Last week I wrote about that ever-so-controversial word, “dominance,” and how it might or might not relate to dog behavior and dog training. To refresh: In animal behavior, dominance refers only to “priority access to a limited resource,” has little to do with controlling the actions of another in any other context, is highly dependent on context and the distribution of resources and is maintained by species-specific displays that act to avoid conflict rather than create it.
In decades past, it was assumed that classic dominance hierarchies existed in domestic dogs. After all, drop a pork chop between two hungry dogs and in short order, one of them is going to get it more often than not. Dogs greet one other in classic “dominance/submission” displays of ears up/tail up versus ears flat/tail tucked. “Submissive” dogs greet others with the same appeasement behavior of puppies, ears flat, body low, tail tucked, foreleg cocked, licking another’s muzzle with a submissive grin, even urinating in some cases.
In addition, dogs are not only derived from wolves, they are so close genetically they are now considered sub-species of Canis lupus. And wolves used to be the story book species of dominance/submission social relationships. We were told that only the alpha male and female mate, that extremely strict social hierarchies existed between each member of the pack, and woe unto an omega wolf who tried to usurp power from a dominant member of the same sex.
Ah, but that was then, and this is now. First off, as we learn more, it is clear that social relationships in wolves are a tad more complicated than previously believed. We’ve learned from following packs in Yellowstone National Park that, in some packs, several females have litters. Nor does the hierarchy seem to be as strict in wild packs as it does in captive ones. And several authors have questioned the concept of dominance in domestic dogs: To name just a few: the Coppingers in the book Dogs said they saw little sign of it in the free-ranging dogs that they observed around the world; Bradshaw et. al. wrote in the J. of Veterinary Behavior (2009, Vol 4, 135-144) that learning and ‘subjective resource value’ are better explanations for agonistic behavior than ‘dominance.’
And so, is the concept of a social hierarchy and dominance even relevant in domestic dogs? I think yes, but then, I think no. Here’s the beginning of this potentially profoundly unsatisfying answer:
DISPLAYS: There’s no getting around it. Dogs are the poster children of visual displays that have historically been used to describe signals of social hierarchy. What are we to make of two dogs greeting, one with her tail flagged forward, the other with tail tucked? We can call lip-licking and flattened ears appeasement displays, but what do we call the opposite? Dogs who are flagging their tails, and giving hard direct stares over a favorite toy should be described how? Well…. there are other terms. We could describe them as “on offense” or “threatening” or “confident.” We can label the opposite postures as “insecure” or
“appeasing” or “on defense.” I should mention here, however, that I’ve seen a gazillion dogs with extreme versions of what are usually called ‘submissive displays’ who appear to be full of confidence around other dogs. File this away for a moment, and continue pondering:
PRIORITY ACCESS TO RESOURCES: There also seem to be a plethora of examples of multi-dog households in which one dog is “more equal than others.” (Remember the famous quote from the book Animal Farm?: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”) The resource may vary, from access to their human, to access to the great outdoors to access to the pig’s ear, but there are a gazillion examples of groups of dogs in which one dog appears to priority access to what it wants. But, of course, (of course!) there are complications:
What of the issue about “wanting something equally?” Several of you have asked in your comments about how one can determine if two individuals desire a resource equally. Could all “wins” simply be an example of an individual who wants something more than any other? It IS a complication, and is yet another reason why the concept of “dominance” can be a tricky one. However, I don’t think it’s always impossible to make this judgment. Luke would let any dog take food out of his bowl, because he just didn’t care much about his dinner. Figuring that out was trivial, because sometimes I had to encourage him to eat. But he never, ever let another dog pick up a tennis ball that was between the two of them. His intensity around tennis balls was best illustrated when he was an adolescent and first became interested in fetching. I threw the ball and little Misty, a tiny, fox-faced BC of mine, got to the ball first. As she ran toward me with it in her mouth, Luke rushed up behind her, grabbed her tail in his mouth and flicked his head to the side. Misty, being attached to her own tail, flew threw the air and landed so hard the ball popped out and dribbled through the grass. Luke snatched it up and proudly brought it over to me (at least, until I, coming out of my shock, said WHAT ARE YOU DOING? and body blocked him backward about 10 feet. FYI, that is all I did, and he never did it again.)
Possession is the law: The concept of “priority access” is often confounded by a lack of understanding of what it means. It is often said that “possession is the law” in wolf society, and I have found it often true in dogs. If a dog who normally behaves submissively/appeasingly (etc etc) has a hold of a bone, a dog who would be called “dominant” by many does NOT have priority access. Often, he who has the bone gets the bone. “Dominance” was originally used to described two individuals who do not have possession of a resource. Given that scenario, when two individuals do NOT have possession of something yet, who gets it? That’s partly why Luke was being such a jerk in the example above. As an adolescent, he hadn’t read that memo, and was breaking all the laws of canine custom, as well as just p….’g me off.
Resources Vary: In biology, the word “resource” can refer to a wide range of things. Common zebra males compete for females, as the limited factor in passing on their genes. Grevy’s zebra males compete for good waterholes, an indirect way of competing for females who are attracted to the resources necessary to provide for their young. Cavity nesting birds compete for territories with old, dead trees that can provide good nest sites. Etc. Etc. Dogs can compete for a favorite toy, or access to outside or sitting next to their favorite human.
Resource Distribution Varies: Did you notice from my descriptions above that social hierarchies seem to be less strict in wild than captive wolves? And that observers watching free-ranging dogs see less evidence of “dominance” displays than others have reported in other contexts? Ah, I wish more people had taken Ecology, because here’s what all ecologists know: social systems, in the same species, vary tremendously, dependent upon the distribution of resources. “High quality, clumped resources” tend to create stricter social hierarchies, while “Low quality, evenly disbursed resources” tend to create looser social organizations. Hmmm. Which would describe house dogs?
PERSONALITY MATTERS: Besides an interest in status, the personality (that’s temperament + life experience) of each dog surely makes a huge difference in their behavior around other dogs. There are dogs out there who are what I call “alpha wanna-bees” — status seeking, controlling BUT insecure and nervous. They turn into the bullies of the world, the canine equivalent of a boss from hell who wants to control all the resources but doesn’t have the chops to do much of anything with confidence. Other dogs, my Luke was one, are what some people call “natural alpha’s.” Luke was an intact male, he met hundreds if not thousands of other dogs, some of whom were dog-dog aggressive. He never got into a fight, not even a skirmish. Not once. Luke was accepted by all dogs who met him as being . . . dare I say it? A leader? He greeted other dogs with his tail flagged and his entire body elevated, but he also broadcast a benevolent, Gandhi-esque-like aura that appeared to calm all who met him. Granted, there were a few client’s dogs that I did not let him meet, so I’m not saying that Luke was magical in any way. Dogs who were still seriously dog-dog aggressive did not get a chance to interact with Luke, but Luke was the vehicle for curing hundreds of aggressive dogs, in part because he seemed to make everyone, dogs and people alike, feel better standing next to him.
In reality, there is no such thing as a “dominant personality”. Dominance is a relationship between individuals, not a description of a temperament. However I DO think (and I know some will disagree) that one component of personality in dogs is whether or not they are “status seeking.” I use “social status” to describe the general phenomenon that some animals are more equal than others. This is as true in our society as it might be in dogs. The actress gets the best table at the restaurant because she is famous and fame in our culture gives one social status. In my opinion, some people care deeply about social status, while others don’t seem to care at all. Status simply means ones position relative to that of others, and surely it is an obvious feature of human interactions.
But some dogs just don’t seem to care about social status either, do they? And here is perhaps one of the reasons why this issue can become so confused and confusing. I suspect that dogs vary tremendously in how important social status is to them. This makes sense: dogs are neotonized wolves, meaning that there’s been selection for a regulator gene that basically keeps them in eternal adolescence. This interference with development also creates ideal conditions for tremendous variability–not just in size or coat color, but also in behavior. Perhaps you’ve known some dogs who just couldn’t care less about who’s who in the social register, and others who are obsessed with being king or queen of the mountain? And then there are others, the equivalent of a gold digger who is always looking for power–and who may or may not get it, depending on a myriad of other factors.
SOCIAL STATUS IS JUST ONE WAY to get what you want. Here’s another problem I have with the way the concept of “dominance” is used. Somehow, if an individual is “dominant” it is presumed to be able to get everything it wants every time it wants it. But that’s just not the way complicated societies work. You might get a better table at the restaurant because you are more famous that I am, but what if I slip the Maitre D a hundred bucks? What if he’d seen your movie and hated it? My super submissive/appeasing BC Pippy Tay got a chew bone out of Queen Tulip’s mouth one night by lip-licking and tail thumping so relentlessly that Tulip finally got up and walked away. Pip was brilliant, and yet, I assure you: Tulip would’ve gotten a pork chop lying between them every time, but I’d bet the farm that Pip wanted it more than Tulip did. Pip never, ever would’ve ‘won’ a piece of yummy food off the floor if Tulip was around, unless she’d had 15 minutes to work her magic as she groveled her way toward Tulip, grinning, licking and tail thumping like a fool. And no pork chop was going to last in Tulip’s mouth for 15 minutes. Take my word for it. “Priority access” may mean that a higher status dog has gets the goody more often than not, but it is NOT the only way to get what you want in a social group.
Just to confuse things (or to clarify?): There’s one other phrase used by a wolf ethologist (Zimen) that I really like: Dominance simply means whoever has the most social freedom. Is that the same as priority access to a preferred resource? Hmmmm. More food for thought.
THUS, MY ANSWER IS YES AND NO: Here’s what I meant by “YES, the concept of “dominance” is relevant to dogs, and NO I don’t think it is relevant”. I think the concept is relevant IF AND ONLY IF it is understood that it is merely a way of describing one aspect of the relationship between social individuals. And I think NO, because once you use the word “dominance” all other aspects of personality, context, and the complexity of social interaction seem to fly out the window. I could write on and on, but this is becoming something of a book, and I need to get something else done today and you are probably getting sick of reading . . . I’ll take this topic up again soon, because it deserves it, and so do you, dear reader. In it I’ll address some of your very thoughtful (and considerate!) comments.
Meanwhile, back on the farm: Busy weekend. One new set of twins, but still nothing from Dorothy, now 9 days late. Best guess is that she didn’t get bred the first round, and will deliver lambs from the next cycle, 8 days from now. The lambs, all 9 of them now, are doing wonderfully, fat-bellied and playful. Even better, Will got to run free for the first time on Saturday. I even let him work sheep for about 6 seconds! What a joy for us both. So far, so good. Cross your paws.
Yesterday we visited a friend with a litter of 4 week old Border Collies. Puppy rapture on all counts:
Heavenly rain on Friday, sunny and cool Saturday and Sunday; grass and flowers lifting upward toward the blue sky. Good golly I love spring.