Is Dominant Behavior Instinctive or a Symptom of Anxiety?
Originally published in slightly different form on April 13, 2009 at PsychologyToday.com.
Hunting Eases Stress and Anxiety
In the first of the previous two sections  I described how the primary architect of the alpha theory, Konrad Lorenz, misinterpreted the essential dynamic between a “dominant” and “submissive” wolf. In the second I made the point that the initial studies which gave us this now discarded theory  were done primarily on captive wolves, whose behaviors are often quite different from those seen in the wild.
This brings up an interesting point about the wolves at Wolf Park in Indiana; it’s the first place where it was discovered that wolves have no rigid pecking order about who gets to go through an opening first. The explanation is that since these animals are allowed to chase (though not to bite and kill) captive herds of buffalo, their behaviors are more closely aligned to those of true wolf packs.
As for wild wolves, the Druid Creek Pack in Yellowstone National Park is another clear example of how stress creates aggression. The forefathers of the Druids originally lived and thrived in Alberta and British Columbia. Then one day, out of the blue, they were all tranquilized, fitted with electronic tracking collars, and transported by truck and helicopter a thousand miles from home, In other words they went through a very real form of “forced re-location.” As a result, during their initial years in Yellowstone they exhibited unnatural aggressive behaviors, behaviors which could be rightly analyzed as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. But as several generations passed, and as the wolves settled into their new environment, they began to behave in a much more harmonious, truly wolflike manner.
The most obvious difference between the behaviors of the transplanted, semi-wild Druid Pack, the captive wolves at Wolf Park, and the more “pristine” packs studied by Mech and others is one of true wildness: being in harmony with one’s environment and being able to hunt large prey animals while acting as a cohesive group.
In their early years in Yellowstone the Druids were more survival than group oriented. It’s difficult to form relaxed, easygoing social bonds with others when most of your energy is focused on knowing where you are and whether you’re safe or not. And it’s very difficult to hunt as a cohesive, cooperative group without forming those kinds of bonds. I think this is why as the Druids grew more comfortable with their environment they became more like a true pack; their behaviors were more aligned with the mechanisms that nature and evolution have provided for reducing tension and stress in wolves: hunting large prey by working as a team.
The simple truth is, captive wolves don’t have access to these mechanisms so they naturally find themselves stuck in survival mode (“Am I safe?”) and engage in what appear to be displays of dominance, power struggles, attempts to rise in status, etc. when all they’re really doing is releasing their own internal tension and stress in whatever way they can. A similar process is apparent in both village dogs and domesticated dogs, neither of which hunt large prey on a regular basis.
Mislabeling Anxiety as Dominance
Now, here’s why I think it’s so important for dog trainers and owners to finally understand this. After my first novel, A Nose for Murder, came out I got the following e-mail from a reader:
“Thank you SO MUCH for your books! The dog training methods you talk about at first sounded absolutely crazy to me. I paid close attention to what Jack was saying because I have been dealing with this alpha thing since I brought Charley (a miniature poodle) home almost four years ago.
“Charley has been labeled as having Classic Alpha Tendencies. While he can be the most loveable dog on earth, he can morph into Hound of the Baskervilles at a moment’s notice, complete with pierce-the-skin biting. What I have always noticed about Charley is that he avoids eye contact at all costs. This became really obvious a few months ago when I adopted Sarge (age 7), also a miniature poodle. Sarge is an eye-contact-type dog, always ready and willing to ‘go,’ kind of like Frankie is in the book. He is very coachable. Anyway, I was instructed in how to be the pack leader by my vet and various individuals active in dogs and rescue, and have been faithfully following all but one of those techniques for what seems like forever, with no difference in Charley’s behavior.
“And then along come your books and my epiphany. Last night I read a little further into A Nose for Murder and all of a sudden play-training didn’t seem quite so crazy. Because it was late, and the dogs were asleep on my bed, I did nothing but think. (I don’t have the heart to kick a dog off my bed, which is the one Alpha rule I never followed!) Anyway, this morning when I took the poodles out for their long walk, I played in the snow with them, batting their faces and paws and getting them to chase me around as you had described in your book. It was so much fun! The dogs had a blast, although if any neighbors heard me out there they might have wanted to dial 911. When we came inside, and I was making their breakfasts, the strangest thing happened: Charley made more eye contact with me after that one play session than he has in the four years I’ve had him!
“I’m at work now, and all I can think of is going home and playing with the dogs! I can’t wait to see what happens. There was some kind of sizzle in the air happening this morning, a chemistry that I have never felt and I hated to leave. So thank you. I just wanted to let you know that you impacted a few lives today!!!!!!!!”
Not Easy and Not Automatic
Charlie’s turnaround wasn’t easy and it wasn’t automatic. It’s doubtful he would have felt so free to play with his owner if his pal Sarge hadn’t been there too, as a kind of psychic buffer. But he did turn around, and he did so because of a simple yet complete change in his owner’s perception of what the problem was: Charlie wasn’t acting “dominant” or being alpha, he was just feeling very lonely, scared, and misunderstood. This is where the rubber hits the road. This is where the idea of dominance in dogs can be so destructive: in poor misunderstood little dogs like Charlie.
Karen Overall writes, “The ‘alpha’ concept is an outdated one with almost no data to support it. There are no truly ‘submissive’ or ‘dominant/alpha’ dogs, and by [using] these labels we blind ourselves to all of the interesting information that dogs are communicating to us [with] their postures.” (“Interdog aggression” April 1, 2002, DVM Magazine)
This is the terminology we should be using: dominant and submissive behaviors are more rightly called threatening and non-threatening postures, based on stress and anxiety. It’s also why when we use the wolf model for understanding canine behavior, we need to look at the real model, meaning that the pack instinct is about releasing tension and stress through hunting large prey as part of a group dynamic. For pet dogs that means having ample opportunity to chase us around in the snow, or on the grass, and to occasionally bite things like tennis balls, Frisbees, and tug rags.
That’s where the sizzle in the air that Charlie’s owner felt comes from, that strange chemistry she hated to leave and couldn’t stop thinking about while she was at work. I’m sure she loved Charlie before that day, as we all love our dogs, but it wasn’t until that outing in the snow, where she ran around like a nut, afraid of what thte neighbors might think, that she really fell in love with him for the first time.
Dominance in dogs is not normal, it’s not natural; it’s nothing more than a symptom of social anxiety. After all, the standard pharmalogical treatment for “dominance aggression” is some form anti-anxiety medication. (It doesn’t cure the problem, but it does manage it.)
So if you think your dog is dominant, you might want to take another look. He or she could just be anxious and lonely and need a little more play time with you outdoors.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
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1) My editor at PsychologyToday.com used to send me emails complaining about this kind of thing, saying, “You can’t cite yourself! You’re not a PhD!” What did I know? I was just trying to refer the reader back to an earlier discussion on a particular topic.
2) I learned the hard way, later, that the Lorenzian view has not been discarded by modern researchers. In fact, quite the opposite—it’s still alive and well. So those two things: “citing myself” and criticizing the concept of animal dominance hierarchies are what got me fired from the website. (There may have also been a third breach, but that didn’t come until much later on.)