film reinforcing his seemingly astute and amazingly accurate descriptions of animal behavior. (It is easy to look brilliant when you can show the film bits that reinforce your story line). And I’ll bet that if you were to go back and look at them now, you would see that his descriptions of what was going on in the Animal Kingdom mirrored the societal beliefs at the time, including that of white male supremacy over the rabble. (with apologies to any white males reading this). And these oversimplified “stories” of how the Wild Kingdom really works entered the cultural Zeigeist of the times, repeated over and over again until these made up stories about animal behavior became believed as more true than what the animals are actually doing. Lemmings jump into the ocean. Every animal is trying to become alpha. Alphas always eat first.
I remember my surprise years ago when visiting Wolfpark. I saw the omega wolf (bottom of the dominance order) chewing on a nice hunk of deer leg, when the beta wolf approached, intent on the food that the omega wolf was eating. Omega wolf showed teeth and growled and the beta wolf turned and walked away. “Wait a minute,” I asked. “Shouldn’t the wolf on the bottom of the pecking order give up his food for the higher status wolf (showing my MOOWK understanding of such things)? “Of course not,” was the answer. “For wolves, possession is nine tenth’s of the law. The beta wolf would have had to be really hungry to be willing to challenge the omega wolf’s possession of that food.” And a carefully nurtured, oft repeated, cultural belief bit the dust.
Because we are a products of our culture, I think it is hard sometimes to let go of these “stories.” Truth is messier, more ambiguous, lacks the security of black and white, doesn’t write as neat a script.
Yikes, how are the beetles betting into the house?
Amy W. says
I had a perspective dog sitter tell me that my dog, whom she had litterly just met for the first time 5 minutes earlier, was trying to dominant her, because he wouldn’t sit when she asked. I had to explain to her that he had a torn the ACLs both back legs and sitting on the slick kitchen floor was very difficult and painful for him. Oh, and by the way, he was working on sitting for her, but he was trying to find a comfortable position, so he was going a little slow.
I think Lassie Lamb reminds me a bit of the dog from Little Rascals.
Thank you for this great article (and blog), and for the thoughtful reader comments. Alexandra’s use of the example of “having someone slap you with a ruler until you ‘get it'” is so true.
Wild Dingo: My herding breed takes a couple minutes to settle when guests come, and as such is often considered “aggressive” by guests. I’ve asked a few trainers for help about this: consistently, they suggest spraying water at her with a misting bottle. I consider my relationship her more of a “partnership”, and therefore can’t imagine ever doing this to a friend (would I want someone to do this to me if the roles reversed?). It might work quickly, but would it eventually change the underlying fear he’s experiencing, or does that depend on the dog?
Getting to know a pet’s preferences/fears/drives takes a while, but that’s so much of the fun, and it seems to be the least that an owner can do.
I’ve seen many behaviors catagorized as “dominant”…everything from jumping on me (which I allow, btw, though not on strangers) which in one of my dogs is a sign of greeting and excitement, and in another is a sign of overstimulation and negative stress, to refusing to down in a new and overwhelming place, like night one of a beginning obedience class.
I have no trouble with the behavioral definition of dominance when it comes to a particular exchange…who walks away with the desired resource. I have more trouble with catagorizing a whole relationship between two individuals “dominant” and “submissive”, as in
“If you repeated this numerous times and the same dog got it every time, that dog was described in the literature as
If you want ‘stupidest use of the concept,’ my most recent would be someone who said their five month old small breed (and mill bred) puppy had “‘major dominance issues” because he “refused to be potty trained.” I can just imagine the thoughts going through that puppy’s mind every time he squats: “Here I am, about to issue another direct challenge to my Lord and Master. Today, it’s piddling on the shag rug, tomorrow, I’ll take over the Universe!”
I did provide some info, but am never sure how persuasive it is compared to the popular dominance narrative. It’s hard to compete, though I agree that it says a lot more about human psychology than dogs’.
I once told someone that Maya was exhausting by staring at me all the freaking time, and the person informed me that Maya was making a bid for dominance. Besides the fact that they were wrong, it just seemed like such a weirdly one-dimensional view of my dog. It’s true, Maya spends about 70% of her time awake watching me. This is largely because she thinks there is a high probability that I will do something interesting. She’s often right, although my dog is probably the only person who thinks me walking into the kitchen for another glass of water counts as “interesting.”
The person was correct that sometime Maya does stare rather commandingly. I think she’s hoping I will leave off watching the boring laptop and get on with something more fun. To this end, she likes to roll onto her back and practice staring at me upside down…it is indeed rather compelling. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve actively taught Maya that making eye contact is a pretty good way to get things from me, since it’s a component of most of our manners training. There was a funny period when Maya used to try all of her tricks to get me to pay attention. I’d be writing, and she’d be rolling, spinning, sitting, backing up, and pirouetting around the room. Staring is a lot less intrusive, not to mention less energy-intensive, so I think we both prefer things this way.
Most of the time, though, Maya just likes to keep an eye on me. When I look back into her eyes, Maya’s tail will start to thump against the floor. Again, this is something I don’t get from very many people (though I’m sure there are a couple who only lack the tail). We can communicate quite a bit with only our eyes. “Did you see that jogger?!” “Remain calm, everything is fine.” “I’m pretty sure it’s dinner time?” “I love you.” “I love you too.” When I imagine substituting all this non-verbal communication (imperfect though it often is), and all those rich nuances and complicated moments, with “she’s trying to dominate you,” it just seems so boring.
Jen @ Hound and the Found says
I am just beginning the training in Search and Rescue with a puppy who is now 10 months old. It raises my hackles to hear the “D” word. I hear it all the time the working dog circles. I find it about as irritating as the folk lore junk I get every day at my job about how rat snakes and rattlers can mate. (I get this from the adults, the kids usually set them straight.) BTW this is as likely as a horse and a hippo producing offspring.
So many people out there seem to be “experts” on things. Nothing is more inflammatory than people’s opinions about dog training, fears, and their children. It seems that very few of the “experts” have actually read or understand the research first hand. Its just because some dude said so.
Thank you for such a clear article based on research. I will continue to keep my mouth shut, grit my teeth, and press the share button on your blog 🙂
If you are interested in K9 Search and Rescue experience or would like to join. Click on my name. (Shameless plug for my blog)
I hate those damn ladybugs. They cover our white house every autumn before coming inside for the winter. Still, they do eat the aphids. Interesting post about dominance. I’ll be following the discussion!
Rachel H. says
Very thoughtful post! (as always …)
The phrasing around this topic that bothers me most is when people say “I have to *get* dominance over my dog.” It’s as if they think there is a limited resource called dominance that they have to collect and hoard!
Most ridiculous use of the word dominance I’ve come across so far was a trainer in the U.K. who went on at length about how fearful dogs are really dominant dogs, trying to control you with their fear… Yeah, right….
It should not be all that surprising that lots of dog owners – myself included – are somewhat confused about the whole concept of “dominance”.
Not only are there so many definitions in other areas than ethology – also, for decades most dog training books and classes used the words pack, dominance and alpha to explain how to train your dog. Only during the last decade did many new styles of training make it into the mainstream training literature.
I feel a bit stuck between the old and the new styles of training and have tried most everything described somewhere in the literature with my reactive hound for the simple reason that I haven’t found the right method, yet. And yes – you may laugh – that included in one particular desperate moment the alpha roll. And no, of course, it didn’t work.
My confusion is not about the word “dominance” – my confusion is about the process that stands behind this word (and really behind this discussion): The process of trying to control a dog that shows undesired or unsafe behaviors. As long as the process doesn’t make sense or doesn’t work, no amount of definitions is helpful…
Dan said: “My philosophy on inter-species resource guarding is more of classical behavior. Your dog growls at you and you back off. The dog gets rewarded by keeping the toy and therefore is more likely to repeat the behavior. It has nothing to do with it
Liz F. says
What a great post and comments!
Lassie lamb is amazing. Really, what are the odds? Wow.
I’ll echo the others in thanking you for tackling this subject – the post really laid it out nicely – even after reading The Other End of the Leash (the book), I found this to be a great refresher. The point that caught my attention is this: “It has nothing to do with decision-making.”
I think it is easy, even for those of us in the positive reinforcement camp (who don’t define the dog-human relationship in terms of dominance and wouldn’t think of using a “technique” like the “alpha roll”) to blur the lines on the issue of decision-making over what the individual or group will do (which amounts to control over the animal) because this includes *control over access to resources* not *priority access to resources* and these seem very similar from a human perspective. Humans and dogs may compete with one another for the former, less likely for the latter, so we have less need to distinguish between them. I.e. in interactions between me and my dog that relate to resources, it’s not about which of us will get the bone, or access to the outside, or time to sniff something, it’s about whether the human will provide the dog access to those resources.
Also, in human group dynamics, the term “dominant” is used to describe a personality type that tends to make decisions for a group or control the course of events and interactions. In other uses (“the dominant belief,” “dominant gene”, it tends to mean “the one that decides the outcome.” So, although I do agree that we need to use the word in order to de-bunk a certain training myths, it’s a really challenging thing to explain using a word with so many other connotations in human society.
I hear the D word all the time (I train and am a pro dogwalker..the other walkers can be very misinformed about behaviour..sigh).
The worst one I heard was a man in the park asked me about his dog peeing whenever he approached. I asked him if this was new, he said yes, for about a month. I asked him what had happened about a month ago..did he punish her for something? He said the dog was on the couch, his 11 year old daughter tried to move her and she snapped at the girl. So he said he needed to show “who was the boss, that she was being dominant” and he alpha rolled her.
Sigh. I told her that alpha rolls are about instilling fear and that now she was fearful of him and the submissive urination was sign of appeasement…trying to tell him she was no threat, but that she found HIM to be a threat. He was crestfallen. He THOUGHT he did the right thing, and in the moment was “protecting” his daughter. I recommended him to a trainer in his area and referred him to some books (YOURS!).
This is a great blog entry, Patricia. I think it is very helpful to have the “definition” clarified somewhat. I personally think that most supposedly “dominant” dogs are actually insecure and anxious. This sets up a very slippery slope and is very sad for the dogs…as an owner of a dog with generalized anxiety and SA I cannot imagine someone advocating punishment and overly controlling a fearful dog could do anything helpful to resolve the issue…only worsen it.
lectric lady says
Here is something I have learned about those ^*^**^# Asian beetles. The ones we are seeing now have overwintered in the cracks and crannies of our houses, and now that it is spring they are looking for a way out. In the rooms where they are, open a window a small crack (screen off, of course), and they will find their way out. I do this in the spring and it actually seems to work. A Billion beetles at 8 am, zero at noon. But you have to do this every day for what seems forever.
Eileen Fletcher says
Thanks for the great blog – click goes the share button again!!
I personally think we hear the D word mainly in relationships between pets and owners that are troubled as it allows people to justify their often conflicted feelings towards the said pet. Sort of “it’s ok to punish my dog because after all it deserves it because it is trying to dominate me and therefore it isn’t my fault for not training it more appropriate behaviours”.
Why it is so popular among “traditional” dog trainers I don’t know, again maybe because in their minds it justifies the use of aversives and punishment, the favourite traditional training methods.
Favourite dominance explanations for dog behaviours include jumping up in puppies (need to watch that one – next thing you know it will running the household, biting the children and take over the sofa) pulling on the lead, (leading the pack because you can’t you miserable submissive human) failures of house training (they poo on your shoes just to prove their contempt for you) and the one still kicking about over here (redneck country Australia) that women can’t handle the larger breeds such as Rotties and GSD’s because they are too dominant (Is that because women are too puny to alpha roll 50kg dogs? I know I couldn’t!)
Vin Chiu says
“Dominance” is by far the most misused term to circulate through the working dog community among so called “professional working dog trainers.” Somehow the word dominant became fused with the term “high drive.” You name it and it is caused by dominance. The barking dog is dominant, the dog that bites her handler is dominant, the dog that refuses to out is dominant, the dog that fights with other dogs is dominant, the dog that is a resource guarder is dominant, the dog that pees on the your pillow is dominant, the dog that shreds the couch needs more exercise but is also dominant, the dog that can’t heel is refusing to heel out of dominance. Conversely, the anxious nervy dog is submissive, the dog that bites her handler is submissive, the dog that pees on the couch is submissive… you get the picture. Oy vay.
OMG.. these comments and this article! I can’t wait for the next one… thank you everyone for your comments too. I’ve learnt a lot thru the article and even more thru the comments. As someone who has a passion/interest in dog behaviour however isn’t officially trained in any way (just a house/pet sitter)… I’m forever reading about it all.
I guess we also will watch out for mentioning of the CM or DW word too ?
I noticed only one commentator alluded to it humorously. LOL … however we do have to acknowledge that.. well.. this particular person is well thought of and highly regarded by a lot of the general public.
The problem is that people generally are one or the other. What I like to do is take a bit from both sides but in the work with the dog itself. Work with the dog’s breed and personality.
It’s like dog walking. Some dogs really despise walking as they’re runners IMO. They are the worlds most perfectly behaved dog when you are running with them however walking bores them to tears as such thus they lunge here and there when walking (because they really want to do is run).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Axn0Amsaxdo I’d love to hear peoples’ comments on this YouTube video.
You know what I find the most fascinating? I have learnt all about early childhood development (how we humans develop from babies to age 5)… guess what. There are a LOT of similarities.
The only difference is as a lot of us here have picked up upon … us humans love the idea of control and hierarchies. They’ve existed since whenever.. we are the ones that are obsessed about dominance not the dogs. The dogs are quite simple IMO. We are the ones that make it complicated.
“Leader eats first”… oh dear. It’s rife on YouTube if you want to see bad examples… and a lot of them try to say they’re experts etc etc. I’m no expert. I will never be an expert. Just someone with avid passion to learn about dogs / animal behaviour.
There is one situation where I feel like dominance does relate to the actions of a group, and that is when the resource in question is space.
I have known dogs in the past that feel the need to own space the way others feel the need to control a nice chew toy. Not so bad if they’re outside, but very frustrating for all involved if the space in question is a small house. (Can you tell I lived with this dog?) Then the hard eye is about moving one away from one’s resource, which in that case is their space.
There was a neighbors dog that I would let stay in my yard during the day since the owner had no yard. My pyr mix Grace would happily roll and play with her outside, share toys, be buddies. But the dog was not allowed in our house – Not by my rules, but by Grace’s. If it was raining, she would allow to dog to come in the dog door and remain on the doormat. If she shifted her weight, or got up to readjust her position, Grace would give her a hard stare, remind her what part of the house she was willing to share (only the doormat), and then ignore her once she followed the rules. It was an awesome display to watch.
Grace showed me other interesting dominance things over the years. When we visited the land in Kentucky where we found her mom, Big Grace, they got along for about 2 days. Then they fought over a resource (my husband). After that arguement they had set up a heirarchy for themselves. When at one of the two houses on the property, the older dog was dominant, at the other property, the younger dog took that role. They would give up my husbands attention accordingly. It was pretty neat to watch.
I had her back when it was a lot harder to find good information on interdog aggression, and it took me a long time to realize that when she growled at fosters in out house (or pinned them for a short second til they cried uncle), it was because she tried to tell them to go away from something and they didn’t or couldn’t (the house was pretty small- she’d give a hard eye, and they wouldn’t have anywhere to avoid her). Once I understood she and I were both so much happier.
I think part of the problem in defining dominance is precisely because it is so fluid and dynamic. Over the years, as I understood more about teaching Grace to tolerate other dogs near her resources, life got easier for both of us. She didn’t have to work so hard, and I didn’t have to worry she was going to pin other dogs down. (for Grace there was no growl snap between hard eye and pin-other-dog-to-ground-by-neck). If I just had someone to explain her motivations instead of just saying “She’s trying to be alpha” it would have saved us both a lot of heart ache.
Ann W in PA says
It’s interesting to consider the two “camps” or “ends of the spectrum” regarding dominance, but then really describing it as a continuous spectrum with other options in between. It seems like maybe my dog is a bit like Carrie describes hers above. Rowdy is an blatant opportunist, and he also feels the need to hall monitor other dogs’ behavior. He also is not what I’d call “biddable” with me or any person – I put this into the opportunist category as well. But with positive training that’s really not an issue between us, and we’re a good team – though many people would certainly label him “dominant.”
The Dominance Camp would boil it down to a simple solution of me “getting dominance over him” and their methods are just not ones I’d use, besides it being a gross oversimplification of what’s really going on. Any kind of foray into, or near, these method backfires bigtime as Rowdy happily meets any opposition – I guess when you’re bred to get kicked by a steer and keep on herding (ACD), there’s not much I’m willing to do that would make any kind of impression.
The Other End of the Spectrum seems to be unable to classify his behavior as anything but fear-based, which it just is not. He does what works to get what he wants, and one of the things he wants is for “out-of-control” dogs to simmer the heck down.
So we are caught in the middle and have had to dig deeply to find training techniques that work for him to help reduce his reactivity and often pushy behavior. People on both ends of the spectrum look at me like I’m crazy when I describe his behavior as neither dominant nor fearful, I think because as decsribed above, he just doesn’t fit into their neat little boxes. I look forward to the nuanced discussion to come!
Lynn U. says
I really appreciated the nuanced understanding of dominance in this post. I’m on a dog-themed book discussion list which just finished a discussion with an author who asserts that the idea of dominance is hooey, start to finish. While I totally agree that most of what you hear out in the world about dominance is rubbish, I am not at all convinced that “priority access to resource” dominance is a myth. I have a pushy male Belgian Tervuren and a gentle female Bernese Mountain Dog, and the Terv has no qualms about rushing the Berner with an open mouth and fierce snorting noises either when I’m getting food for the dogs or when we’re snuggling on the couch in the evening. The author from the book discussion would describe this resource guarding behavior as the dog being worried that he won’t get something that he needs, but given that this is a dog who has been pampered from birth, and has never gone without food or affection, it looks like dominance to me. He wants what he wants and he expects the world to get out of the way. The Berner, on the other hand, just wants everyone to be happy, and gives him signals that look like submission to me (averting her head, backing off). I would say it is accurate to assert that the Terv is the dominant dog.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that I need to “alpha roll” him in order to train him — although I like to joke about it when he rolls over to get his belly rubbed. Actually, he’s extremely affectionate, easy to train, stable and outgoing. For him, “dominance” seems to be part of his overall self-confidence, matched with a good bit of persistence.
I’m so glad that I found your blog. I’m also fascinated by both ends of the leash.
I agree with what you’re saying about dominance. There are cases where the dog just doesn’t understand what you want it to do, and so when it doesn’t comply, that doesn’t mean it’s being dominant. I guess that’s just an easy scapegoat.
I am one that has always been told there is an “alpha” dog, a pecking order and so forth. I have not really questioned that line of thinking until now. Thank you.
I have never alpha rolled a dog in my life, and I never intend to, but I do keep peace at my house between dogs by “enforcing” the alpha roles. I am a one dog household at this time, but in the not so distant past when we had two dogs, I always knew there would be an argument between dogs if A dog was not fed first, or allowed out the door first. B dog accepted this and it kept peace. I don’t really think of using the same line of thinking for training. I would much rather reward for doing the right things, but how do you handle the hierarchy of dogs when there is more than one?
@ Vanessa – I liked your comment about dogs who prefer running to walking. I think if dogs could talk, most of them would ask us why the heck we have to go so SLOWLY on a walk! Both of my dogs will “power” walk with me on a loose leash, but the younger one pulls if I have to go slowly and the older one is well trained enough now at 6 not to pull, but obviously is not having fun. If I jog, they are both fantastic and hardly pulled at all even when they were both younger and still learning.
I watched part of that video you linked of the woman hiking with her dogs in Norway. I think they are all very well trained and she has obviously done a lot of work with her pack, but they under too tight control for my taste. I think a hike in the woods should be more fun for the dogs and give them a chance to enjoy the scenery and all the smells, even if they do have to be on a long line for safety or leash laws.
Sorry I hit the button before I finished my reply.
@ Michelle – I try to keep my dogs on equal footing and not allow either one to exercise dominance over the other. The general principle I use is that all the resources in the house are mine to hand out as rewards for the behavior I like. I do this by feeding or allowing outside first the dog who is behaving well (i.e., sitting attentively). My dogs get resources from me by offering behaviors, such as sitting quietly, rather than competing with each other. One of them might be more naturally dominant over the other, but it never really gets expressed because being “dominant” in my house doesn’t get you any better access to resources. In fact, if one dog pushes in front of the other dog to be petted, the pushy dog gets ignored and put on a down stay until he calms down while I pet the first dog, for example. I can give more examples of how I handle various situations if you are curious.
For a funny dominance story–I have a very large sable collie that I adopted at about age 7. He spent most of his life under a deck and as a result he is not only a tall gangling fellow but he is a little slow–doesn’t have the muscle tone and physical competance of an athlete. As a result I tend to signal him to proceed through doors somewhat ahead of me so I can ensure that the screens don’t slam on his slow moving butt and plumy tail. He is the softest and most polite fellow in the world and has more than earned his big yellow therapy dog tag. A neighbor had dropped by and as we left my house together I signaled the collie to take the lead–my neighbor shouted NO–Robbie froze as did I–the neighbor then said sorry but he was going ahead and he shouldn’t. I asked why and she said that will make him dominent and then he’ll take over–I couldn’t resist asking how he would do that and she said very seriously he won’t let you in your bed and if you bump him by accident he may really hurt you. She was so clearly worried on my behalf and so clearly oblivious to every signal my poor sweet worried collie was sending. fortunately she does not own a dog.
My own perception is that dominance can be extremely fluid. I used to exchange dog-sitting services with a friend who also has a belgian terv bitch. Both had the same grandsire and were pretty much equal in height and weight. Lena had first claim on any ball thrown while Tessa could hog space in the bedroom. They would turn away from their food bowls the same millisecond and explore each other bowls without ever glancing at each other on the way to the other’s bowl.
A book I read by a German dog-trainer said that the single most important thing to teach a dog is trust, and you teach trust by letting the dog know that you will not ignore its communication with you. So when the dog is trying to indicate something, you have to try to hear its message. My current lot of dogs try to tell me when they need to go out, when they think meals are overdue, and when a play session is in order. I try to listen, even if I don’t always respond respond affirmatively. I think a lot of what is perceived as dominance is a dog expressing its needs with no belief that it will be listened too– i..e the dog lunges on the leash for a squirrel instead of going into a point. Maybe some people get a better response from dogs because their own body or verbal language is responsive to the communication the dog is offering, rather than because of charisma, etc.
It seems that the concept of dominance is all over the world a topic about which dog-people quarrel…. I am from Switzerland, have two dogs: Bozhko, a male mix from Bulgaria, former chained guard dog, about 4 years old and Elina, a 6 years old Pyrenean Shepherd. Elina has PRA an is since about half a year completely blind. Bozhko is very important for Elina – he is very self-confident with other dogs, and when we go on walks and meet other (sometimes unknown) dogs, he goes to them, is friendly, sometimes plays and Elina hasn’t to do anything with them (since she is blind, she is afraid of dogs who come too quick towards her). With people Bozhko is rather cautious – in Bulgaria he had been badly maltreated. Because of Elina’s eye problems we had to give up agility (Bozhko is not interested in agility..) and I was looking for a good occupation for both dogs. We started tracking, all three of us love it. In January I was looking for a training group; I hoped this would be more interesting than working with my dogs on myself. I got in contact with a trainer and we had a first meeting at her training area. At the end of the training Bozhko was allowed to walk off leash in a large fenced meadow… he walked around, he sniffed around and as a normal male dog he lifted his leg at the fence and marked. The reaction of the trainer: she yelled at him, jumped in his direction, waved with her arms and frightened him. Bozhko first jumped backwards, and then in her direction and barked at her! She knew, that Bozhko had very bad experience with humans and she knew that I was working with him to get more confident in people! Her interpretation: the marking and than the barking show that this dog is very dominant! She seemed to love this topic – she explained me without that I would have asked her idea of dominance and told a story: a dog of a friend had catched and killed a chicken and came back to his owner with the chicken in his mouth. The owner was proud that his nice dog brought him the chicken instead of eating it. The interpretation of the trainer was: this is a very dominant dog! Why? He thought he is the leader of the family, and his human owner is his puppy that he wants to feed…. As consequence she told, that she prefers in her beginner classes dogs who don’t retrieve easily – because – you already know – beginner dogs who retrieve well are very dominant!
Okay – for me that was the first and last training with this woman – I can not learn with somebody who tells such nonsence and I don’t accept trainers who frighten my dog!
Someone once told me that I shouldn’t scratch my male dog on the chest as it would feel like he was humping me and so would assume the “dominant position”.
Uh huh. Of course…
He likes his chest scritches.
The silliest application of “dominance” theory I’ve come across: In our pre-Agility class, someone was running their dog off-leash, while the rest of us waited on-leash for our turns. The off-leash dog left the course and targeted my dog. There was a second of hackles up sniffing, and then quick as a blink the other dog pinned mine. My dog, Corrie, “cried uncle”, belly up and tail between his legs. The other dog started to back off, and I think everything would have been fine after that, but they didn’t have a chance to finish the conversation because the other dog’s owner finally reached out and grabbed her dog (she had spent the previous several seconds standing there clapping her hands and calling him). So she grabs her dog and gets him in a sort of headlock (arms around his neck/throat and around his midsection). Then she tells me to encourage Corrie to sniff her dog’s butt “to show him that your dog is dominant”. What? Umm, besides the fact that that doesn’t make any sense at all, I think it’s a good general policy to *discourage* Corrie from sniffing the butt of a dog that has just attacked him. I politely declined, but had to insist several times in the face of the owner’s repeated requests AND the *instructor* agreeing that “it’s actually a REALLY good idea!” Wow.
But I really hear Ann W’s sentiments. I don’t think Corrie is particularly “dominant”. As seen in the scenario above, he has no problem giving appeasing gestures when appropriate, and when any dog gives him clear “that’s enough” signals, he’ll back right down. But he’s also really pushy, and I’m pretty sure it’s not fear-based. He’s all up in your face with other dogs as long as they let him get away with it, plays just a little too rough most of the time even when he knows he’s being unfair, likes to bark at people on “his” trails, is basically kind of a brat. In the absence of a good label for this behavior, I tell people he’s not Dominant, he’s just an Ass. He’s a 1.5 year old BC/GSD mutt, so I still hold out hope that he will grow out of it.
When I took my then-9mo Aussie to a traditional (ie, choke collar) beginning obedience class (in 1996, there wasn’t much else, and this was my first dog in about 20 years), she was labeled dominant because of her reaction to the heeling work in class. If we were headed toward the door, she forged ahead. If we were headed away from the door, she lagged. This is a dog described by the shelter as “sweet but timid”. Sweet, timid, and dominant? I don’t think so. I think she was only communicating her discomfort with the class. We finished the series but never went back for more advanced work.
Clicker training was just beginning to appear in our area. With clicker training to make things clearer to that dog, she went on to get her CD in 4 trials and was known as a happy worker.
@ head lock position & sniff the dog’s butt …THAT’S WHAT some one asked me if I wanted to let my dog do after it had raced across the agility field, past me and my yelling “SIT”, throwing my bag of treats and then trying to get to my beagle who was behind me before it grabbed my beagle!
It was an already terrifying position for me to be in not knowing any history of this shepherd cross, and then after I was able to get my beagle away, the lady put it in a head lock too and ask me ….I was wondering WHY she said that and was not even going to ask her…it was such an odd thing to hear.
Thank my lucky stars her dog didn’t attack as in rip my beagle to pieces but it did lock on to George and we were both really shaken by the whole ordeal.
I didn’t understand why she would have said that, but now I do…at the time I just said “no it’s okay, but do you mind if I bring my beagle close (about 5ft away) and do tricks for treats”.
My concern was that me and George were able to recover from this. It’s frightening when you don’t know what the personality is of the dog charging at you.
Re the D -bomb…..I’m sure I used it before long ago, because I remember someone else told me when my beagle (puppy) was humping another dog…but after a bit, I noticed that she just did it to get a rise out of the other dog if they ignored all other signals to play as 9times out of 10 they’d start chasing her….
Really I’ve never understood why people used the D-bomb especially for puppies…or adolescent dogs for that matter…they’ve only been here on this earth for such short time…and yet if they’re not housetrained or pick up and globalize cues within the first day or week they’re taught……they’re dominant. Even when their body language is loosey goosey and they’re just full of beans…I just don’t get it. Really, it just doesn’t make sense.
I’ve often replied something to the effect “would you call an infant “dominant” and roll them for not being “potty trained” in the first week you bring them home?
Dogs are here for such a short time of our lives…I don’t understand why people choose to create adversarial relationships with them.
I just told someone last week (he “used” to be into compulsion now supposedly he’s reformed, which I don’t believe from what I’ve witnessed) that given the opportunity (not squashing behaviours) dogs will teach you more about life, compassion, and embracing each moment than you will in return.
Another example of people misinterpreting or just completely misunderstanding or having no clue about dogs: a few people, mostly at the dog park, have used the “alpha” label for Bear. I don’t think Bear is trying to be “alpha” AT ALL. One woman used the term because Bear was trying to mount her dog. Bear doesn’t engage much in this behavior, not since he was a young puppy. Her dog, however, will mount any dog that holds still long enough, and has no preference for which body part he mounts – one poor dog has had her head mounted by him several times as she lays playing with a ball. Bear didn’t mount until he saw this dog do it, and this dog is the only one I’ve seen him do it to. Anyway, I don’t think that’s “alpha” in him.
Some people think he is “alpha” because of his behavior at the park. Which isn’t “alpha” or “dominant” , nor he is a bully. He is young (14 months) and wants to PLAY with any and all dogs that will play, even for 5 seconds. If a dog runs after a thrown ball, Bear is there. Not because he has any interest in the ball, but just to chase the runner while they go for the ball. Then he’ll try to engage them in further play. If they’re only interested in the ball, he’ll look for another dog to play with him. He has received some corrections from other dogs who were not interested in play or when they didn’t want to engage in his play style or when he pushed the boundaries too much. I fully expected this when we joined this dog park and want him to receive these corrections. He was found when he was ~5 weeks old, so he missed some important time with his mother and littermates. He is learning self-control and boundaries. And because of this I watch his interactions, especially with new dogs. But he is doing wonderfully! Yesterday, he was playing with a Great Pyrenes, one I think he’d met once before. They were wrestling and both getting vocal. And they were also both signaling beautifully. Looking away from each other, taking breaks in play, lip licking. It made me smile and filled my heart to watch him play and have such fun.
Anyway, I’ve gotten slightly off track. I think some people aren’t looking for these signals, and so don’t know how to take Bear. But he just wants to play. With any dog. And he is not “alpha”, at least in my opinion. I’m not an expert, but I don’t think so.
In my mind (and I could be completely wrong here, laughs!), if you look at wolves (just to take the human factor out of it), the “dominant”, or “alpha”, or “leader” has the best interest of the overall pack in mind. Granted, he’s going to take care of himself first and the top female, because the pack has to survive. If there’s only enough food for a few, the top of the pack should eat. Because the top should be the strongest, smartest, the “est” in everything that will ensure survivial of the pack and the passing on of the best genes. If there were plentiful food, he would eat his fill and then pass on the rest to the next in line. He wouldn’t gorge himself and eat so much others would get none. He wouldn’t take more than his share just because he was the “dominant” wolf. If they found a nice, warm, safe cave to sleep in for the night, he wouldn’t keep it to himself while the others froze outside. I imagine that the alpha wolf does his best to distribute resources fairly, while maintaining the strength and survival of the tribe.
Maybe that’s why some humans have such a hard time understanding it. Because some humans would absolutely gorge themselves on food while others in their “pack” starved. They would keep the warm, safe place to sleep for themselves while others suffered. Humans would. They do.
Out walking the dog says
Great post that really clarified some issues for me. Look forward to reading more. Hope the lambs arrive soon and the beetles depart. Makes me glad I live in Manhattan, where the apartment is invaded only by the occasional giant cockroach.
Jennifer Hamilton says
Mike makes a good point…if we limit the definition of dominance to priority access to a desired resource, what do we call the instant respect that some dogs and/or people get when entering a group. For example, our dog trainer can enter a social dog group of 15 dogs and not a single dog will jump on her. If I enter the same group, at least 2-3 will jump on me. I know that it’s all in the trainer’s body language…but I have not yet mastered it. You can see the same thing when certain dogs enter a group…some will get lots of submissive, lip licking responses while others get targeted or treated rudely. Since these instant hierarchies can occur with first time greetings and be unrelated to resource access history…what do we call this social phenomenan?
Dominance is surely an over-used concept, but don’t you think it’s sometimes useful and relevant to particular dogs’ behavior? I’m thinking especially of dogs who do a lot of resource guarding (hard stare, growl-snap, etc), whether the resource is space (as with the 11-year-old trying to move the dog in Maggi’s story) or a high-value treat. That seems an awful lot like a species-specific display to maintain priority access to a preferred, limited resource. It’s important to me for my dog to give *me* (and humans generally) priority access to preferred, limited resources – i.e. for me to be able to take away high-value treats or her dinner bowl or scoot her over on the couch (mostly dealt with by giving her rewards when she complies) and especially for me to be able to effectively tell her to leave the chickens alone. So far it seems like the best way to get that last one done is by using dominance-based reprimands when she goes into a stalking posture. This isn’t a dominant dog, and I almost exclusively use shaping and reinforcement, but I think in that very specific context it *is* about reinforcing dominance – my priority access to the chickens.
None of that is to excuse the magical thinking that develops around dominance. “You can have perfect control if you perform the ritual of eating a cracker before your dog eats/going through doors first/rolling the dog over/whatever.” I know she’ll defer to me because I can take her food bowl away and she just looks at me quizzically, not because I ate a cracker first. It also doesn’t excuse treating so many problem behaviors (and totally reasonable behaviors) as dominance issues.
Also, I’ve been thinking about this over the last couple days. I agree with everyone who’s saying that you can’t apply the D-word to puppies. But it seems to me that dogs learn an *immense* amount from humans. I think I even read somewhere that dogs never naturally smile, but some will start doing it in an attempt to mimic their human. (My mom had a big blocky chocolate lab with piercing yellow eyes who would smile…freaked people out until they realized he wasn’t snarling 🙂 )
So I wonder how many dogs, raised in a primate family that relies heavily on hierarchy, learn the hierarchical structure that we humans prefer?
Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking article. I realize that this was just a start, and I look forward to your additional discussion and information on this interesting topic. However, I can’t help but share my current thoughts on dominance and respond to some of the points made in this blog.
Dominance is a concept I’ve been pondering over for years, ever since a reactive dog (now at the Bridge) entered my life and challenged me to learn and think beyond traditional and popular beliefs on dog behavior. At this point, I’ve come to feel that the whole idea of dominance just interferes with our ability to truly observe and understand dogs.
The blog discusses the ethological definition of the term “dominance,” but does this equate to “social status”? Or is social status a different concept? In human society, social status usually does involve prestige and power, which may be why most people (mis)interpret dominance as “control or command over others.”
IMO, the way this concept (whether you are talking about dominance or social status) is used in human culture implies more than just “priority access to resources”. In the example of the famous actress getting the preferred table at a restaurant, this probably happens because her fame comes with a sense of entitlement and influence, and the restaurant staff caters to this because they feel she is somehow better or more important than the average person.
Imagine the same scenario at a restaurant with a “seat yourself” policy, and you don’t recognize the actress. The outcome of who gets the good table might turn out differently, depending on who got there first, or perhaps involve a bit more of a confrontation.
The underlying implications of this type of interaction go quite beyond “priority access to resources,” and I’m not sure this is a path we want to take when trying to understand dog behavior. Even discussing interactions in which dogs (or other animals) must compete over preferred, limited resources, most of these situations involve necessities for life and survival, so I don’t think comparisons to human luxuries is relevant. So what’s the definition of “social status” as it applies to dogs? Does this concept really even exist?
Will continue in a separate response since this is getting rather long…
Regarding the example with the 2 dogs competing over a dropped pork chop… How do you gauge whether the 2 dogs have equal desire for the food? If one dog consistently gets the pork chop, how do we know that he doesn’t just want it more, or perhaps has faster reflexes, than the other dog? I don’t see how deeming one dog “dominant” because he got the food every time is useful to understanding their behavior. Especially if dominance is fluid and chances with situation and time, what use is it at all?
What does it actually mean when a dog is considered “dominant” in a given scenario? Does this imply anything about the dog’s underlying character or temperament? And how does this concept help us or change how we teach and interact with our dogs?
I’m also wondering about the comment, “In some species, high status is associated with increased responsibility, which can be dangerous and burdensome.” I’m having trouble seeing how this applies, given the ethological definition of dominance, and also your assertion that dominance “has nothing to do with decision-making about the actions of a group or one other individual.” Can you give an example of how high status can come with increased responsibility, and are dogs one of the species to which this applies?
I find the concept of dominance to be quite human-contrived, with so many conditions that it may not apply at all to everyday life with our companion dogs. What do we gain from trying to use it for dog training purposes when the technically (ethologically) “correct” definition is so limited, and so widely misunderstood by the general public, that you have to spend time explaining it? And even after a thorough explanation, most members of the general public will probably still not be able to let go of the underlying connotation of the term.
I’ve just recently come across the work by Alexandra Semyonova, and I think her theory explaining dog social organization makes a lot more sense than the dominance hierarchy model. It’s a bit of a paradigm shift from the commonly held beliefs in dominance and hierarchy, so it takes an open mind to consider. For anyone interested, Semyonova’s scientific article and sample chapters from her book can be found on her website:
In response to the request for examples of misuse of the term… Last year, I attended a seminar given by a representative of a large dog training franchise. I already knew I didn’t agree with a lot of their training philosophies, but it was part of a larger event I was attending, and I went just to see what they had to say. I both dismayed and somewhat amused by how far they took the dominance concept. Literally *everything* was explained in terms of dominance and ‘leadership’ (which they seemed to use interchangeably).
Some tidbits from the talk:
– When your dog asks to go outside to potty, don’t take him out right away. Take him out on your terms to establish your leadership.
– A dog showing submissive behavior is actually being passively dominant and manipulative.
– When walking, the dog should walk with his head by your side. If his front feet get in front of yours, he is being dominant and should be ‘corrected’ with a ‘check chain’ (which supposedly works by noise and not the physical punishment) and a ‘growl’. They did a demo with a dog who was supposed to be a puller. During the demo, the dog didn’t pull at all, but was repeatedly punished for getting his front feet in front of the handler’s – the poor dog was obviously stressed and confused and had no idea what he was doing wrong.
– There was an entire segment on separation anxiety, which is apparently due to lack of leadership. One of the ways you should establish leadership is by not allowing the dog to sniff on walks, except 2-3 times when you allow him to find a place to potty. Anxious behavior should be corrected. They recommended consulting with a vet behaviorist about meds only after establishing leadership and correcting anxious behavior didn’t work to solve the separation anxiety.
Great blog and great comments. I have to admit that I am enough of a control freak that the concept of having a 100% obedient dog is highly seductive to me, but my high energy, ADHD lab mix puppy has completey disabused me of that notion. That said, I’ve trained her to wait at the door until I go first, not because I want to show her who’s the boss, but because I got tired of her bowling me over when she scrambled through the door at the same time I did. She also “waits” when I open the car door, which is a safety issue.
All vets should be issued a copy of Sophia Yin’s book, “Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats”. The subtitle is “Techniques for Developing Patients Who Love Their Visits”. It’s wonderful.
I couldn’t agree more. I want my dogs to wait at the door, walk slightly behind me and I want to decide which direction we will go, not because I want to be “alpha” but because those activities make it safer for my dogs.
Ann W in PA says
DeAnna, your post made me laugh out load several times! “I tell people he
I think the post is a great start to the discussion. It triggered some thoughts for me that are not meant to discount what you said in any way. I’m just sharing.
My main point is that I don’t think the concept can be as clear as the post makes it sound once you really dive into it.
For example, suppose the resource is a favorite spot on the couch? If doggie A is sleeping on treasured sunny spot and dominant doggie B wants that spot, doggie B can make doggie A *move*. In this case, doggie B is controlling where doggie A goes and what she is allowed to do. This seems to me to be in contradiction with the statement in the post: “It has nothing to do with decision-making about the actions of a group or one other individual. There is no relationship in the literature between who decides when to move on, where to go or what to do. Period.” Can we really say it that simply?
Here’s another reason I find the concept more complicated. I have previously heard/read you use that same definition for dominance as you used in the post. However, other times, I have heard you use the following definition for dominance: “Social freedom”. As in, “The Queen can run up and hug you, but you can not run up and hug the Queen.” (Unless you have a death wish?) Here’s where I think things get murky. Social freedom starts to sound like making decisions about who gets to do what and when. It sounds like control over other people’s actions to me. If the queen has the social freedom to hug me and I have to take-it rather than do my desired bow, then my behaviour has been controlled/changed. I’m not sure how this idea of social freedom translates into dogs behavior, but I know I’ve heard you use it.
With these kinds of murky waters, how can the concept be talked of so simply? I know the post was just a starting place for the discussion. But I find the idea needs a lot more fleshing out.
I think the concept of dominance in dogs get confusing when we compare to humans. The concept of dominance in dogs is often discussed in terms of social status. There are high status dogs, status seeking dogs, low status dogs, and everything inbetween. The concept of status may look different in dogs than humans. In humans, high status indivuals can and often do control the behavior of lower status individuals. So, it’s no wonder people get confused.
I think it is worse than just being confused. I believe there is good reason why the scientific definition of dominance as related to dogs has been so abused. They picked a word that has a different meaning in common language. Look up the definition of dominant and dominate in an English dictionary. It is all about control over another individual’s actions. “Exercising the most influence or control” “To control, govern, or rule.” Of course people are going to hear the word “dominant” and use it the way it is described in the dictionary. The word, “dominant” is really a horrible choice for the concept described in the post. If we think the concept of “primary access to resources” is helpful when talking about dogs, I believe we would all be better served if we used a different term. Any votes for a better word?
@Jennifer: Your descriptions of the seminar and miss-use of the term dominance are chilling. It points out why this issue matters so very much. I feel so badly for that dog!
Given how much competition is a part of human interaction is it any wonder that people view human canine interaction through that same lens? I see so many people viewing their relationship with their dog as some sort of competition which they have to win. The whole dominance concept is seen as proof of victory.
Personally, I prefer to describe my relationship with Ranger as a partnership. Ranger is expected to abide by my rules because we live in a human society and I’m the native guide. I like to imagine that if we lived in canine society I’d be as willing to follow his lead as he is to follow mine. When we meet strange dogs on our walks I try to follow his lead on the principle that he’s the native guide to canine behavior.
You’re right..that is an excellent book.Every vet should have a copy of that book! I know quite a few vets who still believe in the old view of dominance…it’s a great trend that more are now starting to become more interested in animal behavior.
Very interesting topic….I cringe at how often I hear the word misused as well. And I agree…my dog sits at the door and walks behind me for purely safety reasons.
Wonderful topic, and I look forward to reading more. I think dominance is too often confused with aggression (unstable temperament), or dogs who’ve had such little socialization control is the their coping mechanism.
I have had two trainers tell me that my dog “does not like them” because they have dominant personalities. I would love to hear from others what this implies. In one instance he continually jumped up on the trainer, and was extremely pushy. The conclusion was he sought dominance by gaining height. With the second trainer, he gave what she thought was a warning by mouthing her hand. Just prior to that she’d stepped on his back feet to instruct him to a stand (first experience), and he was instead very focused on other dogs in the ring that were retrieving dumbbells. I think he was just in high prey drive, and we should have gotten his attention first.
He plays rough with the rough dogs, but very gently with the smaller ones. At three months he would wait in a doorway for me to go first, will not steal food on a counter, and loves people and children. His focus is tremendous in training if I’m consistent with my signals.
Looking foward to reading more. I’m confused about the trainers comments, but am not going to start jerking him around, or ask for constant submission.
I agree dominance is just priority access to resources.
Something we already have by default.
What it seems to me we do with dogs is hijack their natural social abilities to display subissive and appeasement behaviors by our demanding appeasement behaviors from them before we grant access to that resource.
We specifically teach them that if they submit to our desire for a specific appeasement behavior they get instant access to high value limited resources, and dogs being the adaptable opportunistic creatures they are learn quickly to take advantage of it.
Sit and you get a a tasty food treat.
Sit and wait and you get to go outside.
Once the dog figures out appeasing you can get you to give up the resources, the dog is open to learning all kinds of complex and specialized appeasment behaviors for access to our limited high value resources and become conditioned to it for life.
It’s like flaunt our dominant position teasing (luring) the dog with the most limited highest value resources we can find, and make them jump through hoops appeasing us for a little access. Doesn’t get a lot more dominant in my mind than that.
At the end of a training lesson one day the instructor that I was co instructing with left the class with “and remember, you need to be DOMINANT to your dog!”. I shuddered, realising that to describe leadership and access to resources (as opposed to being physically dominating) would not be possible as everybody turned and headed for home. What a sad, misleading parting message for those pet owners.
Thank you for writing this blog post! I am a third year veterinary student and the “D-word” is so misused it’s maddening. We even have a very progressive behavior course taught in the fall of our third year, but by then it seems there’s been too much ‘Television Training” to reverse the old school alpha-roll dominance theories.
My saddest experience with dominance theory came before I went to school and was working at a small practice. A 10 week old Scottish Terrier came in for a puppy check. Like most terriers at that age he was super bouncy and mouthy to boot. The veterinarian doing the exam explained to the owners that the dog was acting very dominant, and if they did not neuter right away and get dominance over the dog he would soon be harming their children. As he was giving delivering the disaster scenario, puppy continued to gnaw on whatever was within reach.
Suddenly, the vet lifted the puppy up by the scruff and held it suspended about two feet above the table, saying this was what needed to be done to get it to submit. The puppy screamed and screamed, visibly terrified. The vet continued holding, saying he couldn’t put the puppy down until it relaxed and submitted to him as the dominant one. Once he left the room I gave the new owners a list of books I thought they might want to read – not surprisingly none of them advocated hanging or rolling 10 week puppies.
Very interesting stuff. My 10year old dog is an only-dog, no other animals in the house. As he ages I’ve noticed more often he takes what we traditionally refer to as a dominant (I see now its the wrong use of the term) stance toward other dogs. Tries to put his head over their shoulders or even will go as far as trying to mount them, if they’re the same size or a little larger than him. I have not seen him try to mount dogs much smaller than he. He is fixed, and about 40-45 pounds. I wonder, is this an age thing, an only-dog thing or other issue? Should I try to dissuade him from doing it? I have to remain vigilant of his interactions at the dog park.
I totally appreciate the middle ground on this topic as well. I do believe the ‘Dominance Theory” is over hashed and largely misunderstood. I have never seen so many variable ways of explaining or “inflicting” dominance. I prefer to call it energy. Just as when an authority figure walks into a room and you FEEL the authority (some would argue that’s dominance, but actually it’s mutual RESPECT). For example…a teacher walking into a class of 2nd graders…a teacher that has respect from his/her class will immediately see kids perk up, go quiet and become alert for instruction…where-as a Bully of a teacher, that has time and again been rude, belligerent, and domineering just might inflict FEAR of non compliance, but certainly NOT respect.
I have been successful of exuding a calming effect (energy) on a usually wayward dog…I don’t have to stare it down, or cow it in a corner, or loom over the top of it…I can have proven time and again…I can walk into a room, be completely silent and respectful of the dog’s space…and a dog that normally mauls guests by jumping up or nipping etc. usually either ignores me, or doesn’t behave in such a way–but instead singles out the weaker energy in the room and performs their “rude ritual” with them. There have even been times the owner’s dog prefers to sit beside me after a few minutes, than behind/beside the owner. Friends and family have called me a miracle worker…but honestly, I just seem to exude a level of energy that begets respect as a result…that’s not training, mis direction, re-direction or asking anything except for mutual respect.
Think about it…the first thing many “dog people” want to do with a new/strange dog is practically lunge forward to pet it…and even if we go the rounds of allowing the dog to sniff our palms…WHO is usually the first to “be rude” and suddenly flip their hand out to try and “pat” the dog on it’s head or face…and receive a duck and cover, or sideways head flick as a response? It doesn’t matter how respectful the dog is…YOU-HUMAN is being rude–I liken that to shaking hands with a new person (maybe a business associate) and then immediately after the handshake has ended trying to affectionately stroke their cheek or lips….does that sound about right. It’s NOT respectful and it’s not usual behavior…and some dogs learn to anticipate this action and some can get downright nippy at our humanly RUDE behavior.
That’s my feelings on the matter….just like all people are different, all dogs are different…so re-direction with food/toys/affection for one dog, might invoke a completely backwards and/or negative response from another. Some dogs NEED calm and respectful, but firm guidance…because they DO feel and feed off energy, whether it’s positive OR negative…and someone who is unstable, constantly trying to domineer an unruly dog with equally unstable energy IS feeding the situation without ever SAYING or DOING anything…and that starts the second the leash/collar is clipped on. Where-as a soft hearted or completely willing dog might balk at the slightest firmness you might use on a “harder” dog. But it is ALL energy.
Thanks for your post! And I hope all your Lambs arrive happy and healthy!
Thanks for this article. I am a dog trainer and behaviourist in South Africa, but have followed the work of Ian Dunbar and Jean Donaldson (among others) in my training and behaviour modification techniques. I sometimes feel like the lone voice in the wilderness when it comes to the whole “dominance” issue. Just about every owner I deal with (except those that have trained with me for a while!) watches Cesar Milan and most other trainers and behaviourists around me still blame dominance for every dog problem there is!
There is nothing worse for me than when a behaviour that stems from fear is blamed on dominance. I recently spoke to an owner whose dog’s aggression problem (with strangers) had ended up becoming an aggression problem with all people (he even bit the owner badly on several occaions) – the owner admitted that he had listened to the dominance theorists and had “alpha rolled” his dog, choked him on a chain and growled at him etc. The poor dog ended up chasing shadows when strangers approached as he was so torn between the supposed approaching threat and the physical pnishment his owner was going to dish out if he reacted in any way. Thankfully he ended up getting advice from a more sensible behaviourist and he changed his manner towards the dog completely. A Halti replace the choke chain and calmness, affection and rewards replaced the rough handling. The dog is a completely different animal and the owner says he now realises that he was actually abusing his dog before without understanding what he was doing!
I can’t wait for South Africa to catch up with the US as far as this sort of thing is concerned!
Grrrreat article! Just to provide you with a strange use of the ‘d’ word….I was told that I shouldn’t pick up my dog’s poop infront of him as he will assume that this will give him dominance over me! :O)
What an excellent post.
I work mostly with companion birds. However, we still hear the “d word” often enough to make my ears bleed.
The most recent circumstance was while I was working with a family who owned a 6 month old baby parrot, who was “viciously attacking” them. Now, normally baby parrots are generally sweet, gentle, goofy feather poofs; not usualy something you think of and go “Watch out!”. The request for a home intervention for a bird so young was very unusual.
When I did the home visit, I immediately saw a very young bird (these birds are not adult until 7-8 years old!) who was utterfly terrified for her life. She had absolutely no trust in her human companions at all; in every way it looked ot me like she expected them to leap upon her at any second. It eventually came to light that they had been chasing her around with a towel and a kitty litter scoop (???) to get her to “step up” onto their arm. Eventually, when she was exhaused, she would finally step up on their arm, pant long enough to regain her breath, then fly at their face and bite them. When she bit them, they would reach up and smack her off- however, even big birds don’t weigh much, and they admitted that several times she was accidentally smacked into a wall.
When I asked why they thought she was acting this way, they said: “She’s just a dominant bird. She wants to be alpha bird. She’s trying to play us by pretending to be afraid.”
Here is an animal who is shaking, panting and screaming in total terror, and they thought she was playing mindgames with them. Parrots are smart, but they aren’t that smart!
I find it fascinating how many people misread FEAR issues as DOMINANCE issues. It’s almost as if people cannot fathom that the creature they chose to bring into their lives is utterly terrified of them; they can’t accept that they have betrayed that animal’s trust. It’s much easier to think that that animal has betrayed their trust; that the issue is the animal’s fault, and not the human family’s. I think of it as a form of victim blaming.
I doubt anyone with even a basic understanding of behaviour could have looked at that poor baby and seen anything other than a victim of ignorance.
Monique Anstee says
And more importantly, my favourite line of all is “But I will say here that the misuse of the term “dominance” in dog training is so pervasive that it causes ethologists like me to want to poke pencils in our eyes.”
I know this is an older article and I may be writing comments for myself. I obviously hate this whole alpha dog theory. It has turned everyone into an a dog behaviorist, which is most detrimental to canines. I just want to ask an alpha expert “why do you think your Schnauzer wants to take over your life, steal your wife and car. Play golf at your clubhouse. Why do you think a dog being a dog (pee accidentally on your rug) means the dogs is laughingat you.” Forget having a fine and loving dog protecting your home and family, forget about dogs who herd sheep for their owners, of course search and rescue dogs have an ulterior motive. Perhaps guide dogs can’t wait to trick their human and run them I to a wall. I know, when I’m upset and crying my dog doesn’t really comfort me with a nuzzle, she just wanted to lick my face because she knows it’s gross.
As wonderful as dogs are, I sometimes wonder why they put up with our crap. Then again, sweetness doesn’t comprehend the diabolical.
Sorry for the bitterness. I’m a dog sitter and I’m not going to stop I feel like I can sneak in a suggestion or recommend ‘Culture Clash’ people would rather watch The Dog Whisperererer.