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The Myth of Dominance

Ginger&Browns Blog

Our blog on wildlife, dogs, cats, pets, health, nutrition, and interesting animal related topics. Ginger&Browns is an independent UK pet store offering a monthly dog subscription box, an online store, and a dog-friendly store located in Northwich, near Chester and Frodsham, Cheshire.

The Myth of Dominance

Josh Beeston

Working where we do, more often than not, we will hear people say things along the lines of “The Jack Russel is the pack leader” or “She’s the more submissive of the two”.  You will undoubtedly have heard it too, you may be reading this thinking that these statements apply to the dogs in your own home. But are these sentences right to say? Sometimes people push it further and say that they, their husband, wife etc. are the pack leader rather than one of the dogs – are they right instead? If it’s not dominance, what is it? Is there really such thing as the Alpha?

The story starts in the 1960’s in a book called “The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Specie” by L. David Mech. The overall theory is this: When you place a group of wolves together, fighting ensues that ultimately only calms down when one wolf is left at the top, with all the other wolves effectively lower in ranking. Zoos throughout the world observed this phenomenon with many wolves killed in fights in their captive environments. The Latin name of the Grey Wolf is Canis lupus whilst our own domestic dogs, regardless of breed, have the Latin name Canis lupus familiaris - they are simply a sub-species of the Grey Wolf. It therefore followed that dog pack behaviour is likely to be the same as wolf pack behaviour.

Fast forward to 1999, and L. David Mech is publishing books completely disproving and abandoning his earlier observations and theories, now coined “Dominance Theory”. It turns out that the “Pack Leaders” were simply mum and dad, and that the “subordinates” were just the kids. It wasn’t fighting and fear that caused the group structure, it was just a family like any other. But the myth of dominance had already seeped into the dog training world, and nearly 20 years on, it still persists today.

So there’s no such thing as dominance in dogs. What does this mean? It means if you were ever told to pin your dog down to show it you are top dog, told to walk through doors first, to eat your dinner before your dog can have its dinner, you were misinformed. If you were told by your behaviourist that the issues between your two dogs are because your new dog is challenging your older dog for dominance, you were misinformed. On one occasion, we were even told that the owner had urinated on their own sofa to dominate their dog after their dog had urinated on the sofa. Unfortunately there is no governing body for who can and who can’t call themselves a dog trainer or behaviourist – there is nothing stopping you from calling yourself one to the next dog owner you meet. But when we pay a dog behaviourist or trainer, we believe that they have passed exams and qualifications that allow them to work with your dog. Some have, of course, but many haven’t and are simply self-taught. It’s really important here to say that these people are completely legal, genuine and well-meaning, they’re not charlatans; it’s just that with regards to Dominance Theory, they are a bit out-dated. The good news is that since 1999 science has added masses of evidence to the picture and the true story is getting out now into the public domain.

If it isn’t dominance, it wouldn’t be fair to just leave you with that an explanation of what it isn’t without telling you what it is! The answer to this much depends on the situation. Here are some examples; Fido jumps up on the sofa next to you – is he trying to dominate you? No, but he does think the sofa is comfy! He growls at you when you try to move his food bowl, clearly indicating he’s dominant over you – are you sure? In the past, with or without realising it we will have taken things from them and not given them back – a sock they ran off with, something they started eating that they shouldn’t have whilst out on a dog walk, they remember. They know that when you take things they don’t come back, and their food is important to them, they simply don’t want you to take it away – assuming that they have taken into account a type of hierarchical social ranking is adding complexity to the situation that the dog isn’t even vaguely bothered about! The most common one we hear is probably “the little one is trying to dominate the big one” In all likelihood, the little one is worried about the big one. It’s simply fear that you’re observing, we don’t like to think our two dogs might be anxious about the other, but if you’re able to recognise this, you can really start to help them. In these situations, if we can replace the word “submissive” with “fearful” or realise that the top dog may simply be the dog that doesn’t suppress it’s anxiety and demonstrates how worried it is through aggression, these scenarios begin to make sense without any need for Dominance Theory.

Dominance Theory persists 19 years after its inventor discredited it. This is essentially because it is easy – most of us want a quick fix! We’d be pretty annoyed if we went to the garage and they said your car would take 3 months to fix, and it’s the same with our dogs. If your dog does something where you think it’s trying to dominate you, and you pin it to the ground, it’s likely that the poor dog is absolutely terrified of that ever happening again, and so the behaviour stops pretty quickly. Spending week after week trying to train and change your dog’s behaviour away from that same behaviour that you didn’t like is slow, time consuming and lots of effort. So if a trainer offers a quicker solution, it’s tempting to take it and even more so if you don’t realise why the quick fix is working – do any of us really want our loved pets to be terrified of us?

A final word to ask if any of this matters? Is it doing any harm to believe in dominant and submissive dogs? Unfortunately it is a damaging and negative myth that does cause a lot of harm to dogs around the country. A dog that is so worried and stressed, anxious and scared of what it’s owners going to do next to it in an effort to stay dominant, is not a happy dog. A dog that is so worried about other dogs in its home that it spends all of its time licking their faces, turning over on its back for other dogs, is not a submissive dog, it’s just a scared dog trying to appease the situation – the equivalent of you taking a cake into work on your first day, are you now a submissive colleague? Or are you simply trying to be in their good books because you’re anxious?

It’s so important to recognise that trainers and owners who have believed in dominance and maybe implemented techniques to be the pack leader have only ever done what they believed to be right and good. But as we now know the truth we can move forward in a positive and progressive way with our much loved pooches.

In one of our next posts we’ll examine training techniques – positive and negative as these link in nicely from where this introduction finishes.

We think all that’s left to say is... Please don’t wee on your sofa…