ForPaws Blog

The Prevalence of Dominance – Part 1

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If you want to start a somewhat heated debate between dog professionals and dog lovers alike, you only need to mention one word… Dominance.  The mere mention of the word sets many modern dog trainers' and enthusiasts' teeth on edge.  Those who follow the dominance theory then chide those who don’t on the fact that they are ‘too soft’ and that they ‘don’t understand what dogs need’.  Before you know it, the gloves are off on both sides! 

So I thought I’d write a blog that hopefully outlines why I don’t prescribe to the dominance theory and why it sparks so many  rather lively discussions!

Firstly, it’s worth noting what the dominance theory is.  Dominance Theory was largely proposed by L. David Mech in his book The Wolf: Ecology and wolf-color-photoBehaviour of an Endangered Species – and it caught on big time!  In very simple terms, the theory was that wolves pack together and try to dominate each other through violence and posturing and so do domestic dogs as they are still very closely related to their wolf ancestors.  Seems fair right? 

Except, as it turns out, Mech formed his opinions on what a wolf pack is, on a study lead by Rudolph Schenkel which put together a pack of random wolves, from different zoos, into a captive colony.  These wolves were from different ‘packs’ and put into a much smaller environment than they would naturally have, with no chance to escape and more limited (human controlled) resources.  Later studies on wolves not living in captivity, revealed a much different type of pack – a familial unit, composed of a breeding pair and offspring.  Young adult wolves from the breeding pair would often stay around, to help hunt and nurture the next litter of young pups, eventually leaving to start their own pack.  A very different view from the competitive packs that were seen in the wolves in captivity.  Mech later changed his view to reflect these studies and he has written several books on this, but also this lovely short paper on ‘Whatever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf?’ published in 2008.  If you’d like to read this see the link below in the references.

So, if your next question is something along the lines of ‘but the wolves in captivity did display the dominant/aggressive type behaviour’, then top marks!  I would argue the same thing (I love a debate!)!  However, at this point, we need to challenge another assumption, that dogs are wolves.  Wolves still live happily away from humans in the wild.  Domestic dogs do not exist ‘in the wild’ except as scavengers on the fringes of human populations.  Studies on these dogs are sparse, but those studies do not show dogs packing in the same way as wolves, pregnant bitches go away from large groups of dogs to have, nurture and raise their young, only returning when the pups are old enough to fend for themselves.  These dogs do not cope particularly well on their own, the environment they thrive in, is with humans! Hardly a surprise, that’s the way we have made them through our own breeding practices.  Another interesting fact is that the research done on wolves over the past 40 years, has largely been done on the American timber wolf, not the Eurasian grey wolf that is the ancestor of our dogs.  As John Bradshaw puts it In in his book In Defence of Dogs, ‘Scientists have… studied the wrong wolves; on the wrong continent, and 10,000 years too late’. Why late?  I would urge you to read the book, as it explains this in much more detail than I can go into here, but put simply, this grey wolf ancestor branched into two, the wolves that were later domesticated by us humans (and who were genetically capable of this) and those that didn't (and who were not genetically capable of this).  Then at least 10,000 years of evolution, interference by man in the form of farming and agriculture, eradication of habitats and so on, changed them both into species very different to their common ancestor.

So if the violent dominant/submissive wolf pack theory has been written off and it is established that dogs can no longer be viewed just as friendly wolves, dogwhere does that leave us?  Well, hopefully from that we can throw out the idea of needing to dominate our dogs!  Although I expect that cast iron disciples of the dominant dog theory are still struggling here - and that’s okay.  Ultimately just because the thought process that went into coming up with a theory was wrong, it doesn’t mean the theory itself is flawed, at least not without further scrutiny. 

So the only way that we can establish whether our dogs are trying to dominate us is to look at their behaviour and the motivations for that behaviour.  When we have seen dogs that have been labelled as dominant, what are the common acts by these dogs that earn them that label?  These can include:

  • Aggression to other dogs.
  • Aggression to humans or other animals.
  • Food or resource guarding behaviours.
  • Jumping on people.
  • Lying in doorways.
  • Pulling on the lead.
  • Barking at other dogs/people/stimulae.
  • Sitting on the sofa.
  • Eating first/stealing food.

My next blogs will focus on these issues and outline motivations for these, none of which, I promise you, will be because your dog is dominant, all of them will come down to the way that our dogs (and in fact all animals, ourselves included) learn.  If these are issues that you are encountering then please do call me on 07500 119232, we can come up with a positive plan to address this together!

Before I finish I must highlight my references for this blog:

In Defence of Dogs – John Bradshaw

Dominance in Dogs – Fact or Fiction – Barry Eaton

The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species – L. David Mech

Article Why Won’t Dominance Die – David Ryan

Whatever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf – L. David Mech 

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