Do We Really Need the Concept of Dominance?
How Dominance Still Dominates Our Belief Systems of Dog Behavior
Dr. Roger Abrantes is a well-known figure in the dog training world. He holds PhDs in Evolutionary Biology and Ethology. He is the author to 17 books, written in English, German, Spanish, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, and Czech, and is one of the most versatile ethologists in the world.
In a recent blog post, “Dominance: Making Sense of Nonsense,” Dr. Abrantes proposes that we stop denying that dominance exists in dogs and wolves, and set out to remedy the “nonsense” by a) demonstrating that dominance does exist, b) establishing that if dominance exists in wolves it also exists in dogs, c) presenting a “precise, pragmatic and verifiable definition of the term,” and d) show that “even though a good relationship does not rely on continuous displays of dominance ... [this] does not imply that dominance does not exist.”
Clearly Dr. Abrantes is a lot smarter than I am. He holds multiple degrees, speaks seven languages, and is a world-renowned lecturer on animal behavior. I’m just a simple dog trainer, with no academic background, and only a smidgen of high-school Spanish under my belt. (“Donde esta la bibliotec?”) So when Dr. Abrantes makes a proclamation of this kind, it’s important to pay attention.
To prove that dominance does exist, Dr. Abrantes says, “It is absurd to argue that dominance does not exist when we have so many words to describe whatever it relates to.”
I’m not sure that’s a reasonable argument. After all, there are thousands or words to describe the idea of God or some form of deity. Does that stand as a rational, scientific argument that such deities exist?
Mind you, I would agree that there is a recognizable form of social behavior, seen primarily in humans and primates, that may properly be described as dominance. It relates to the use of force, power, status or some other form of influence to control the behaviors of group members that rank lower on the social scale. Schools, governments, and the military are top-down systems. However, there are many other systems—in humans on down—that don’t operate through dominance. And while we certainly see similar types of behaviors in canines and primates, the motivations for these behaviors may be quite different.
On the next point, Dr. Abrantes says that “Recent trends claim that ‘dominant behavior’ does not exist in dogs... There are two ways to argue in favor of such thinking. One is to dismiss ‘dominant behavior’ downright ... [the other] is to claim that wolves and dogs are completely different and that therefore, even though we can apply the term to explain wolf behavior, we cannot use it to describe dog behavior.”
I would agree that if dominance can rightly be applied to wolves, it could theoretically be applied to dogs as well. And yet if dominance and submission are a product of pack living, and if pack formation is a function of prey size—where, for example, coyotes sometimes form packs, but only when they need to hunt large prey—it’s possible that when we see such behaviors in dogs, who even in feral groups don’t normally hunt large prey, then these behaviors may be similar to those seen in wolves yet they might not be motivated by the same adaptive pressures that affect wolf packs.
Abrantes’s third point was to give a clear definition of dominance, which, in part, is that it’s all about gaining or controlling access to resources, or “what an organism perceives as life necessities.”
This seems eminently reasonable on first glance. Yet I have to wonder how a dog perceives anything as a “life necessity.” Wouldn’t such knowledge first require an understanding of what “life” is? If so, isn’t Abrantes imposing humanlike thinking onto dogs?
I think a more reasonable way of seeing this would be through the properties of attraction and resistance. A thirsty dog is attracted to water, a hungry wolf is attracted to prey. Dogs and wolves don’t think of H20 or a killing a deer as a “resource.” They simply feel a pull toward objects of attraction, mainly through a desire or “gut feeling.“ Gaining access to these things would reduce a dog’s or wolf’s internal feelings of tension and stress. And if they encounter resistance and can’t gain access to things they need, then their stress levels would probably go up.
In fact, I would suggest that the dominant and submissive behaviors seen in wolves are purely a product of stress. One very clear way of seeing that stressors are the ultimate cause of dominant behaviors is that the most dominant members of a baboon troop have higher levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—than their subordinates. Also, in dogs diagnosed with dominance-aggression, their symptoms often respond to anti-anxietal medications, which suggests that these aren’t natural behaviors at all but are actually stress-related. Finally, when I work with dogs who exhibit what some would call dominant behaviors, I find that if I play tug-of-war with these dogs, and I always let the dog win and praise him enthusiastically for winning, the dog’s “dominant tendencies” generally disappear.
Finally, Abrantes says that when wolves engage in dominant and submissive displays, rather than in outright aggression, they’re showing a sound evolutionary strategy by not depleting energy needed for survival.
He’s quite right that it uses much less energy to flash one’s fangs or roll over on one’s back than it does to get into a knock-down, drag-out fight with one’s packmate. Yet a simpler and, I think, more parsimonious explanation would be that these displays are simply polarized reactions to feelings of pressure across the pack as a whole. Those feelings have to be released (by hunting large prey or, for dogs, playing tug-of-war, etc). If there’s no safety valve the pressure would build until it’s released in some other way. In this schema, no one is thinking about dominating anyone, making a cost-benefit analysis, or strategizing over who has access to this or that class of resource. They’re just offloading individual feelings of pressure.
That’s why I think dominance and submission in dogs and wolves should more simply be called direct and indirect approaches to objects of attraction. These objects of attraction would be synonymous with what Abrantes calls “life’s necessities,” but would also include large prey animals, where the pack works in harmony rather than sniping at one another.
The wolf style of hunting has been called the chase-and-ambush approach, where some members of the pack go directly after the prey animal while others circle around, etc. If all members of the pack had a direct approach, the hunt would probably fail. If they all had an indirect approach, same deal. These two behavioral qualities would align quite nicely with the idea that wolves (and dogs) experience the world through feelings of attraction and resistance rather than thinking about resources, etc.
There’s another, more practical aspect to doing away with the dominance label. It’s much easier for owners and trainers to think of ways to help a dog with stress-related behaviors than it is to figure out how to cure “dominant” tendencies. That label sticks like a permanent scar, implying nothing can be done except to act more dominant towards your dog (which rarely works, and even then, only for a limited time). But by simply calling these behaviors what they really are—symptoms of stress—a whole new world of opportunities for change opens up for us.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”