'I'm the boss!' photo (c) 2011, Ellie Attebery - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/“In fact, the rigid hierarchical organization researchers have ascribed to nearly all animal packs and troops over the past fifty years is based less on animal behavior than on an unconscious desire to find in nature a correlative to our hierarchical structures, be they business, the military, or the ‘traditional’ family with Dad on top.”

Mark Derr, Dog’s Best Friend: Annals of the Dog-Human Relationship (2004)


Few concepts in the field of dog training and behaviour irritate me quite as much as ‘dominance’ does. Once a mainstay of the dog world and an idea to which opinion-makers in the field would brook absolutely no challenge, it’s influence had thankfully began to wane in the last decade or two – in the dog world at least. The way it was traditionally used in relation to dogs was a confused jumble of anthropomorphic (human form) projections and fanciful folklore rooted in the harsh and very unscientific world of dog training of the early 20th Century. But the fact that it remained a cornerstone principle in the field of academic Ethology afforded it a sort of reflected respectability, even though the way it was being used in the general dog world had very little in common with its employment in the formal study of animal behaviour.


Some background to recent events

By the late 1990’s, a group of trainers/behaviourists who had emerged from a comparative psychology background, rather than biology – in particular a group of Americans and Canadians with strong behaviourist leanings – had begun to enter the dog training field and were soon publicly questioning its applicability and/or usefulness in understanding dog behaviour. And as time passed and more systematic dog training methods based on Operant Learning Theory become popular, these criticisms began to mount and generalize. As ‘dominance’ started becoming less and less relevant to training practices on the ground, and the many weird customs based on its presumption began to be more widely regarded as aberrant by those that had abandoned them (such as not allowing dogs onto human beds), so the critiques of the underlying theory became more confident and strident.

In the midst of all this, the television series “Dog Whisperer” had been launched and quickly achieved astounding popularity; at once reinventing the ‘dominance’ tradition and once more legitimizing some of the more confrontational and coercive training methods. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a bitter and acrimonious conflict between the two sides soon broke out, and the ‘academy’ was eventually required to get off the fence and wade into this dispute. This popular television phenomenon had spawned a growing revival of forms of dog training and control widely regarded as being inhumane and unsuitable for purpose, and a number of prominent figures in the dog behaviour world felt compelled eventually to pen public statements opposing the misuse of the ‘dominance’ model, clarifying its generally accepted definition and condemning all harsh and aggressive handling of dogs.


Whatever floats your boat

But that was not the only tack being adopted by ‘dominance’s’ opponents: for many, it was not simply a misinterpretation of the model that was problematic, but the very hypothesis itself.

But that was not the only tack being adopted by ‘dominance’s’ opponents: for many, it was not simply a misinterpretation of the model that was problematic, but the very hypothesis itself. This had far deeper roots, predating the canine dispute by decades and referring back to a significant clash of ideas about this issue within primatology from the 1970’s onward. It’s employment in the study of human behaviour has also been extremely contentious over time, and it is not simply an issue confined to the dog world.

But this latest flurry was triggered by a group of maverick dog trainers who populate the fringe of the pet dog training industry, referring to their method as ‘Natural Dog Training’ and positing an approach lying well beyond the disciplines of either Ethology and Behavioural Psychology. Or any scientifically validated methodology for that matter. Their self-styled and somewhat new-agey approach to mammalian behaviour favours a virtual obsession with predatory behaviour, and a liberal dose of a poorly constructed ‘energy theory’ to explain motivations and causes.

Some years back they noisily inserted themselves into the centre of the ‘dominance’ debate, demonstrating little regard for the intellectual provenance of existing models or even any polite regard for the various people they repeatedly and gleefully insulted. Most problematically, this was done with no credible science to back any of it up, and with none of the caution usually associated with a more educated and scientific analysis. So for them the argument quickly became one that said, bluntly: “dominance doesn’t exist”. Predictably, it was only a matter of time before this provoked a sharp rejoinder from the establishment.


Biologists bite back

And that backlash has been both engaging and combative; how illuminating it ultimately proves to be is a matter yet to be discovered. The last few months have seen explicit public declarations and comment from some of the better-known Ethologists: starting with a blogpost from Roger Abrantes in December last year titled “Dominance – Making Sense of the Nonsense”, and followed by another blogpost titled “Social Dominance is Not a Myth: Wolves, Dogs and Other Animals”, this time from the influential Cognitive Ethologist Marc Bekoff, posted on his Psychology Today ‘Animal Emotions’ blog. The fascinating comment stream attached to this post saw contributions from highly regarded author Mark Derr, Canine Ethologist and Neuroscientist Simon Gadbois, and even a brief contribution (by note – reported by Beckoff) from the oft referenced wild-wolf expert L David Mech.

In his piece, the one that kicked of this latest flurry, Abrantes suggests that recent arguments asserting that dominant behaviour doesn’t exist in dogs are absurd since so many terms and expressions referring to this dynamic exist, that this must mean they are referring to something real. It’s an entirely illogical argument in my opinion, and I’m slightly astonished that he published this publicly. An example of a very common concept, constantly described and intimately associated with other related or synonymous expressions, is that of humans possessing a ‘soul’. No scientist would suggest that this ubiquity validates this essentially philosophical concept. And if one prefers a more behavioural example, or that of a behavioural dynamic, then one needs to look no further than the  prevalent conviction amongst pet owners that dogs demonstrate ‘guilt’.

But despite premising his piece on a bandwagon fallacy, perhaps the singular definition for Social Dominance he offers may still be useful, practically speaking, and help to resolve the longstanding confusion caused by the muddle of different and inconsistent definitions that have historically dogged this concept (Drews examines 13 in his seminal 1996 paper: “The Concept and Definition of Dominance”) Perhaps this intervention can help to move the conversation forward in a constructive manner, and situate the theory such that it doesn’t damage dog welfare in its misapplication.

Perhaps this intervention can help to move the conversation forward in a constructive manner, and situate the theory such that it doesn’t damage dog welfare in its misapplication.

Even if this were to be the case, I really wish that he would avoid the faint condescension he demonstrates towards dominance’s critics in his writings. His employment of terms such as “politically correct” to discredit opposition, for example, suggests an unwillingness to engage the issues, and a cheap resort to questioning motives instead. It’s lazy, clichéd, and doesn’t advance the issue one iota.

Essentially, Abrantes suggests the following definition (in part) – does this solve the problem?:


 “Dominant behavior is a quantitative and quantifiable behavior displayed by an individual with the function of gaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without either party incurring injury. If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant. Its quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-confident to overtly assertive.

Dominant behavior is situational, individual and resource related. One individual displaying dominant behavior in one specific situation does not necessarily show it on another occasion toward another individual, or toward the same individual in another situation.”


In contrast, Beckoff offers a far more reasoned analysis that acknowledges the rocky history of “Social Dominance Theory” in the animal world, and the numerous erroneous assumptions that have been spawned by it as well. He too makes some assumptions that require further interrogation, but this is an altogether more engaging piece as far as I’m concerned and one that treats its more serious critics with due respect, and therefore provides a welcome contribution to the subject. The comment stream it spawned is also very informative, and raises issues that I will delve into in greater depth in a future post on this issue. In the meantime, here is taste of Beckoff’s take on this issue:


 “Dominance surely is a slippery concept with respect to how it’s expressed and how individual variations in social dominance influence behavior. A narrow definition doesn’t necessarily hold across species, within species, or across different contexts. Many discussions in which the broad concept of social dominance is criticized are very informative, but to claim that dominance is a myth flies in the face of what we know about the subtle, fleeting, and complex social relationships and on-going social dynamics of many group living species.”



In future posts I will discuss aspects of this issue in greater depth, and hopefully provide my own contribution to this conversation. There is a layer of complexity to this debate that isn’t adequately addressed here, and it should be noted that there are eminent Ethologists who do not think that this dynamic has any real application in the world of domestic animals – perhaps we should remember what Yi-Fu Tuan claimed in his popular book ‘Dominance and Affection: The Making Of Pets’ (1984): that human affection for pets is indistinguishable from dominance.

As I stated at the beginning, this is an concept I have always been really uncomfortable with but one I believe needs a great deal of airing if we are ever to reach some kind of advantageous consensus. In the meantime, and most importantly, it must be reemphasized that neither piece validates a return to the traditional interpretation of dominance that once contaminated the dog world (and other domesticated species), and nor does it support the approach being widely sold currently on television. A thoughtful conversation would perhaps be useful; undoing a decade of progress would definitely not be.

I hope you enjoy..


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