Are Dominance & Submission, Stress Related?

Does Dominance Really Foster Calm Behavior in Dogs? No!

Originally published in slightly different form on May 25, 2011 at

Striving For Social Status?

First I want to express my gratitude to Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning for writing her response to my previous post. She’s done a great deal to help me prove my thesis that dominant behaviors are not normal in dogs, but are symptoms of anxiety and stress.

Before I get to the ways that Dr. Graziano Bruening (hereafter, LGB) has helped prove my thesis, I’d like to counter a few of the statements she made in her reply to my most recent post.

LGB: “City folk are curiously uncomfortable with the striving for social status that’s obvious in every mammalian herd or pack or troop.”

Really? Every social mammal is striving for social status?

Let’s examine this idea. In order for a social mammal to strive for higher status it would mean that said organism would have to understand the concept of status, have a sense of himself as a separate, independent being, and to be aware of the differences in status between himself and others. Certainly all this is possible in humans and possibly cetaceans. But most biologists agree that the cognitive divide for these kinds of abilities lies between primates and “lower” (evolutionarily speaking) animals.

LGB: “Academics are it downright intolerant of these facts of life and rush to cover them up with studies representing animals as altruists. Researchers that refuse to run with the altruism herd are ridiculed, ostracized, and denied grant funding. So they crank out ‘evidence’ that protects their status, which of course promotes their sexual prospects too.”

Progressive Orthodoxy?

I have no great attachment to some of the ways altruism in animals has been misrepresented, or over-emphasized in current science. But since I’m a dog lover, and since dogs are the most social animal on earth, for me, personally, they are a particularly interesting window into this subject.

I also have no interest in whether this is or isn’t politically correct, nor do I understand enough about the politics of academic life to know if LGB is right in her assertions. But I find it odd that she’s framing her argument about whether dominance is real in dogs and wolves in terms of scientific status, and how it supposedly helps obedient academics “get laid.”

LGB: “Lee Charles Kelley is not such an ideologue. He seems like a decent person trying to make sense of the research in order to do right by dogs and their owners. So how can he reconcile the progressive orthodoxy with the evidence he sees with his eyes?”

First of all “progressive orthodoxy” is an oxymoron. If the word progressive applies to scientific thinking it would indicate favoring or promoting movement toward new ideas and freeing oneself from old, outdated ones. If so, I’m guilty as charged. But orthodoxy indicates adhering to the tried-and-true. Dr. LGB is clearly the one clinging to orthodoxy here. That said, there are some tried-and-true rules I do stick to: the laws of parsimony, i.e., Ockham’s razor and Morgan’s canon.

Dominance and Sexuality

“[Kelley] concludes that dominance is limited to the sexual context and thus not a generalized social pattern.”

Dominance should be thought of as a sexual, not a social behavior. The subtitle of LGB’s original post—“Mammals seek power because sex is the reward”—is a clear indicator of that.

In her reply she gives examples of dominance in primates to serve her argument. I have no problem with that. As I wrote in my article, “Within a social context, dominance has no place in the behaviors of most social animals, except primates.” So the social behaviors of chimps and bonobos, et al, aren’t really germane to this discussion.

LGB does say that “Sex, aggression and dominance are different behaviors motivated by different neurochemicals. Testosterone and oxytocin motivate sex, serotonin rewards dominance, and aggression is a cocktail of neurochemicals.”

Tautological Arguments

The main problem I have with this is the idea that “serotonin rewards dominance.” This can only hold true if one is already on board with the dominance label. In other words whatever behaviors serotonin does or does not “reward” could be labeled any number of things: aggression, agonistic, controlling behaviors, etc. By labeling them “dominance” LGB is a) engaging in a tautological (i.e., circular) argument (proving that dominance exists because it’s released when animals act “dominant”), and b) implying that said animals are consciously aware of their rank and status.

Much of the literature on serotonin’s effect on dominance is based on species like lobsters, crayfish, etc., which clearly could have no idea what rank and status mean. How do we explain this? What could possibly motivate a lobster to “rise in status?” I think the very idea is silly.

In their 2008 paper, “Serotonin, social status and sex change in the bluebanded goby Lythrypnus dalli,” Lorenzi, Carpenter, Summers, Earley, and Grober write: “In a variety of vertebrates, highly aggressive individuals tend to have high social status and low serotonergic function.” (The blue-banded goby is a small aquarium fish, whose systems operate in direct opposition to the norm.)

What are the symptoms of low serotonergic function?

Anxiety is one. And it’s pretty high on the list.

Tautological Arguments

LGB: “Mammals seek dominance because the serotonin feels good.”

Yes, but again, only if you’re comfortable with the dominance label. One could as easily say that some mammals may act aggressively toward their conspecifics because doing so releases serotonin. Serotonin’s relationship to dominance only applies if you already believe in the tautology. So the question remains, is such an animal seeking to rise in status, or is he simply trying to reduce his own feelings of anxiety and stress? Absent any clear indication that such animals are capable of abstract and conceptual thought, the laws of parsimony require that we go with the latter.

LGB states that “Dogs calm down when they follow a dominant, and become aggressive when there is no dominant. That’s the message of TV’s Dog Whisperer, and it’s easy to see this with your own eyes.”

It’s a TV show. Whenever I’ve watched it what I’ve seen with my own eyes is a charming, charismatic man with a gift for working with dogs, but almost no real understanding of canine psychology. Millan’s techniques are designed to suppress not only a dog’s emotions but his own. And I would argue that when one suppresses a dog’s emotions, one runs the risk of increasing the levels of aggression that will eventually re-surface later. This is one reason why playing tug-of-war—letting the dog win, and praising him for winning—reduces symptoms of aggression and dominance in dogs. That’s because tug is a safe release-valve for the dog’s underlying aggressive tendencies, tendencies all dogs have because they are, at heart, predators, and, as such, need to release their predatory energy.

LGB writes, “Mammals submit to stronger group mates to avoid getting bitten and scratched,” then adds, “It’s why authoritative leadership calms down dogs, children, and committees. Mr. Kelley accuses The Dog Whisperer’s Cesar Millan of cruelty, so I wonder how he would react to my citing him as a parenting guide.”

I think it should be clear that raising a child by inculcating a fear of being bitten or scratched would not qualify as good parenting. In fact, it would qualify as a criminal act.

Stern Authority Prevails

LGB: “The fact is, stern authority prevails in every mammalian herd or pack or group.”

Ray Coppinger has said that wolves who settle near a garbage dump don’t form packs. Coyotes also form packs, but only when they need to hunt large prey. So the central organizing principle in canine social behavior is the need to hunt large prey by working as a cooperative unit. In fact, wolf society is nothing if not cooperative in nature. The concept of the pack leader as a “stern authority” has begun to crumble in recent years.

In fact, the variations in temperament seen in pack structure, that for so many years were thought to prove the existence of a dominance hierarchy, may actually only exist to facilitate the pack style of hunting. If all members of the pack had an “alpha” or “omega” temperament, the hunt would fail. It’s only when you have a mix of approaches to the prey—some direct, others indirect—that the pack style of hunting gets results.

LGB: “You can choose to know the truth or you can sift for facts that fit your world view. Most people prefer to reinforce their comforting world view.” Then she adds, “A wolf pack is a totalitarian despotism.”

It’s true that people prefer to reinforce their world view. Thomas Kuhn suggested that even our most brilliant scientists do this. So I think it’s interesting that LGB calls the wolf pack a “totalitarian despotism” when the genesis of that idea (which has been proven false by modern research) came primarily from the mind of Konrad Lorenz.

In her book The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs, Alexandra Semyonova writes, “[Konrad] Lorenz specialized in studying birds. His ideas about dogs were shaped informally by watching his own dogs. There were no published studies of domestic dogs at the time, thus nothing to contradict Lorenz. He watched dogs who had been raised only by himself and who never left the estate he lived on. He in fact had no idea about how dogs other than his own behaved, or how his own would have behaved if they had been properly socialized. But that didn’t matter. Lorenz limited himself to popular publications about dogs—an arena that permitted Lorenz to ignore [fellow-biologist Rudolph] Schenkel, who was at the time the great authority on wolves, and who strongly protested the idea of a dominance hierarchy among them. It was an arena in which Lorenz has been caught in more than one blatant lie, but also an arena where lying has no consequences.”

Getting Bitten and Scratched

So let’s go back to LGB’s view of dog society, where dogs are calmer when they have a strong, dominant pack leader, who’s always threatening to bite them, and that in the absence of such a leader, dogs become aggressive. She goes off track when she writes, “The whole pack hunts to support the offspring of the alpha pair ... to avoid getting bitten and scratched.”

There is absolutely no data supporting this statement, and plenty supporting the opposite! The pack hunts because it’s pleasurable, it feels good to release pent-up emotions. That’s it. That’s all. That’s the only reason. Using neurotransmitters as our guide, at every successive step in the predatory sequence, the wolf’s body releases endorphins into the bloodstream. There is no evidence that the subordinate wolves are only hunting out of fear of being bitten by their “superiors.” That’s totally ridiculous.

However, what LGB has added to the discussion is the role serotonin probably plays in canine social behavior. It turns out that the literature on supposed social hierarchies shows that so-called dominant members generally have chronically lowered levels of serotonin—making them anxious—while “subordinates” have elevated levels of cortisol—which means they’re under a lot of stress. (You would be too if you were living in constant fear of being bitten or scratched!)

So where exactly is this “calmness” LGB describes?

I’m sorry, but I stand by original thesis, that dominance is not a real behavior, character trait, or tendency in dogs or wolves. And that when canines do exhibit these characteristics, they’re symptoms of stress and anxiety, not proof of an attempt to rise in status. And the best way to reduce stress and anxiety in dogs is to play hunting games where the dog gets to release his pent-up emotions by biting toys in play.

I’m a dog trainer. I know dogs. And I know that when you can get a dog to play with you outdoors, and put his whole heart and soul into the enterprise, sooner or later, all of his so-called dominant or submissive tendencies will begin to melt away.

Who knows? Maybe it’s the endorphins.


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