Here’s a question I get asked frequently: “Is my dog dominant? Is that why he misbehaves all the time?” It’s an interesting question and I’d like to unpack it (excuse the pun!) and take a closer look.
Before we start, I’d better lay out what is meant by the terms ‘dominance hierarchy’, ‘dominant’ or ‘Leader’ (also known as the Alpha). From a biological perspective:
Dominance hierarchy is a type of social hierarchy that arises when members of a social group interact to create a ranking system. In social living groups, members are likely to compete for access to limited resources and mating opportunities. Rather than fighting each time they meet, relative rank is established between members of the same sex. Based on repetitive interactions a social order is created that is subject to change each time a dominant animal is challenged by a subordinate one.
(Wikipedia, accessed Feb, 2019)
So, the Alpha, Leader or dominant animal is the one who has the greatest access to limited resources. That’s worth remembering…
Why is this important?
In dog training circles there has been a years’ old ongoing heated debate as to whether dogs follow this ‘dominance hierarchy’ model whilst living in a human family. The idea was originally proposed by biologists observing captive wolf packs. More recently it’s argued that wolves don’t follow this social model when in naturally forming, free living groups.
The problem is that none of this debate helps dog owners one jot! Dogs are not wolves. Free living dogs don’t live in the same type of groups that wolves do…. but dogs do show a lot of behavioural overlap with wolves.
However, depending on which side of the fence you sit, it is easy to find convincing arguments either way. That’s just not useful!
The ‘dominance model’ is incredibly compelling to humans. Many primates DO live in large social groups with strong dominance hierarchies – the concept makes perfect sense to us: much as we might like to say everyone is equal, it is a fact that in most human societies some individuals are more equal than others. But we’re not dogs either! So, no help there then.
An Alternative Approach
There is a simple way out of this conundrum. Abandon it completely as far as dog/human interactions go. There are some very good reasons why ditching the dominance model will help you live with your dog. When you think of your dog as doing things to ‘take over the role of pack leader’, ‘challenge your status’, or ‘become the dominant dog’, you are instantly put into conflict with your dog. If your dog is challenging you, what is the obvious solution? “Put him in his place!” “Show her who’s boss!”. Ohhh dear. Now you are in a situation where many interactions are perceived as challenges or threats – even when none actually exist. Bugger. That’s not going to make for smooth living is it? Especially when you take into account the problems associated with the use of force and threats for training.
A better approach is to remember that behaviour is functional.
Dogs do what dogs do for two simple reasons: to maximise pleasant experiences and minimise or avoid unpleasant ones. It really is that easy.
Let’s look at some common ‘status challenges’ that dogs do and reframe them as just behaviours:
Pulling on lead
- Dominance model – dog is controlling the walk so ‘feels in charge’.
- Behaviour – pulling gets him where he wants to go so he can sniff good stuff, read p-mail and explore the environment.
- Dominance model – controlling your space, trying to ‘stand over’ the you.
- Behaviour – loves the attention, wants to lick your face, just like pups do to mum.
Doesn’t come when called
- Dominance model – ignoring you and your status as pack leader.
- Behaviour – immersed in a sniff-fest or play bout; having too much fun to want to stop or just didn’t hear you.
Growl/bite if ‘prizes’ are taken off them
- Dominance model – challenging you over a resource because the leader MUST have undisputed access.
- Behaviour – doesn’t want to lose the prize. (Totally understandable – anyone trying to mess with my roast dinner will risk being stabbed by my fork!!!)
Jump on furniture (and refuse to get off!)
- Dominance model – status holding position, as being higher up indicates status and being the pack leader.
- Behaviour – furniture is usually warm and comfy. Who’d want to give up a good snuggle spot if they could keep it?
I’ll not go into detail about how to fix these issues here, although I agree that they do need changing if we are to live comfortably with our dogs. They can all be peaceably resolved without conflict of any sort by taking the behavioural view point and asking “what function does this behaviour serve for my dog?” In other words, what does he get out of doing it? Once you ask the right questions, the answers become far more obvious and a lot less like declaring war!***
And remember, if you really want to think in terms of ‘resource access’, no dog can challenge your status of ‘alpha’ because we live in a human world: we have the big brains and opposable thumbs. These facts alone mean that we can access and control just about any resource we want from our dogs. Dogs know who call the shots at the end of the day; why do you think they are so generally overjoyed to see us? We bring the good stuff and they love us for it!
(***If your dog is displaying aggressive behaviours such as growling, snarling, snapping or biting, please contact a professional, positive reinforcement trainer immediately. These are not issues that you should try to tackle on your own as they need a careful, strategic approach.)
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