Dogs and dominance: the fine prints

Counter-counter-counter-counter-counter-counter-apologetics about the dogs and dominance debate
By Laure-Anne Visele, Feb 2015
Full illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

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Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

I am a behaviour therapist for dogs (Canis bonus, The Hague, Westland, Delft and region) and the co-founder and head trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I studied Zoology (University of Newcastle), got a postgrad specialization in applied animal behaviour (dip) and am a licensed/certified dog trainer (O&O).

After mocking around with dogs all day, I spend my nights and week-ends reviewing dog books and writing about dog behaviour for my blog and other websites.

If you are near The Hague and have dog behaviour issues, get in touch to make an appointment. I work in English, French, or Dutch and only use animal-friendly methods. Want to find out more about the behaviour therapy practice? Check my training page.

Dogs and dominance: It’s a bit more complicated than that

“If every dog problem was due to dominance, my job as a behaviour therapist would be so easy. He’s dominant, that’ll be … euros”

I am fresh out of a seminar on dogs and dominance by Monique Bladder, a gifted science communicator on dog behaviour. She was introducing dominance skepticism to an audience of Dutch dog trainers.

She took them through the usual questions:

  • Do wolves form competitive hierarchies or cooperative family groups?
  • Do dogs form packs and collaborate in the hunt? Or are they semi-solitary scavengers?
  • Can we really assume our dogs see us as fellow canines? Really? Isn’t it all a little silly?
  • Can we pin down what we mean when we say ‘dominance’? Can a dog be ‘dominant’? What does it even mean?
  • What in the freaking world do pulling on the leash, jumping up, crossing a threshold ahead of us or resting on a higher spot have to do with dominance?

I liked how she boiled it down: “If every dog problem was due to dominance, my job as a behaviour therapist would be a breeze. The problem is… He’s dominant. You can pay by bank transfer”

I am also a dominance-skeptic, but I’d like to play devil’s advocate on some finer points. Word of warning: this is about to get real technical, real fast. If you’d like a nice easy read check one of my less heady posts for now.

I am about to confuse you within an inch of your life. Are you ready?

I am about to confuse you within an inch of your life. Are you ready?

Right, you motivated person you. Are you still there? Go get a glass of wine, sit back, relax, and dive into the sweet, confusing world of dominance.

Dominance and dogs: but this study said something else

It’s fine to be a skeptic about a widely-believed concept, but you can’t expect people will believe you just like that. One of them is bound to say: “You say that, but these gazillion guys says this. Who died and made you the queen of being right? How do I know who’s telling the truth?”

That’s a fair point. We can’t assume they’ll take our word for it. But not everyone is trained in the fine art of critical thinking, in comparing the reliability of different pieces of information. Best-of-breed critical thinking needs quite a bit of knowledge on research methods and formal logic, and a lot of practice. Can we really expect the man on the street to know how to spot red flags and reliability threats (e.g. spot bias, flawed logic, weak research methodology, etc.)?

skeptic

Digging through the relative merits of a claim is a messy, murky, gruelling job. You need to climb mountains of systematic reviews, read your way through a maze of (invariably misquoted) original references, get a sense of the researchers’ possible conflicts of interest and other sources of bias, evaluate the flaws in the research, etc. etc. etc.

Science communicators do that job for you. Your side of the deal is to have a little bit of faith in what they’re saying unless you’re ready to roll up your sleeve and get down and dirty with the science bit. Which brings us back to square one: “How do I know you’re telling the truth?” Here’s a shortcut to evaluating your science communicator’s reliability:

  • Is the person animated by a passion for truth or do they clearly have another agenda?
  • Do they demand blind allegiance or do they encourage questions and criticism?
  • Do they engage in personal attacks or do they stick to criticizing methods and ideas?

I am not bashing people across the head and asking them to ‘believe me or else’. I invite them to reach their own conclusion with a little bit of help. Monique Bladder did just that, if you’re wondering: she encouraged questions and criticism and didn’t try to brainwash the audience into blindly believing her claims.

I shall stay skeptical of claims of dominant dogs until such a time that the evidence justifies changing my mind. But I am not anti-dominance for the hell of it.

As objective as I try to be, I find it hard not to be blind-sided by loyalty to dominance skepticism and its ramifications in dog welfare. The best I can do is try to keep myself in check and stay critical of my own biases.

My stance? I shall stay skeptical of claims of dominant dogs until such a time that the evidence justifies changing my mind. I try not to be anti-dominance for the hell of it. And it’s a tough job.

Dominance and dogs: what is the academic consensus anyway?

Bear with me if you chuckled at the ‘academic consensus’ oxymoron. Science is the annoying doubting Thomas of our society. It doubts, it prods, it questions, it tests, it says ‘Prove it!’, and then ‘Prove it better!’ and then ‘Prove it some more!’. I defy you to name one idea in science that enjoys complete academic consensus

Bear with me if you chuckled at the ‘academic consensus’ oxymoron

Even gravity has its academic enemies. And don’t get me started on evolution. We’re not just talking local fundamentalists here. A handful of card-carrying evolutionary biologists claim to reject Darwinian evolution. So expecting complete academic consensus before getting behind a claim is setting the bar impossibly high. I settle for rejecting ideas that have failed to meet reasonable standards of evidence, and ignore the loud cries of disenfranchised fringe groups that cling to it.

If you want people to walk in line, don't pick scientists

If you want people to walk in line, pick the Navy, not Academy

Some academics support the idea of dominance playing a role in interpreting dog behaviour, some even claim it plays a role in the dog eating before you do, etc. I have checked these claims in the research literature and am unimpressed by the evidence, but these objections are published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the question is settled.

The pro-dominance research if you’ll excuse the simplistic generalization tend to put forward these lines of argument:

  1. Many fall into pre-suppositional circular reasoning: Dog A withdrew from Dog B out of submission. Therefore Dominance exists. That’s like saying “X is like this because God, therefore God exists”. Right, but you still haven’t demonstrated the existence of God, nor have you defined the concept in a way that it can be tested.
  2. So then they come up with weird proxies to measure dominance, but all require the presupposition that dominance exists, and require an ever-shifting definition of the concept.
  3. That’s like saying “X is like this because God, therefore God exists”

    They prop up the idea of dominance by pointing out methodological flaws in anti-dominance papers. The thing is, as Goldacre would say: “Flaws in aircraft design do not prove the existence of magic carpets” (from his scathing book Bad pharma), aka the burden of proof is on you. Betrand Russell had a nice analogy along the lines of ‘You wouldn’t believe me if I said there was a teapot orbitting the moon would you? Yet you can’t prove it’s not true”

To wrap this section up: things are a mess and there is no clean consensus but pro-dominance research is wobbly as it gets and can be rejected until they come up with something that holds water.

Dominance and dogs: What is the position in clinical practice?

…many modern veterinary behavioural medicine textbooks are lousy with references to ‘rank reduction’, ‘dominance aggression’ and their various euphemisms.

Veterinary behaviourists enjoy the top position of authority on dog behaviour. They studied veterinary medicine, then specialized in clinically relevant behaviourism and ethology. I refer my clients to these guys if we start stagnating. Think of vet behaviourists as the shrinks of the canine world, the big cheeses.

Here comes the twist: for some dark and unknown reason many veterinary behavioural medicine textbooks are lousy with references to ‘rank reduction’, ‘dominance aggression’ and their various euphemisms.

Clinical veterinary behavioural medicine books: one giant exercise in pinch-of-salt'ing

Clinical veterinary behavioural medicine books: one giant exercise in pinch-of-salt’ing

No self-respecting vet behaviourist would push for confrontational methods but some treatment protocols are direct throw-backs to the Alpha-super-wolf-labrador idea. 

No self-respecting vet behaviourist would push for confrontational methods but some treatment protocols are direct throw-backs to the romantic idea of the Alpha-super-wolf-labrador.

Don’t dig into behavioural medicine textbooks if you’re hoping to find a uniformly anti-dominance stance or you’re in for a few disappointing mega-reads (these heavy lifters average five hundred pages… Am still recovering from the last one I read).

I would love to say that the research-savvy vanguard of our profession take a uniform position on the concept but that would be wishful thinking. The concept is divisive even in the highest rungs of  the professional ladder.

As an aside, if comparative psychology and cognitive ethology played a larger role in veterinary behavioural medicine we wouldn’t be where we are right now. Let’s look at underlying emotional states and not double-guess profound ethological origins. As Tinbergen would have said, “Keep it proximate dudes”.

Dominance and dogs: But Mech says it, right?

I reject the layman’s idea of dominance and dogs for many reasons, but not primarily because of ‘the Mech argument’

Mech is a behaviour biologist specializing in wolves. He wrote a seminal book about wolf behaviour in the seventies. The book looked at Second World War research by R. Schenkel on a group of previously unacquainted wolves who had been thrown together in captivity. The wolves formed a brittle power hierarchy primarily with tons of conflict. We later found out that any species would react in the same way given the circumstances, and that these guys were hardly representative of typical wolves in the wild.

The Alpha-poodle idea had opened a door of abuse in dog training that we are still trying to close today.

Subsequent studies on wild groups increasingly shed doubt on the Schenkel conclusions, but it was too late. The romantic concept of the Alpha wolf had been popularized by David Mech’s book and caught on like wild fire. Before you knew it, dog owners fancied Fido a wolf-in-pooch-clothing and trainers were telling you to ‘alpha-roll’ your pup into submission among other horrors. The Alpha-poodle idea had opened a door of abuse in dog training that we are still trying to close today. A nasty chapter in our history with dogs.

wolves

Good pro-sciencer that I fancied myself, I followed the bandwagon and shared the popular Mech’s video where he retracts the alpha concept and talks of wolves forming small nuclear families, not large hierarchical packs. 

Good pro-sciencer that I fancied myself, I followed the bandwagon and shared the popular Mech’s video.

Here comes my pinch of salt moment. David Mech doesn’t claim to represent all wolf biologists in the video, and his filmed remarks are often taken out of context. Some wolves do aggregate in large groups and do adopt social structures akin to a dominance hierarchy. Granted, these hierarchies are fluid, rely on affectionate bonds, and fluctuate with season, climate, food resources, etc.

The point is this: not all wolf groups are a nuclear family. Once again things turned out to be… a little bit more complicated than that.

Dominance and dogs: What about the dominant aggressive dog?

Many vet behaviourists still use the ‘dominantly aggressive’ diagnosis aka ‘status-related aggression’ aka ‘targeted aggression’ (and countless euphemisms) to describe a pushy, controlling dog using offensive aggression to control their human family.

We are not talking of a dog who is defensively aggressive, here, or exuberrant. We are not talking of a dog who has some seizure-like neurological condition. We are talking of a ‘dominant’ dog. Gasp. I’ll go wash my mouth now. Let’s call them ‘temperamentally domineering’ or even ‘jerks’ if you prefer the technical term.

I haven’t seen many of them but they exist. Just like humans, dogs are distributed on the jerkiness spectrum and not every one of them is a conciliatory angel. I have had to perform intellectual tap dancing not to use the D-word on some of them, despite ‘temperamentally domineering’ being such a good fit for their personalities.

My diagnostic criteria for the jerk-dog are:

  • Think that life is a zero sum game and that if they don’t get to it first, someone else will; and
  • Fight off attempts at getting them to cooperate and just please do as they’re told; and
  • Protest by threatening and aggressing, rather than sighing or slowing down; and
  • Claim resources or space they don’t even want. Just like that, out of habit. Because they can.
grumpy

And then some dogs, like people, can just be jerks. But like people, in 99% of the cases there’s a reason behind it.

Before you burn my name in effigy, let me clarify a couple of things:

  • I am not implying their ‘jerkdom’ is driven by some status-related idea. But Freudian explanations about ‘Everything is ultimately driven by anxiety’ or ‘He is just asking information about his environment’ don’t do it for me. Not without more supporting evidence.
  • I am STILL not condoning confrontational methods. Nope, not even for Mr. Entitled Jerk. I treat these cases like you would the human equivalent. I use cognitive and behavioural methods to teach:
    • the dog refined social/emotional skills
    • the humans how to set clear boundaries.

In plain English, I teach the family to make it rewarding for the dog to be nice, and to remove any kicks for being a nasty piece of work.

My point? Trigger-happy entitled brats with big teeth occasionally pop up in the behaviourist’s case load. When they do, let’s not be blind-sided by our anti-dominance sentiments. Let’s not plug in fear in the diagnostic vaccuum we caused ourselves by rejecting the notion of ‘dominance aggression’ en bloc. Let’s not.. throw the baby out with the bath water, as Patricia McConnell puts it.

Dogs and dominance: confused yet?

That closes my ‘it’s a bit more complicated than that’ chapter on dominance. Thanks for sticking through the obscure bits. I tried not to get technical, but it’s tough when you’ve called your blog post the ‘fine prints’

So what do you reckon? Do you have some answers to these questions yourself? Do you think we should include even more ‘pack theory’ elements back into training? Why? If you disagree, don’t sulk and share your points, leave a comment so we can explore the issue together. If you agree, let me know. It’s always nice to hear I am not totally insane.

confusion

References

If you want to read a little more on this nastily complicated subject, check these out:

  1. Bekoff – Psychology today (2012, February) – Social dominance is not a myth – Food for thought on the tricky concept of dominance, and why it would be unwise to reject it altogether
  2. Benal – 2011 – Dog trainer’s guide to a happy, well-behaved pet – Practical but pithy dog training manual with one of the most honest, transparent, well-written chapters on the topic of dominance.
  3. Bradshaw, Blackwell & Casey – 2009 – Dominance in dogs: useful construct or bad habit? – Journal article. A little bit partisan, but well written. Focus on a research project with criticized methodology, but a good place to survey the relevant literature.
  4. Crosby – 2017 – Fear vs. targeted aggression – Blog post on proactive vs. reactive aggression
  5. Eaton – 2010 – Dominance: fact or fiction? – Short book for the layman. Quite partisan but gives you a simple overview of the main dominance-skeptics points.
  6. O’Heare – 2008 – Dominance theory and dogs – Extremely technical book, but you will gain a very very very thorough understanding of the research landscape on dominance.
  7. Schilder, Vinke & van der Berg – 2014 – Dominance in domestic dogs revisited: useful habit and useful construct? – Journal article. Rather partisan, weakened by many logical flaws, but a great source of balanced references on the subject and food for thought on small pro-dominance points.

Photo credits

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