“Dominance” is a term frequently used by dog owners and trainers alongside some behaviourists and vets. It is especially popular in the context of dog aggression. 

The word ‘dominance’ actually describes a characteristic of a relationship: one animal can have a dominant relationship over another. However, in the dog world it has become a way to describe an individual personality trait. This can be misleading! 

What is dominance theory?

The theory of dominance as a personality trait is common. The assumption being that these dogs are particularly driven to achieve a top place in their household, forming a strict hierarchy. This theory led to an increase in punishment-type behavioural corrections. For example, the ‘alpha-roll’ where the owner is encouraged to forcibly turn the dog over onto their backs in an apparent act of submission. Phrases such as “teach them who’s the boss” tie in with this type of training. 

Where did dominance theory come from?

As dogs are descended from wolves, it is often assumed that their social groups and behaviours may well be similar. The ‘wolf pack’ theory is that wolves form a hierarchy within their social groups. These have an ‘alpha’ as the most dominant individual: the wolf that wins fights and gains the most food and mates. 

This theory has been challenged for many years now. Wolves in captive packs, which most early research was based on, do seem to have a loosely hierarchical social structure. However, the levels of aggression do not appear to be related to the behavioural dominance of pack individuals.  Wild packs are now thought to be based around a breeding pair, accompanied by some or all of their offspring. In these more natural groupings, dominance displays are rare. 

We therefore now understand that it is less likely that dogs are naturally dominant, and that their aggression is based upon this rather confusing trait. Domestication will also have had huge effects on their behaviour.

What about feral dogs?

Feral dog populations also do not seem to abide by theories of dominance. Most packs seem to have a very loose social structure, with groups formed around family groups. Aggression between different packs is observed, but rarely within groups. Dominant and submissive body language, and behavioural displays of these, were seen only infrequently.

Are neutered dogs different?

In a large group of neutered dogs studied, no traditional dominance hierarchy was formed. Rather, there were various relationships formed between pairs of animals, leading to quite a complicated structure. ‘Dominant’ behaviours, such as growling, chasing, standing over and staring were present, and more often displayed by some dogs than others, but seemed mostly to be used when in competition for various resources such as food or toys. No obvious alpha-omega structure emerged and in fact the dynamic appeared to be constantly changing. 

What should we use instead of dominance?

Most behaviourists now acknowledge that dominance should not be used to describe an individual dog, but to describe a relationship between two animals. In any relationship there is always conflict, and the ‘dominant’ dog is defined as the dog who most often wins. If there are multiple dogs in a household, these pair relationships may all link up to form a kind of hierarchy. There is no evidence that these relationships are decided on either dog having a more ‘dominant’ personality, but are likely due to multiple factors including socialisation and even hormones. 

What should we be looking at instead?

An alternative to looking at dog behaviour has been proposed: the Resource Holding Potential (RHP). This looks at how likely dogs are to compete in varying sets of circumstances. This theory takes into account that different dogs value different resources more highly than others. It explains better why a dog which appears ‘dominant’ may retreat from an altercation over a resource that a more ‘submissive’ dog may fight for: a favourite toy valued much more by one dog than another, for example. 

Is it ever useful?

Dominance theory of a kind does have some uses when used correctly. As an example, dogs which interact often, and place a similar value on a resource (a similar RHP), may form a stable hierarchy based on previous encounters. Where one dog ‘wins’ the first few encounters, future disputes are likely to be over very quickly when the other dog learns not to escalate as they will likely lose.

Care needs to be taken not to oversimplify. There are likely a whole host of factors influencing aggression, including a strong element of learnt behaviour. When a pair of dogs first meet, they do not know each other’s potential and what they most value. Over a series of encounters they learn how the other dog may react and what the outcome may be. A puppy entering a new household, for example, may learn that the existing older dog has a favourite toy which they must not touch under any circumstance, but they can happily steal food from their bowl right in front of their nose. 

What about dog on human aggression?

Dog trainers that subscribe to dominance theory will also apply this to dog-human relationships. However, we now know this is unlikely. A better explanation for aggression is that the dog learns, due to previous encounters and context, that aggression can work. If a dog is anxious when an owner approaches it may show various behaviours (hiding, appeasement) but if these do not work, aggression often does – even as a temporary measure. If this response is consistently successful, the dog will learn to use this approach more, and with less warning, until it appears unprovoked.

Dominance as a character trait has been disproved, so the traditional punishment forms of training for so-called dominant dogs should be considered unsuitable. They are now considered to only create anxiety in dogs and strain the dog-owner bond, rather than positively impact any behaviours. 

Let’s sum it up….

We now know so much more about both wolf and dog natural social behaviour than we did when dominance theory started to become popular many years ago. Our new knowledge makes the idea of a dog constantly battling for social dominance over their fellow canines and also their human owners very unlikely, putting dominance theory squarely in the ‘MYTH’ category. 

It seems much more in keeping with what we now understand about dog behaviour that social groups are complex, ever-changing, and that aggression is likely due to a combination of factors including learnt behaviour and competition for resources. Understanding how these behavioural pathways are formed is essential when dealing with an aggressive dog to realise how to slowly reverse the process.

Further Reading:

Bradshaw, J.W.S., Blackwell, E. & Casey, R. (2009) ‘Dominance in domestic dogs: useful construct or bad habit?’ Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 4 pp.135-139Accessed: http://img2.timg.co.il/forums/1_139885255.pdf