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Dumbed down by dominance, Part 1
Exploring our misconceptions and myths about human-pet relationships


DVM360 MAGAZINE


The misinterpretation and limitations of the behavioral and ethological literature

An accurate understanding of normal dog behavior is at odds with the idea that dogs struggle for dominance.

  • Dominance is a traditional ethological concept that pertains to an individual's ability—generally under controlled conditions—to maintain or regulate access to some resource. It is a description of the regularities of winning or losing staged contests over those resources. It is not to be confused with status and, in fact, does not need to confer priority of access to resources.
  • In situations in which the concept of dominance has been used with regard to status, it is important to realize that it is not defined as aggression on the part of the "dominant" animal but rather as the withdrawal of the "subordinate."
  • The behavior of the relatively lower status individuals, not the relatively higher ranking one, is what determines the relative hierarchical rank.
  • Rank itself is contextually relative. Truly high-ranking animals are tolerant of lower-ranking ones.
  • Dominance displays infrequently lead to actual combat. Instead, combat ensues when these displays are not effective.
  • If there is no assumption of a dominance-based system, one is seldom identified. When free-ranging baboon interactions were classified by behavioral types (e.g., friendly, approach–retreat) and then analyzed according to specific behaviors of the participants, no dominance system was noted.

Misinterpretation of pathological behaviors and how they arose

The misuse and misperception of the concept of dominance with respect to pet animals has seriously confused any understanding of the behavioral diagnosis that was formerly called dominance aggression (now more often called impulse control aggression or conflict aggression). There are three conceptual areas where harm has been done.

1. Dominance has been equated to social status or order in a rigid hierarchy, which was thought to develop through contests in young pups that would predict later social relationships as adults. Sequential possession of a bone was used as an assay for dominance in puppies. In truth, puppies are far more fluid in their relationships, which are changing as their brains continue to mature. The rank hierarchy experimentally achieved was a function of the experimental design, not of the behaviors. The design used would impose a rank hierarchy, whether or not one existed.

2. Because of the forceful way in which this rigid rank hierarchy was assumed to develop, humans were encouraged to be at the top of the hierarchy and told to be dominant to their dogs. Our historic and evolutionary relationship with dogs is one of cooperative and collaborative work. A hierarchical relationship like that formerly recommended would not have allowed dogs to work with humans in the ways that they have because humans would have had to make all of the work decisions. In addition, social systems based on deferential behaviors and on gaining accurate information can look exactly like these top-down systems if they are not carefully observed. Deference and compliance in contextually appropriate situations remove the need for control, whether or not someone thinks they are present and successful.

3. Finally, dogs exhibiting this diagnosis, which is based in pathological anxiety and not in use of inadequate force, were to be treated by physically and behaviorally dominating them. The single most devastating advice ever given to people with dogs is that they should dominate their dogs and show the problem dogs "who is boss." Under this rubric, untold numbers of humans have been bitten by dogs they have betrayed, terrified and given no choice. And for dogs that have an anxiety disorder that involves information processing and accurate risk assessment, the behaviors used to dominate a dog (e.g., hitting, hanging, subjecting the dog to dominance downs, alpha rolls and other punitive, coercive techniques) convince that troubled, needy, pathological dog that the human is indeed a threat, resulting in the dog's condition worsening.

It's clearly past time to change our thinking.

In part two of this two-part series, I'll reveal how we can manage misconceptions, improve interactions with dogs and stop being dumbed down by dominance.

Dr. Overall, faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, is a diplomate of the American College of Behavior Medicine (ACVB) and is board-certified by the Animal Behavior Society (ABS) as an Applied Animal Behaviorist.


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Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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