If a dog has behavior issues such as a tendency to mount other dogs, any form of aggression, an overly pushy play style or poor response to training, some people are sure to claim that “dominance” is the culprit. But are they right?
The ongoing dialogue about dominance in the dog world is more problematic than an unattended puppy in a shoe store but it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. While some hate the concept so much that they refer to it as the “D-word,” others swear by it, considering it an indispensable guiding principle for all interactions with dogs. Having a civil discussion on the subject, much less reaching a consensus, is a challenge, as debates often become quite heated.
Scientific inquiry offers an opportunity for greater understanding of this topic, though writings on the subject with titles such as “Social dominance: Useful construct or quagmire?,” “Social dominance is not a myth: Wolves, dogs, and other animals” and “Deconstructing the concept of dominance: Should we revive the concept of dominance in dogs?” reflect continued controversy. While dominance, or social dominance as it is often called, has been studied extensively in a number of species, relatively little work has been done in this area on the domestic dog, and more research is badly needed.
To further complicate an already contentious debate, “dominance” has multiple meanings. As James O’Heare notes, “Often, researchers argue over social dominance without agreeing on a clear definition, and perhaps have different definitions in mind.” There are a variety of ways to characterize it. In his study “The concept and definition of dominance in animal behaviour,” Carlos Drews reviewed 13 different definitions of dominance and pointed out that criticisms of one are not necessarily applicable to others.
Adding to the frustration and confusion, when it comes to domestic dogs the term is commonly applied to two different types of relationships. The first relates to interactions between dogs. In this usage, dominance is defined as the power to control access to desirable resources and refers to the relative status of two dogs. In the absence of another dog, an individual dog cannot be said to be “dominant” as a personality attribute because dominance refers to the relationship between dogs.
The second, and more controversial, type of dominance relationship relates to interactions between humans and dogs. In this paradigm, humans dominating dogs is considered the path to well-trained dogs. Those who follow this school of thought claim that you have to control your dogs by being dominant over them in order to make them behave and may make suggestions such as not allowing your dog to sleep on your bed or walk through the door ahead of you, or even to spitting in your dog’s food and making a resting dog move rather than walking around him. Today, fewer trainers subscribe to these ideas than in the past.
Dominance Between Dogs
The few scholarly investigations of dominance relationships between dogs have found the concept relevant to their interactions with one another, and scientists who study social relationships aren’t surprised. For example, Marc Bekoff, PhD — ethologist and professor emeritus at the University of Colorado who has had a major influence on the scientific understanding of dogs as well as many other species — observed that “in the real world, dogs are social beings, and social beings form dominance relationships, just as their wild relatives do.”
Becky Trisko, PhD, ethologist and owner of Unleashed in Evanston, Ill., focused her 2011 doctoral dissertation on social interactions within a group of 24 dogs who regularly engaged with one another at daycare. The behaviors she analyzed included aggressive threat and conflict, muzzle lick, crouch, passive submission, retreat, high posture, muzzle bite, mount and chin-over.
Trisko found a dominance hierarchy among the dogs, although only about 30 percent of the pairs had clear dominance relationships. Dominance rank correlated with age (older dogs tended to rank more highly) but not with size. And contrary to popular belief, neither mounting nor performing chinovers were related to status. As a point of interest, not once in 224 hours of observation during this yearlong study did she observe an “alpha roll.”