The Dominance Myth

Much of dog behaviour over the past 50 years or so has been explained – or worse, explained away – by the dominance theory of pack animal behaviour. The theory, simplified, asserts that wolves’ lives are consumed with a quest for higher rank in their packs, that this is achieved by varying levels of aggression against opponents, such as threats, chest banging, rolling opponents on their backs, controlling their movements, hard stare-downs and more, and finally that this dominance, once achieved, is expressed by ‘pecking order’ privileges, premium sleeping locations, rights to mate and preferred possession rights.

Applied to the pet dog, the theory permits its proponents to suggest that so-called dominant dogs rush ahead to pull on leash, lie in doorways, forcing victim owners to step over or around them, jump up, resist grooming, beg for food, defend turf (such as beds, sofas and yards) and property (such as bones and toys) and accept training slowly or not at all.

The dominance theory has two major flaws: one, it’s wrong; and two, it inspires dog trainers and owners to try to solve behaviour problems in the context of dominance, which often means the owners are instructed to claim superiority over their pets by means of aggression, threats, rolling pets on their backs, controlling their movements, staring them down and a host of other dangerous, abusive or plain useless attacks on their dogs.

In fact, your dog (and this goes for wolves too) is not in a lifelong struggle to climb the social ladder, competing at every turn for advantage in placement, possession and authority. Most dogs, like most wolves, probably would rather follow than lead. If you think about it, that describes most people, too. Most of the pet dog behaviours once attributed to dominance are more easily understood by other, simpler explanations, and many so-called dominance problems would be better described as leadership problems.  These are issues where the owner, who is indisputably the dominant animal (controlling as we do access to all resources, care of the dog, all life-or-death decisions and more) is failing to provide clarity, guidance and structure, which are quite separate from holding higher rank;  if you doubt this, ask anyone with a “horrible boss.”

Well, then, why has science supported the theory of dominance for more than half a century, and how has it come to preoccupy trainers and owners to the point of being the basis for nearly all training methodology?

Dr. Ian Dunbar, a founder of modern lure-reward approaches to training, told a wonderful allegory once that illustrates how it happened. This is not what happened – don’t go telling this story as though it’s history. It should also be noted that this retelling relies on my memory and interpretation of his story.

Dunbar told a parable of a group of scientists who went into the woods to study wolf behaviour for two weeks. They brought note pads, as good scientists should, and watched the animals in their daily interactions and activities. For the first several days, nothing interesting happened. The wolves hunted, ate, slept, played and patrolled. All of these activities were already known to the scientists, so no notes were taken. After thirteen days of boring study, the scientists finally perked up when they heard growling and snarling. They watched rapt as two adolescent male wolves competed over a bone or some other resource. One rolled the other on its back. There were threat displays, snapping and biting, and finally one of the animals won the day. The scientists were very excited, and for the first time in many days, they took copious notes.

The result was a view of wolves based entirely on a few competitive interactions between adolescent males – as accurate a view of wolf social behaviour as you would get of human social rules by studying what goes on in a boys’ high-school locker room. Essentially, our view of pack structure and social architecture is defined by behaviour that was the exception, not the rule.

It isn’t the purpose of this article to explain wolf pack structure, but it’s worth noting that more recent research, including work by Dr. Randall Lockwood, showed that dominance isn’t taken, it’s acknowledged, and that contrary to the struggle-for-promotion model, relative rank is pretty stable between animals, except during adolescence and old age or sickness. Lockwood renamed the famous dominance hierarchy the Submissive Hierarchy. We now understand that the pyramid of authority is built on a combination of (a) offerings of respect by lesser animals to greater, not demands of respect by rising captains, and (b) family structure – a wolf pack, for example, comprises a breeding pair and their pre-sexual offspring. While babies and adolescents of any species may demand what they want, there aren’t any who are actually trying to trade jobs with their parents.

So what does this mean to the relationship between you and your pet?

Most importantly, it means you should not assume that you must bully your dog into submission in order to have a good relationship with him. If you are to be a good leader, you must act like a confident, competent provider of leadership. You give structure to your dog’s day, clarity as to the expectations placed upon him, and guidance that helps him know and decide what to do with a given context. Acts of aggression against your dog can in fact undermine your leadership; it is setting boundaries, controlling consequences and teaching that will place you in a position of stewardship of your pet.

Second, it means that your dog is almost assuredly not trying to beat you to the top of the totem pole. Most of the behaviours that old-style trainers label as “dominant” are exhibited by animals towards other animals they outrank. But these same behaviours also and more commonly occur for other reasons.

Finally, you may consider yourself relieved of the responsibility of labeling your dog Dominant or Submissive, and of labeling other dogs and household members in kind.

As for training, it doesn’t require dominance; it requires clarity and motivation. In successful training, you teach and motivate your dog – you don’t compel him.