Dumbed down by dominance, Part 2: Change your dominant thinking

Embrace deference, not dominance, to ensure healthy and happy human-pet relationships
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Apr 01, 2012

Last month in "Dumbed down by dominance," we looked at the relationship dogs and humans developed over a vast history and how the idea of dominance in this relationship and the concept of dominance aggression arose inappropriately. Now let's see how we can change our thinking.

Changing our thinking



Fights for status or control are notoriously rare among wild canids, including wolves. The same is true for humans. Unless the situation involves abnormal or severely stressed social conditions (e.g., famine, war, too many individuals and too few resources), most human social relations are structured by negotiation and deference to others, rather than by violence. The same pattern holds for dogs. In short, in both dog and human interactions, violence is often a sign that something has gone wrong.

Reliance on the myth of dominance often results in unkind or abusive behavior toward dogs in ways that render the situation dangerous for humans and dogs alike. An understanding of social rules that rely on deference can help us to avoid the unfair, cruel and often dangerous behaviors that are the result of being dumbed down by dominance.

What do we mean by deference? Deference occurs when social individuals assess an ongoing situation and wait calmly to get input from another member of the group before pursuing another set of behaviors or social interactions.

In deference-based systems, hierarchies are fluid and flexible depending on context and the information received within it. The individual to whom others defer may differ depending on the social circumstances; and status and circumstances are not absolute.

For example, a human child may defer to his or her parents' requests but then be the individual on the playground to whom other children defer. Dogs are similar: A dog may always adhere to instructions given by one spouse but not the other. This is because the dog has different relationships with each spouse.

A lot has been written about dogs viewing their human families as their "packs." It's important to remember that pack is just a word to describe a social grouping of canines, like pod describes a group of whales and gaggle describes a group of geese.

True canine packs are composed of animals born into the social group, making them more closely related to each other than they are to most animals in another pack. Most multidog households are composed of unrelated dogs, many of which come into the household as young adults or adults, not newborn puppies. The way most dogs live in human households is almost the anti-pack: Relationships are imposed upon resident dogs every time a new animal is added.

By thoughtlessly using the word pack, we have assumed that humans must be the leaders of the pack. This assumption has caused us to behave badly toward animals. While we care for dogs, they know that we are not dogs, and their relationships with dogs and humans will differ. We can best understand the complex interdependent relationship between dogs and humans by letting go of the pack concept.