Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A gentle hand or a tasty treat doesn’t reinforce fear, it reduces it
It was one in the morning, and I was wide awake. Thunderstorms had been rolling like waves over the farm all night, and this one was so loud I thought the windows might break. Lassie, my 14-year-old Border Collie, lay panting beside me. She’s almost deaf, but the combination of a falling barometer, lightning flashes and the crashes of thunder were enough to send her into a panic. As we lay there together, I stroked her soft old head, thinking about the advice to avoid petting a dog who reacts to thunder. “You’ll just teach them to be more fearful,” according to the traditional wisdom. Only one thing: It’s not true.
We’ve been taught for ages that trying to soothe frightened dogs just makes them worse. It seems logical, in a cut-and-dried, stimulus-and-response kind of way. Your dog hears thunder, he runs to you and you pet him. Voilà, your dog just got reinforced for running to you when it thunders, and worse, for being afraid of thunderstorms in the first place. But that’s not what happens, and here’s why. First, no amount of petting is going to make it worthwhile to your dog to feel panicked. Fear is no more fun for dogs than it is for people. The function of fear is to signal the body that there is danger present, and that the individual feeling fearful had better do something to make the danger, and the fear that accompanies it, go away.
Think of it this way: Imagine you’re eating ice cream when someone tries to break into your house at midnight. Would the pleasure of eating ice cream “reinforce” you for being afraid, so that you’d be more afraid the next time? If anything, things would work in the reverse—you might develop an unconscious discomfort around ice cream. However, you sure as heck aren’t going to be more afraid if a burglar arrives because you were eating chocolate mocha fudge the first time it happened.
There’s another reason petting your thunder-phobic dog doesn’t make him worse, and it couldn’t hurt to take a deep breath before you read it. Research on thunder-phobic dogs suggests that petting does not decrease the level of stress in the dog receiving it.* If it doesn’t decrease stress, how could it act as reinforcement? Before you write describing how your loving touch calms your own dog, please note that (1) I didn’t do the research; (2) my own dogs stop pacing and whining when I pet them during storms; and (3) I don’t care what the research says, it makes me feel better, it doesn’t hurt anything, so I do it anyway.
On the contrary, it’s just not possible that petting your dog is going to make her more fearful the next time there’s a storm. Warnings that you’ll ruin your dog by comforting her are reminiscent of the advice from the 1930s and ’40s to avoid comforting frightened children by picking them up. That perspective was tossed out long ago by psychologists, when research made it clear that having parents they can count on when life gets scary creates bold, stable children, not dependent or fearful ones.
A Classical Approach
Understandably, many a client has asked, “But isn’t giving him treats when he’s barking and growling just going to make him worse? Won’t he get reinforced for barking and growling?” The answer is no, not if his behavior is driven by fear. Remember, fear is no fun, and a few pieces of food, no matter how yummy, aren’t going to override the brain’s desire to avoid it.
Tossing treats (or toys) to a fearful dog can teach him to associate approaching strangers with something good, as long as the treat is really, really good, and the visitor is far enough away to avoid overwhelming the dog. CCC is one of the most important tools in a trainer or behaviorist’s toolbox, yet it can be hard to convince people to try it. It feels like rewarding a dog for misbehaving, and in our punishment-oriented, “you’ve got to get dominance over your dog” society, it is tough for some people to do. But that’s exactly what I did to cure another Border Collie, my Pippy Tay, when she developed a fear of storms many years ago.
CCC is one of many ways you can help a thunder-phobic dog. I’ve used some of the following with good success, either on their own or, in Pippy Tay’s case, combined with other methods: pheromone therapy, wraps, acupuncture, acupressure, diet change and, in serious cases, medication. If your dog is afraid of storms, you’d do well to consult a behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist for assistance in choosing the method that is right for you and your dog.
I even put thunder on cue. “Oh boy, Pippy, you get thunder treats!” I’d say each time we heard the thunder growl. Mind you, these words would come through clenched teeth at three in the morning, but for two summers, I chirped about thunder treats, pulled out the drawer beside the bed and fed Pip after each thunderclap. By the end of the summer, Pip stopped lacerating my face with panicked attempts to crawl inside my mouth to hide from the storm. She began to sleep through moderately loud storms, not even waking up to beg for treats when the thunder rolled. She came over to me when things got really loud, but with little of the panic she’d shown before.
Fear Is Contagious
However, if you are scared (and who isn’t sometimes?), all is not lost. You can calm things down by concentrating on your body—slowing down your breathing and your movements, changing your posture to one of confidence and relaxation, and speaking slowly and calmly (if at all). These actions have the beneficial effect of altering your own emotions as well as your dog’s. The calmer you pretend to be, the calmer you’ll actually feel.
I kept that in mind last night as I cooed, “Oh boy! Thunder treats!” and fed Lassie tasty snacks from the bedside table. I had a lot more reasons to be scared than she did—she didn’t know that the basement was flooding, the white water crashing down the hill was threatening to take out the barn, and the roads were washing away all around us. All she knew was that every thunder roll predicted a piece of chicken, and that I seemed to think it was a great game. She settled down relatively soon, but I lay awake for hours. I guess it really is time to put some chocolate in the drawer beside the bed. If, the next time they see me, friends notice that I’ve gained a lot of weight, they’ll know it’s been a stormy summer.
*Nancy Dreschel, DVM, & Douglas Granger, PhD. 2005. “Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 95:153–168.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Hugs have the opposite meaning to dogs
As a kid, I remember watching the emotional scene in the movie Homeward Bound and seeing the oldest boy hug his Golden Retriever, Shadow, upon being reunited. I also remember reenacting the scene many times with my poor cat (unfortunately for the cat, I didn't have a dog when I was younger). We regard our pets like family, so hugging them feels natural.
According to a recent survey, 30 percent of dog lovers hug their pets more than their human family members. More than half of those surveyed said that hugging their dog makes them smile. However, it may not be the case the other way around.
In honor of the relationship we have with our pets, Purina's Beneful named April 10th the first annual Hug Your Dog Day. I understand the dog food company wanted to celebrate the human-canine bond, but encouraging people to hug their dogs isn't a good idea.
Of course, I've hugged my dogs before. It feels satisfying, but now that I know more about canine behavior, I can tell that the feeling isn't mutual. My dogs simply put up with hugging, but would rather I pet them instead.
According to canine behaviorist Patricia McConnell, in primates, hugging is an expression of love, endearment, support, or a gesture of mutual fear or sadness. Dogs, however, don't have arms like primates and evolved with no concept of our term of endearment.
In fact, a hug has the exact opposite meaning to a dog. What starts off as good intentions most closely resembles a gesture of dominance to our pets. Because we've built a relationship of trust with our dogs, they know we're not acting aggressively, but it still makes most pups uncomfortable.
It probably goes without saying to never hug a dog you haven't met before. This is also related to how you would approach a strange animal. The best way is pet them under the chin or chest, not on their head or back, which they may view as threatening, and looks similar to the beginnings of a hug! This is an important lesson to pass on to other animal lovers, especially children who are particularly vulnerable to bites.
So next time you go to hug your dog, pay close attention to their body language and facial expression. If your dog is licking his lips, panting, flicking his ears back, or shows stiffness in his body, even subtly, it's time to back off.
We may see our pets as our four-legged children, but it's important to remember that they're not humans. There are many other ways to show our dogs that we love them, however tempting it is to give them a hug.
News: Guest Posts
The play’s the thing for these mismatched pals
We know dogs are pros at crossing the species barrier, especially when it comes to fun. But it’s still surprising and enlightening to watch it happen. A friend of The Bark recently sent us a couple videos of a friend’s German Wirehaired Pointers and Jersey cows playing together—and we had to share them.
►Also, for more on dogs with unusual playmates, check out today’s story by Rebecca Wallick about her childhood memory of a seal who played with the neighborhood dogs.
News: Guest Posts
Memories of cross-species games
Butch was my seal. Or so I fantasized, and bragged to my grade school friends. His origins, age—even his true sex and name—were a mystery. But he was real. He wore a faded collar that had become painfully tight, creating a ring of raw red flesh, like a gruesome necklace he couldn’t unclasp. My own, childishly romantic theory was that he had escaped from a traveling circus. It was the 1960s, and his adopted home was near our dock, in Lake Sammamish, east of Seattle. Oddly, Butch’s presence felt normal for us.
Butch was beautiful, plump yet sleek, his dark form gliding effortlessly and phantom-like just under the lake’s surface. His skin had spots like silver dollars, and his whiskered muzzle reminded me of a dog’s. I would watch, transfixed and jealous: his head gently breaking the surface, nostrils exploding with exhaled breath, dark round eyes scanning my world before silently slipping back to his own. To be so weightless and graceful! Heavy and ungainly on land, he was elegant and agile in his watery element.
Dogs were as crucial to Butch’s wellbeing as the lake fish on which he dined. Dogs were his playmates. His favorites were Spot and Tar, large mixed-breeds with simple names that aptly described their appearance—one shaggy white with occasional black spots, the other all black. They lived nearby.
In my mind I still clearly see them playing: The dogs pace back and forth on our dock, signaling and waiting. Spying them, Butch stealthily swims under the dock, under them, setting up his moment. Spot and Tar crouch with tense anticipation. Then, with an explosion of speed, Butch breaks the surface, just inches below them, surprising and titillating the dogs into paroxysms of spinning and barking, just beyond the reach of their mouths, before he slips back under.
Spot and Tar maintain a frenzied focus, leaning perilously over the edge of the dock, tails wagging furiously in circles for balance while barking excitedly as Butch teases from below, literally brushing their noses with his, diving back down for several seconds to increase the tension, then breaching like a Sea World performer, slapping his tail fins against the surface with a resounding whop that drenches the dogs and the dock with the splash, leaving us all…breathless. Over and over, this sequence, with little variation, for as long as thirty minutes per session.
They played regularly over the years, to the obvious delight of all involved, especially me. It was almost as though they knew when it was playtime, because the dogs were rarely stood up. I would watch with intent stillness from a distance, for as soon as a human approached, the show ended with Butch swimming silently away.
Rarely, a dog would fall off the dock and into the water. Butch would gently grab them by a hind leg, briefly pulling them under before releasing them to swim to shore. Butch never hurt a dog. I think he just wanted them to swim with him, be like him, learn to play like a seal in the water. Butch surely was lonely, the only seal in the lake.
I felt a kinship with Butch. We both chose dogs as our favored and most trusted playmates—out of necessity for Butch, simple affinity for me. I never tired of watching them play. Butch’s trust of Spot and Tar grew to the point that he would beach himself while playing—exposing an almost lover-like vulnerability to them. He chose well, because while they’d bark from inches away, they never harmed him. They played with him in ways they all agreed upon.
I’m grateful Butch and the dogs allowed me into their unique and transcendent world of play. They taught me to ignore assumptions and overcome bias in interactions with animals and with people. I learned that play is the common language across species and across cultures. I continue to marvel at scenes of different animal species playing with each other, finding their common ground, communicating their playfulness and lack of aggression.
We humans can learn so much from dogs and all of the animals with whom we share this planet.
News: Guest Posts
A great place to explore and enrich our interrelationships with other animals
“…animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance.” (John Berger, About Looking, 1980)
Our relationships with other nonhuman animals (aka animals) move us all over the place. We love some, hate others and are indifferent to a wide range of fascinating species. Animals intrigue and inspire us and as we inquire about who they are we learn much about who we are.
John Berger, a famous art critic, painter and author, spent a good deal of time in his seminal work called About Looking analyzing what it means to gaze at animals. We stare at them for hours in a nature documentary, take a trip to a sanctuary in order to feel connected with them and marvel at their amazing cognitive, emotional and moral capacities. An important question on which many people often reflect is, “Why do we engage with other animals in a myriad of ways, often highly contradictory and inconsistently?”
We also need to ask, “What about the animals who are staring back at us?” What is taking place behind the eyes and between the ears of a chimpanzee or a mouse in a laboratory, a deer or a bird darting through rush hour traffic, a wolf running from those who want to kill him, or two dogs romping here and there at a dog park? What is happening in their hearts? How do we give animals their due and recognize that they too observe us and also hear and smell us, that they too are sentient, thoughtful, and emotional beings who share and engage in this world with us?
There are many books, documentaries, and other venues that can help us answer these and many other questions that center on our relationships with other animals. The relatively new field of anthrozoology that is concerned with research on the nature of humans-animal interactions is gaining a good deal of momentum from researchers representing many different disciplines.
What has been missing, but no longer is, is a museum that can also help us learn more about human-animal interactions. For the past year, I’ve had the pleasure and honor of serving as an advisor to the National Museum of Animals & Society (NMAS), based in Southern California. This museum is dedicated to enriching the lives of people and animals through the exploration of our shared experience when we and other animals encounter one another. In their collections, exhibitions, programs and educational efforts, the museum centers on the full spectrum of human-animal studies (our relationships with, and perceptions of, other animals), the history of protecting animals by organizations as well as by everyday people, and the importance of humane education.
MAS is the first museum to take on this subject matter from the perspective that respects the lives of individual animals. Its subject matter is near and dear to the hearts and minds of millions of people and most likely dates back to our very first interactions with other animals.
Humans have long grappled with the moral, legal, emotional and spiritual dimensions of our interactions with, and representations of, nonhuman animals. This has included numerous debates about our responsibilities to companion animals as well to wildlife in crisis, the awe and revulsion experienced when witnessing animals in zoos and circuses and our feelings about how they are represented in literature, art and film, and our inspiration as artists, writers, photographers and audiences that awakens our best sensibilities about the lives of the many animals with whom we are active participants in different areas of society. All this is what NMAS calls “our shared experience.”
Historically, such experiences have motivated many people, at different points in time, to protect animals from cruelty and to challenge the ways in which we habitually think about and relate to other animals in the grand scheme of things. While sages such as Socrates and his contemporaries gave thought and energy to questions about the welfare of animals, it wasn’t until the mid-1700’s that the movement to protect animals gathered momentum. In fact, around this same period of time, there was much overlap among several social justice causes, such as those to abolish slavery, fight for women’s suffrage, and advocate for the interests of children and laborers. Interestingly, these other organized efforts have been widely represented and discussed in museums, but not that of animals—until now.
NMAS is the brainchild of museum professional and animal advocate Carolyn Merino Mullin, who has long been interested in how we can preserve, interpret, and present our rich and inspiring history of caring for animals. Now in its third year, the museum is fundraising to open exhibition space in Los Angeles, Calif. Led by an exemplary group of directors, advisors and academics, NMAS has already produced a number of bi-coastal traveling and online exhibitions ranging from animal welfare in colonial America to a children’s exhibit on mythical beings to an innovative and interactive Facebook exhibit called “Souls Awakened: The Animals Who Have Shaped Us” that exposed thousands of children to humane education programs at schools and festivals. NMAS also is acquiring a remarkable collection of historical artifacts (currently 500 items). Be on the lookout for its summer exhibit called “Be Kind: A Visual History of Humane Education, 1880–1945.”
You can follow NMAS on its website, Facebook and Twitter and support this inspirational, model and seminal organization and enrich your own life and relationships with other animals in the process. Those people living or vacationing in Southern California also can take advantage of their Fall Lecture Series, guest speakers, events and much more.
As time goes on nonhuman animals are enjoying much more positive publicity as we learn that our own health and wellbeing are tightly associated with how we treat these remarkable beings. NMAS will surely enrich these varied and shared experiences, help us appreciate just how amazing other animals truly are and foster coexistence with other animals and other humans.
Note: In the spirit of the growing field of anthrozoology, a course titled “Animals and Us” will be offered by Schumacher College in the UK. Information can be seen here. This course follows up on a special issue of Resurgence Magazine published earlier this year.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
What’s going on when a dog does this?
“His hackles went up. What does that mean?” It’s such a great question and one that I hear from clients regularly. When the hair on a dog’s back goes up (technically called piloerection), it’s usually a sign that the dog is aroused or excited in some way. It is an involuntary reaction, just like the goose bumps we humans get, so it’s important not to have any expectation of a dog being able to control it. While sometimes aggressive dogs do exhibit piloerection, it is not true that it’s necessarily a sign of aggression.
Data are limited on this phenomenon, but as an ethologist trained to observe animals and their behavior, I have noticed some things about it. Based on my experience with many dogs over the years, it seems that different patterns of piloerection are associated with different behaviors, probably because they are associated with different internal emotional states.
Some dogs exhibit a thin line (at most a few inches wide) of hair all along their back to the base of the tail. I associate this pattern of piloerection with a high level of confidence and in my experience, these dogs are more likely to go on offense and behave in an aggressive way than other dogs.
Another common pattern of piloerection is a broad patch of fur (up to 8 or so inches wide) across the shoulders, which does not run more than one-quarter or one-third of the way down the back. I associate this pattern of piloerection with low confidence and I often find that these dogs are somewhat fearful.
The most confusing pattern is when a dog exhibits a patch of hair that is raised at the shoulders and another raised patch at the base of the tail. The hair in between along the back is not raised. This pattern of piloerection often occurs in dogs who are in an ambivalent emotional state and feeling conflicted. Many of the dogs who show this pattern are somewhat unpredictable in their behavior and inclined to be more reactive than other dogs.
Of course, there are many exceptions, but these generalizations apply to the majority of dogs that I see. What have you observed about dogs and piloerection?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs find their own entertainment
Facebook gave me a laugh earlier this week when a friend posted this:
“this really happened to me today...i had 15 minutes between meetings so i ran home to let the dogs out. pearl (the puppy) heard kids playing down the street, ran down to see them and then quickly ran through the open door of a house (of a woman who hates dogs), ran through her house, pushed open their bathroom door (where someone was "sitting") grabbed the loose end of the toilet paper roll, started running, got it wrapped around her head and body, a chase ensued with pearl, me, a string of kids and a grandma before finally getting the little stinker back home. i don't like it when my real life starts to look like a scene out of a bad disney movie. it's not good at all.”
As a bonus, I got an extra little giggle from a mutual friend who always has a great perspective on life. Her comment was, “Don't think of it as a bad Disney movie - Think of it as a great Charmin commercial!! Love it!!”
I always worry about dogs who escape and go on their own adventures because I’ve heard too many tales without happy endings, usually involving collisions with cars. However, knowing that Pearl was safe, it was easy to enjoy the ridiculous image created by this post. I feel sympathy for the person who was in the bathroom, for the non-dog-loving woman who owns the house and for my friend whose work break was less relaxing and more memorable than she planned.
It’s far from unusual for a dog’s gleeful actions to result in embarrassment, awkwardness or even strained relations with neighbors, but it usually makes for a story worth telling. Do you have a good one to share about your dog?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine thoughts at work
In a recent article entitled “Are You a Man or a Dog?” Susan Breslin puts forth a plan for understanding the other people at work. Her idea? Pretend they are all dogs. Actually, she gives a three-step plan: 1) Identify their breed, 2) Identify your breed, 3) Find your pack.
I have previously written that it helps me understand my sons when I think of one as a Greyhound and the other as a Viszla/Irish Setter cross, so it’s clear that I have no objection to this basic strategy. And yet, this article disappointed me because of its breed stereotyping and lack of understanding of basic dog behavior and training. As someone whose job involves educating people about dogs and dog behavior, this article demonstrates that considerable work remains to be done.
While there is value in noting the traits that people share with typical representatives of a breed of dogs, it has to be done with some accuracy to be useful. So, when Breslin describes German Shepherds as aggressive and implies that Poodles are hard to work with, especially in large numbers, I think she would benefit from better information. Most objectionable is her assertion that Cocker Spaniels thrive on positive reinforcement, implying that not all breeds do. This sort of thinking—that positive reinforcement is limited to certain species, breeds or individuals—is worrisome for those of us who advocate widespread use of humane, positive training methods.
On the bright side, this article’s appearance on Forbes.com is yet another reminder of how very much dogs are in the conversation about all aspects of our lives.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Talking Training with Victoria Stilwell
Q: We get along great with our neighbors; alas, our dog seems to despise their dog, and it’s mutual. Why don’t dogs like one another, and how do we teach them to get along?
A: People ask a lot from their dogs by expecting them to be social with every dog they meet. This can put a lot of pressure on a dog—especially one who finds it hard to cope in social situations. Humans are able to choose their friends and avoid people who make them uncomfortable, but when dogs aggress at other dogs, their people often punish them for “bad behavior” and unwittingly force them into situations that make them feel more insecure.
Disharmony between neighborhood dogs is relatively common. Dogs can be very protective of their territory, and anyone encroaching on it is a potential threat. Tension over territory could be a potential reason why your dog and your neighbor’s don’t get on. I advise you not to introduce the dogs on either’s home turf. All introductions should take place on neutral territory such as a park (but not a dog park), or a street well away from where you both live.
Before the introduction, make sure your dog has learned to focus on you and is good at following your direction. Focus cues such as “watch me” must be built up in a distraction-free environment before they can be effective outside, so prior training is essential. Once your dog is responding appropriately, take her to neutral territory and have your neighbors stand with their dog a good distance away—the distance at which both dogs can see one another without reacting negatively. Ask your dog to “sit” and “watch me,” and reward her each time she complies. When a dog is using her “thinking brain,” she is less likely to become emotional and feel the need to aggress.
If both dogs are calm, steadily move them closer to each other. If at any time either dog reacts, walk off in opposite directions, back to the point at which both dogs were comfortable. When the dogs are calmly standing within 10 feet of each other, start the “follow walk,” in which one dog follows the other (it is less confrontational for the more nervous dog to follow the non-biting end of the other). The next step is to walk them parallel with one another, making sure to maintain enough distance between them to avoid either of them reacting. If the parallel walk goes well, allow the dogs to greet face to face for a couple of seconds before you and your neighbor happily walk them off in opposite directions while praising them for their good behavior.
It might be possible to do all of this in one session, or it might take many weeks to get to the point where the dogs can greet calmly. Whatever the time frame, allow them time to feel comfortable. It is also important to realize that not allowing the dogs to greet can be frustrating to them, so if both look eager to make a connection, go directly to the quick greeting. If everything goes well, the greeting period can become longer until the dogs either want to play or go their own ways. If you are in an off-leash area and the dogs are calmly standing next to each other, remove the leashes.
Good walk and play experiences on neutral ground will bring them to the point where they can play with each other on home territory. Start the play outside before you bring them inside either home, and remove all highvalue resources (food and toys) to prevent potential fights. Dogs can also be highly protective of their people, especially inside their homes; in the event your presence causes a negative reaction, allow the dogs to interact in the yard; and if this is still too volatile a place, continue working in neutral spaces.
If both dogs continue to have problems even on neutral territory, it is time to either call in a professional or take the pressure off and realize that the dogs are not meant to be friends. If this is the case, then it is better for everyone if you visit with your neighbor on your own while your dog snoozes happily at home.
News: Guest Posts
Social dominance is real but has been widely misunderstood and misused
The concept of social dominance is not a myth. A myth is an invented story. The concept of dominance has been, and remains, a very important one that has been misunderstood and misused, often by those who haven't spent much time conducting detailed studies of other animals, including those living in the wild.
Dominance is a fact. Nonhuman (and human) animals dominate one another in a number of ways. Individuals may dominate or control (1) access to various resources including food, potential and actual mates, territory, resting and sleeping areas, and the location in a group that's most protected from predators; (2) the movements of others; or (3) the attention of others, an idea put forth by Michael Chance and Ray Larsen. Even if dominance interactions are rare, they do occur, and that is why it's important to log many hours observing known individuals. As one gets to know individuals in a group he or she also learns more and more about the subtle ways in which a wide variety of social messages are communicated, including those used in interactions in which one individual controls another.
Complicating the picture is the phenomenon of situational dominance. For example, a low ranking individual may be able to keep possession of food even when challenged by another individual who actively dominates him or her in other contexts. I've seen this in wild coyotes, dogs, other mammals, and various birds. In these cases possession is what counts. I've studied social, dare I say dominance relationships, in a wide variety of species, and any introductory textbook on animal behavior contains various definitions of dominance and many examples. Another complicating factor is that there's a lot of variation in the way in which dominance is expressed both within and between species.
What has happened over the past 30 or so years based on extensive comparative behavioral research is the discovery that dominance is not a simple or ubiquitous explanatory concept as some took it to be. For example, for many years it was assumed that dominant animals mated the most and controlled access to various resources. Now we know this isn't necessarily so in all species or even within different groups of the same species. Often, less dominant or subordinate animals are able to mate and can control others in different contexts.
So, is there much new under the umbrella of dominance? Yes and no. In 1981 renowned primatologist Irwin Bernstein published a most important essay on dominance in which he discussed all of the above and more. Bernstein and others since have convincingly argued that we need to be very cautious about throwing out the baby with the bathwater because the concept of dominance is useful despite newly discovered complexities and subtleties.
To be sure, ethologists have not called dominance a myth. Rather, they've noted that a univocal explanation of dominance, one relying on a single unambiguous meaning of what dominance is, is misleading and simplistic. An excellent discussion of dominance in various animals can be found here.
Dominance surely is a slippery concept with respect to how it's expressed and how individual variations in social dominance influence behavior. A narrow definition doesn't necessarily hold across species, within species, or across different contexts. Many discussions in which the broad concept of social dominance is criticized are very informative, but to claim that dominance is a myth flies in the face of what we know about the subtle, fleeting, and complex social relationships and on-going social dynamics of many group living species.
Note: Some of the critics of social dominance include those who study and/or train dogs and it was this essay that got me revisiting the notion of dominance. In this essay the author writes, "Dr. David Mech, the world's leading expert on wolves, says that in 13 years of studying the wolves on Isle Royale in Michigan he never [my emphasis] saw any displays of dominance." When I read this I was (and remain) incredulous. In the limited time I've watched wild wolves in Yellowstone National Park I saw dominance displays on a number of occasions and other researchers also report these sorts of interactions.
Some of the critic's concerns are legitimate because we need to be very careful about generalizing from the behavior of wild and captive wolves (from whom dogs emerged) to the behavior of dogs. It's also important to realize that the misuse of the concept of dominance that results, for example, in a person violently dominating a dog, is not a valid, respectful, or humane way to treat or to train our best friends.
Note 2: David Mech's essay can be found here. It's important to note that he does not reject the notion of dominance (nor does he reject it here). Indeed, he wrote, "Similarly, pups are subordinate to both parents and to older siblings, yet they are fed preferentially by the parents, and even by their older (dominant) siblings (Mech et al. 1999). On the other hand, parents both dominate older offspring and restrict their food intake when food is scarce, feeding pups instead. Thus, the most practical effect of social dominance is to allow the dominant individual the choice of to whom to allot food."
Clearly there's lots of confusion on this matter (as well as the use of the word "alpha") and there seem to be myths about what Mech actually thinks about these matters. He does argue, as do others, that the notion of social dominance is not as ubiquitous as some claim it to be, but doesn't reject it across the board.
Note 3: Another of David Mech's papers titled "Prolonged Intensive Dominance Behavior Between Gray Wolves, Canis lupus" that clearly shows he does not at all reject the notion of dominance can be found here (see also).
In response to my essay, David Mech wrote to me:
"I probably won't have time to read this right now, for I'm preparing for a trip out of the country early next week. However, a quick scan of the Kelley article reveals much misinformation attributed to me. This misinterpretation and total misinformation like Kelley's has plagued me for years now. I do not in any way reject the notion of dominance."
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