What About Dominance

As divergent views of learning theory and dog behavior flood popular media, book stores, and training centers, dog owners sometimes ask: "How do I make sure that my dog sees me as dominant?"

Collegiate Canine believes that while dogs may indeed form dominance hierarchies between other members of their species, success in training does not rely on making your dog "submit" to you.

This means that you can enjoy your dog as you wish with no worries that he's plotting an aggressive take-over of your household. All kidding aside, this means that 'success' is about way more than issuing commands — it's about two-way communication, with humans learning to understand 'dog', and dogs learning to understand 'human.'

Evaluating the research...

It's also about dog owners, as well as trainers, recognizing important differences between the original study that led to dominance thinking and the variables at play in a typical pet-owning family of today.

The idea of dominance got its start many years ago through a wolf study (Mech, 1970) , which concluded that wolves form a strict hierarchy within their packs. In short, dominant animals were given preferential treatment when it came to food access and ideal resting places while those lower in the hierarchy had to wait their turn, often losing out on the best resources. The study also observed that such hierarchies are reinforced by the use of physical force and aggression between pack mates.

Unfortunately, this same dominance structure was later applied to the relationship between dogs and humans — faulty thinking, say many behaviorists. Not only was the original study performed on captive wolves, not dogs, but the results have not proven applicable to either domestic or feral dogs.

… and understanding its limitations

Domesticated dogs appear to have very flexible hierarchies. As a result, an individual may have preferential access when it comes to one resource (e.g., food or chew toys) but not to others (e.g. sleeping places or access to females). Rarely will a single dog control access to all resources in his environment.

In addition, animals considered "dominant" in a specific situation involving other dogs generally do not use aggressive behavior, like pinning or grabbing another dog's neck, to demonstrate their control. Instead, they use ritualized displays like staring, showing of teeth, growling, and body blocking to assert their priority status.

In most cases, animals that grab another's neck or pin them to the ground are not struggling for dominance per se, but intending instead to run off or kill their opponent. The potential for serious injury in such interactions discourages dogs from using true aggression in all but the most hostile of situations.

Flexible hierarchies and ritualized displays are often observable in multi-dog households as well as in free-roaming groups of homeless dogs. For example, a recent study (Reid, 2009) indicates that domesticated dogs living with humans generally give access to resources to male dogs before females and to adult dogs before puppies within each gender.

Supporting confidence and connection

Research on how dog-dog social structures apply to the dog-human relationship may be limited, but we at Collegiate Canine know this: if you forgo outdated techniques like alpha rolling or scruffing in favor of clear house rules and consistent expectations, you'll reap the benefits of relationship-building through confidence and connection, not fear and intimidation.

For a more detailed discussion of dominance in dogs, complete with video examples, please visit http://drsophiayin.com/philosophy/dominance.

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