“My dog is just dominant and that’s why he steals food.” “She’s too submissive and that’s why she cowers in the corner.” “The dogs are fighting because they’re vying for dominance.” We’ve all heard these claims and many, many others about dominance and how it affects dog behavior. The problem is that these models are not only inaccurate; they can potentially be harmful to your dog and interfere with dog training. Here’s why you shouldn’t use a dominance or alpha-based model to understand your dog’s behavior.
Dominance Is Not Innate
Many people use dominance as a catchall term for traits like bossiness, aggression, and intelligence. But dominance is not an inborn trait of any individual dog and instead explains a dog’s behavior relative to another dog. Your dog may be dominant regarding food, and not dominant regarding toys. In this context (and in the scientific literature), dominance means that an animal will win a contest and likely be deferred to by a submissive animal.
Dominance is Not Insecure or Violent
A dominant dog is one who can competently master her world. Most dogs that are called dominant by people are actually fearful or aggressive dogs. In the wild, dominance hierarchies exist to help animals avoid aggression. Having a clear hierarchy helps animals know which animals to defer to so that they don’t have to fight. Dominance is a way of avoiding aggression, not creating it. If your dog is behaving aggressively toward another dog, he’s not being dominant- he’s being poorly behaved, poorly socialized, and potentially fearful.
Domestic Dogs Do Not Live in Packs
Many people have a vision of what a wolf pack looks like- an alpha male bossing around a large group of other dogs, leading the hunt, and biting anyone who gets out of line. In reality, this vision of a wolf pack couldn’t be farther from the truth. Wolf packs are family units, headed by an alpha male and alpha female, who are typically the parents of the other wolves in the pack. The alphas dominate the other wolves not through force, but simply by virtue of being older and wiser. Simply put, a wolf pack is in many ways very similar to a nuclear family, and not at all the machiavellian society many people believe it to be.
In order for dominance to come into play, a dog or wolf has to live in a pack. Most people only own one or two dogs, which means the number of dogs they have doesn’t even begin to approach a pack. Further, even among people who own large groups of dogs, the dogs are typically not related or living in a family group, which makes it difficult for the dog pack to mimic anything found in nature. Finally, among dogs who live in human homes, the leader of the “pack” (if there can even be said to be one) is the human. You’re the alpha, not your dog. Which means that if your dog steps out of line, it’s not due to dominance- it’s due to poor training and poor behavior. Blaming bad, aggressive, or antisocial behavior on dominance helps humans avoid responsibility for their dogs’ behavior, but it does nothing to help dogs and can lead to a household in which dogs run roughshod over everything.
Aggression Is Never Due to Dominance
Unless you have adopted a pack of wolves and brought them into your home, if your dog is showing any signs of aggression, you can bet it’s not a result of dominance. Several studies have looked at this precise issue, and have found the most common causes of dog aggression are poor socialization and fear- certainly not traits associated with dominance! A study at the University of Bristol’s Department of Veterinary Sciences, for example, found that dogs are not motivated at all by maintaining their place in a pack. They are, however, motivated by treats and other rewards including exercise and affection!
How The Dominance Model Harms Dogs
Any model of behavior that doesn’t accurately account for a dog’s needs is harmful, but the dominance model has done extra harm. Because dogs declared “dominant” are more likely to be fearful or undersocialized, by trying to put them in their place or make them less dominant, you may actually make behavioral problems worse. Further, dominance provides an excuse for poor dog behavior, and the dominance model may prevent humans from giving their dogs proper training and socialization.
While dominance may be fun to talk about, it has no place in your understanding of your dog. Start looking at other potential motivations and you may find your allegedly dominant dog is just a fearful, undersocialized puppy!