You hear a lot of talk among dog owners, dog trainers, and even the man on the street, about dominance in dogs. What is it, exactly? Is it an instinctive behavioral tendency, an inherited genetic trait, part of a natural power struggle to become top dog?
We all have our own ideas as to what it means, and we all “know it when we see it,” but what are its scientific origins? How does it manifest in behavioral terms? Does it have a sound evolutionary purpose? Or is dominance based on a simple misunderstanding of a dog’s true emotional nature?
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One clue is that in multiple dog households you often hear owners say that one dog is “dominant” over food, while another may be “alpha” over the couch, and a third may be “the pack leader” when it comes to who’s first through the door or who gets to play with which toys. But if dominance were a real genetic behavioral tendency, geared toward ruling the roost, why would it be so specific to food bowls and not to the best sleeping spots and going through doorways and controlling how others play as well? Why wouldn’t one dog in a multiple dog pack be dominant about everything? Isn’t that his or her role as the pack leader?
As part of a new trend away from this idea, many experts in animal behavior are now beginning to replace the old terms of dominant and submissive behaviors with the more accurate threatening and non-threatening postures. In other words, where before we’d see a dog acting dominant over food but not over the couch or during play, we now know that he might simply exhibit a series of threatening postures to keep other dogs away from his food bowl in the one case, but not exhibit such postures in the others. Is this true dominance, or is the dog simply engaging in resource guarding—keeping the other dogs from having access to the things that mean the most to him individually? If it’s resource guarding, then the behavior is probably caused by anxiety, not by an instinctive need or desire to be alpha.
It might clarify things if we knew how the idea of dominant behavior originated.
A Reflexive Dance
Konrad Lorenz was the first to describe the basic difference between dominance and submission in his 1952 book KING SOLOMON’S RING. He stated that when two dogs or wolves are engaged in a conflict, the defeated animal supposedly offers his neck to the other because if he does he’ll “never be seriously bitten. The other growls and grumbles, snaps with his teeth in the empty air and even carries out, without delivering so much as a bite, the movement of shaking something to death. However, this strange inhibition from biting persists only as long as the defeated dog or wolf maintains his attitude of humility.”
Hasn’t it ever struck you as strange (a word that even Lorenz uses) that when two animals are fighting one would offer himself up to the other to be executed? Why wouldn’t he struggle with all his might to survive? Does this dog suddenly have some magical awareness of Ghandi’s “peaceful resistance?” Has he studied Zen? Or is something else going on?
That’s exactly what biologist Rudolf Schenkel wondered. “It is always the inferior wolf,” Schenkel wrote in 1967, “who has his jaws near the neck of his opponent.” Schenkel also points out that it’s the supposedly dominant wolf or dog who walks away from the fight, making him “more vanquished than victor.”
Now that makes sense. The submissive wolf actually has his teeth closer to the throat of his opponent, putting him at a slight advantage. That’s why the “dominant” wolf doesn’t bite, and that’s why he walks away without finishing his enemy off. Yes, the lower wolf is in a weaker position physically, but he’s not rolling over on his side in submission or to commit suicide; he’s putting himself in a position that, given the weaker nature of his temperament, feels most natural to him, yet still enables him to defend himself if need be.
The behaviors of both parties probably originated simply for the evolutionary purpose of defusing tension and maintaining harmony between pack mates. Wolves and dogs are predators. And being a predator of any kind requires that you have a reservoir of aggressive energy available to you at all times. But if you’re a group predator, meaning you’re a social animal too, nature doesn’t want that aggression being directed at your brothers-in-arms, she wants it directed only at prey animals and sometimes at other packs who invade your turf.
Meanwhile, it’s doubtful that either one of the wolves in Lorenz’s example would be consciously aware of his position of advantage or disadvantage, of power or weakness. Instead, it would be much like the interaction between two magnets whose poles counter one another’s energy: the superior wolf has a direct, assertive energy, which when directed at the inferior wolf causes his indirect energy to spin off in the other direction, both physically and emotionally. If they were both direct and both assertive, and came toward each other with ears, tails, and shoulders held high, bloodshed would very quickly ensue. But nature is wiser than the individual wolf; she wants the pack to get along, so she created this reflexive dance.
So here we have, at the very start of this idea about dominance and submission, what is probably a major misunderstanding committed by the primary architect of the alpha theory, a misunderstanding so major, in fact that it turns out that the “submissive” wolf or dog is in fact controlling the “dominant” one’s behavior as much if not more than the other way around.
They Aren’t the Same Animal
Part of the problem with the manner in which the ideas about dominance and submission emerged may come from the belief that Lorenz and others of his time had that the social behavior of captive wolves, being held prisoner in zoos and sanctuaries, would be much the same as it is in wild wolves, who roamed free in the wilderness. This belief may have arisen partly out of scientific necessity, because during the 1930s and 40s, when these initial studies were done, wild wolves were almost totally inaccessible. That’s no longer true.
Dr. L. David Mech (pronounced Meech) of the University of Minnesota, who has spent his entire career studying wild wolves in their natural habitats, writes, “In captive packs dominance labels were probably appropriate, for most species thrown together in captivity would usually so arrange themselves. In nature, however, the wolf pack is not such an assemblage.”
If Mech is right, then captive wolves and wild wolves aren’t the same animal, at least not when it comes to their social behaviors. In fact, in Mech’s observations over the past forty years, there actually is no pack leader in wild wolf packs, at least not in the traditional sense. He writes, “The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots is particularly misleading.” Mech and his colleagues are also reluctant to use the word alpha because, as they put it, “It falsely implies a hierarchical system in which a wolf assumes a place in a linear pecking order.” They reserve the term alpha for the breeding pair (though Mech says that’s a bit like calling your dad a “male” father.)
So in wild wolves there’s no hierarchy, no pecking order, and no pack leader in the traditional sense of the word.
Dominance = Anxiety
Why would hunting large prey reduce tension?
Simple. Because hunting large prey uses up a lot of aggressive energy. In wild wolf packs this goes a long way to reducing their individual levels of internal tension and stress. But since captive wolves don’t have access to this natural method of reducing stress, or of offloading their natural predatory aggression, or of fostering group harmony (you can’t hunt large prey without working together), captive wolves find themselves fighting instead over little things; that’s what they do with their aggressive energy—they scrimmage.
The same process would be apparent in both village dogs and domesticated dogs. Village dogs don’t usually hunt together; they mostly scavenge. So they tend to have the same build up of tension seen in captive wolves, and skirmish a lot. With pet dogs, who are like both village dogs and captive wolves in that they don’t routinely hunt as a group, it’s often the most “dominant” dog in a household who doesn’t know how to play, for example. And since play is nature’s stand-in for the hunt (it teaches young predators how to catch prey, and young prey animals how to evade predators), it’s a great tension reducer, as well as a kind of social “glue”—it bonds dogs and owner together emotionally. And for dogs, in fact for all animals, social play is probably the best tension-reducer there is.
That’s why when a “dominant” dog is taught how to play hunting games in a harmonic social context, or when his owner or trainer find another way to reduce his inner anxiety, if only through increasing his level of daily exercise, you’ll find that all his supposed instinctual dominant behaviors begin to magically disappear.
So it turns out that what we’ve all been taught was dominance is really two things: a build up of internal stress, and a form of resource guarding, which is an anxiety-based behavior. After all, one of the standard pharmacological treatment for “dominance aggression” in dogs is anti-anxietal medication. And though these drugs don’t cure “dominance aggression,” they are generally effective at managing it! So yes, “dominance” may very well be a symptom of anxiety.
Dr. Karen Overall of the University of Pennsylvania writes, “The ‘alpha’ concept is an outdated one with almost no data to support it. There are no truly ‘submissive’ or ‘dominant/alpha’ dogs, and by [using] these labels we blind ourselves to all of the interesting information that dogs are communicating with [their] postures.”
So now we’re back to our new terminology: dominant and submissive behaviors aren’t what they seem: they’re more rightly called threatening and non-threatening postures. And they aren’t inherited traits in dogs and wolves, nor are they part of the pack instinct’s non-existent hierarchical structure; they’re simply communicative postures that express a dog’s inner anxiety. So the upshot of all this is, if you think your dog is dominant you might want to take another look. He could just be anxious and need a lot more play time…