What does dominance mean to you? It is a complicated concept, after all. Are your thoughts drawn toward the likes of Mistress Marley, an online dominatrix whose followers send her financial tributes in exchange for receiving verbal abuse? Or do you think of LeBron James’s overwhelming skills on the basketball court? Perhaps you are thinking of a particularly overweening teacher, older sibling or coercive boss. Whatever direction your thoughts may take, “dominance” is surely a potent concept to many people.
This is a problem for scientists like me who study animal behavior. That’s because we use the word in a very technical sense. To an animal behavior scientist, dominance is defined as the quality that leads an animal to receive, within its group, preferential access to resources — which could be food, shelter, mates (in both the biological and Australian senses), or anything else an animal needs. Dominance may be established by force, but it is typically sustained by painless signals that convey an individual’s superior or inferior status: a flash of the rump, a lick to the mouth, a roll onto the back.
Most, but not all, social animals experience social hierarchies; lionesses, for example, live in egalitarian groups without social distinctions. Fearsomeness and dominance are distinct concepts.
This confusion between the lay and technical uses of dominance might not matter if the two sides of life — the colloquial and the scientific — never met, but I study the behavior of dogs in human society, and there the consequences of confusion involving the term leads to real suffering for dogs and their people. Several of the most high-profile dog trainers active today, for example, would have you believe that you and your canine best friend are locked in battle for domination of your domicile. Television’s “Dog Whisperer,” Cesar Millan, insists that dog owners must always eat before their pooches. (No more late-night suppers for the human “pack leader.”) A misguided, albeit harmless, idea. The same cannot be said for some of the techniques recommended in one of the most popular dog training books of modern times, “How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend,” by the Monks of New Skete. The monks’ idea of friendship includes convincing a recalcitrant canine that you are the boss by hitting a dog under the chin hard enough to elicit a yelp and jerking a seated dog off the ground by grabbing him by the scruff of the neck.
For years, animal behavior professionals have been up in arms about the misapplication of a confused version of “dominance” to advocate painful and ineffective forms of training. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, among others, have all taken public positions critical of dog trainers who use punitive approaches that claim to be drawn from theories of dominance. In some cases, these organizations insist that the idea of dominance in human-dog relations is an extrapolation from outdated views of wolf social organization.
These learned societies are on the side of the angels, but there’s just one problem: Research shows that dogs do in fact experience dominance. They are highly sensitive to hierarchical social relationships — more so even than wolves. Still, that doesn’t mean that the harsh animal trainers are right: Dogs may respond to dominance cues without that in any way offering an excuse for cruel, physically punishing behavior.
I recently reviewed all the scientific studies I could find on dominance in wolves and dogs, and the evidence that dogs respect dominance was clear. One simple but compelling study out of Austria, published in 2015, involved raising wolves and dogs outdoors in large enclosures. The researchers offered pairs of wolves a bone carefully chosen to be large enough to be shared, but small enough to be monopolized by a dominant individual if he or she wanted to. The wolves gnawed happily on opposite ends of the bone. The dogs, on the other hand, never shared: The dominant individual kept the juicy bone all to himself.
Thirty years ago, researchers in Germany raised a mixed group of wolf pups and poodles in an outdoor enclosure. Even though the wolves rapidly grew to be larger and stronger than their poodle stepsiblings, it was the dogs who dominated the much more easygoing wolves.
Wolves work together because they have to. They live in family groups that must cooperate if they are to bring down large prey that do not want to become their dinner. Most of their prey contains much more meat than one individual could eat. Thus, sharing and cooperation are the bywords of wolf life.
Dogs on the other hand, when not in human homes, live in fluid groups and primarily scavenge on human refuse. Out on a dump pile, the motivations to cooperate are absent. A dog doesn’t need help pulling the remains out of a box of KFC, and there usually isn’t enough chicken left in there to share. Consequently, dogs lack the motivation to collaborate.
Researchers in the Netherlands carefully observed the interactions of a group of dogs and rated the level of social hierarchy that the dogs experienced on a scale from 1 (completely despotic) through 4 (egalitarian). The dogs came in around 2 — which is a fairly steep social hierarchy, similar to what is found in macaques, notably contentious animals.
While it doesn’t automatically follow that just because dogs experience dominance in their interactions with their own kind that they also recognize a social hierarchy in their relations with us, a moment’s thought shows that in fact they must. Who has the collar round their neck and who holds the free end of the leash? Who enjoys the filet and who chews the bone? Dogs cannot even carry out toileting functions without negotiating access to a suitable spot to pee and poop. Humans have total control over the resources that are important to dogs — a key component of the definition of dominance in animal behavior.
Not only that, but dogs also manifest toward humans some of the behaviors that signal submission. Subordinate dogs lower their posture and lick the mouths of individuals — dog or human — whose preeminence they recognize. Submissive dogs also pass their head under the chin of dogs to whom they are paying their respects. This may match a dog’s experience of being stroked on the head by a human. No wonder that no less an authority than Charles Darwin (whose life with dogs was only once interrupted — when he went round the world on a ship named the Beagle), endorsed the view that “a dog looks on his master as on a god.”
What does dogs’ exquisite sensitivity to social hierarchy imply for how we live with them? Do we need to act like a dominatrix or a macho TV dog trainer — never missing a chance to whip our dogs into line — the conclusion of some who claim allegiance to the notion of “dominance?” Surely not. Dogs living outside human control may use force to establish their social hierarchies, but so long as you are the one with the big brain and the opposable thumb, who can operate the can opener and unlock the front door, you have no need to demonstrate your status with shock collars and other torturous instruments — and doing so would not make your dog any more likely to look up to you. Everything about the world in which our dogs live — their utter dependence on human beings — signals to them that it is the human who is in the dominant position. No violence is needed; the circumstances already shout out everything about dominance that could possibly be said.
Reading your cues, your dog understands who is at the head of the team and looks to you for leadership. It is your intelligence and your dexterity that makes you the “alpha” — not whether you smack your dog or eat dinner first. This is the fundamental insight from which to draw lessons for governing your dog’s behavior: You should use your smarts to show your dog the way to a peaceful and happy interspecies household. That may not be as sexy as some other forms of domination, but it’s what you both need.
Clive D. L. Wynne is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, where he directs the Canine Science Collaboratory. His most recent book is “Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You.”
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