Canine Behavior: Isn’t It Time We Finally Eliminated the Concept of Dominance?

Publishing Author : Lee Charles Kelley

Date Published : 23/03/2018

Why Do Some Scientists Still Hang On to the Idea of Dominance Hierarchies in Nature?

Dr. Roger Abrantes is a well-known figure in the dog training world. He holds PhDs in Evolutionary Biology and Ethology. He is the author to 17 books, written in English, German, Spanish, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, and Czech, and is one of the most versatile ethologists in the world.

In “Dominance: Making Sense of Nonsense,” Dr. Abrantes proposes that we stop denying that dominance exists in dogs and wolves, and set out to remedy the “nonsense” by a) demonstrating that dominance does exist, b) establishing that if dominance exists in wolves it also exists in dogs, c) presenting a “precise, pragmatic and verifiable definition of the term,” and d) show that “even though a good relationship does not rely on continuous displays of dominance … [this] does not imply that dominance does not exist.”

Abrantes holds multiple degrees, speaks seven languages, and is a world-renowned lecturer on animal behavior. I’m just a dog trainer, with no academic background. So when Dr. Abrantes makes a proclamation of this kind, it’s important to pay attention.

To prove that dominance does exist, Dr. Abrantes says, “It is absurd to argue that dominance does not exist when we have so many words to describe whatever it relates to.”

I’m not sure that’s a cogent or reasonable argument. After all, there are thousands or words to describe the concept of God or some form of deity. Does that stand as a rational, scientific argument that such deities exist?

I would that there is a recognizable form of social behavior, seen primarily in humans and (perhaps) primates, that may properly be described as dominance. It relates to the use of force, power, or some other form of influence to control the behaviors of group members that rank lower on the social scale. Schools, governments, and the military are top-down systems. However, there are many other systems—in humans on down—that don’t operate through dominance. And while we certainly see similar types of behaviors in canines and primates, the motivations for these behaviors may be quite different.

On the next point, Dr. Abrantes says that “Recent trends claim that ‘dominant behavior’ does not exist in dogs… There are two ways to argue in favor of such thinking. One is to dismiss ‘dominant behavior’ downright … [the other] is to claim that wolves and dogs are completely different and that therefore, even though we can apply the term to explain wolf behavior, we cannot use it to describe dog behavior.”

I would agree that if dominance can rightly be applied to wolves, it could theoretically be applied to dogs as well. And yet if dominance and submission are a product of pack living, and if pack formation is a function of prey size—where, for example, coyotes sometimes form packs, but only when they need to hunt large prey—it’s possible that when we see such behaviors in dogs, who even in feral groups don’t normally hunt large prey, then these behaviors may be similar to those seen in wolves yet they wouldn’t necessarily be motivated by the same adaptive pressures that affect wolf packs.

Abrantes’s third point was to give a clear definition of dominance: it’s all about gaining or controlling access to resources, or “what an organism perceives as life necessities.”

This seems eminently reasonable on first glance. Yet I have to wonder how a dog perceives anything as a “life necessity.” Wouldn’t such knowledge first require an understanding of what “life” is? If so, isn’t Abrantes imposing humanlike thinking onto dogs? Certainly dogs can want things, or feel a need for certain things. But I don’t think dogs are capable of placing things in mental categories.

I think a more reasonable way of seeing this would be through the properties of attraction and resistance. A thirsty dog is attracted to water, a hungry wolf is attracted to prey. A dog or wolf doesn’t think of H20 or a deer as a “resource.” He simply feels a pull toward those objects of attraction. Gaining access to them would reduce his internal feelings of tension and stress. And if he encounters resistance and can’t gain access, then his stress levels would probably go up.

In fact, I would suggest that the dominant and submissive behaviors seen in wolves are, strictly-speaking, a product of stress. One very clear way of seeing that stressors are the ultimate cause of dominant behaviors is that the most dominant members of a baboon troop have higher levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—than their subordinates. Also, in dogs diagnosed with dominance-aggression, their symptoms often respond to anti-anxietal medications, which suggests that these aren’t natural behaviors but are stress-related. Finally, when I work with dogs who exhibit what some would call dominant behaviors, I find that if I play tug-of-war with these dogs, and I always let the dog win and praise him enthusiastically for winning, the dog’s “dominant tendencies” disappear.

Finally, Abrantes says that when wolves engage in dominant and submissive displays, rather than in outright aggression, they’re showing a sound evolutionary strategy by not depleting energy needed for survival.

He’s quite right that it uses much less energy to flash one’s fangs or roll over on one’s back than it does to get into a knock-down, drag-out fight with one’s packmate. However, a simpler and, I think, far more parsimonious explanation would be that these displays are simply polarized reactions to feelings of pressure across the pack as a whole. Those feelings have to be released (by hunting large prey or, for dogs, playing tug-of-war). And if there’s no safety valve for those feelings then the pressure would build until it’s finally released in some other way.

Keep in mind that in 13 years of studying wolf packs on Ellesmere Island in Canada, Dr. David Mech saw no dominance displays at all, ever. Not a single one. His analysis as to why these wolves never displayed any dominance toward one another is that these were close-knit packs, made up of the breeding pair and their offspring. Mech explained that there was no need for dominance because offspring naturally follow their parent’s lead and guidance. Meanwhile, in larger packs, where one or more groups of non-related individuals merge, dominance displays are much more common.

So stress—not any kind of evolutionary strategy—is in all likelihod the underlying cause of all such behaviors. And, to be clear, stress is not a by-product of acting dominant (an idea which has been written about in the literature). Stress is simply the underlying cause of both dominant and submissive behaviors. In this schema, no one is thinking about dominating or submitting to anyone else, making a cost-benefit analysis, or strategizing over who has access to this or that class of resource. They’re all just offloading their individual feelings of internal tension, pressure and stress, each in their own way, based on their individual temperment types (direct or indirect), which are also clearly reflected in each individual’s role in the hunt (again, direct or indirect).

With this in mind, I think dominance and submission should more simply be called direct and indirect approaches to objects of attraction. These would include what Abrantes calls “life’s necessities,” as well as a wolf’s conspecifics, and, most importantly, large prey. Remember, during the hunt the pack works in harmony rather than sniping at one another.

This brings up another thing to consider, which I touched on briefly above, which is that the wolf style of hunting requires some members of the pack to take a direct approach to prey while others circle around, etc. If all pack members had a direct approach, the hunt would fail. If they all had an indirect approach, same deal. These behavioral qualities would align quite nicely with the idea that dogs experience the world through feelings of attraction and resistance rather than thinking about resources, etc. It would also explain why some wolves seem to be more dominant than others. It has nothing to do with hierarchy formation. These variations in temperament exist because they serve the main purpose of the pack: to hunt large prey as a cohesive group.

There’s another, more practical aspect to doing away with the dominance label. It’s much easier for owners and trainers to think of ways to help a dog with stress-related behaviors than it is to figure out how to cure “dominant” tendencies. That label sticks like a permanent scar, implying nothing can be done except to act more dominant (which rarely works, and even then, only for a limited time). But by simply calling these behaviors what they really are—symptoms of stress—a whole new world of opportunities for behavioral change opens up for us.

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