Dogs and Dominance

Digging the dirt on ‘Dominance’ in Dogs

The role of ‘rank’ in human/canine relations relates to the belief that dogs, as descendants of the wolf, must be pack animals. A whole school of training has emerged from this notion, which revolves around the idea that in order to train one’s dog, he must be constantly shown that he is at the bottom of the ‘pack’, and that this should be achieved by treating your dog as the ‘Alpha’ of the pack would treat his subordinates, for example, by restricting his movement around the ‘den’, not letting him walk through doors ahead of you, not allowing him eat before you. If this ‘rank reduction’ is not consistently reinforced, it is argued that the dog will attempt to dominate the human and claim the position of ‘Alpha dog’ for himself. Followers of this belief then attribute any undesirable dog behaviours to the dog having been allowed to forge an unduly high opinion of himself and his position in the ‘pack’.

While a lot of dog trainers did and do still follow this school of thought, recent research has unearthed many flaws in the hypothesis, and the world of dog training (or at least, the bodies which govern dog training) is moving towards an altogether more enlightened, and kinder system of training.

The use of ‘rank reduction’ in dog training dates back to the 1960s[1], and since then has been promoted by many trainers- including John Fisher, (who subsequently reviewed his thoughts on the matter). In his book ‘Why Does my Dog…?’[2] he says that dogs have:

‘…the instincts of a wolf, the species from which our dogs are descended, and still govern their behaviour.’[3]

He discusses how a dog views its position in the family and asserts:

‘The dog considers itself to be part of the unit, or pack. It categorises each member of the pack in terms of rank relevant to itself. … In most cases that I deal with, the dog views its role as being number two or three or, in some cases, number one.’[4]

He goes on to outline how humans have, in recent years especially, inadvertently reinforced the dog’s opinion of its place within the pack by allowing it to move freely around the house, sleep in our bedrooms, and look down at us from a height (such as the top of the stairs). He suggests that the way of combating this is to embark on a programme of ‘rank reversal’[5], involving not letting the dog walk through doors ahead of you, not allowing him on the furniture, eating before him, denying him access to ‘key areas’ of the house, making the dog move out of your way when necessary, not allowing him demand attention, maintaining control of his toys and so forth.

However, the thinking on dog training has progressed significantly over recent years, and Fisher himself was to come to the opinion that the pack theory was deeply flawed towards the end of his life. In the editor’s note of the revised and updated edition of Think Dog, Pam McKinnon writes of him:

‘…He understood that while Pack Theory was revolutionary when first introduced, it was lacking. He accepted and publicly stated that it was no longer and appropriate way to think about dogs.’[6].

The Pack Theory has been sharply criticised by a number of other people too, including Ian Dunbar, who in the foreword to Barry Eaton’s ‘Dominance in Dogs; Fact or Fiction’, says of it

‘The ‘thinking’ behind the dominance myth and the Spartan, boot camp, rank-reduction program is silly to the point of hilarious. Sadly, downright silly thinking becomes extremely serious when dogs are neglected and mistreated as a result. Indeed, many unsuspecting dog owners are bullied by misguided trainers to abuse their dogs under the guise of ‘training’.

The first aspect of the theory that is put to bed by those arguing against its validity, is the misconception that wolves live in a linear hierarchy, wherein one wolf or pair of wolves, fights their way to the top, and maintains that position of power by dominating the other pack members. The studies on which this supposition was based were carried out on ‘packs’ of wolves that had been created by bringing together wolves from different zoos. However, wolves in the wild do not form packs like this. Rather, wolf packs can more accurately be described as families. David Mech describes these families in his 2008 article ‘Whatever happened to the term Alpha dog’[7], and explains that in the wild a pair of wolves will have one litter, which may stay with them long enough to help with the next litter, before leaving to start their own family. As such, there is a natural sense of respect and deference among the young to their parents, who guide and lead their young on hunting expeditions.

Second of all, a lot of the behaviours put forward as ‘wolf behaviours’, are in fact, no such thing. A prime example of this is the ‘always eat before your dog rule’, based on the supposition that in a pack of wolves, the Alpha will eat first. Mech, in his article ‘Alpha status, dominance and division of labour in wolf packs’, describes in detail how the distribution of food is decided:

‘For example, with large prey such as adult moose (Alces alces), pack members of all ranks (ages) gather around a carcass and feed simultaneously, with no rank privilege apparent (Mech 1966; Haber 1977); however, if the prey is smaller, like a musk ox calf, dominant animals (breeders) may feed first and control when subordinates feed (Mech 1988; National Geographic 1988).Similarly, pups are subordinate to both parents and to older siblings, yet they are fed preferentially by the parents, and even by their older (dominant) siblings (Mech et al.1999). On the other hand, parents both dominate older offspring and restrict their food intake when food is scarce, feeding pups instead.’[8]

This goes to show that the default position is not that the so-called Alpha eats first, but that there is a rather complex system in play that would be very difficult for humans to recreate. Furthermore, it is clear that the lowest members of the pack (if you will), that is the youngest ones, are at times fed preferentially. So, in trying to replicate ‘pack’ dynamics by feeding one’s dog last, you are in fact, doing the reverse.

So if the dynamic of a wolf pack is not based on dominance, on what is it based? Co-operation, it would seem. Coppinger and Coppinger in their book ‘Dogs’ make the interesting observation that ‘wolves don’t always pack. Some populations never pack.’[9] This begs the question of why some wolves pack and some don’t. Eaton puts forward an explanation for this, suggesting that wolves pack to enhance their chances of survival, rather than because of any genetic predisposition.[10] The cooperation of a group of wolves is required to hunt large prey, and packing could be described as a survival strategy rather than an evolutionary absolute. What does this mean for dogs? Coppinger and Coppinger point out that the earliest dogs (or ‘village dogs’) that evolved to live off human waste, no longer needed to pack. Cooperation is not required to scavenge. In fact, a pack would just create competition. So, in summary, wolves don’t always pack, and from their earliest guise as dogs, it seems to have been a behaviour that has been absent in dogs.

Another crucial point in the disambiguation of the wolf/dog argument is that it is not strictly true to say that dogs evolved from wolves. Coppinger and Coppinger explain that rather, wolf and dog had a common ancestor, now extinct,[11] so the very assertion that dogs, as descendants of wolves, are pack animals, is fundamentally flawed.

We might ask at this point, what does it matter if dogs are not strictly speaking evolved from wolves, and so what if wolf packs don’t behave exactly as we believed… this method of rank reduction seems to have worked for a lot of people. One could point to Cesar Milan’s success for instance. Surely there is something in it? O’Heare points out that there is

‘a lack of empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of social dominance theories to changing behaviour’.[12] He suggests that the reason that dominance practices sometimes appear to work is that the assertion of dominance itself may be aversive, and the dog therefore tries to avoid the situation in future. Aversive training techniques, however, have been shown to have a number of negative side-effect, which as O’Heare states, include learned helplessness, aggression and counter-control.[13]This brings us back to Ian Dunbar’s point. He is quoted on the back of Eaton’s ‘Dominance and Dogs’ as saying that the ‘insidious rank reduction program’ is ‘an arduous task for owners to make their poor dogs’ lives a misery’. First of all, why on earth would anyone want to bully and intimidate a beloved pet if there is an alternative method? Second of all, the increased understanding of how dogs learn has seen reward based training become a more popular method of training dogs. Karen Pryor has written extensively about clicker training, a kind, fair, positive-reinforcement based method. This method is not only kinder, but also an extremely efficient method of training a dog. Associations governing dog training, such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers UK, dismiss dominance theories:

‘Ideas, especially those about “dominance”, are completely disconnected from the sciences of ethology and animal learning.’[14]

I am of the opinion that given the large body of evidence contradicting the theories that form the very core of rank reduction training programmes, it is remarkable that anyone with an interest in dogs would continue to buy into the theory. However, hopefully the more modern thinking will continue to disseminate and result in a better world for dogs and their humans alike.

[1] Eaton, B., Dominance in Dogs; Fact or Fiction, (Washington 2008), p.1.

[2] Fisher, J., Why does my dog…? (London 1991).

[3] Fisher, J., Why does my dog…? (London 1991), pp.26, 27.

[4] Fisher, J., Why does my dog…? (London 1991), p.18.

[5] Fisher, J. Why does my dog..? (London 1991), P. 174.

[6] Fisher, J. Think Dog(London 2012)

[7] (accessed 29 Jan 2013)

[8] Mech, L. David. 1999. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203.

[9] Coppinger & Coppinger, Dogs, p.81.

[10] Eaton, B., Dominance and Dogs, p. 22.

[11] Coppinger & Coppinger, Dogs, p. 273, 274.

[12] O’Heare, J., Dominance Theory and Dogs, p.73

[13] O’Heare, J., Dominance Theory and Dogs, p.75.

[14] Accessed on the 29 Jan. 13.

One thought on “Dogs and Dominance

  1. Pingback: Dogs and Maslow- Part 2 (Dogs and Sleep) | Steph's Dog Training

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