Here’s My Credible Debate on Social Dominance in Dogs and Wolves
Flipping Polarities: Dominance and Submission or Just Play?
“In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful.” —Carl Sagan
In a recent (July 7, 2016) blog article at PsychologyToday.com, “Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Creditable Debate,” Dr. Marc Bekoff says: “As I'm writing a book on dog behavior, I've been very interesting [sic] in keeping up with the literature in a wide variety of fields, and in the past few days I've been focusing on dominance. As I went through my notes, I re-discovered a comment from a dog trainer…” [that’s me] “… that got me thinking about dominance in dogs. The comment read as follows ... ‘[Me again] ... 'And, yes, Marc, I still insist that dominance in animal groups is a myth. For one thing, there are far too many inconsistencies in how these behaviors fail to conform to a single coherent model.’”
I recognize that calling dominance a myth or a meme, as I often do, may be more provocative than informative. I also admit that I was going for the shock value those words engender. I probably should have been more circumspect in my choice of words, and more respectful toward my audience.
Yet there’s no question that there are inconsistencies in dominance theory, and that there is no single coherent model. Bekoff has even written about “situational dominance,” where a low-ranking individual can keep possession of an important resource without penalty. Bekoff’s friend and colleague Dr. Dario Mastripieri strongly disagrees with this idea; in his piece of the pie, dominance hierarchies are rigid and inflexible. Roger Abrantes has his own definition, so do many others, including Canadian wolf researcher Simon Gadbois and wild equine expert Victor Ros.
Meanwhile, many female researchers have questioned the actual existence of dominance hierarchies in nature. Thelma Rowell, who was the first scientist to study baboons in the wild, said that hierarchies aren’t real, but are created by human observation. “The experimenter will report that his trials have demonstrated a dominance relationship between the monkeys, while in fact they (the trials) have actually caused it.” And according to a 2009 paper “Shirley Strum would adopt a more radical stance claiming that hierarchy is a myth. Other feminist scientists, like Fedigan, would likewise criticize the model.”
Then there’s the oft-heard expression, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” signifying that nearly everyone agrees that “there are inconsistencies in dominance theory but let's not get rid of it entirely just yet.”
So I stand by what I said (or at least half of it): these inconsistencies do exist.
At any rate, prior to this exchange, back when I was writing about dogs for PsychologyToday.com, I gave Dr. Bekoff three examples of behaviors seen in dogs and wolves, which appear to be about dominant and submissive polarities, but which, as far as I can tell, make no sense when you apply the dominant and submissive labels to them.
I asked Dr. Bekoff, quite politely, if he could explain them. He has yet to do so.
In the following sections I provide descriptions and explanations for two of those behaviors.
Who’s In Charge?
One example is that dominance is said to be about controlling access to important resources. Yet I’ve seen wildlife footage of a pack’s breeding male bringing a small prey animal back to the den. In the scenario that followed, the female came out of the den to receive this bounty for her pups. But the closer she came to him, the taller and stiffer his body became. In other words, he began exhibiting a “dominant posture.” Meanwhile, as the female got closer and closer, she got lower and lower to the ground, exhibiting what, in other contexts, would be construed as submission. Finally, she came right up to him and got so close to the ground as to be almost rolling over on her back. At that point, she was also close enough to grab the dead animal, and race back to the den with it, leaving him to stand there, helpless, while still exhibiting a paradoxical dominant posture. 
So my question is, who’s in charge? Who’s most dominant in this exchange?
Though Bekoff refrained from making a reply, he might have argued, quite successfully, that neither one is exerting dominance over the other. And I would agree. Someone else might ask, what’s the point? How do you know whether this one incident in any way reflects the norm for such exchanges?
I don’t know if it does or doesn’t. But I don’t care, because even if it’s anomalous it’s telling us something. And what it’s telling us is that these postures—these physical movements, these expressions of emotion—may have an underlying cause other than dominance and submission. In other words, instead of ignoring anomalies like this (and there are quite a few others), we need to ask what’s really going on? Is there another explanation for these behaviors, one that successfully explains and incorporates such anomalies into dominance theory?
Rudolph Schenkel in his book Submission: Its Features and Function in the Wolf and Dog (1967), says “There is no doubt that submission is an appeal or effort to friendly social integration, to which the response by the superior is not stereotyped or automatic.”
A Small Energetic Package
So looking at the behaviors of the papa and mama wolf through this lens—that they’re not stereotyped or automatic—it’s unlikely that the actors in this drama are behaving in a purely reflexive fashion. So what if, instead of explaining things through the lens of dominance and submission, we take a step back and look at the prey object the male is holding as something capable of exerting a very real force of attraction on both wolves? I know that might sound strange, but when wolves hunt large prey which would be more correct, that they a) feel attracted to the prey or b) they feel no attraction at all?
The answer is obviously a). So if we think of the moose or elk as a kind of energetic hub of attraction which a pack of wolves chase, circle, and radiate around, then in this case, we might see that the pack’s energetic attraction for a moose or elk could theoretically be distilled down in scale to a smaller energetic package involving two wolves and a small prey animal. The ideas that the male acts dominant, or seems to, and the female acts submissive, would be replaced by a much simpler explanation based on a physical and emotional polarization—up/down, top/bottom—caused by blocked feelings of attraction for the prey.
After all, if the male had come back to the den without an animal in his jaws there would have been no conflict, and no need for any expressions of either dominance or submission. It’s usually only when you have an object of attraction—a bone, a female in estrus, a favorite sleeping spot—something that more than one member of the pack wants, that conflicts develop. These conflicts are never about who’s most dominant, despite the seeming logic of that idea and the preponderance of data pointing (or, in some cases, shoving) us in that direction. That’s because in most cases of conflict—as Schenkel, Mech, Mastripieri, and others have pointed out—the question of who’s most dominant has already been established.
in the case of the mama and papa wolf, neither one has any interest or investment in the prey animal or in exerting dominance over the other. They both “know,” on a certain level, that the prey animal is destined to end up in the stomachs of their progeny.
So why the seeming conflict?
There is no conflict. There is no dominance or submission. There’s only a temporary emotional polarization which, fortunately for the puppies, is quickly resolved. (In fact, we also see such polarizations happen on a regular basis when dogs and wolves play, though during play they usually flip back and forth, from top to bottom, from up to down.)
And speaking of puppies, Mech has also provided footage (via Timothy Dalton and the BBC) of a male and female wolf leading their puppies on their first outing outside of the den.  The pups seem very happy to explore their environment, and are glad to be on an adventure, especially with the papa wolf, who wisely rolls over on his back and lets the pups jump on top of him and attack him with what appears to be a combination of deep, unrestrained love and a pleasurable release of internal tension and stress.
So, again, who’s dominant in this picture? Who’s submissive? No one! It’s a game, an important one that instills not only confidence in the pups, but a feeling of camaraderie and social unity, things that will pay off later when these pups learn to hunt large prey as a cohesive social unit.
In fact, I took a cue from this exchange and tried doing what I later came to call “the reverse alpha roll” with my dog Freddie. I discovered that by flipping polarities with him, letting him be the “alpha,” I somehow increased the quickness of his response to commands tenfold.
More Questions, More Credible Answers From a “Dominance Denier”
Bekoff: “Note that the person who commented …” [that’s me] … “‘dominance in animal groups is a myth,’ and did not limit his comment to dogs. The above three essays and countless others make it abundantly clear that denying the existence of dominance can be taken to constitute pseudoscience, as do the three essays about which I write below.”
I want to get this straight. I’m not denying that these behaviors exist, just that it’s a mistake to call them dominance and submission, that’s all. In fact, I think it’s more of a pseudoscience to do so than it is to question the orthodoxy, as I'm doing, despite the supposed preponderance of “evidence.” There are simply too many inconsistencies in the theory. Plus, as I pointed out before, not all scientists agree—or have agreed—with dominance theory. And the six essays Bekoff provided links to (five of which I’ve already read) don’t prove anything other than that dominance theory is alive and well, and still operating despite its inconsistencies and lack of a coherent model.
Bekoff (again): “The author of the comment …” [that’s me again] “… also wrote, ‘There is no such thing as a dog pack.’ This also isn't so, as made so very obvious by the work of researchers who have been studying feral dog packs for years.”
The researchers Bekoff mentions are not studying dog packs because, technically speaking, pack formation is a function of prey size—this according to Ray Coppinger—and feralized dogs are, for the most part, unable to successfully hunt large prey. Coppinger goes so far as to say that aggregations of wolves living near garbage dumps, and subsisting on human refuse, are also not considered packs. To repeat: since free-ranging domesticated dogs don’t hunt and kill large prey, they’re technically not a pack.
Look, I do an awful lot of research for everything I write. That doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes or that my research is always on point. I do the best I can. But I’m not making stuff up. There is always some scientific truth behind everything I say.
After Bekoff posted this article on July 7th, 2016, I sent him an email with the title line: “Mending Fences.” My intent was to offer an apology for some of my harsher comments, and my hope was to see if we couldn’t revive some of the warm feelings we once had for one another when he first joined the staff at PsychologyToday.com in 2009.
I still remain hopeful.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1) The exchange between the mama and papa wolf seen in the video below (at around 6:43) is much milder than the one I was referring to above, yet the female is clearly showing signs of “submission.” Further on (at 9:15) you can see the papa wolf rolling over on his back, allowing, and perhaps even inviting, his pups bite him and 'dominate' him.
2) Bekoff and I had a very friendly phone conversation at that time, initiated by my response to a post he’d written about how his dog Jethro was able to tell if a dog who’d previously been in the same examination room at the vet’s office had been stressed during his exam. I suggested that a dog’s profound olfactory abilities—like those Jethro exhibited—might explain how dogs know when an otherwise aggressive posture during play is an invitation rather than a challenge because, theoretically, the dog could tell the difference between the two by smell only.
Bekoff thought that was brilliant and actually suggested that we talk some more and that I should consider attending some conferences with him to explain my ideas.
That never materialized. But two years later, Bekoff and I both wrote blurbs for Kevin Behan’s 2011 book, Your Dog Is Your Mirror.
3) Here's a link to Kevin's take on the Bekoff article.