Dominance: What Does that REALLY Mean?

Dominance is a common term, that is most often used incorrectly. Ethologists define dominance as:

"priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993)." ("Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals", 2008) 

In 1970, David Mech published a book entitled: "The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species." This book references a concept known as the "alpha" wolf. At the time, scientists studying wolf behavior had been studying wolves in captivity. Groups of wolves that were brought together for varying reasons and not all were biologically related. This unnatural dynamic created a group of wolves that competed furiously for resources and did not accurately reflect the behaviors of wolves in the wild. Instead, the behaviors of these captive wolves were shaped by their unique environment. Since this time, David Mech has requested that the publisher stop publishing his book.

"One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. "Alpha" implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that's all we call them today, the "breeding male," "breeding female," or "male parent," "female parent," or the "adult male" or "adult female." In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the "dominant breeder" can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a "subordinate breeder."" (David Mech, 2015)

There are many issues when citing dominance as the cause of a behavior problem in pet animals, perhaps the most contradictory part to the theory is that we humans are the ones with priority access to resources in the relationship. We control food, water, shelter, space, treats, access to the outdoors, toys, etc. Another issue is that the concept of dominance is used to describe the relationship between animals of the same species. Dominance does not refer to relationships between different species such as dog-human or horse-dog. 

By explaining problem behavior in terms of falsified notions of dominance, we prevent treatment of the true underlying causes of the problem behavior and instead encourage force and coercion behaviors on the part of owners to suppress the behaviors. Suppression of the problem is not a cure, and instead often leads to other displacement problems or exacerbated displays of aggression. Instead, behavior problems are better treated through reinforcement of appropriate alternative behaviors, and removal of possible reinforcers for the problem behavior.

In an article published by ScienceDaily entitled "If You're Aggressive, Your Dog Will Be Too, Says Veterinary Study", confrontational methods of training were proven to increase aggression in up to 43% of cases. In other words, nearly half of the dogs subjected to these techniques displayed aggressive behaviors. On the other hand, training methods that were non-aversive and focused on the use of positive reinforcement were not found to increase aggressive responses. Common aversive techniques that were used in this study included; hitting or kicking the dog, growling at the dog, physically forcing an item from the dog's mouth, "alpha roll", stare at the dog, forcing the dog to down, grab the dog by mouth and shake, and shouting at the dog. The study was completed by the University of Pennsylvania and was published in the journal of "Applied Animal Behaviour Science" (Herron et. al, 2007)

What does this mean for your pet? Avoid trainers or behavior professionals that encourage owners to emulate the behavior of wild animals in an attempt to gain alpha status. Refrain from using force and fear in training including the use of choke, prong, or electronic collars. Instead, owners should look for accredited professionals that specialize in positive reinforcement for the best chances of safety and success when treating a behavior problem like aggression or resource gaurding. 

For more information view the pamphlet below:

Works Cited:

Bernstein, I.S. 1981. Dominance: The baby and the bathwater. J Behav Brain Sci 4:419-57.

Drews, C. 1993. The concept and definition of dominance behavior. Behaviour 125: 284-313. 

Herron et al. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2009; 117 (1-2): 47. 

Mech, David. Outmoded Notion of the Alpha Wolf. L. David Mech. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals. American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, 2008. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.