The D-Word: On dogs and dominance

Reference to Helium article about dogs and dominance.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, July 2010; Last updated April 2012

Writing for Helium

I have just published my first article for Helium. You can find it on: The D-Word. It’s about my favourite subject: debunking the dominance myth. Like the article? Vote for it on Helium.

This was the article which I’ve edited slightly over the years.

  • To hear me talk about dominance in The Doghouse radio show, click here.
  • For a more technical overview of dominance, click here.

The evidence

Despite an impressive body of research putting the pack theory into question, many dog professionals and owners continue to cling to the notion. The persistence of dominance and pack theory rhetoric in dog training never ceases to baffle me.

So what research, I hear you ask:

Here are but a few snippets:

– The (Northern gray) wolf is not necessarily a pack animal in the classic notion of a pack (i.e. unrelated members forming a large social group). The NGW social groups can be more akin to a family unit with the parents, this year’s cubs, and perhaps last year’s yearlings (Mech, 1999)

– Dominance aggression in wolves is not preponderant in the wild. (Mech video in this post)

The dog is not a wolf. We do not interpret all our human behaviours through analysing our close cousins, the chimps. Why would we do this with the dog-wolf relationship?

– Rank-reduction programs carry an increased risk of worsening behaviour in anxious and aggressive dogs.

– Studies of wild and feral dogs fail to show them systematically form a coherent packing structure. When they do group, many form loose and temporary congregations, generally around common resources like a village dump.

A bit of history

The pack theory was popularised by David Mech throughout the seventies, based on a study of captive wolves by Schenkel (1947). Schenkel observed many hierarchy-related spats between the wolves he studied. Mech himself later invalidated much of Schenkel’s findings after systematic studies of wolves in the wild, which showed next to no dominance-related competition (Mech, 1999).

Around the same time, post-war military dog trainers emmigrated from Germany to the US, greatly popularising the sport, and laying down the foundations of punishment-based dog training with military levels of discipline.

The last piece of the puzzle that contributed to the present representation of the dog in the public’s mind was the myriad popular fictional dog heroes like Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, who were present in book, radio, or TV form from the fifties through to the seventies

These three historic influences formed the basis for what is referred to today as ‘traditional’ dog training methods: a mix of unrealistically high behaviour expectations (the Lassie syndrome), punishment-based training (the military founders of dog training), and an inordinate focus on dominance (the Schenkel study).

But my dog is so dominant

Followers of the pack theory give even the most desultory of behaviours a dominance flavour, advising rank-reduction methods for fear the dog will end up dominating the human familly.

Countless behaviour patterns like jumping, sleeping on furniture, eating before the human family or exiting a door before the owner, are commonly met with baseless rank-reduction punishment.

Take jumping up when greeting: the modern interpretation on that behaviour likens it to a throwback puppy behaviour, where the dog attempts to lick the nurturing parent’s mouth. And, wouldn’t you know it, if you allow a (jumping) greeting dog closer to your face, he will lick it. Not exactly the stuff of alpha wolves.

Now let’s look at sleeping on furniture for another widespread misinterpretation. Popular myth would have you interpret this behaviour as a dog seeking an elevated position to better dominate over its pack. If one must compare dog behaviour to wolves, this behaviour is displayed by cubs (undisputably not the pack leaders) and adults alike in wild wolf studies (Mech, 1999).

The last time I checked, no study had found a statistically significant correlation between status and resting in high places. The other usual suspects (eating first, entering a passage first, or growing while eating and being approached) show similar results to the sleeping places test in wild wolf studies: no relation to status or dominance, and displayed by cubs and adults alike.

So why do I care so much?

There are two reasons the issue of dominance is close to my heart. Firstly, I have a pet hate for fallacies. Especially when they continue to be spread by professionals in an advisory position, like dog trainers or behaviour therapists. In light of the overwhelming body of evidence invalidating the pack theory and its dominance ramifications, I find it nothing short of irresponsible to cling to an outdated apocryphal model of behaviour interpretation. Professionals owe it to the public to educate themselves as best they can in the field of their choice, and I look forward to the day when ‘I am good with dogs and I have worked for twenty years’ will no longer be valid substitutes for a basic qualification.

The second reason I care so much is a lot less lofty: the rank-reduction training methods that flow from the dominance theory often lead to punishments that are baseless, disproportional and abusive, ultimately leading to countless dogs being abused, abandonned and/or euthanised in the name of a myth. And, perversely, often leading to new or worsened behaviour problems (Blackwell et al, 2008).

So dogs should be spoilt?

What is often referred to as the modern approach to dog training does not preach permissive methods and spoilt dogs, but it asks to treat a dog like a dog, and to use humane methods, rather than intimidation, to make Good Canine Citizens out of them.

So do yourself and your dog a favour and look for a training school that does not mention alpha leaders, dominance or the pack theory every other sentence.

STILL not convinced?

If you are interested in primary and secondary sources on the subject, I recommend you look into:

  • Eileen and Dog’s ‘Leader of the Pack’ Squidoo article: Debunking dominance in layman’s term.
  • The American Veterinary Association of Animal Behavior’s position statement on the use of the dominance concept in behaviour modification.
  • Dr Sophia Yin, Veterinarian and Pet behaviour therapist: Dominance vs. unruly behavior.
  • Dr Patricia McConnell, Pet Behaviourist: Down with dominance
  • Dr Ian Dunbar (PhD in Behaviour, Veterinarian, Dog trainer and pioneer in the gentle training movement): talks of how to apply the concept to pet dogs appropriately.

  • And for good measure, dog behaviour researcher Adam Miklosi, on the same topic.
  • And David Mech, a wolf biologist, talking of the issue:

Got a comment?

I am always interested in hearing your comments, so don’t be shy and write on.

I would particularly like to hear from you if you:

  • Often get caught in the D-word debate
  • Disagree with some (all?) of my points
  • Have good references to share on the subject (e.g. websites, books, scientific articles)

No comment is too long or too short, just join the debate.



To find out more on the subject:

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  1. Posted 12 November 2010 at 00:20 | Permalink

    This is a hard-to-read post for me. Not because of the way you wrote it, but because of the rather… touchy subject. We know so little about wolves and their behavior. That’s sort of the short and long of it. We have theories about how wolves operate, but we’ve caught nothing but glimpses of that behavior in the wild, and have chosen to interpret it. (Something I find annoying.)


    Short rant aside (and sorry for that, I couldn’t keep my fingers from darting across the keyboard) I like the post.

    Have you ever listened to the Fundamentals of Canine Behavior? It was an online telecourse – now on CD – and it talks about dominance in a similar fashion. I like the research on the subject, but as of yet have not deigned to make any conclusions. (You’ll find I have an annoying habit of gathering all the information I can and then storing it in my brain without making any prognosis or conclusions.)

    My only bit of advice for you is to cite your sources when you delve into talking about wolf behavior or… well, most of this post. Cite the research and conclusions of your peers and people who are more educated than we are in this field. It makes you look more credible, and if they turn out to be wrong…lol

    Good read, in any case. And sorry for the obnoxiously long comment. I’m becoming rather long winded. I blame you; you jump-started my brain and now it’s thinking wildly and trying to take my fingers and keyboard along for the ride.

    • Posted 12 November 2010 at 12:57 | Permalink

      Great suggestions, thanks! And I looooove long comments.

      I am totally with you on how delicate the subject is. It is so divisive, isn’t it? Very very very good point about referencing my work. I’ll have to get around to doing this real soon. As I have a scientific slant, I have to put my money where my mouth is and back up my statements. But the short answer is: sources on research on wolves is mainly from David Mech for me.

      Yep, interpretation-as-fact is definitely annoying. I try to steer clear of it as best I can, and I hope I haven’t committed the crime here.

      Ooooh, good reference for me to check, thanks! I’ve looked it up and now I have another 50 books in my wish list. Where does time go?

  2. Posted 27 April 2011 at 21:02 | Permalink

    Wow, at last a “academic” soulmate. Why have we not met before? Looking forward having you in our DOB program if we can interest you.

    • Posted 27 April 2011 at 21:11 | Permalink

      Oh, bless you. That’s so sweet! I am definitely very very very enthusiastic!

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