Dominance Assessments of Dogs By Guardians

Study finds match with valid scientific markers
By Karen B. London PhD, May 2019

“Dominance is well defined in ethology, debated in psychology, and is often unclear among the dog owning public and in the press.” So begins the research paper titled “Dominance in dogs as rated by owners corresponds to ethologically valid markers of dominance” that appeared in the open access journal PeerJ—the Journal of Life and Environmental Sciences.

The subject of dominance relationships in our canine companions has become a trigger for many people, and that has stymied research on the topic. It’s little wonder that discussions about it remain so confusing and frankly, rancorous. Studies that investigate the dominance relationships between dogs are few and far between, but this new one was just published last week.

The researchers collected and analyzed survey data from 1151 people in Hungary who have at least two dogs. The goal of the work was to understand how people with dogs use the term “dominance” by determining which attributes they associate with it. The survey asked people a large number of questions about the behavior and interactions of two dogs sharing the same household. In families with more than two dogs, the people were asked to choose two dogs and answer all of the questions with just those two dogs in mind.

According to the survey responses, dogs who were rated as the dominant member of the pair had priority access to resources such as resting places, food and rewards. They were more likely to bark, defend the group and to lead the group. They tended to be more aggressive, more impulsive, older and smarter than the other dog. Additionally, they were the ones who most often won fights and marked over the other dog’s urine. They licked the other dog’s mouth less often. Size and physical condition had nothing to do with the way that people assessed their dogs’ dominance relationship and neither did controlling a ball or greeting the guardian first. When the pair of dogs were a male and a female, females were more frequently considered the dominant one. Most people—87 percent—viewed one of their dogs as dominant while 13 percent did not.

What is so interesting about this study is that it shows that people are assessing dominance in their dogs in a way that correlates with observations about specific behaviors that ethologists have long associated with dominance. As the authors point out, this study has some limitations because there were no observations by unbiased observers of the dogs. All observations were made by their guardians. Additionally, the study only looked at dogs in a single culture, and perceptions may be different in other countries. Survey questions did not cover affiliative interactions which are important for understanding the relationships between dogs.

Have you observed behavior in your own dogs that is consistent with what was found in this study?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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