As a dog behaviourist and trainer I often get clients concerned that their dog is being “dominant” – but what does this actually mean?
Dominance is an accepted scientific concept; however, its use in dog training and behaviour has become misunderstood, often being used when referring to personality features or genetic traits of a dog. The scientific concept of dominance refers to the relationship between two or more individuals (dogs in this case) where one individual defers to another, allowing them preferential access to vital resources, such as food. This very rarely involves aggression, as any resulting injury would leave the individual vulnerable. Instead, one individual peaceably gives up the resource, with lots of different factors at play, including the current health of both individuals, nutritional status and age, as well as environmental factors, all determining which individual defers. Therefore, “dominant” (or more appropriately termed “resource holding potential”) behaviour is fluid and situation-specific, involving a degree of mutual learning and give-and-take between individuals.
Dominance theory became a popular concept around 30 years ago and has been popularised by prominent TV dog trainers over the years, which has kept the term in the public domain.
What’s wrong with the dominance theory?
Dominance originally gained momentum following a study on a captive wolf pack, which concluded that wolves were motivated to climb a dominance hierarchy, led by a dominant wolf defined as the “alpha” (Schenkel, 1967). This theory then transferred to domestic dogs. However, there were significant flaws in the research – even the scientists involved in the original studies have since agreed that their conclusions were invalid.
Another criticism of the dominance theory is that it is not logical to use information about wolves to explain the behaviour of domestic dogs. Humans are closest genetically to chimpanzees and bonobos (Prufer et al., 2012), yet our differences are not only in superficial appearance but also neurological. Humans also share 90 percent of their DNA with mice – we even share DNA with bananas (bet you didn’t see that coming). Therefore, despite the similarity in appearances and genetics between dogs and wolves, it is not a sound comparison to observe and use the behaviour of one species as an explanation for the behaviour of another.
It has also been observed that many behaviours previously defined as being “alpha” or “dominant” are, in fact, much more fluid, changing according to the particular situations and the individuals involved
More recent studies (Mech, 1999) have demonstrated that wild wolf packs are akin to a cooperative family group. It has also been observed that many behaviours previously defined as being “alpha” or “dominant” are, in fact, much more fluid, changing according to the particular situations and the individuals involved. This means that wolf family groups live fairly harmoniously, avoiding the need for aggression, and with the wolf taking the leader role changing depending on the situation, for the good of the pack.
Aside from all of the above evidence, dogs are not wolves, and there are significant differences in their behaviour, ecology and physiology. Wolves have not evolved to live with humans in the same way that dogs have.
How does dominance theory relate to domesticated dogs?
Dominance theory suggests that dogs use behaviours (often aggression) to try to dominate humans or other dogs and take their place in the house as pack leader or “alpha”. One of the main consequences of this belief is that the dominance-based solutions to behaviour problems are often scary or aversive to the dog, involving intimidation, manhandling or applying pressure on the dog until they “submit” to the human. This can also have devastating effects on the dogs’ bond with their humans and risk escalating aggressive or fearful behaviours (Casey et al., 2014).
Dominance-based solutions to behaviour problems are often scary or aversive to the dog, involving intimidation, manhandling or applying pressure […] until they “submit”
Techniques to reduce dominance often include:
- Placing dogs on their back, also known as the “alpha roll”
- Pinning them to the ground
- Staring into their eyes
- Challenging them over their right to food and resources
- Invading and blocking their space
These approaches to training make assumptions about dogs wanting to control an entirely different species. For example, I once had a client tell me they had bitten their young puppy on the ear when it had become over-excited and nipped them. They had been told that this is what the mother of a puppy would do and was, therefore, what would resolve the nipping. However, dogs are an intelligent species whose communication signals and social interactions consist of nuances and subtle non-verbal cues that we, as humans, cannot accurately replicate – nor should we want to. We can have our unique relationship with dogs by interacting with them with kindness so that the human–animal bond is based on trust that lasts a lifetime.
Why is this a concern?
In dominance theory, aggression is often misinterpreted as an attempt at pack leadership and overlooks the fact that aggressive behaviour can be born out of fear, anxiety, learning, social confusion, stress, pain and other medical issues. Fearful or anxious dogs are then subjected to aversive techniques aimed at making them submit. This has the potential to result in an escalation of defensive behaviour from the dog or a dog who becomes emotionally shut down.
In dominance theory, aggression is often misinterpreted […] and overlooks the fact that aggressive behaviour can be born out of fear, anxiety, learning, social confusion, stress, pain and other medical issues
Another concern is that these dominance-theory-based methods are also potentially dangerous for pet owners, leaving them vulnerable to being bitten. The quality of relationship and bond with the dog can also be severely impacted.
What to do next?
One way to help puppy and dog owners if they are struggling with aggressive behaviours or if they have misconstrued dominance theory is to encourage them to look for advice and support from accredited behaviourists, trainers and behaviour counsellors.