"Unified Dog Theory 16: Dominance & the Social Bond."

Does Dominance Training Harm the Bond Between Dogs and Humans?

Originally published in slightly different form on May 23, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.

“All animals learn best through play.”—Konrad Lorenz

Dogs and the First and Second Biological Imperatives

One of the most amazing things about dogs is their ability to form strong, lasting social bonds. Dog lore is rife with stories about dogs who’ve sacrificed their own personal needs—in some cases, their own lives—for the benefit of their owners, even other animals. Cats may alert their owners to a house fire, but only a dog will risk his life and enter a burning building to save others.

This seems to violate one of the principal tenets evolution, that the survival of the individual organism is always the first biological imperative.

Do dogs lack a survival instinct? Of course not. But they do seem to be among a fairly small group of species who are able to override their survival instincts in favor of forming emotional bonds.

The second biological imperative is the survival of a species’ genetic code. This involves an animal’s reproductive instincts, including all aspects of perpetuating and protecting the genetic code, from mating to raising and aggressively protecting one’s young from predators. In fact, it may be that aggression, in its purest form, is directly related to the reproductive instincts in mammals.

Sigmund Freud points us in this direction. “The sexuality of most male human beings contains an element of aggressiveness—a desire to subjugate.” (“Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” 1905, Freud Reader, pg. 252.) In a later article Freud made an attempt to understand how the sex drive—the creative force in nature—can also have a destructive aspect to it. “During the oral stage,” he writes, discussing the early, mostly unconscious stages of eroticism, “... the act of obtaining erotic mastery over an object coincides with that object’s destruction.” (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” 1920, Freud Reader, pg. 621.)

Puppies Like to Destroy Things

Of course Freud was discussing human, not canine sexuality. Yet anyone who’s raised a puppy will tell you that during a puppy’s oral phase, practically ever pup ever born seems genetically engineered to destroy anything he can get his teeth on. And there is often an element not only of blind destructiveness, but an underlying feeling of aggression as well. Don’t get me wrong, these are healthy impulses, impulses that should not be stifled or repressed. They just need to be redirected to the proper objects: bones, chew toys, etc., and away from the carpet, the furniture, and people’s fingers.

In the literature on dominant behaviors in dogs and wolves, the term dominance is almost always paired with acts of aggression, or what are called agonistic behaviors. The question becomes, is dominance-related aggression a purely sexual behavior, or can it also be rightly described as a social behavior as well?

In her recent blog article, “Alphas Hog Reproductive Opportunity—It’s Still the Same Old Story,” Loretta Graziano Breuning writes, “A male bull can’t mate with a female until he pushes other bulls out of the way. Once he dominates, it’s no surprise that he helps himself to mating opportunity ... I’m not saying we should act like animals, but we have the same neurochemistry that causes this behavior in animals.”

If dominance is a function of an animal’s sex drive, as described by Doctors Freud and Graziano Breuning (and many others), what role does it play in canine social structure?

I would argue, that it doesn’t play any role at all.

Survival Behaviors and the Sex Instincts

Going back to the first and second biological imperatives, we can see that survival behaviors are for the most part, unconscious, purely reactive, hardwired responses to danger, based almost entirely on fear as their motivation. The second set of instincts is driven by two things, desire and the apparent need to dominate one’s rivals.

In the sex instinct, mating is the first objective. Neutralizing one’s rivals is secondary. And these behaviors are also, for the most part, hardwired. But while they have different outward manifestations in different species, there’s not much difference between two rams butting heads during rutting season and two guys in a bar fighting over a cocktail waitress.

So if dominance is a real behavior in dogs and wolves, it should rightly only be discussed in terms of the sexual, not social instincts. In fact David Mech, the world’s leading expert on wolf behavior, has said very clearly that “in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all.” (“Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs,” L. David Mech, 1999.) [Note: Mech has stated more recently that “Dominance is one of the most important and most pervasive behaviors among wolves in a pack.” (Mech & Cluff, 2010.)]

Biological Altruism

Some of our most basic understandings about the laws of biology, ethology, evolution, and animal behavior have changed somewhat in recent years due to the discovery of “biological altruism,” where some species of animals—and even some plants—seem compelled to share resources with members of their group while decreasing their own chances of survival! This means that individual survival is not as imperative as we once thought it was. It also means that within a social context, dominance has, perhaps, no place in the behaviors of most social animals, except (perhaps) primates.

So as we move up the instinctual, behavioral ladder, from pure fear-based survival instincts, to the sex instincts, driven by desire and aggression, up to the social instincts, we see that if the urge to dominate does exist in dogs and wolves, it’s only relevant during mating season (or during a puppy’s oral development phase), and has no relevance to the canine social instincts.

When self-styled “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan first came upon the scene in 2004, resurrecting harsh, punitive dominance techniques for training “bad” dogs—techniques which seemed destined to take their place in a museum, alongside medieval torture devices—the positive training movement was aghast, and protested loudly, calling for the removal of Millan’s popular TV show from cable TV.

One of the biggest outcries about Millan’s approach was that dominance techniques—some of which tend to be very punitive in nature—damage the human/animal bond.

I agree. It pains me to see anyone hurting or mistreating a dog. And as a dog trainer, it hurts me even more when I hear someone calling it “training.” That said, Millan has softened somewhat in recent years, Some of his techniques aren’t harmful. So things are no longer cut-and-dried.

By the same token, some of the techniques espoused by Ian Dunbar, Patricia McConnell and others, are based on learning theory. And, as Dunbar wrote recently, “Learning theory was largely based on studies of tirelessly consistent computers using food pellets and electric shock to train captive rats and pigeons, i.e., animals with few hobbies and hardly any options. Things are a bit different in the real world when people try to apply learning theory to train dogs.”

This makes a lot of sense. And the truth is, positive reinforcements are not real objects, events or markers. They only exist as statistical probabilities. One can’t know for certain if a word of praise, or a click from a clicker, or a liver treat, has reinforced a behavior until after the fact. That doesn’t mean that positive training techniques are ineffective. It just means that in the real world, outside of a lab, when used by the average trainer or dog owner, who has probably never studied the complexities of learning theory, the science behind those techniques may not be any more real than the science behind Cesar Millan’s methods.

So Does Dominance Really Exist in Dogs?

I'm not so sure. In my 20+ years of studying and observing dogs I’ve only seen one case of what could reasonably be called dominant behavior.

Do training techniques based on dominance destroy the human/animal bond? There’s sound evidence showing that they sometimes do.

However, I think it’s important to remember that a dog’s social instincts were inherited from wolves. And those instincts were turbo-charged, expanded upon by the working relationships dogs had with our ancestors. And since a wolf’s sole reason for forming social bonds in the first place is to enable the pack to hunt large prey by working together toward a common goal, and since the primary impetus behind the origin of the human/dog bond probably came through our mutual hunting needs, any form of training that doesn’t emphasize, or at least regularly employ, a dog’s prey drive as the focal point of learning, will probably fall short in some way, both in terms of its overall effectiveness, and in its ability to help dogs form strong, stable emotional bonds.

The truth is, there aren’t just two forms of training. There are three: reward-based training, dominance, and drive training, which until recently has only been used to train police dogs, detection dogs, and search-and-rescue dogs.

Drive training employs games like fetch and tug-of-war as the focal point of learning, and has been used successfully a lot longer than either dominance or behavioral science. Plus it’s based on the real-life behaviors of wild wolves and actual working dogs, not of rats and pigeons locked inside boxes in a laboratory or lost or trapped wolves kept captive in zoos and sanctuaries. When used properly, drive training creates the most obedient and most reliable dogs on the planet. [1]

There is nothing wrong with showing gentle leadership to our dogs. After all, how could these wonderful animals cope with the complexities of modern life without our help and guidance? There’s also nothing wrong with using plenty of positive reinforcement, and rewarding good behavior with lots of praise or a favorite treat or toy. But we need to also remember that dogs are predators at heart. So if we really want to create lasting bonds with our dogs, and get the best obedience we can out of them, we also have show them that we understand where they’re coming from.

So we have to come down to their level each day and play our hearts out.


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1) Unfortunately, some trainers working in this field have been infected by the alpha theory. Those who use techniques not based on dominance tend to get much better results.

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