The Ticklish Issue of Dominance

There are many trainers who base their dog training methods on a mistaken interpretation of some research done in the 60’s involving captive grey wolves, dominance and “the pack.“ These beliefs have become so entrenched in popular culture that while getting to know a new client I make it a point to find out where they stand on this issue. Their belief and adherence to this approach has come to be predictive of a client’s success.

It was not until recently that these assumptions have been questioned. So what have researchers found that undermines the assumption that a dog’s behavior can be equated to that of the wolf?

The research that led to the notion that a pet dog will act as if, with his human family, he is a “pack,” was done through observation of wolves in captivity.  Whereas in captivity there are frequent skirmishes and attempts to maintain a hierarchy, in a free ranging pack it is a rarity. In a captive population the pack has been put together by humans, usually comprised of unrelated wolves,  and individuals are unable to either leave the pack or use many of their natural behaviors. The assumption that since a captive wolf may try to raise its status that, similarly, domestic dogs will try to raise their status in their pack, or in other words, their human family was based on the captive “pack” that was very different from what occurs naturally. Owners were frequently led to believe that they needed to establish themselves as “leaders of the pack” which is now generally accepted as an approach based on a misconception.

A more fruitful approach would limit this idea to very specific situations.  Dog-dog and dog-human relationships may be explained by the concept of dominance but only in very limited situations, usually involving access to or control of a cherished and limited resource. Rawhide frequently comes into play here as it is a scarce and cherished resource. If the owner attempts to take it away and is nipped for his trouble, the owner withdraws and the dog has been successful. Thus the dog has learned that aggression succeeds. This is frequently misinterpreted as an attempt to gain ”dominance” when in fact it is simply a learned behavior that has worked effectively.

It can be boiled down to this: domestic dogs do not form packs, and especially not with another species.

An analogy would be cattle in a field and cattle egrets. Do we call that a herd? Or a flock? Do we attempt to describe the egret’s behavior in terms of a cow herd?

In some very very limited situations the idea of dominance may come in handy.  But unfortunately, what I see more often is that people relying on this outdated misconception become fearful that their dog is trying to gain “dominance.”

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