Dominance – is it appropriate to explain social relationships between dogs and humans?

Science Daily reported, “Using dominance to explain dog behavior is old hat.” One of their references included an article from JVB (2009) “Dominance in domestic dogs –useful construct or bad habit?” The paper is much broader than implied by Science Daily; the following will make clear some of their conclusions.

Associative Learning Theory

The paper suggests stable relationships between dogs can be explained using the “principles of associative learning theory” stating relationships develop over time through repeated encounters with individuals. During these encounters communicative cues from each individual is recognized and becomes predictive of negative and positive responses over a range of differing contexts. These encounters are not as simplified as one might think. The behavior and cues during each encounter is decided based on each individual’s physiological and emotional states at the time the encounter takes place and context. For example, when introducing a new dog into a household with an already stressed animal will greatly influence how the resident animal responds to the “outsider” and those responses set the stage for how the relationship between these two individuals will play out over the course of time.

Dominance, the presence of dominance, hierarchies, stable and unstable environments

The authors suggest pups raised in stable pup-adult environments gain advantages when they develop social skills with the help of mature canine adults.

This allows a young pup to “learn consistently that competition with adults is unsuccessful” and appeasement behavior avoids conflicts, allowing more tolerance and availability to resources.

The authors suggest these behaviors continue as they develop into adults and maintained as a “dominance relationship” between youngsters and adults until prior expectancies regarding each other’s behavior changes. The authors suggest an “apparent presence” that hierarchies do develop through social interactions in “stable” dog breeding groups. However, they say, hierarchies do not develop in dog groups often undergoing changes and/or including introducing outside individuals.

This could explain why introductions of new dogs in already established households can be problematic and what puppies experience when transferring from a stable breeding environment to human households! Using a comparative wolf analogy, dominance hierarchies do not exist in non-captive wolf packs usually comprised of kin and occasional outsiders. Contrarily, captive wolf situations are often comprised of individuals without kinship relations; agonistic behavior between individuals does exist and in some instances, individuals are unable to disperse, they are captives of their situation. This may explain why captive groups of wolves are carefully placed in packs to avoid as much conflict as possible. The analogy to captive wolves can be used to explain dog behavior once introduced to human home environments. Introducing new dogs into a dysfunctional environment that may include permissive and/or absent owners, lack of rules, boundaries, and training will definitely set a dog up to fail

Communication between dogs

When companion dogs meet for the first time, there are no previous expectations regarding each other’s behavior. The relationship between any two individuals is established based on current environmental conditions, contextual relationships, each individual’s physiological condition, and each individual’s prior experiences within other dog dyads (pairs) during previous encounters. One can conclude using the “learning-based model” there is no need to use dominance to explain the social interaction between two individuals.

Personal experience based on dog-dog social interaction

This seems to correlate with what I have learned through boarding as part of my business. Since offering dog-dog socialization, grouping individuals has to be carefully decided and small dog versus large dog grouping requires careful supervision. However, I have concluded allowing socialization between small dogs, large dogs, mixed breeds, purebreds, mixed sexes, intact, and neutered dogs under close supervision is beneficial.

When observing social deficits, I often attribute the deficit to lacking sufficient adult dog encounters during the early socialization and subsequent juvenile periods.

Based on the JVB article, dogs benefit from opportunities to learn how to behave from well-socialized adult dogs. Instances where dogs appear to lack sufficient communicative ability with other dogs, could suggest their behavior is dependent on how well socialization opportunities were provided, what they learned from those encounters and in what contexts they took place.

I have further concluded that because we seem at times to haphazardly introduce dogs into social environments and dog-human encounters we are probably causing most of the social problems some of our dogs have learned and internalized. I seriously doubt dog parks are a good idea for owners who have little knowledge of dog behavior and this paper reinforces this conclusion. I might also suggest dogs attending highly reactive, non-structured puppy classes would also be a mistake. This further emphasizes that owners be very selective where they take their puppies and adolescent dogs for socialization, and considering who they are introducing them to, and the context and environment where these introductions are taking place.

How does this play out when introducing new dogs to human homes?

Applying the same learning process based strictly on communication one-step further, we can understand why dominance has no place in training and/or establishing our relationship with dogs. If the authors suggest pups in stable breeding groups learn from adult canine parents, then using a “parental role model” based on these same principles could be applied when communication is taking place. Using a “parental role response” means, we need to act as canine adult parents would. This does not imply “dominance” is necessary in establishing rules, boundaries and training methods. Rather, if you apply the same “associative learning theory” used in explaining how dogs learn to communicate with each other the same rules will apply.

When we provide clear positive responses to what our dogs are doing right, while ignoring mistakes and/or providing clear and acceptable negative consequences for undesirable and/or dangerous behavior, our dogs learn because we are providing them control over their environment through positive and negative responses. Where owners get into trouble communicating with dogs occurs when using forceful communication signals like “alpha rolls” while erroneously perceiving and/or attempting to thwart their dog’s attempt to dominate them!

If dogs perceive communication simply as positives and negatives, then it makes sense that reacting to undesirable dog behavior using negative communication will set your dog up to view you as a threat rather than a friend. When dogs use appeasement, avoidance, and aggression in those contexts, where you have used confrontational and negative communicative methods would explain any reactive and/or aggressive behavior. When dogs are forced beyond their threshold and resort to aggression it’s not dominance aggression as is often referred and/or described. Rather I prefer what Lindsay (2006) proposes as an alternative explanation that dogs are using “anti-predatory” and/or “auto-protective aggression” in response to what they perceive as human aggression.

This could be briefly explained using the captive wolf analogy I mentioned earlier. Wolves are predators, when we introduce captive wolves to non-kin wolves; agonistic behavior is more likely to occur. These occurrences are affected by age, reproductive status, nutritional condition, aversive experiences, and disputes over resources according to the JVB (2009).In normal wolf packs, wolves have the ability to disperse, move on, start their own families; in captive wolf packs, members don’t often have this choice. These captive wolves are forced to live with other captive members without choice and ability to disperse and/or avoid an aversive environment.

The same could be said for dogs who find they are living in dysfunctional environments, with owners providing little or no training, little or no health care, neglectful, and abusive corrections, and/or treatment. Often these dogs end up in shelters and/or euthanized because they failed to adapt to these conditions no fault of their own.

It is for this reason that I find it inappropriate for dog owners, those running shelters and/or rescues to rely on methods using punishment in working with dogs who are reactive toward other dogs and/or humans. In addition, this applies to dogs who are fearful in specific situations and/or contexts where confidence building is more appropriate than punishment. In both situations, offensively and defensively reactive dogs are not signs of dominance rather lack of confidence and trust. Animals lacking confidence are more likely to be reactive, animals who don’t trust owners are likely to be reactive and aggressive.

Copy Right 2009 – 2017 Joyce D. Kesling, CDBC

Responsible Dog & Cat ~ Training and Behavior Solutions, LLC

Sarasota, FL


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