Dominance theory debunked? is the link everybody’s buzzing about.

I have to be honest; for me this is a little like someone posting a study that says that the sky isn’t blue. My immediate response is “Well, good for you, but you either weren’t looking at the right time or you’re colorblind.”

In fact, this study is pretty much EXACTLY like saying that the sky isn’t blue. Because it’s not, of course; the sky is clear. The harder you look scientifically at it, the further from blue it looks, so the more it’s studied the more the researchers insist that it’s anything BUT blue, and before you know it there are a million articles yelling that the sky is not blue, and people completely forget that you walk outside and look up and THERE IT IS, WHAMMO. 

As far as I can tell (I can’t access the full text so am basing this on the various media that refer to the parent article), this particular study was trying to reliably predict behavior based on an assigned dominance number. In other words, a “success” in the study would have been for dog 1 to always behave more aggressively than dog 2, or for dog 1 to show more of some specific behavior than dog 2. In fact, what the researchers observed was that, far more frequently, dogs did certain actions  according to the desire to protect resources, and also behaved according to how they had learned to act. In other words, when they looked for the sky to be blue, when they looked very closely for extremely predictable dominance “aggression” and for a specific ranking to predict specific behaviors, they didn’t find that to be the case.

To this I give a resounding “NO DUH.” That’s not an astonishing finding at all. Behavior that is motivated purely and wholly by status is not only rare, it’s dysfunctional. Think about the life situations where you’re in a very hierarchical relationship – at your work, for example, or with your kids. If I can look at your workplace and predict how aggressive your boss will be based on the fact that he’s your boss, he’s probably a giant jerk who has virtually no leadership skills. I SHOULD see a group of people motivated by producing more widgets, or by reducing taxes on widgets, or by whatever it is your company does. I should see “to maintain my position of leadership” as the motivating factor of only a tiny percentage of your or your boss’s actions. 

But that does not mean that you don’t have a boss, or that you’re not the boss yourself, or that the whole structure of boss-hood is invalid. 

In the same way, there are relatively few dogs who are more motivated by status than by food or by resources or by anything else. But that does not mean that they don’t immediately and instinctively understand those kinds of relationships or that they do not live within those structures. 

I actually like studies like this, studies that are based on actually watching dogs, as long as it stays in the study and you’re allowed to draw your own conclusions from it. I get mad when very small and specific studies like this become justifications for personal soapboxes, or where the forest is lost in favor of the trees. I’m fine as long as people don’t come into my living room and say that there’s absolutely no way that Ginny is being status-obsessed when she’s TOTALLY BEING STATUS-OBSESSED. Her face is on the poster that says status-obsessed!



Here are the statements I think are correct based on my own observations of my own dogs, over a lot of years of observing multiple dogs in established social structures:

– Thirty days is the minimum before you see nuanced or mature behaviors. That’s one thing that worried me about the UK study, that they were looking at a group of neutered males in a shelter situation. That’s a very artificial and high-pressure situation and if the group isn’t stable for a long period of time or doesn’t have the ability to cope in other ways (can’t get enough exercise, are competing for food, are stressed by the environment, etc.) they tend to retreat into broad, shallow behaviors or concentrate on resources over anything else. After thirty days with none of those stressors, the group dynamic changes a LOT. I’ve seen it over and over and over again with the rescues that come in; for a month or so they do the dog equivalent of yelling “DO YOU KNOW WHERE THE BUS STATION IS?” in English to someone who speaks only Russian. Lots of arm waving, lots of worry, lots of repetition of overwrought greeting behaviors. After a few weeks they learn enough of the language so they stop yelling and start speaking in the very short, minute, “sketched” behaviors of a mature social group.

– The authority dog (which is probably a better term than alpha dog or leader) is the one who makes the decisions for the group when the rubber meets the road. If you want to know who the authority dog is, watch the group when a strange sound is heard (car backfiring, etc.). There is a split-second glace of every dog in the group toward one dog; that one dog then models the behavior that the rest of the group immediately adopts. If she (in my experience it’s always a bitch, but my friend who raised working Shepherds saw it in males too; I think a lot depends on the chemistry of the social group and on who is oldest and most experienced) flicks an ear and lies back down, the group relaxes. If she bolts for the fence, they all tense and assume battle stations. 

– The authority dog usually relies on physical correction or physical touch LESS than any of the other dogs. She has no need to use it because she’s obeyed and they all defer to her. Physical and mouth touches are far more the province of the middle-rankers.

– Different dogs are motivated by different things. There are some dogs for whom status is EXTREMELY important, and some who could care less. Dogs are individuals! You can’t predict the behavior of the entire species based on any one motivation any more than you could predict human behavior based on any one motivator.

– Dogs who are unsure of their rank and their job tend to react more quickly and use their mouths more than dogs who are sure of their rank. This applies within the dog-human relationship as well. We all know that a dog who is secure in a subordinate position is generally good, but you see it in an upside-down relationship too. If you are an absent authority figure and your dog completely takes over, your dog is actually pretty likely to be happy and even well behaved. You only get really “bad” behavior when you accidentally do something in a way that the dog perceives as unacceptable or rude and the dog feels the need to correct you. The very worst and most unbalanced behavior comes when the human is inconsistent and the dog feels that his or her role is in flux or insecure. 

– What the rule is is a lot less important than just having and enforcing the rule. For example, dogs understand doors and tight spaces as being authority-charged. Doors are very meaningful. Food and resources are also very charged and very meaningful to dogs. So I have a bunch of rules surrounding door behavior and food behavior, because those are places and situations where dogs are primed to receive messages. What I don’t get hung up on is the stuff that is often recommended to tell the dog that you are “dominant.” Lots of sources will tell you to always go through the door first, or always eat first, or whatever. That honestly doesn’t matter. Your rule could be “Dog, YOU go through the door first” or “Dog, YOU eat first and without moving from this spot” or any one of a hundred variations, and you could ask for a different behavior every day. The point is that the dog sees you as the cue-giver and that they are glancing at you whenever they’re around doors or food; that’s more important than you bolting to try to make it through the door first!

– and this is maybe the most important one: Physical correction or authority-posturing correction (rolling a dog, etc.) DOES work and IS effective and is often the fastest and most efficient thing you can possibly do, because it talks to the dog in the dog’s own cue language… but it is REALLY REALLY HARD to do it right and most people do it wrong. And doing it wrong does extraordinary harm to the dog, destroys the dog-human relationship, and creates a fearful dog who uses mouth immediately and as a default. So I do not recommend it as a training tool and I never advocate those methods when I’m talking to puppy buyers and so on. And that’s why even the most dedicated authority trainers no longer recommend it or even admit that they do it.

I will admit that I do it, because it’s one of the things I can do right and can do predictably and can get results from. I don’t think that’s bragging, because most of the training-type stuff I suck at. My dogs are not straight finishers or instant sitters or anything even close to that, and you’ll never read a blog post from me about how to get a gorgeous off-leash heel. Where I am able to work with dogs is pretty much entirely on the level of language/authority/cues/timing, and after a long time and a lot of dogs I know I can roll a dog and calm it down and make it feel more secure. But the vast majority of owners can’t, and there’s nothing wrong with that, and they’re going to get a LOT better results by concentrating on positive-based predictability and by pretending that dominance theory doesn’t exist.

FINALLY: Dogs do exist in a world of status. Of COURSE they do. In fact, before this study one of the behavioral studies I most recently read was about how female dogs’ tail positions (i.e., the height of their tail carriage) corresponded with how likely they were to try to mark or overmark in response to other dogs’ marking. That’s a study that demonstrates dogs thinking in status-related ways, and it’s foolish to say that somehow the one UK study shows that dominance has been debunked. What IS true is that the community social relationship that dogs enjoy is fully as rich and layered as any society, and there are multiple and complex roles and motivators for each aspect of dog behavior. The more we learn, the more we realize that very few humans can participate in dog-thought at those deep levels, and so the majority of teaching and training should access the more foolproof reward-based motivators that dogs have and enjoy. I think that much we can all agree on.


4 thoughts on “Dominance theory debunked?

  1. Hi, I like your post, well written and well balanced. I do however think that the study you cite is more to do with the relationship between dogs in a pack. The authority dog as you put it keeps harmony in the pack by being a benevolent leader, not by displays of dominance, and he/she certainly doesn’t go around correcting dogs with rolls. (This is what “dominance theory” refers to and is based on studies carried out in the 40’s. We’ve come a long way since then).

    I would also respectfully disagree, rolls do not work, they may ‘appear’ to work, but all that takes place is the dog submits, this is not learning.

    This article looks at the misconceptions of dominance theory:

    You are correct in portraying that when dogs live in a group together a social structure is formed, but this structure is learned through each dogs experiences within the group, not through dominance. Also the structure is malleable, each dog will have strengths and weaknesses, in different circumstances and varying stimulus the authority dog can change, this is social cooperation and balance.

    When a dog or group of dogs live within a human unit, the ultimate benevolent leader is the one who controls all the resource, activities, and environment. As well as providing exercise, guidance, training, and play. This is the human(s). All dogs naturally understand this.

  2. I did buy the text of the study because the press release sounded iffy. It was. The true findings agree with your ideas.
    I agree totally with what you say.
    Leading dog in a walk is not necessarily the alpha, but she does what alpha says.
    I never alpha-rolled but once had a dog whose eyes would glow red with rage and I would pin him and stroke him until he was calm again.

  3. I’m trying to get a copy of the PDF of the study, because I’m curious.

    I both agree and disagree with the study and with you. I do think that dogs do best in situations where they have dependable structures and know what is expected of them, and have ‘leadership’. I’ve known several dogs who have had SERIOUS, life threatening problems because there’s a dog who requires a lot more leadership than the owner is capable of giving.

    On the other hand, I think, ala Cesar Millan, that telling most people they need to be dominant is like telling most people they need to be confrontational. That, too often, dominance is mixed up with aggression towards dogs, with ‘having to win’ and tends to become something that we, as really status seeking apes, tend to fall all over and take to extremes. Sometimes pretty impressive extremes.

    So, if there were less talk of dominance and more talk of how to make dogs work for you, how to reward good behavior and cut out bad behavior? I’d be happier. 🙂

    Really, it all comes down to looking at your dog. Is your dog happy? Do you have a good relationship? Is your dog well socialized and good at going around and doing things? Then, however you got there, it was what worked for you and your dog. It might not work with the next dog, and learning more is always a good thing.

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