Is dog dominance true?
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
I met somebody recently on a walk with my two dogs, we got talking and said she has to make sure that her dog is not 'top dog' as all dogs want to be top dog and humping dogs are trying to establish dominance and was shocked to hear that dominance is a myth with no scientific basis- especially because a rescue centre she obtained the dog from used the term dominance.
It is very surprising to me that this myth is still strong despite mounting evidence that is it at best unhelpful and worst highly detrimental to the human-animal bond.
It is easy to see why people still believe in this idea, after all our canine companions are from wild wolves with pack hierarchies. It is a simple catchy idea- however this is all it is, an idea. Typically this is called a meme (Dawkins, 1989), self- replicating ideas that only pass on due to their popularity.
Some memes are harmless and can lead to positive society changes however the dominance meme can be potential harmful as it prevents owners and trainers from understanding the true cause behind a behaviour- such as humping (normally due to excitement or nervousness).
It does not help the situation that this is a long standing meme, from the dogs are wolves and they behaviour must be the same (Mech, 1970). However as science advances so do our ideas. Its widely accepted that our canine companions have evolved from wolves however their behaviour has adapted to live in human settlements, and eventually in our beds and hearts. We have selectively bred them for specific purposes such as herding and hurting and by enhancing specific traits we see as desirable, they are no longer behave like their wolf ancestors.
When we see so-called “dominance” what we are actually seeing is natural behaviour modified through learning and this typically conflicts with the owners’ expectations. Canine behaviour can be complex and this simplistic view does not help trainers or owners understand a dog and their motivation for that undesirable behaviour.
The best way to train a dog is first to understand your dog and build a trusting relationship and bond. Then with using a good positive reinforcement method you can teach your dog what you like and use every opportunity as a learning opportunity to mould their behaviour and to direct it. Scientific studies have demonstrated the cognitive abilities of our dogs and even comparatively speaking have suggested their cognitive abilities are similar to that of a human 18 month- 2 year old child.
Just think if you constantly say no to a child eventually they will stop listening but if you offer an alternative they are happier and learn what its good.
Please see below for some further reading and references if interested
Dawkins, R. (1989) The Selfish Gene (new edition). Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Mech, L.D. (1970) The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press.
Ryan, D. (2010) Why Won't Dominance Die? APBC. http://www.apbc.org.uk/articles/why-wont-dominance-die
Mech, L.D. (1999) Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 77(8): 1196–1203
Mech, L.D. & Boitani, L. (2003) Wolf social ecology. 1–34 in: Mech, L.D. & Boitani, L. (eds) Wolves: Behavior, Ecology and Conservation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Parker, G.A. (1974) Assessment strategy and the evolution of animal conflicts. Journal of Theoretical Biology. 47. 223–243.
Bradshaw, J.W.S, Blackwell, E.J. & Casey R.A. (2009) Dominance in domestic dogs—useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. 4 (3) 135-144.
Peres-Guisado, J. & Munoz-Serrano, A. (2009). Factors linked to dominance aggression in dogs. Journal of Animal and Veterinary Advances. 8 (2) 336-342.
Elsheikha, H.M. & Rossano M.G. (21st September 2009) Evidence-based approach is wise. Veterinary Times.