Why "being a good pack leader" is
unlikely to help... or What's Wrong with Using 'Dominance' to Explain
the Behaviour of dogs?
In the past, much
of the behaviour of dogs was interpreted quite simplistically in
terms of 'hierarchy' or social structure. It was believed that dogs
were motivated (i.e. had an internal 'drive') to achieve a higher
'status' relative to other dogs or people, and that this desire
led them to show behaviours such as aggression in order to achieve
control. Lots of eminent behaviourists and trainers used to think
in this way, but with the advancement of science and clinical behaviour
practice, we now know that the foundations on which this theory
was based are fundamentally flawed, and the majority of trainers
and behaviourists have changed their practice as a result. We also
have a much better understanding of how the brain works, and how
animals learn, which has enabled us to develop a better understanding
of why behaviours such as aggression do develop in dogs. In this
article, we summarise why 'dominance' is no longer regarded as a
useful explanation for the behaviour of dogs. A fuller review is
available in Bradshaw et al. (2009).
Where did 'dominance theory' came from?
" Early studies of captive unrelated wolves suggested a rigid
social structure or 'hierarchy' maintained by aggression
" The findings of this research was applied to interactions
between dogs, because the wolf was the ancestor of the dog
" The theory was assumed to apply in relationships between
dogs and people, and that dogs perceived the relationship with their
owner in terms of relative 'status'
What are the problems with this theory?
" More recent research on wolves has found that the natural
social groupings of wolves is actually based on co-operative family
groups of parents and offspring, with very little aggression
" Dogs have changed a lot since domestication, and groups of
feral dogs do not have the same social structure as wolves
" Studies of interactions between dogs show no evidence of
fixed 'hierarchical' relationships, but rather relationships between
individuals which are based on learning
Where did 'Dominance Theory' Come From?
Firstly, it is worth considering where the concept of 'dominance'
originally came from, as this helps to explain the background to
the debate on its current usage. The concept of dominance is a historically
well established one within the field of ethology, the study of
the natural behaviour of animals. It was used to describe relationships
between individuals, where one of a pair of animals is observed
to obtain an important resource in a competitive situation. However,
over time the problem of using this concept in more complex animals
became apparent, because such relationships were not always consistent
in different situations. In other words, although animal A may be
more likely to win an encounter over one resource, animal B may
do so over another. Furthermore, in social species, other factors
appeared to be influential in the outcome of an interaction over
a single resource - for example the outcome of competition over
food varying with how hungry each animal was. The ability to identify
and learn about particular signals that might predict how others
are likely to behave in different situations makes predicting the
'outcome' of an encounter between two individuals even more difficult.
'Dominance', therefore, seemed to be a too simplistic way of describing
the interaction between social mammals, and in ethology much more
complex models are now used to describe social groupings (e.g. Van
Doorn et al. 2003).
Dominance came to be used to describe dog behaviour through the
application of studies of its ancestral species, the wolf. Early
studies of wolves were done on artificial groups of animals kept
in captivity, where individuals were unable to get away from each
other, and the social groupings were not the normal family groups
that are found in the wild (Mech 1999). The results of such studies
suggested a rigid hierarchy where particular individuals ('alphas')
had priority access to resources, and maintained the group structure
through the display of aggression to others (Zimen 1975). Since
the wolf is the ancestor of the domestic dog, those interested in
dog behaviour suggested that similar social groupings may occur
in dogs, and that the formation of these groups are based on the
'desire' or 'drive' of each individual to be the 'leader' or 'alpha'
of the group, the resultant hierarchical structure being based on
competitive success. This interpretation of dogs became so well
established, that it was also used to interpret interactions between
dogs and people, the assumption being that dogs also regarded people
as competitors in the struggle for social status. This interpretation
of dogs has been used to explain behaviours ranging from aggression,
attention seeking, destruction, and even failure to return on recall.
If one assumes that the behaviour of a dog is motivated by a desire
to control or 'dominate' its owner, it tends to lead on to the conclusion
that in order to deal with the problem, the owner needs to establish
'dominance' over the dog. This interpretation of dog behaviour,
therefore, has tended to encourage the development of training techniques
that use punishment or force to 'show the dog who is boss' (e.g.
Kovary 1999). However, for the reasons summarised in the following
sections, we now know that the use of 'dominance theory' to explain
the behaviour of dogs relies on flawed assumptions, and it is therefore
important to re-evaluate the techniques we use in the training of
dogs, and make sure we use techniques that are not only effective
but are least likely to compromise the welfare of our pets
Recent Interpretations of Wolf Behaviour
Recent research on natural populations suggest that the groupings
are more based on co-operative family groups, where one breeding
pair produce puppies and other members of the family assist with
rearing them (Mech and Boitani 2003). This particular reproductive
strategy is adaptive for their ecological niche, and although it
results in fewer puppies being born, the higher investment in each
puppy increases their chance of survival. Hence, the natural social
groupings of wolves are based on co-operative family groups, where
the parents 'guide' their offspring in developing social and hunting
skills, the apparent hierarchical structure arising through parent-offspring
relationships rather than competitive or aggressive encounters (Mech
2008). In such groups there is no 'alpha' achieved by strength or
aggression (Mech 2008), and there is no evidence that individual
wolves have a life-long 'dominant' characteristic (Packard 2003).
Aggressive behaviour is very rare in stable groups (Mech 1999),
and where it does it occur, it is flexible, being based on individual
circumstance rather than being predictable between individual pairs
of animals. Since the type of 'dominance hierarchy' whereby the
social structure is based on competitive ability does not appear
to occur naturally in wolves, the argument for this occurring in
the dog, as the descendent of the wolf, it has been strongly argued
that to be a poor one (Van Kerkhove 2004).
Do Feral Dogs have the Same Social Structure as Wolves?
The next assumption in 'dominance theory' is that since wolves are
the ancestors of dogs, the two species will form similar social
structures (e.g. Lindsay 2000). However, the dog has changed considerably
from its ancestral species since domestication (Miklósi 2007),
and observations of feral dogs suggest that the social structure
of feral dogs is completely different (reviewed in Bradshaw et al.
2009). For example, mating is unrestricted in feral dog groups (Pal
et al. 1999), and although appeasement behaviour occurs, it is both
within family groups, and between individuals of different groups,
suggesting a general function of diffusing conflict, rather than
being a specific 'submission' behaviour to maintain group hierarchical
structures. Studies of feral dogs tend to suggest, therefore, that
domestication has significantly altered the social behaviour of
dogs from their ancestral species. In free living groups, feral
dogs do not remain in strict family packs, there is no restriction
of breeding, and hence no apparently pyramidal structure based on
a single breeding pair and their offspring as is found in wolves.
Interactions between individuals are much more fluid, and appear
based more on circumstance, sexual cycles and prior learning about
the behaviour of other individuals.
What About the
Social Structure of Domestic Dogs?
Since neither natural groups of wolves, nor free-ranging groups
of feral dogs, appear to adopt the pyramidal hierarchical social
structure traditionally ascribed to them, the assumption that domestic
dog behaviour is influenced by a desire to assume such a structure
is difficult to substantiate. Furthermore, recent research suggests
that groups of domestic dogs do not form social groupings that can
be interpreted in terms of a dominance hierarchy. The study, described
in Bradshaw et al. (2009) investigated the interactions between
a group of 19 dogs housed together in a 'sanctuary' environment.
The aim of this study was to investigate whether these neutered
domestic dogs, which had been in the group for at least 6 months
and were freely able to determine interactions between group members,
formed a hierarchical structure as predicted by the 'dominance theory'.
Interactions between each pair of dogs were recorded, but showed
no evidence of an overall 'hierarchy' within the group. Rather,
the interactions suggested that each pair of dogs had a learnt pattern
of behaviour with each other, which may or may not vary between
different situations, but which could not be combined into any overall
group structure (Bradshaw et al. 2009).
Dominance as an
Explanation of Behaviour
There is, therefore, very little evidence that social groupings
of the domestic dog are based around the traditional pyramidal structure.
This may seem like an academic argument that has little relevance
to the everyday interaction between people and dogs, but the real
problems that have arisen with the use of 'dominance theory' in
the dog fraternity, is that the term has been used not only to describe
the interaction between individuals, but also explain it. In other
words, the reason for a dog showing a behaviour was ascribed to
it 'trying to achieve dominance / social status'. This requires
a further assumption - not only do dogs form a pyramidal structure
based on competitive success, but that they are actively planning
ahead in order to try and raise their own relative status.
This assumes that dogs are able to form an abstract concept of their
own 'status', relate this to the relative status of others, and
plan future events with the aim of modifying their relative hierarchical
position. This type of thinking is actually very anthropomorphic
(from a human point of view) - because we have language and an enlarged
frontal cortex that enables us to form and 'name' abstract ideas,
it is difficult for us to imagine not being able to 'conceptualise'
using words. This is exactly the same principle as the argument
that dogs which show appeasement behaviour when owners return home
to find house-soiling or destruction feel 'guilty' because they
recognise that they have done something 'wrong' according to a human
code of behaviour. Recent research supports the general consensus
amongst trainers and behaviourists that the behavioural signs interpreted
by owners as 'guilt' are a learnt response to a context (such as
an angry owner facial expression) rather than an awareness in the
dog of a misdeed (Horowitz 2009).
Because it is very difficult for us to imagine life without this
ability, it is natural for us to interpret the behaviour of other
animals with the assumption that they have the same cognitive abilities
as ourselves. However, there is no evidence that dogs form abstract
concepts and think about them forwards and backwards in time. It
is, therefore, an unsupported assumption that dogs are likely to
plan future actions with the aim of modify their long-term relative
social status with other individuals. Their response to other individual
animals or people is much more likely to be based on individual
learning about how others respond in different circumstances (as
we explain further in 'How do we explain social behaviour').
What are the Consequences?
The real problem with assuming that a dog is showing a behaviour
because it has a 'master plan' of achieving high status, is the
effect that this assumption has on how owners respond to their dogs,
and attempt to train them. If owners believe that a dog does something
to 'achieve status' or 'control them' or 'be the boss' it naturally
tends to lead people to use coercive training techniques. This relies
on inducing a negative emotional state (e.g. fear or anxiety) in
a dog in order to inhibit behaviour, which has the risk of inducing
further undesired behaviour or having a negative effect on welfare,
as described further in 'What are the problems of using training
techniques that induce fear or pain?'
Unfortunately the concept of 'dominance' is well embedded in historic
scientific literature and the public consciousness. Although the
majority of trainers and behaviourists no longer think in this way,
some new authors to the field interpret particular aggressive signs
as 'dominant', because their definitions are based on older literature
(e.g. Pérez-Guisado, J. and Muñoz-Serrano, A., 2009),
which tend to perpetuate this theory. In addition, some of the trainers
who reach many thousands of dog owners through television also perpetuate
these out-dated ideas.
Although it has been widely accepted amongst qualified behaviourists
and trainers for many years that the interpretation of dog behaviour
based on a 'dominance model' relies on unsupported assumptions,
this outdated approach is still used by those that have not had
the opportunity to study the most recent literature and clinical
practice. This article has explained how this theory arose through
a historical 'mistake' in the interpretation of wolf behaviour,
along with a series of assumptions about how this might apply to
dogs. These assumptions have been clearly shown to be erroneous
by recent research, and a modern interpretation of dog behaviour
provides us with a much clearer interpretation of how and why behaviour
develops. Although often portrayed as an 'academic argument' it
is important to realise that the way people interpret the behaviour
of their dogs has a strong influence on the way that they behave
towards them. Dispelling the myths behind this theory is therefore
an important step in enhancing the welfare of the dogs in our care.
SOURCE (and further information available): Welfare in Dog Training
For full list of references, see Why punishment
often makes matters much worse.