“How to Cure Dominance in Dogs.”

3 Simple Steps to Solving Stress-Related Behavioral Problems in Dogs.

Originally published in slightly different form on March 9, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.

Is Dominance a Real Thing?

In a recent post in his blog Games Primates Play, Dario Maestripieri has responded to Dr. Marc Bekoff’s recent article, “Social Dominance is Not a Myth“ (which was a response to my blog post, “Deconstructing the Concept of Dominance“).

Dr. Maestripieri says he agrees with Bekoff’s position that dominance is real, but he disagrees when Bekoff claims that dominance is a slippery concept, and that we need to use caution when discussing these issues.

“In my view,” says Maestripieri, “there is nothing slippery about the concept of dominance, nothing simplistic or misleading ... and no need to be cautious about it.”

That may be true of human social systems. But remember, Dr. Bekoff and I were discussing how dominant behaviors manifest in canine, not human, society.

Most human social systems—schools, governmental agencies, the police, the military, families—operate from the top down: you do as you’re told or there are consequences.

However, it’s now known that ant colonies—once thought to be rigidly controlled by the queen—operate solely from the bottom up. Ants colonies are self-emergent systems, controlled by a few observable rules that can also be written out in the form of computer algorithms.

Wolf society seems to operate as both. We know, for instance, that when wolves hunt there is no one wolf who leads the enterprise and controls how others position themselves in relation to the prey. A Spanish dog trainer and two computer scientists recently created a computer model showing that two simple rules—regarding positions between pack members and positions relative to the prey animal—are all that’s necessary to imitate the complexities of wolf pack hunting behavior (something I predicted in my 2003 novel, To Collar a Killer).

However, when it comes to dominant behavior in wolves, things are slippery, as Bekoff says. Sometimes it’s very clear, some times it isn’t.

Things Aren't Always What They Seem

For instance, Dr. Maestripieri writes, “Two individuals in a relationship establish dominance with each other so that every time a disagreement arises, there is no need for fighting or negotiation. The outcome is always known in advance because it’s always the same: the dominant individual gets what he wants and the subordinate doesn’t.”

But in wild canids, the dominant individual doesn’t always get what he wants. Bekoff: “A low ranking individual may be able to keep possession of food even when challenged by another individual who actively dominates him or her in other contexts.”

Another example comes when a breeding male and female wolf are in a dispute over a dead hare the male has brought back to the den (he acts as if he wants to keep it, she acts as if she wants to give it to her pups). The female invariably wins these conflicts by acting submissive; no matter how dominant the male acts, the “submissive” female always gets what she wants.

Since Dr. Maestripieri’s main area of study is primate behavior he’s quite correct when applying these rules to such species. However, even when experts on canine behavior discuss the concept of dominance—what it is, what it isn’t—it can be a bit like putting ten blind men in a room with an elephant. We all have a clear idea of what the elephant is like, and we’re all correct, from our own individual perspectives, even though those views may very well clash. As Jane Packard writes, dominance may be in “the eyes of the beholder.’”

This suggests that, at least in canines, dominance is either much too complex a subject to be fully understood or that we haven’t yet found the unifying principle explaining all the facets of this—at times—vexing topic.

How to Cure “Dominance“ in Dogs

This is brings us to the topic at hand: how to cure “dominance” in dogs.

I think it helps if you take as your starting point that dominant behavior is not an inflexible character trait, or even a predictable, all-or-nothing property of social relationships. Dominance is—in all probability—a by-product of stress. More stress = more dominance.

I don’t know if this is the unifying principle or just my own piece of the elephant. But what I do know is that rigorous physical exercise—and more importantly, rough-and-tumble outdoor play—reduces stress. (Stress may also be a factor in human “dominants,”: a recent study shows that bosses who act too “bossy” lose that tendency if they simply exercise more.)

Of course wolves get plenty of exercise. So that alone doesn’t explain why members of wolf packs act more dominant at some times than they do at others. But I still think it can be explained through the stress brought on by changing environmental pressures

This brings us to the simple formula for curing “dominance” in dogs.

Sublimation of Aggressive Urges

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud says that the sublimation of an individual’s aggressive urges and desires is what makes civilized society possible. I think the same can be said for canine society. In dogs, dominant behaviors enable an animal to sublimate his aggressive urges—particularly the urge to bite—into socially acceptable ways. When those urges aren’t given an acceptable outlet, that’s when behavioral problems start to develop.

The more a dog can express his inherent aggression safely through play, the less need he has to release that pent-up energy through “dominating” others. Think of play as a safety valve, allowing a dog to let off steam. If his natural aggression is not given an outlet, then the dog becomes even more stressed which creates a continuous loop of stress and dominance.

There are 3 basic steps to curing dominance in dogs.

  1. Make the animal feel safe. The dog has to know and feel that you aren’t going to hurt him.

  2. Give the dog an acceptable outlet for his aggression through games like tug, fetch, keep away, and “chase me.”

  3. Teach basic impulse-control behaviors such as the sit and stay, particularly where the motivation for obedience is the opportunity to bite a toy.


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