The Dominance Myth
Describing our dogs as ‘dominant’ has appeared to help us understand why they behave in certain ways, & how to manage them accordingly. However since this original research in the 1960s our understanding of dog behaviour has increased dramatically, & it’s time to forget about ‘dominance’ as a way of interpreting our dogs!
The question “is your dog a dominant dog?”, or describing a dog as “dominant” is commonplace today. This interpretation all began many decades ago when research was carried out on wolves as a means of understanding how our domestic dogs may have behaved in the wild. The theory was that since dogs & wolves are genetically similar (they share 96% of their DNA & a common ancestor), then their behaviour must be too.
There are 2 key reasons this research has now been disproved:
- Just because they share such a high DNA doesn’t mean they behave in a similar fashion (refer to the Chimpanzee & Bonobo in John Bradshaw’s In Defense of Dogs), &
- Wolves don’t actually behave the way we thought they did
When this research was happening technology didn’t exist to effectively track wolves in the wild, so the research was based on wolves in captivity. Now, with advances in technology, we’re able to track wolves in the wild, and what we’ve found out about them is VERY different to the research gathered from the captive wolves.
Wolves, like dogs, are social animals. They live in family units based around a mother & father and children. The parents are leaders of the ‘pack’ in the sense that human parents are leaders of their family: they provide guidance & leadership but don’t rule with an iron fist. Wolf cubs are not trying to constantly battle their parents or each other for supremacy & there is very little aggression within a wolf family. Wolves are wary of outsiders (wolves from other groups), and will avoid or fight strangers. This is very different to the captive wolves, on who the research was based, & who were not from the same family unit. They were in fact a group of strangers forced to live together in one territory. As such many unusual behaviours began to surface as these wolves tried to figure out how to live together without being killed. They tried strategies of intimidation (threats or force) or appeasement (trying to demonstrate they were of no threat).
As such, this dated research painted us a completely incorrect picture of our family dog as an animal who is constantly trying to ‘dominate’ us, and needs to know their place in the ‘pack’ to be comfortable.
In fact L. David Mech, who’s 1970 book first indicated this alpha-role theory, has written at least 3 more works, the latest in 2008, correcting his earlier assumptions.
What does that mean for us as dog owners?
It’s great news! There are thousands of dog trainers across the world who focus on understanding what their dog is trying to communicate, & using positive reinforcement to shape desired behaviours. They understand HOW dogs learn.
Dominance is not a state of being. Dogs are not 'dominant', full stop. Quite often ‘naughty’ behaviours surface as a means of our dogs trying to communicate something with us: possibly that they’re afraid, anxious, excited, under or over-stimulated & so on. It’s up to us to try & understand what they’re communicating, so we can guide them & shape behaviours that work for us all. It's easy for us to call them 'dominant', but it won't help in addressing the problem.
Dogs are dogs, and we wouldn’t want them any other way, but we can help them and ourselves have a more harmonious life together if we focus on communication rather than the disproved pack leadership or dominance.
Sources: – there’s lots to read on this topic!
- The perceived wisdom from the late 60s: Mech, L.D. (1970) The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press.
- Mech’s subsequent works adjusting his earlier assumptions:
- Mech, L.D. (2008) Whatever happened to the term Alpha wolf?
http://www.4pawsu.com/alphawolf.pdf accessed 29th September 2009
- Mech, L.D. (1999) Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 77(8): 1196–1203
- Mech, L.D. & Boitani, L. (2003) Wolf social ecology. 1–34 in: Mech, L.D. & Boitani, L. (eds) Wolves: Behavior, Ecology and Conservation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
- A great article written by Dr Sophia Yin, an eminent Veterinary Behaviouralist, including lots of videos: http://drsophiayin.com/philosophy/dominance
- Bradshaw, J (2011) In Defence of Dogs, Allen Lane Penguin Books
- Ryan, D (2012) Why won’t dominance die? http://www.apbc.org.uk/articles/why-wont-dominance-die
- Overall, K.L (2012), Dumbed down by dominance, http://veterinarynews.dvm360.com/dvm/Medical+news/Dumbed-down-by-dominance-Part-1/ArticleStandard/Article/detail/762103