Does 'dominance' have relevance in modern dog behaviour?

by Rachel Casey

Is Dog Dominance Theory Still Relevant?

What is the ‘dominance’ theory?

The ‘dominance’ theory of dog behaviour assumes that dogs are motivated to achieve a higher social ‘status’ relative to other dogs or people, and that this desire may lead them to show behaviours such as aggression in order to achieve control. If one assumes that the behaviour of a dog is motivated by a desire to control or ‘dominate’ its owner, it tends to lead on to the conclusion that in order to deal with the problem, the owner needs to establish ‘dominance’ over the dog. This interpretation of dog behaviour, therefore, has tended to encourage the development of training techniques that use punishment or force to ‘show the dog who is boss’.

Lots of behaviourists and trainers used to think in this way, but with the advancement of science, we now know that the foundations on which this theory was based are flawed, and the majority of trainers and behaviourists have changed their practice as a result. We also have a much better understanding of how the brain works, and how animals learn, which has enabled us to develop a better understanding of why behaviours such as aggression do develop in dogs. It is therefore important to re-evaluate the techniques we use in the training of dogs, and make sure we use techniques that are not only effective but are least likely to compromise the welfare of our pets.

Where did the ‘dominance theory’ come from?

Dominance came to be used to describe dog behaviour through very early studies of wolves. This research was based on observations of captive groups of unrelated wolves forced to live together. Scientists found that there was a lot of aggression within the groups as the wolves formed a ‘dominance hierarchy’ to decide which wolves had first access to resources and mating rights (the most aggressive pair of wolves at the top of this hierarchy suppressed the breeding of the rest of the pack and had first access to things like food). Since the wolf is the ancestor of the dog, those interested in dog behaviour suggested that the same pattern must be true of dogs, with each individual driven to be the ‘leader’ or ‘alpha’ of the group, and to control other group members with behaviours such as aggression. This theory became so popular that it was also used to interpret interactions between dogs and people, the assumption being that dogs also saw people as competitors in the struggle for social status!

Are dogs like wolves?

Recent research on natural populations of wild wolves refutes the early evidence of ‘dominance hierarchies' and suggest that the groupings are more based on co-operative family groups, where one breeding pair produce puppies and other members of the family assist with rearing them. These groups are based on co-operation, where the parents ‘guide’ their offspring in developing social and hunting skills. In such groups there is no ‘alpha’ achieved by strength or aggression, and there is no evidence that individual wolves have a life-long ‘dominant’ characteristic. Aggressive behaviour is very rare in these stable groups, as the wolves are free to disperse if there is conflict, rather than being forced to live together.

The next assumption of the ‘dominance theory’ is that since wolves are the ancestors of dogs, their behaviour will be the same. However, dogs are likely to have been the first species of animal to ever be domesticated (around 60,000 years ago!) – not only would the species of wolf that dogs originate from be very different from today’s wolves, but we have also changed the behaviour of dogs considerably during that time!  Studies of feral dogs have shown that in a free living situation dogs do not remain in strict family packs. Interactions between individuals are much more fluid, and appear to be based on circumstance and prior learning about the other dogs, rather than following any strict pattern.

The social structures of dogs are therefore based on individual relationships and experiences.  Dogs, having evolved from a highly social species, have the ability to read each others’ behaviour, establish how each other are feeling and change their behaviour accordingly.  This ability to respond to changes in the social environment means that their behaviour is very flexible; this is very different from the old ideas where dogs were considered to have a single purpose of wanting to ‘dominate’ other individuals all of the time.

Does it matter?

The real problem with assuming that a dog is showing a behaviour because it has a ‘master plan’ of achieving high status, is the effect that this assumption has on how we respond to dogs, and attempt to train them. If people believe that a dog does something to ‘achieve status’, ‘control them’ or ‘be the boss’ it naturally tends to lead people to use coercive training techniques. This relies on using techniques that will intimidate or scare a dog in order to inhibit an unwanted behaviour, and unfortunately these techniques are not only detrimental for the bond between person and dog, but may result in the exacerbation of issues. Because we now know that in most cases, behaviours formerly believed to be caused by dominance, such as aggression, are actually motivated by fear, using techniques that rely on scaring the dog further can make the problem worse in the long term.