Scientific literature on dogs and dominance

Science popularisation article on domestic dogs and dominance
By Laure-Anne Visele, written Nov 2012

Dogs, dominance, and science

Writing in the sciences‘ just gave us the greatest assignment: strip down an ethology paper into such a smooth summary that even science newbies are gripped.

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

I took my shot with a paper on dogs and dominance. My draft notes piled up six-foot high, but I’ve condensed it into this science midget. Enjoy!

Review of John Bradshaw’s paper

John W. S. Bradshaw, Emily J. Blackwell, Rachel A. Casey – 2009 – Dominance in domestic dogs: useful construct or bad habit? – Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Vol 4, No 3, May/June 2009

Pesky misconceptions

People commonly believe that dogs (1) are wolf clones; (2) live in strict packs; (3) follow a strict linear pecking order; (4) relentlessly show aggression to gain status; and (5) can be ‘born alpha’.

Bradshaw reviewed each of these misconceptions in the literature, and gave them a good science fix.

Dry definition

Before I start on Bradshaw, let me introduce some dominance-related concepts.

When people talk of dominance, we need to extricate three major concepts:

  • Dominance rank: describes an individual’s position in the group, relative to other group members;
  • Dominance status: describes an individual’s position in a dyad (i.e. between two individuals), relative to the dyadic partner;
  • Dominance hierarchy: describes the type of hierarchy of a group. It can be circular (A above B, B above C, C above A), linear (A above all, B second – only A above B, C above all except A & B), and anything in between.
 We can quantitatively measure dominance along many possible dimensions, including:
  • Agonistic Dominance – compares the number of times each opponent withdraws from a provocative encounter;
  • Resource Holding Potential – compares the proportion of times individual gains or retains access to a resource – beware here, some view the RHP model as an alternative to the dominance concept, not as a measure thereof; and
  • Formal Dominance – compare the proportion of times the signals ritualistic submission or dominance.

Back to misconceptions

(1) Dogs differ from wolves ecologically (e.g. steady food supply) and neurologically (e.g. smaller brains). It is as reasonable to assume that they also differ behaviourally as it is to make a distinction between ourselves and other primates.

So much for every book on dogs starting with: “Fido comes from the wolf. It is only logical that, like the wolf …

Another subtle point: the modern gray wolf (Canis lupus) shares a common ancestor with the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Evidence is mounting that modern wolves are our dogs’ cousins, not their forefathers (Bradshaw or Case in my reading list for more).

(2) Wolves often group in a single nuclear family, where no status-related competition takes place. Free-ranging dogs only rarely form permanent groups.

So much for our fantasies of Fido dominating a bunch of ‘submissive’ dogs pyramid-style.

(3) When in a permanent group, the feral dogs observed showed a stable rank in terms of the number of submission – I prefer ‘appeasement’ – signals they receive from one other dogs (a dimension called ‘formal rank’). But formal rank did not predict Resource Holding Potential – i.e. competitive success. Competitive success between sets of two dogs was mainly unpredictable.

So much for not letting Fido keep his toy after a game of tug-of-war, in case he ‘dominates’ us.

(4) In wolves and dogs, skirmishes over status are ritualistic. They rarely escalate into physical aggression.

So much for putting Fido’s biting the postman down to ‘dominance’

(5) ‘Dominance’ characterizes a relationship, not of an individual. It is nonsensical to label an individual dog ‘dominant’.

We can measure Fido’s dominance as meaningfully as we can his wingspan

Debunking conclusion

The pile of research that Bradshaw surveyed revealed that only two factors affected whether a competitive encounter would escalate:

  1. The value of the resource for each participant, and
  2. The outcome of their past competitive encounters.

It’s a far cry from ever-pervasive dominance tales that so many still cling to. When it comes to dog behaviour, Bradshaw recommends a little more parsimony and a lot less wolf lore.


I love to read your comments.  Particularly if you are an ethologist or zoologist and have comments on the John Bradshaw review. I’d also love to hear from you if you know of other landmark papers on dogs and dominance.

Further reading

Dogs and society

Dog training and behaviour

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