Dominance Myths

It started with the words of dog trainer Konrad Most, writing in 1910:

“In a pack of young dogs fierce fights take place to decide how they are to rank within the pack. And in a pack composed of men and dogs, canine competition for importance in the eyes of the trainer is keen. If this state of affairs is not countered by methods which the canine mind can comprehend, it frequently ends in such animals attacking and seriously injuring not only their trainers, but also other people. As in a pack of dogs, the order of hierarchy in a man and dog combination can only be established by physical force – that is, by an actual struggle in which the man is instantaneously victorious. Such a result can only be brought about by convincing the dog of the absolute physical superiority of the man.”

This highly influential theory has permeated to all levels of the dog world, and has resulted in dog abuse on the grand scale, culminating in atrocities such as the Koehler method, with its horrific recommendations such as beating dogs with rubber hoses and half-drowning them to prevent digging. Even trainers who do not themselves espouse the more violent methods beloved of Koehler and his disciples generally accept the dominance model of canine social behaviour without question. Dogs who are routinely beaten or hung by their owners, and who finally retaliate in self-defence, are written off, over and over again, as ‘dominant’ because they decline to submit peacefully to appalling levels of physical punishment. And the solution offered by most trainers, even today, is more punishment, and still more, until the dog has to be put down because its temperament has been irrevocably ruined.

It’s only in the last decade, with its explosion of interest in the field of canine behaviour and cognition, that anyone has seriously questioned the appropriateness of pretending to be a wolf when interacting with your dog! And the results of this somewhat more rigorous and scientific approach to the subject have been surprising indeed. Here is the truth behind some of the most cherished myths of dogdom:

Myth: Some dogs are naturally dominant, while others are naturally submissive.

Fact: Dominance is an attribute of a relationship, not of an individual. If Rover and Fido have had several fights of which Rover has won the bulk, Fido will start trying to appease Rover whenever Rover threatens him. We can then say that Rover is dominant and that Fido is submissive, but only in the context of Fido and Rover’s relationship. Fido may well be the dominant partner in his relationship with Curly, while Rover may well be the submissive partner in his relationship with Spot. In this way, loose dominance hierarchies develop.

It thus does not make sense to say that Rover is a dominant dog, nor does it make sense to say that dominance is an inherited characteristic. What can be inherited are traits such as large body size and a low threshold for offensive aggression, which will make a dog more likely to succeed in disputes, and thus to become dominant. Dominance is learned, not inherited.

Myth: Dogs, like wolves, have a rigid and linear pack structure.

Fact: Both dogs and wolves have a fairly fluid pack structure. There will generally be separate male and female hierarchies, so a pack will thus have an alpha female as well as an alpha male. Within those hierarchies, however, there is a lot of movement, and most dominance behaviour seems to be situational, with the same dog being, for example, dominant with respect to food resources and submissive with respect to social space.

Myth: Dominance can be tested for and detected in puppies as early as seven weeks.

Fact: At seven weeks, dominance is as fluid as any other temperament characteristic. There is in fact no correlation between social dominance test scores at seven weeks and at sixteen weeks.

Myth: Dominance can be maintained only by physical force.

Fact: Dominance may be established by physical force, but is maintained by, at most, the use of stereotypical threat-appeasement displays. In fact, many canine dominance hierarchies are established and maintained without any force whatsoever, and furthermore, these hierarchies are far more stable and likely to last than those established by means of force.

In fact, it is more accurate to refer to dominance hierarchies as deference hierarchies as they are maintained by the affection and deference of the submissive members toward the alpha rather than by threat displays and violence from the alpha toward the submissive members of the hierarchy. What is important is that the flow of attention and affection should move up the hierarchy rather than down it.

Myth: If your dog jumps up at you, he is trying to dominate you.

Fact: If your dog jumps up at you, he is trying to lick your chin, an act of active submission which developed from the puppy behaviour of licking the mother’s chin to get her to regurgitate food! Next time he jumps up at you, watch his ear position. Chances are, his ears will be pinned back!

Myth: Your dog sees you as another dog and it is essential that you should be perceived as the alpha.

Fact: The relationship between you and your dog is far more complex than a dominance hierarchy can explain. There is a surprising amount of evidence to suggest that humans are a supernormal object of affection to dogs, i.e. that dogs love their humans much more than other dogs and relate to them more deeply than they are capable of relating to other dogs. And the reverse may also be true, which might explain why we’re so crazy about our dogs! Certainly it is true to say that your dog probably does not regard himself either as particularly dominant or as particularly submissive in his relationship to you. Where competition between human and dog emerges, it is more likely to be pseudodominance (or obnoxious submission) than true, status-related dominance.

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