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Du er her: // Artikler / Why Won't Dominance Die?

Why Won't Dominance Die?

Av: David Ryan An edited version of this article first appeared in the Veterinary Times Vol 40 No 7, 22nd February 2010 under the title “Dominance meme: out-lived extreme?” David Ryan

pack of dogs with ownerMany leading animal behaviourists are concerned that the “dominance” model of pet dog behaviour continues to survive, despite the accumulating evidence that it is at best unhelpful and at worst highly detrimental.

It is easy to see why trainers and owners alike are fond of the concepts of “pack” and “dominance” in relation to pet dogs. A pack means we’re all part of the same gang. “Dominance” explains our respective positions in that pack. We live in a pack with our pet dogs and they either dominate us or we dominate them. To be at the top of the pack with total dominance would make you the “alpha”, with all the esteem that entails, therefore dogs will strive for dominance unless you beat them to it. It’s a neat explanation.

Except that none of it actually bears scientific scrutiny. Prof Richard Dawkins described self replicating ideas as “memes”(1) that live in our minds and pass from one to another through no reason other than their popularity, or catchiness. Some are harmless, like that annoying song you keep humming long after you’ve decided you hate it, but others can be positively harmful, like the idea that combined MMR jabs cause autism, which continues to prevent many children benefiting from the protection they provide.

The “pack” and “dominance” theory of domestic dogs is a harmful meme. It prevents many owners understanding their dogs, causes untold misery for both and is perpetuated by well-meaning but uninformed dog trainers around the world. It is proving extremely resistant to extinction.

This meme originated in the “dogs are wolves” theory in the late 1960s. It was spawned in the pond of genetics from the premise that if a dog is the same species as the wolf they must behave identically. The perceived wisdom at the time, emanating from L. David Mech’s book, The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species(2), was that wolves pack and dominate each other, therefore dogs must also pack and dominate each other. The theories of wolf and dog “dominance” and the “alpha” firmly entered the imagination of not only the public, but also the scientific community. As a police dog handler in the 1980s I regularly tried to “dominate” my dogs using the best available scientific model.

However, as science advances our viewpoint changes and in Mech’s case, as he points out in his 2008 article Whatever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf?(3) more rigorous examination of wild living wolves revealed that their social behaviour was centred on the family unit, built around cohesion and co-operation, not conflict. A fight for pack dominance would mean striving to displace one parent in order to mate with the other. The model of the wolf’s supposed fight for dominance and alpha status was replaced with one where parents and older siblings guide and lead younger offspring in order to enhance overall genetic fitness. In 1999 Mech published Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs(4), in which he corrected his earlier mistaken ideas. He happily reports that in the 2003 book Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation(5) written by twenty three authors and edited by Mech and Boitani, the term “alpha” is only ever mentioned to explain why it has been superseded.

At the same time, studies of the domestic dog have also moved on. It has been well established that the social behaviour of the domestic dog is unlike that of the wolf. The domestic dog is a neotonised version of the wolf-type ancestor, a specialised variant that evolved into a newly formed environmental niche to scavenge the domestic waste of human settlements. These adaptations removed the need to operate as a true wolf pack and consequently there is little collaboration in hunting or in care of offspring, but much more cooperation with strangers, dog or human. Although dogs congregate in groups around resources, they do not form packs in the cohesive family way that wolves still do.

The concept of “dominance” itself has never been a quality of an individual, but the product of a relationship. Ethologists label an animal dominant over another once there is a trend towards the second animal deferring in encounters between the two. I can no more be born dominant than I could be born chairman. Because I can never be dominated if I don’t allow myself to be, dominance can only be the result of deference by others.

Preferences will become established in repeated encounters, but pet dog relationships are far too complicated to be defined through a simple, “one individual dominates another”. A smooth relationship is one in which each knows the other’s preferences and defers accordingly. This is often described in terms of resource holding potential(6), but the important aspect of it is that it is emergent, not the result of pre-programmed “dominance”.

Dogs that jump up are not exhibiting dominance. What we are witnessing in so-called “dominant” dogs is natural behaviour that has been modified through learning. Sometimes this behaviour is competitive in nature, but the majority of so called “dominance-related” problems are simply dogs behaving in a way that conflicts with owners’ expectations.

These conflicting behaviours are the result of the dog trying to secure something they know is going to have a positive emotional benefit – to facilitate a reward or avoid something unpleasant. How we deal with the way those emotions are satisfied determines our relationship with our dogs.

Dogs that jump up are not exhibiting“dominance”.

Individual dogs can be placed anywhere along the bold/shy continuum that exists in all species. In shy individuals behaviour that does not meet owners’ expectations is likely to be tinged with fear and in bold individuals the behaviour is likely to be joyously unrestrained. Most dogs’ behaviour will be a complex mixture of these two extremes.

That complexity is increased because our pets do not continue to live in their original state as peripheral scavengers. They have been refined through selective breeding for specific purposes such as hunting, herding and guarding. By enhancing traits present in the original stock, humans have created dogs whose emotional balance depends on being able to fulfil their desire to exhibit these inherited predispositions, at least to some degree. Although the working traits of these types are reduced during “pet-ification” – the breeding of more amenable individuals that are more suited to life as a pet (witness the current “pet-ification” of the Border Collie from a work

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