The Truth About Dominance


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Dogs are not on a quest for world domination. They are not socialized wolves who are constantly striving to be ‘top dog’ over us, and they are not hard-wired to try and control every situation.

Contrary to what traditional training ideologies and much modern media would have you believe, most canine behavior problems stem from insecurity and/or a desire to seek and maintain safety and comfort – not from a desire to establish higher rank and be the ‘alpha’ over you.

Therefore, teaching dogs ‘who’s the boss’ by forcing them into some mythical state called ‘calm submission’ is precisely the opposite of what they actually need in order to learn effectively and overcome behavioral issues.

Much of this misunderstanding stems from the erroneous application of early studies of captive wolf packs to our understanding of the dynamics of our domestic dogs. There are two problems with extrapolating those wolf pack studies onto dogs:

1.   Dogs and wolves are in fact quite different species.
2.   The results of those studies have since been disproved by the very scientists who conducted them.

Despite this, terms such as 'alpha dog,' 'top dog,' and 'pack leader' have become part of our society’s readily accepted and commonly understood lexicon. Interestingly, when used to describe human concepts of leadership and rank hierarchy, these terms can indeed be useful and usually pose no problem. But issues begin to arise when we ascribe these concepts to our domesticated dogs, assuming incorrectly that dogs place the same value as we do on the practice of identifying who is of higher rank in any given situation.

Resisting the urge to assign our human insecurities onto how we believe our dogs think and feel is a prerequisite to being able to understand and build truly balanced and healthy relationships with our dogs.

The History of Dominance (in Science)
Our understanding of dominance has evolved over the past half-century as modern behavioral science has continued its study of inter-relationships within the animal world.

For clarity’s sake it is important to understand how the word 'dominance' became so prevalent in describing dog/dog and human/dog social relationships.

The term 'pecking order' was originally applied to explain the social hierarchies of domestic fowl in the 1920's by researchers who observed that chickens commonly established what they assumed tobe social rank by pecking at or threatening to peck each other.

Since then, more advanced studies on social hierarchies have been conducted on many other species, with researchers discovering that although dominant members of certain animal groups were more likely than others to display threatening or aggressive behavior, they most often asserted their influence (dominance) without the use of force. Other members of the group appeased their peers by offering deference (submission) behaviors to the more dominant members.

In other words, dominant relationships among animals are usually exerted without the use of force or threat of aggression, thereby reducing the potential for conflict.

Importantly, some of these studies were conducted on groups of captive wolves, with the findings (since disproved) incorrectly applied to domestic dog behavior. Read more about why assuming dog and wolf behavior is similar is dangerous on the Dogs vs Wolves page.

Submission is Never Forced   This is a critical component to truly understanding how dogs interact: If a particular dog is dominant over another, such status is usually freely acknowledged and mutually understood—most often without issue.  Because dominance is usually a mutually agreed-to state, the dog allowing another dog to be dominant is freely offering its submission—it is not being physically forced on the dog. This freely given submission reveals an overriding instinct among all dogs to avoid conflict in an effort to ensure safety and survival.

Alpha Dogs: Misunderstood
Traditional training theorists have led people to believe that social hierarchies among multidog households and human/dog families are rigid, with an 'alpha' (dog or person) at the top of the hierarchy and other members of the human or canine family fitting nicely into fixed slots underneath.

Although social hierarchies do exist among dogs, with certain dogs being more controlling than others, studies have shown that such dynamics are not fixed; rather, they are constantly changing.

Dogs that live in multidog households, for example, are usually able to work out among themselves who has primary access to what, depending on the value each dog places on a resource. For example, certain dogs might place more value on a food resource when it comes to feeding time, whereas others may desire priority to a preferred sleeping location. One dog might not necessarily (and usually does not) control access to every single resource, but will control only those that he deems to be of highest value to him. To maintain a safe and peaceful environment, a dog must be able to accept another’s desire for priority access to other resources. Squabbles and fights occur between dogs when equal value is placed on resources such as food, places, objects or people and desire for priority access increases competition and therefore confrontation.

Pack Leader or Just a Bully? Those who misunderstand dominance regularly mislabel aggressive or controlling dogs as 'pack leaders' or 'alpha dogs'. But the truth is that in most cases, those dogs are simply acting like common bullies.  When you think of it in human terms, is the schoolyard bully the most confident kid in the class or the most insecure? Invariably, bullies are not confident people, and their need to control others by inflicting physical or emotional harm is driven by an acute insecurity rather than an abundance of healthy self-confidence. Canine bullies are also insecure, and although it’s true that they sometimes still influence the behavior of other dogs that are willing to preserve their energy for the protection of resources they actually care about, such influence is still not the result of a battle over rank. It is critical to understand that macho, bullying behavior has no place in a natural, well-functioning dominant/submissive canine relationship or a human/canine relationship.Although disagreements still occur among dogs that have formed healthy relationships with each other, there are some dogs that display socially inappropriate behavior, disrupting the status quo by bullying others. Even though this bullying behavior might appear tough, these dogs are usually quite the opposite of confident and self-assured.

Misdiagnose the Issue, Prescribe the Wrong Treatment
Most of the dog-owning public has long been misled into thinking that treating dominance is the key to solving most dog behavior problems, when the reality is quite different.

Think of dog training in medical terms. As any doctor will tell you, if you don’t know what the root cause of a given problem is, you can’t effectively treat the problem. The diagnosis and treatment process can become clouded when too much emphasis is placed exclusively on symptoms rather than an investigation into possible root causes.

Obviously, if you misdiagnose the disease, you will also usually end up applying the wrong treatment to the patient. In a best-case scenario, the worst you’ve done is delay the patient’s recovery. Ideally, you’ll quickly realize the treatment isn’t working, have the humility to admit your mistake, and apply the correct remedy. In the worst case, however, an inappropriate treatment plan based on the misdiagnosis actually exacerbates the patient’s condition, making it even more difficult to solve if and when you realize your mistake.

Unfortunately for dogs, a misdiagnosis of their behavior problems as dominance-related usually leads to the worst-case scenario. The traditionally-prescribed behavior modification techniques designed to prevent dogs from ‘raising status’ over their owners usually include punishment, intimidation, and fear—precisely the opposite of what dogs really need in order to overcome most behavioral issues.

Bottom Line
Being 'dominant' in the animal world means that force or violence is seldom used to maintain the status quo, so why do some trainers and dog owners still believe that using forceful and punitive techniques to establish themselves as the 'alpha,' 'boss' or 'pack leader' is the correct way to train dogs? This misapplication is where the danger lies with respect to our confusion over what the word actually means.

People have allowed their human concept of dominance (based on accumulating power, establishing higher rank and exerting control in a forceful and sometimes violent way) to not only muddle their interpretation of canine relationships and social hierarchies but also to dictate how they attempt to manage and train dogs.

Science has shown us that forced submission is not at all representative of how animals, including dogs, establish healthy functional relationships between themselves or us.

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27 thoughts on “The Truth About Dominance

  1. Todd Bryant

    This article is a thinly veiled slam on Caesar Milan - the popular Dog Whisperer. This author attempts to debunk his work without actually stating it directly. Caesar's stuff works, rather than attack the author, why not simply offer another way of training dogs and let the evidence be the judge.

  2. Stephanie_Coulthard

    Perhaps if you had taken the time to navigate this site, you would have seen that Ms Stillwell does in fact offer an entirely different training methodology to Cesar Millan, one that is not only proposed by her but by other successful and highly-regarded trainers like Patricia McConnell et al. Cesar looks great on the Dog Whisperer where the power of video editing makes his methods look like a win-win. But by his own admission, he has no scientific background or understanding of dog behavior, relying instead on disproven and outdated theories and a giant machismo complex. The problem is, we a society love the idea of a "quick fix" - unfortunately, training a dog successfully takes time and commitment, something most folks are unwilling to invest in their animal companions.

  3. Debbi Lucas

    Good article. We have a multi -dog household, was 3 dogs. We just recently lost one dog to cancer. We now have a 6 year old female pittie and a 1 year old female pittie/boxer mix. Recently the older dog has started displaying aggression towards the younger female. We have had 3 fights between them, each one escalating. Each fight appeared to happen when the younger one seems to intrude into the other's space. For example, the older one on the couch between 2 adults, the younger one sits below on the floor and looks up at the older one. The older one all of a sudden attacks. At times they play well, although the younger one appears to be the aggressor (playfully) and the older one seems to just tolerate it. I know the older one is now mourning the loss of the older dog, but two fights occurred prior to the death of the other dog. We thought the older one was displaying this aggression because she was trying to assert her place in the household, but after reading this article I am not sure. So what can be the reason for this aggression, and how best do we resolve it? Now the younger one is walking around on pins and needles, afraid of when the older one might attack.

  4. Michaela O'Donnell

    I'm sorry about the loss of your dog, I am a vet tech and I know how heartbreaking it is to lose a family member. I'm curious about your dearly departed dog-was it a male or female? I am not sure exactly why, as Im a tech, not a trainer, but it is a VERY common issue to see two female dogs not getting along-especially bully breeds (don't get me wrong, I am a pittie girl myself!) The third dog- of either sex, probably helped balance the two out, but with that dog gone its a head to head competition. And the age of the younger one is probably a major factor as well. I assume they are both spayed-and if not would strongly recommend it. Female dogs tend to be more aggressive toward other females, much more so than males to males or opposite sexes-and if either dog is intact, this only escalates the situation further. And this is often very common when the younger female is hitting sexual maturity, at 12-24 months. Unfortunately, these types of issues usually continue to escalate if they are left to work it out. I have never owned two females at one time for this exact reason, so I can't speak first hand. I just know that in ten years as a tech, seeing female on female dog fights between two house mates is rather a common occurance, and usually results in one needing stitches or worse eventually. When females fight these fights are much more dangeros than when males fight. I would do some research and try to understand why female dogs are more aggressive toward one another-maybe there are issues that you just don't understand that are happening right before your eyes. 2 females pitties living together is certainly not impossible, but it's a lot more work, and typically requires getting a trainer to intervene. Best of luck!

  5. Debbi Lucas

    Thank you. It was a heartbreaking loss and we miss him dearly. Yes, he was male and makes sense that he balanced it out. Both females are spayed. I definitely need to do research, as I really want them to get along and of course, dont want either hurt. We are often on edge too, because it is not a fun experience to watch 2 dogs fight, especially 2 you love! Thanks for your comment, much appreciated!

  6. PremierDogs

    Another important aspect about dominance that gets overlooked (that is, based on the commonly accepted scientific definition of dominance), is that dominance is a relationship between two members of the **same** species.

  7. PremierDogs

    Debbi, you wrote, "We thought the older one was displaying this aggression because she was trying to assert her place in the household, but after reading this article I am not sure."

    Dominance between dogs can (and does) occur, but it is relationship specific. All dogs are different and all relationships are different, so there is no simple one-size-applies-to-all answer for situations like you are experiencing.

    A few thoughts...

    First, when dealing with behaviour issues (including aggression) it's always important to rule out the possibility of a health issue, as pain/illness can be a cause or contributor to the display of behaviour such as aggression.

    The fact that the dynamic within the household has changed due to the loss of one of your dogs (very sorry to hear about that), is noteworthy, as is the fact that the two dogs can get along quite well and without incident most of the time. Based on this, I think the best place for you to start is to review the context for each of the 'fights' that have taken place. Think each incident through one at a time... where it occurred, who was in the room, where were the dogs, what was taking place prior to the incident, was there a resource that was being guarded, what interaction preceeded the incident, etc... to see if any commonalities or patterns can be identified. I wouldn't be surprised if you did indeed find a commonality between the different incidents. Hopefully you do, because that will help you understand how to manage the dogs' environment to prevent future incidents from occurring and to determine if you need assistance in the form of a behaviour modification strategy. 🙂

  8. Debbi Lucas

    Thanks for this info. The aggressive dog is my daughter's and I have asked her to get her to the vet, to first determine is any health issues, so this is in the works. We have reviewed when the incidents happened, and it appears to be related to resource guarding. Such as the older one was in a special spot, around us humans, and felt that the younger one was trying to move into her spot. We are now more careful about watching for body language when the younger one seems to move in closer to the older one.

  9. Todd Gorrell

    I believe this article to be true.... Theories are generally made by people who practice the theory on a regular basis. Therefore, the theory in of itself is evidence provided by the theorist.

  10. Sophie

    There is no reason to doubt your experience as to how your female dogs get along. Please remember however, that just like humans, each and every dog is an individual, separate and unique from any other. The relationship between your dogs is how these two particular individuals relate to each other, but your personal experience does not disprove the accepted theory of how female dogs relate to each other generally - recognizing, of course, that there are exceptions to every rule. Scientific evidence compiled from years of observation, study, and analysis are what distinguish between anecdotal evidence and proven theory. One thing most people fail to understand, by the way, is the meaning of the word "theory," which I believe has caused quite a bit of confusion no matter what the topic under discussion may be. A theory is not just an idea or mere speculation, which is how most people think of the term, but is in fact a coherent group of tested propositions commonly regarded as correct that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena. A principle, law, or doctrine, such as the Law of Gravity or the Law of Cause and Effect are examples that demonstrate what is meant by "theory." It can, and has been, tested and replicated under controlled conditions, meaning it can be relied upon to be true in the majority of cases. I think it's great that yor female dogs get along so well, and I've seen a few such cases myself, but I've seen many more situations where it was an extremely tense and volatile situation that the average dog owner/guardian - in my opinion - is not equipped to handle. One further thing comes to mind on this subject is the attitude, demeanor, and expectations of the dog owner have more than a little to do with how a group (or pack, if you will) get along with one another. State of mind is the only area in which I agree completely with Cesar Milan, and if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. A nervous owner will transmit that emotional energy to the dog, and as Victoria has often pointed out, nervousness or fearfulness are what drive much of the behavior in dogs that is problematic.

  11. janet goree

    I agree with Debbie. I have 2 sisters, a brother and their mom(all fixed). About every 3rd or 4th night one of the girls will start growling when their mom or siblings try to get up and if I dont intervene we will have a fight. I just place them on the floor and by the time they get back up they are no longer growling.

  12. 1concernedanimalowner

    With what you are saying, I cannot understand how you could be a "huge fan" of Cesar Milan. He causes more problems than he solves. He is abusive and uneducated and preaches the COMPLETE opposite of what this is saying.

  13. orfan

    How does being "at the same 'hierarchy level' " equate to the dog being dominant over us? You literally just said they're at the same level. If I'm in control of the resource (food), and I'm "[g]iving" it to the dog, as per your example, then I'm tautologically in control.

    I would define what the dog is eating - if the dog is trying to eat my food, that's a behaviour I don't want the dog to practice (because I'd consider it rude or pushy, same as if a family member forked a piece of my food *without asking*; because my dogs have food sensitivities; and for sanitary concerns). However, I do reward my dogs from the table, meaning both that I'll give them something while I'm sitting at the table, or I get up from the table, go to my dog, and deliver the edible item. I do this when my dogs are good, and when they're engaged in behaviour I want to have repeated. (In my case, I can give my girl half my meal and then send her away to lie down and not beg, while the boys I tend to reward for lying down calmly nearby, not trying to get too close to the table - all behaviours I want to have repeated.)

    In my mind, the real issues with 'dominance' tend to occur when there isn't permission being sought or given - from the person or the dog. It's all about the relationship, and it's all in how we define the terms, so if 'dominance' is defined as something like 'contest between members of the same species over resources,' then I'd need to find a new term. If my dogs are trying to take my meal, especially after being told either to leave it, or do something else (bed, lie down, back up, head off, etc.), to me that's rude/pushy behaviour. I don't think the dog is necessarily being 'dominant' at that point, but it could go down a bad path if the behaviour is allowed to continue. Likewise, if I try to take a resource from my dog (bone, toy, dish towel, etc.) without previously teaching my dog to give me something, I'm being the pushy and rude one, because dogs don't act that way (often). That path can easily lead to resource guarding, which many would then say is the fear of the loss of the resource.

    In my mind and experience, using force is a great way to teach a dog that, *unlike dogs*, we (human and dog) use force to communicate and get what we want (even if it's to avoid something) with each other. I've heard plenty of stories of owners being bitten after rubbing their dog's nose in eliminations one too many times. Also a big key to how dogs interact is Ian Dunbar's anecdote (it's probably online somewhere) of what his group of dogs (Beagles I believe) finally did to the pushy, rude, aggressive bully who repeatedly failed to follow the groups' rules.

  14. Simon

    So you're saying his resource, i.e growl is acceptable behaviour and should let it carry on. Without dismissing the practice that is working, please enlighten us all with your wisdom and how you would solve the problem.

  15. Diane Parkes

    You have both raised some interesting points, I agree that it is important to maintain signals such as growling as it is a clear warning. I would be interested Sophie to know what you would do in Debbi's situation with a dog who is resource guarding her? My reaction would be to remove the growling dog but I wouldn't encourage the other dog to get up.

  16. sad_puppy

    From her post I feel I am similar to Sophie. Most of the references she has suggested are the same that I have found to clarify my understanding of dog behaviour. While I am also a fan of Cesar Milan, I do not agree with everything he says and does. This does not mean I have not learned an enormous amount from him, and duly I list him as one of my sources for "enlightenment". As with Sophie (according to her post) I too am saddened every time I hear a person grab onto and run with a poorly understood Cesar concept. People who are not Cesar Milan will of course struggle to replicate what he achieves and this is perhaps his most important and most missed lesson - what YOU as the handler bring to the the dog will majorly affect how it reacts and responds in any given situation. It is difficult to explain in a way many people can understand, and I believe this is one of Cesar's biggest hurdles (how the millions of people who watch him interpret his ways and replicate them themselves). I do not find Sophie's admission of Cesar fandom to be at all in conflict with her desire to allow her dog to act as an individual and often take charge of her. Personally I disagree with much of what Victoria Stillwell says (or perhaps just how she says much of it?) but this does not mean I do not learn anything from her, or consider her an important voice in the dog behaviour world. Would you believe it possible that I am both a fan of Cesar Milan AND Stanley Coren? The most significant things I have learnt I've learnt from those two people, both at completely different ends of the spectrum. Is there no room for opinions from across the board?

  17. sad_puppy

    The growl should be treated as a communication/expression of "feeling" from the dog and should most certainly be acknowledged. The tricky bit is being able to figure out what that particular dog meant by it's growl at that specific moment, and then to figure out away of addressing that expression and resolving the matter. Growling is an indication of something, quite often discomfort (with another dog's/person's proximity for example). It is a warning signal, used to inform the target (eg. other dog, person, etc) that it uncomfortable about what it dislikes and if the situation does not improve it will "raise the stakes" and resort to further "distance increasing" behaviours, like snapping or biting. The danger in stifling a dog's choice of growling (punishing it for growling) without acknowledging and dealing with the reason for the dog's perceived need to growl is that, having been shown growling doesn't work, it may move straight on up to snapping or biting, giving the offending dog/person LESS warning to move away before being potentially damaged.
    Showing favoritism can cause more problems that it's worth depending on the personalities in play. If you favour the wrong dog you leave the other no option but to continue to compensate with it's own style of warning (possibly meaning more fights as the "lower" dog tries to out right the order of things that the human has mucked up). In my opinion Diane Parkes has the better idea of how to handle the growler on the sofa

  18. Cath Taylor

    I worked for a while for a small dog Charity. I often had to stay overnight caring for about 6 rescued dogs. I did find it useful to establish 'leadership' by their methods, basically, never say hello or goodbye to a dog - not their concern what you are doing. And, e..g. when a 12 stone mastiff leaned on me, just moving away without speaking. The key was not speaking. We had a 12 year old lurcher type that had been shut outdoors most of his life. He was reluctant to go out at night to do his business. I just went out first, kept my back to him and said nothing, and within a few minutes out he came. Time and agin saw this method work when dealing with dogs with fears (usually justified). Needless to say, when I had my own small dog, he was totally in charge!

  19. alethea

    If the future of dog training is euthanasia for normal aggressive behaviors than we have a serious problem in dog training. Dog status, competition for resources and related aggression does exist and it is totally fixable but not by ignoring it hoping it will go away.

  20. Michelle

    I have an 8 yr old female, 6 yr old female & 2 yr old male ……all chow chows, all fixed, all since 8w weeks old . When we got the 6yr old as a pup , the rescue told us they excepted her to try to be dominant. The last 6 months we have had to step in between the girls a few times....... Twice in the last month they have actually fought. …common factor seems to be playtime with the youngest. If the 6yr old gets just a little to rough or aggressive with the 2yr old the 8yr old starts to circle or just attacks her. We give the commands to leave it or walk away, most of the time it works but sadly not all anymore and I don't why. Any thoughts on why now this is happening? What I can do to help make things better again?

  21. Sean Detente

    People who say bullies aren't confident have never been bullied when they were kids, or I highly doubt they experienced much of it. It's the lack of confidence, weakness, in other people they feed on. But I get the analogy to dogs and owners, though.

  22. Karen Bonner

    The reason they bully is because they lack confidence and have a need to continually prove themselves as the "dominant" one. Someone who is confident doesn't have this need to prove themselves over others.

  23. Graeme Stevens

    Sean, I completely agree. The 'bullies lack confidence' myth is just a tool to diminish the bullies, it has little basis in fact. There are many cases where esteem or confidence issues will cause defensive behaviour, including pre-emptive strikes and establishing a fearsome reputation but it is a mistake to assume all bullies are lacking confidence. The subject is far too complex to give this blanket 'diagnosis'.

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