Those of you who know me or have attended my classes will have noticed that I flinch when people mention their dog being dominant, I do of course use the word but often when I hear it it’s not being used in the correct context, so I thought I would explain when can be used and when it shouldn’t be used.
Pack theory is something that comes up time and again generally in reference with the word "dominance" describing what is perceived at dominant behaviour, so I thought I would explain where dominance theory came from and what it really means in the world of the domestic dog.
Why do we use the word dominant to describe dog behaviour?
Dog pack theory has evolved from wolf pack theory which comes from research that has been done into captive wolf packs which started in the 1940’s by Animal behaviourist Rudolf Shenkel who carefully observed the interactions between members of an unrelated wolf pack in the Zoological Institute of the University of Basel in Switzerland. He observed that a wolf pack was controlled by a dominant pack leader, and as dogs were then thought to be the same as wolves this theory was then transferred to the domestic dog This research was then backed up by David L Mech Phd. As a result of this research, Many people still see Wolfpack leader or alpha, as an animal that fights for total group dominance and control, even over other species such as humans. But this isn’t how things actually work.
So what is dominance really?
Dominance is a valid word that can be used, animals can be dominant over others but this only happens in situations, resource (food) control for instance, or mating rights, in a domestic setting even a favourite bed maybe dominated. But this control doesn’t transfer to other situations so isn’t always in place, which is what pack leader or dominance theory implies. behaviours described in dogs as dominant in social situations can mean the dog is lacking in the social skills to deal with a situation.
Research and debunking the dominance theory.
Sadly this out dated research is still widely being used in training of our domestic dogs even though through more extensive research we know that it is incorrect.
Dr Mech is currently the worlds leading expert in wolf behaviour after his initial research where he backed up the work done by Shenkel, spent 13 years observing the interactions of wild wolf packs in Canada, where he soon realised that the way captive unrelated animals behave is not the same as wild living animals. Mech noticed that the packs were not dominated by an alpha animal or pair at all, but by a mated pair, a male and female and their pack consisted of their offspring at various life stages. The odd young male would move in to the group for a time but would soon move on often taking a young female away to create their own social family group. So technically any animal could be an alpha, this lead him to post a video rebuke of his own research on the internet which to this day can be watched here https://youtu.be/tNtFgdwTsbU
The difference between dogs and wolves
While dogs and wolves do share common ancestors they are not the same animal, they are similar but most definitely not the same. This is obvious is various ways, domestic dogs have been tinkered with massively by humans to get the different breeds we have today and we can see these changes pictorially if we look at the changes of specific breeds. Visually Wolves have much bigger teeth than domestic dogs. Dogs are able to produce more amylase for digesting carbohydrates than wolves and domestic dog also have a much-reduced prey drive compared to wolves because they aren’t really hunters they don’t need this to survive, they’re more scavengers.
Socially Domestic or even feral dogs have a much more fluid structure than wolves. They will differ to the older or the more experienced animal in situations and will move in and out of social situations at will rather than staying in a social group. Humans also control breeding and genetics, where wolves make their own choices.
Domestic dogs are not the same as wolves or wild dogs, some may live in their familial social groups if breeders keep them, but otherwise, they live as single pets, with others of their own species or other domestic species.
They differ to their human owners as the more experienced being and provider of resources in their lives if that being proves they can be trusted and a bond is formed, otherwise, much like domestic cats they would look to move on elsewhere.
Here are four references that are all relevant, the first is a simple book that brings a lot of research together and makes an easy read for any dog owner or person starting out in dog training. The second a paper by David L Mech, undisputedly the worlds number one wolf researcher. The third is a review paper that brings research together and applies it to the domestic dog. The fourth is a book written by John Bradshaw of Bristol University, which looks into the myths of dog ownership and how the domestic dog differs from it's wild cousins.
Eaton, B. (2008). Dominance: Fact or fiction
Mech, D. L. (1999). Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 77(8), pp.1196-1203.
van Kerkhove, W. (2004). A Fresh Look at the Wolf-Pack Theory of Companion-Animal Dog Social Behavior. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 7(4), pp.279-285.
Bradshaw, J (2012) In defence of dogs
Clair Litster-Huckle has a BSc (Hons) in Animal Behaviour and Welfare and has studied Canine psychology and Canine diet and nutrition.