wag the dog article: dominance theory
Thursday, February 12, 2009 6:19 PM                

By Shannon McKay



Labelling a dog "dominant" has become a very used and abused term and tends to be applied to any dog that shows less than perfect behaviour. It has become very popular amongst dog owners, behaviour enthusiasts, uninformed trainers and amateur behaviourists, as it provides a convenient answer to all evils and in some cases an opportune disguise for ignorance.

The use of the dominant label is one of the biggest problems facing the domestic dog today. It is very easy to apply a dominant label, but in the words of Alexander Pope: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring". The subsequent use of blanket approaches to "stop Fido from trying to take over" has caused many dogs to be victims of non-contingent punishment, which ironically ends up worsening the situation. The resulting deterioration in behaviour entrenches the belief that Fido was indeed being a dominant dog and he is now resisting this challenge to his status.

The main reason that dominance theory is such a problem is that it is taken straight from wolf pack theory. There are two problems with this approach:

Principle of Parsimony (Occam's Razor)

When dealing with the dynamic and highly interpretive science of canine behaviour we are often making educated guesses. It is impossible to know exactly what another animal's motivations and thoughts are without the benefit of spoken language. We can thus only make knowledgeable assumptions at best.


As such we should adhere to the principle of parsimony, which is a scientific stance that states criteria for deciding among scientific theories. And it states, "One should always choose the simplest explanation of a phenomenon, the one that requires the fewest leaps of logic". In essence: The fewer the leaps of logic, the fewer the possibilities of being incorrect.

So, instead of assuming a dog to be "dominant" which is a very complex concept, we should rather first have a look at more straightforward potential causes for this behaviour such as health, diet, environment etc. It is critical to assess these areas first, as they may give insight into the problem, which could then be easily addressed/managed by adapting the husbandry (so to speak) instead of "putting them on the behaviour couch".

If every single alternate avenue was clearly unfeasible then one could perhaps consider applying the wolf pack theory, BUT this theory is often applied without properly exploring the simplest concepts first. It is thus unparsimonious.

Species-Specific Behaviour

Dogs are not wolves, and extrapolating and applying interpretations of wolf behaviour to dogs is unscientific at best and woefully ignorant at worst. New research suggests that dogs did not evolve directly from hunting wolves (an article on this is to follow soon) but instead from often-solitary feral dogs. Applying the highly specialised behaviour of hunting pack animals to a scavenging and incidental pack animal is thus technically incorrect and inappropriate.

So, when we look at interpreting domestic dog behaviour we should base our facts on studies on domestic dogs. This is perhaps not as romantic as the Wolf Pack Theory, but it is certainly with more scientific merit.

Below follows an excerpt of an article on this concept written by Dr. Ian Dunbar.
"Dr. Frank Beach performed a 30-year study on dogs at Yale and UC Berkeley. Nineteen years of the study was devoted to social behavior of a dog pack. Some of his findings:

  • Male dogs have a rigid hierarchy
  • Female dogs have a hierarchy, but it's more variable
  • When you mix the sexes, the rules get mixed up. Males try to follow their constitution, but the females have "amendments"
  • Young puppies have what's called "puppy license." Basically, that license to do most anything. Bitches are more tolerant of puppy license than males are
  • The puppy license is revoked at approximately four months of age. At that time, the older middle-ranked dogs literally give the puppy hell -- psychologically torturing it until it offers all of the appropriate appeasement behaviours and takes its place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The top-ranked dogs ignore the whole thing
  • There is NO physical domination. Everything is accomplished through psychological harassment. It's all ritualistic
  • A small minority of "alpha" dogs assumed their position by bullying and force. Those that did were quickly deposed
  • The vast majority of alpha dogs rule benevolently. They are confident in their position. They do not stoop to squabbling to prove their point. To do so would lower their status because...
    Middle-ranked animals squabble. They are insecure in their positions and want to advance over other middle-ranked animals
  • Low-ranked animals do not squabble. They know they would lose. They know their position, and they accept it
  • "Alpha" does not mean physically dominant. It means "in control of resources." Many, many alpha dogs are too small or too physically frail to physically dominate, but they have earned the right to control the valued resources. An individual dog determines which resources he considers important. Thus an alpha dog may give up a prime sleeping place because he simply couldn't care less

So what does this mean for the dog-human relationship?

  • Using physical force of any kind reduces your "rank." Only middle-ranked animals insecure in their place squabble
  • To be "alpha," control the resources. I don't mean hokey stuff like not allowing dogs on beds or preceding them through doorways. I mean making resources contingent on behaviour. Does the dog want to be fed. Great -- ask him to sit first. Does the dog want to go outside? Sit first. Dog want to greet people? Sit first. Want to play a game? Sit first. Or whatever. If you are proactive enough to control the things your dogs want, "you" are alpha by definition
  • Train your dog. This is the dog-human equivalent of the "revoking of puppy license" phase in dog development. Children, women, elderly people, handicapped people -- all are capable of training a dog. Very few people are capable of physical domination
  • Reward deferential behaviour, rather than pushy behaviour. I have two dogs. If one pushes in front of the other, the other gets the attention, the food, whatever the first dog wanted. The first dog to sit gets treated. Pulling on lead goes nowhere. Doors don't open until dogs are seated and I say they may go out. Reward pushy, and you get pushy

Your job is to be a leader, not a boss, not a dictator. Leadership is a huge responsibility. Your job is to provide for all of your dog's needs, food, water, vet care, social needs, security, etc. If you fail to provide what your dog needs, your dog will try to satisfy those needs on his own. (Notation 1)

Dr. Roy Coppinger (a biology professor at Hampshire College, author and an extremely well-respected member of the dog training community) says in regards to the dominance model (and alpha rolling): "I cannot think of many learning situations where I want my learning dogs responding with fear and lack of motivation. I never want my animals to be thinking social hierarchy. Once they do, they will be spending their time trying to figure out how to move up in the hierarchy." (Notation 2)

Notation 1: This is a very telling paragraph and illustrates how so much "dominant" behaviour can be addressed by providing better leadership through effective husbandry skills. A pack leader controls resources and this simple strategy is highly effective in terms of affirming leadership without resorting to physical aggression. One could even argue that the results gained from such an approach are a straightforward application of basic learning theory and have nothing to do with any kind of hierarchy, status or leadership whatsoever!

Notation 2: By using these techniques of brawn over brain we erode trust and teach dogs that force solves problems. We also encourage "no-brainer" responses from our dogs. We take a potential Harvard graduate and teach him how to fight bar-room brawls.
We need to apply the principle of parsimony when dealing with any aspect of canine behaviour and we also need to work within species-specific behavioural parameters. The blanket "Dominance Theory" is a typical example of how an unparsimonious approach (based on the behaviour of a very distant relative) can easily aggravate a situation.
Why look for a romanticised atavistic or ancestral rationale for domestic canine behaviour, when the answer is more than likely to be 1 + 1 = 2?


Interview with Dr. Ian Dunbar
Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) newsletter: Dr. Roy Coppinger
Dominance, Status and Rank Reduction Programmes: Lotte Griffiths

Contact: Shannon McKay
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