3 Simple Questions About Dominance
Is the Wolf Pack a Self-Organizing System?
Originally published in slightly different form on May 29, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.
I would once again like to thank Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning (hereinafter, LGB) for her reply to my latest post. Although we disagree, much of what she says is correct, or would be if we’d been having this discussion 20 years ago. The difference is that science now has a more complete understanding of how a wolf pack operates. However, to prevent this discussion from becoming a continuous circle of “wolves form dominance hierarchies” and “no they don’t” I’ll focus on three main issues.
The Wolf Pack as Totalitarian Despotism
LGB has painted the wolf pack as a “totalitarian despotism” in which subordinate animals are controlled by the alphas through a fear of being bitten. But in “Alpha Status, Dominance and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs,” (1999), L. David Mech, the world’s leading expert on wild wolf behavior writes, “With large prey such as adult moose (Alces alces), pack members of all ranks (ages) gather around a carcass and feed simultaneously, with no rank privilege apparent (Mech 1966; Haber 1977).” At other times, Mech says that “regardless of the rank of a challenger, the owner tried to retain the food it possessed, as Lockwood (1979) also found with captive wolves.” And finally, “Wolves of any rank could try to steal food from another of any rank.”
As for the idea that the pack is controlled through aggression: “The social interactions among members of natural wolf packs are much calmer and more peaceful than Schenkel (1947) and Zimen (1982) described for captive wolves, as Clark (1971) also noted.” And “The terminology falsely implies a rigid, force-based dominance hierarchy.”
Question #1: If LGB’s view of how a wolf pack operates is correct, why do the world’s most respected experts on the subject don’t agree?
The Urge to Dominate Is Hardwired
LGB has described the urge to dominate as a hardwired urge in dogs and wolves. Yet I’ve always won contests with so-called dominant dogs by acting “submissive,” and have always been able to control each dog’s behavior simply because, in my view, the dog was not attempting to dominate me, but was simply anxious about my presence. By acting in a non-threatening manner I’ve been able to defuse the dog’s underlying tension and tale control of the situation.
Also, Dr. Karen Overall of the University of Pennsylvania and other veterinary behaviorists have found that “dominant behaviors” can usually be managed through anti-anxietal medications. However, in most cases such behaviors can also be managed—and even outright cured—by playing tug-of-war, letting the dog win, and praising the dog for winning.
British zoologist, and fellow blogger John Bradshaw said in a recent interview, “Many trainers advise against playing tug of war games because there is a risk the dog will win and the dog will think that you are being submissive and he will therefore be able to control you in the future. We’ve done research into a number of these things—including the tug of war game—and have shown that the premise is just completely not true.”
I recommend tug-of-war as a cure for what other trainers might call “dominance aggression,” and it always works, particularly when you always let the dog win and praise the dog enthusiastically for winning.  Veteran police dog trainer Kevin Behan was recommending tug in the late 1970s, when doing so was very seriously frowned upon by mainstream dog trainers. Now it’s common practice.
Question #2: If the urge to dominate is hardwired, why is it so easily disposed of by a) acting “submissive,” b) medication, and c) playing tug, letting the dog win, and praising the dog for winning?
The Wolf Pack as a Self-Emergent System
In a previous post I suggested that it’s silly to think of lobsters, for example, as being focused on a need to rise in status, yet much of the literature on serontonin’s effects on “dominant” behavior comes from research done on crustaceans, aquarium fish, etc., in which these animals are said to “rise in status” when given a boost of serotonin.
I think the laws of parsimony should guide us. Morgan’s canon states: “In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes, if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development.”
In other words we should only consider animal behavior as rational or intentional if there are no other, simpler explanations that would satisfactorily explain all aspects of said behavior.
In order to side-step Morgan’s canon, LGB has said that the urge to dominate or rise in status found in mammals (and crustaceans) is not necessarily conscious. “Each individual simply seeks rewards and avoids pain. The new science of ‘emergence’ shows how complex systems emerge from simple individual choices without design or intent.”
This is interesting since I was one the first to describe the wolf pack as a self-emergent system in print. In an early chapter of my 2002 novel, A Nose for Murder, my narrator, Jack Field, tells his then girlfriend Dr. Jamie Cutter, “I see the wolf pack as a self-emergent, cooperative heterarchy, based on the need to hunt large prey.”
I was actually preceded, in a way, by Kevin Behan in his 1992 training manual, Natural Dog Training, where he described the self-organizing nature of the wolf pack without even knowing that there was a new scientific discipline called emergence theory. Behan writes, “The unifying current in canine behavior is neither intelligence, as it is commonly defined, nor some vague concept such as altruism or cooperation.” Instead, Behan says, the organizing principle is the prey drive.
It has been suggested for some time that the pack’s hierarchical structure changed substantially during the hunt where the alpha role was reportedly passed around continuously, almost like a game of hot potato, from one wolf to the next. And while there were only two alphas for mating, there were supposedly as many as five or six during the hunt.
Behan describes pack hunting in self-organizing terms. “Each job is not so much a skill as a different emotional state of inhibitedness relative to rushing in on the prey. The more un-inhibited a member is ... the more direct and straightforward in his drive to bite. He’ll be the ‘leader.’ The more inhibited an individual might be, the more circumspect and restrained he’ll act, and he will be a follower. ... In such a flexible system of learning, where each job is emotionally linked to another, there can be social migration through the ranks, both upward and downward, as the emotional environment of the group changes over time and the group constantly adapts to retain the overall balance and synchronization.”
Evolutionary biologist Raymond Coppinger has also said that pack formation is a function of the prey drive, particularly prey size. Wolves who settle near garbage dumps don’t form packs. Coyotes sometimes do but only when they need to hunt large prey.
Alexandra Semyonova was way ahead of the rest of us. She began her 15-year study of domestic dog social behavior in 1988 (published in 2003). In it she clearly shows the dynamics of canine social behavior can be fully explained through the principles of emergence theory (i.e., autopoiesis).
So Behan, Coppinger, Semyonova and I agree with LGB’s idea that the wolf pack is a self-organizing system. The problem is, self-organizing systems tend to operate from the bottom up, not the top down.
Which Brings Us to...
Question #3:) How can a supposed dominance hierarchy operate as a self-organizing system when such systems always operate from the bottom up, not the top down?
I hope Dr. Graziano Breuning will answer these questions for us.
None of this means that I believe dogs or wolves aren’t capable of acts of aggression. But for wild wolves, aggression is, for the most part, reserved for outsiders, not members of the pack. Nature, after all, is an economist, and it’s far more economical for wolves not to expend any unnecessary aggression on pack members when that energy should be focused on prey animals or members of rival packs.
As for dogs, I said in my previous post that they’re the most social animal on the planet. That’s true. But they’re also the most aggressive. This may seem an oxymoron until one realizes that sociability and aggression are two sides of the same coin: the wolf’s prey drive.
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