And yet, the main advice that too many veterinarians and trainers still give to clients completely ignores this foundation and instead appears focused only on the human's needs:
Is this anthropocentric focus really necessary, and does it truly reflect our history with dogs?
The answer to both of these questions: absolutely not. The entire concept of dominance as applied to pet dogs is almost always based on a profound misunderstanding of the shared history of dogs and humans.
The unique relationship between dogs and humans
Dogs have a relationship with humans unlike that of any other domestic animal. Dogs have been selected over time for true collaborative work with humans, and such selection has historically resulted in dog breeds and the attendant breed groupings.
The molecular data support that dogs separated from wolves from as recently as 15,000 years ago to as long as 135,000 years ago. Molecular and anthropological data support that dogs of different morphologies that were likely engaged in different tasks have lived together with humans for at least 15,000 years. Stand-alone anthropological evidence supports that dogs have lived intimately with humans for at least 30,000 years. For at least the past 2,000 years, there have been well-defined breed groups, composed of dogs of different shapes and sizes that engaged in related tasks.
Much of the physical variation in dog breeds is a consequence of overt selection for specific suites of behaviors that have a co-varying physical aspect. For example, coat type may depend on the type of behavior desired—field trial or working and show English springer spaniels look like completely different breeds, and only one of them can readily scramble through brambles.
Our unique relationship with dogs may be due to convergent evolution of canid and human social systems that was the result of like groups meeting and recognizing the power of collaborative efforts, followed by secondarily derived, homologous changes in brain function that have allowed modern humans and dogs to truly rely on each other.
Behavioral patterns shared by dogs and humans
Both humans and canids:
Among the characteristics of social behavior that dogs share with humans is that their social systems are based in deference. Additionally, associated signaling is often redundant, and most signaling or affirmation of signaling is nonvocal rather than vocal.
Recent data indicate that dogs are also comparable with humans with regard to the complex social cognition involved in understanding long-distance signals that indicate where food is hidden. Dogs are further able to communicate this information to other dogs. Dogs appear to have the ability to "fast map"—to make deductions about object class, name and action without having learned them—and to communicate this ability to humans. Like humans, dogs suffer from what we recognize as maladaptive anxiety—that which interferes with normal functioning.
Finally, when examining the rates of gene expression mutations in regional brain tissue, the only species studied to date that has comparable rates with those found in humans is the domestic dog. Such data, when taken together, suggest that humans and dogs have been working partners and companions in profound ways.
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.
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.