The Scoop on Dominance Theory

If I could rent a time machine, I'd go back to the early 80s. I'd invest in Apple stock. I'd leave a few notes for a younger me. I'd probably go into animal training earlier in my life.

And I'd go back to 1986 to talk to David Mech about his research in order to squelch the idea of dogs being dominant over their owners.

I'm constantly told that a dog is trying to dominate their humans. I've heard that a dog standing on your foot means he's asserting his dominance. Or if they growl at you when they are on your bed. Or if they won't do what you tell them to do. But it's not true. None of it is. So, how did this incorrect information get out there?

Robert Shenkel and later David Mech observed captive wolves and his research suggested there was this thing known as an "alpha wolf." Back then, we believed that dogs behaved very much like wolves do. So, dog owners and trainers started believing the dog needed to understand that the human was in charge - the "alpha" or "dominant" one in the relationship.

The reason I care about this is that believing a dog is trying to dominate them leads many people to mistreat their dogs. If a dog is trying to be your boss, it's understandable to react with, "well, I'll show YOU."

But here's the thing...

Dogs aren't wolves - not at all. It's been at least 15,000 years since dogs and wolves diverged (possibly as long as 30,000 years). And dogs aren't relatives of North American Wolves anyway. They are more like cousins. Do they have similarities? Yes, of course they do. They look sort of alike. They are both hunters with prey drives. They ARE in the same general biological family (and can even breed with one another). But they truly aren't wolves and everything we learn about dogs doesn't apply to wolves - and vice versa.

Wolves don't have "an alpha" either - Packs of wolves have a breeding pair and their offspring. The only ones allowed to mate are the breeding pair. When offspring are ready to mate, they go off to find a mate and start their own pack. But while they are a pack, they work cooperatively with one another. Sometimes one of the wolves will win an argument about something and at other times, a different one will. No one animal is "dominant" all the time.

Dogs know we aren't dogs - Now, there's some research out there that indicates dogs do form some hierarchies among one another when they are frequently grouped together. For instance, people who have several dogs may see that one usually wins minor arguments about favorite sleeping locations, toys, treats, etc. You could make an argument that that dog is the "dominant" one if the others defer to him/her most of the time. Most of the time, we notice that a dog who wins an argument about a treat one day will lose the same argument about the same type of treat on another day (because the dog who lost last time is more hungry today and is willing to fight more than they were previously). So, you could say that "dominance" is rather fluid and it's about preferred access to resources. But no where in there does a dog get confused about humans being dogs and deciding that they need to be dominant. There's no credible evidence anywhere which supports the idea of a dog trying to dominate a human.

We control everything in their lives - If a dog thought for even one second that maybe they needed to be dominant over a human, they'd quickly conclude that it's pointless. We control when they go in and when they go out. What they eat and when. Where they pee. When they are allowed access to other dogs. Everything. So, even though they don't wonder if they should compete with us for dominance, they'd quickly realize it's a fruitless attempt.

The original studies were flawed - Captive wolves behave VERY differently than wild wolves. They fight more. They create artificial groups that don't resemble natural family packs. So, even if dogs were like wolves (they aren't) the wolves which were being studied were nothing like "normal" wolves. David Mech recanted his earlier studies on these grounds.

So, what's going on when we see a dog misbehaving in a way that many still label as dominance? It's simple.

They aren't trained.

Dogs who go out the door before their owners are anxious to go outside. Nothing more than that. We can train them to wait. Dogs who growl when a human approaches their food bowl aren’t displaying dominance, they are displaying resource guarding - and we can train for that as well. Dogs who stand on your foot are likely just big lovable oafs who didn't even realize they were on your toes and we can make them aware of the placement of their feet.

Dogs aren't in an arms race with us. There's no reason to treat them as if they were.



For more information about Dominance Theory from people far smarter than I am, check out the American Veterinary Society of Behavior's Position Statement on Dominance Theory or this excellent blog by Zazie Todd.



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