Why ‘Dominance’ Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word
It’s understandable that people in the dog training world get so agitated when the word “dominance” is mentioned, even when used in the right context. The idea of dominance in dogs has been so misunderstood by some trainers in popular media for so long that it has now become a dirty word, such that even when trainers and behavior experts use the word correctly, they risk a backlash from people that are – let’s face it - exhausted from having to continually reeducate the public about what dominance really is and what it isn’t, particularly when so much damage has been done because of the way the word has been used by some people in the dog training world.
In order to understand why the word has become such a problem, you first have to appreciate the different beliefs held by those in the dog training industry. Dog trainers usually fall into three camps: positive trainers who train dogs without force, fear or pain; punitive or traditional trainers who utilize physical and emotional punishment in order to get dogs to behave; and “balanced trainers” who use positive reinforcement to motivate dogs to learn and physical and emotional punishment when dogs don’t obey or misbehave. I’m firmly on the record regarding my beliefs about this question, so I’m not going to delve too deep into which camp is right or wrong here, but suffice it to say that as a positive trainer, I extoll the virtues and efficiency of training all dogs without pain or fear, while educating as many dog lovers as I can about the dangers of physical and emotional punishment, even (indeed, especially) in extreme behavior cases.
But it’s the “D-word” – dominance – that fascinates me now; particularly the sensitivity surrounding the use of a word that merely explains a social interaction. To make it easier to understand, I will first tell you what the word means in scientific terms when used to describe dog behavior and what it doesn’t.
What Dominance Is
Dominance is a social relationship between species, usually associated with the issue of which animal has priority access to certain resources. In the case of dogs, when used correctly it is used to describe healthy social interactions, which are based on deference and dominance displays between dogs.
In canine terms, the word dominance should not be used to describe a character trait, even though we use it when describing people (i.e., “he or she has a dominant personality.”) Take Donald Trump for example. Love him or hate him, he’s the first person that comes to my mind when thinking about a dominant personality. Large, imposing and often chaotic, Trump has achieved the ultimate social position in the human dominance hierarchy – President of the United States. His outsized personality and bombastic rhetoric has certainly caused a massive backlash against him from plenty of people, but he’s a great example of a man that displays the popular idea of human dominant behavior.
In canines, however, dominance is not about who has all the power over everything, but rather about who has priority access to certain resources (and by resources I mean food, toys, beds, reproductive partners and people, to name a few.) Take a multi-dog household for example. One dog might value and protect his food bowl over everything else, while another might not give the food bowl much thought, but will value a sleeping area instead. My dog Sadie is the food bowl queen and our Chihuahua mix Jasmine better watch out if she gets too close. Jasmine, on the other hand, loves her bed and makes sure that Sadie knows she is not always welcome if she gets too close. Both dogs value and require priority access to different things and the relationship works because in each context they defer to the priority of the other. When Sadie is eating out of her food bowl, she is the “dominant” one in the relationship because Jasmine defers to her. When Jasmine is on her bed, she is “dominant” because Sadie defers to her. As long as both dogs understand their place with each other in those particular situations, the relationship works. But problems can occur in multi dog households when equal value and desire for priority access is placed on a particular resource and where both dogs are competitively vying for that access.
Therefore healthy social relationships in dogs exist because of dominance and deference. It’s a very risky survival tactic if all you use is violence to exert your dominance. Violence causes injury and can compromise survival, but deference ensures success, as long as each dog understands the rules of the game. Dogs that ignore, take advantage of or don’t understand the deference signals of others are often labeled as bullies, regardless of the reasons for their behavior.
This is a quick and simple explanation of dominance and deference when it comes to social hierarchy, but the beauty of this give and take is that, when it works, social dominance is healthy and fluid. The idea of a constant and fixed hierarchy, where one dog is always “alpha” or “top dog” is highly flawed. You might have a dog that constantly bullies and tries to exert his dominance, a canine Donald Trump as it were, but these dogs are behaving inappropriately and need extra humane guidance to show them that there is another way.
What Dominance Isn’t
Dominance is not about a dog’s desire to be head of your household. The idea that dogs come into our homes and misbehave or challenge us because they want to be “alpha,” “pack leader” or “top dog” over us is simply not true. The complex cognitive processes that are needed to strategize an attempted coup over your home and family is something that your dog, however smart, is just not equipped to do, considering that their cerebral cortex, (the thinking part of the brain), is simply not as complex or developed as ours.
The tragedy of this misunderstanding can often cause huge problems. People who misunderstand dominance often attempt to stop this supposed ascent or to ensure a dog knows his or her place by “dominating” their dogs via punitive techniques in order to put their dogs into some mythical state called “calm submission”. Science would argue that no such state exists, and that when dogs cease their supposedly dominant behavior and appear somewhat subdued because they are submitting “calmly” to a person restraining them or physically punishing them, inside their hormones and neurotransmitters are actually working overtime as their survival instincts take over, preparing their bodies for freeze, flight or fight. To the untrained eye, the behavior looks quiet and still, but these dogs are submitting because they have been forced to do so and are definitely not “calm”. Unfortunately for fans of “rank drive”, including some high profile trainers, this is the only explanation for and the only way to deal with canine misbehavior.
Be warned! Physical and emotional punishment has frightening consequences. The highly respected police dog trainer Steve White says that, – “Punishment is like a nuclear bomb, if the blast doesn’t get you, the fallout certainly will.” And he’s right. Harsh methods used by the traditional and balanced camp cause fear, pain, stress, anxiety, mistrust, shutdown and learned helplessness, and the fallout can lead to aggressive response. Plain and simple, if you use harsh methods on your dog, be ready, because you, a member of your family or an unsuspecting member of the public could be bitten by your dog because of the way you are handling it. I’m not saying that every dog that bites has been harshly handled, but it’s well documented that punitive training exacerbates stress, and that stress leads to aggressive behavior. We positive trainers see it all the time because we are the ones that are regularly asked to undo the damage created by trainers that have trained dogs punitively. Fortunately there’s a lot we can do to turn these dogs around, but tragically sometimes it’s too late and the damage is irreversible.
The misuse and/or misunderstanding of dominance is a complex issue, which is why this article is so long, but please bear with me. For those of us whose job it is to educate others about their dogs, whether they are companion or working dogs, we must not fear using the word dominance, because it has value when used in the right context. We need to use it again to dispel all the myths and misuses of the word and shout it loud from the roof tops. And we must not shy away from the fact that dominance DOES exist in dogs – a healthy social relationship exists on dominance/deference behaviors. It’s like a dance that is first led by one person and then another. It’s fluid and works when you understand the moves, and it helps keep dogs safe, ensuring their survival.
Before I finish, I want to list a few behaviors that could have an actual dominance component to them. Take humping for example. Dogs hump other dogs and people for many reasons. Dogs hump when they get excited, during play, as rehearsal, for sexual reasons, as a displacement behavior to cope with a change in environment, when they are nervous, to control or calm behavior in others, and yes, sometimes to dominate. To say that dogs never hump to dominate is just as wrong as saying that the only reasons why dogs hump are for sex and to be dominant.
And what about aggression? This is where misunderstanding dominance has truly tragic consequences. Some high profile trainers use a one-size-fits-all explanation for aggressive behavior and a one-size–fits-all training technique to deal with it. They say that all aggressive behavior is due to dominance and that in order to stop it you have to use punitive techniques in order to once again make your dog submissive. This is a dangerous and devastating message, especially when aggressive behavior is so complex and has so many causes, including (among others) fear, anxiety or because the dog is in pain. Can aggressive behavior sometimes be used by dogs to control and occasionally to exert dominance? Yes, in some cases. But a one-size-fits-all sledgehammer mentality which assumes all issues are dominance-related and require a dominance-based approach demeans dogs as well as the intelligence of the people that love them.
The only way to turn the misuse of the word round is to say it loud and proud in the right context, while also educating the dog owning public about what dominance is not. Don’t shy away from it, and if you still need more evidence of what dominance is or isn’t, do more research, starting with the ‘Science Behind Positive Training’ page on our website as well as the American Veterinary Society of Veterinary Behavior’s excellent position statement regarding dominance. Those of us who are trying to change the tide of misuse and misunderstanding in dog training sometimes feel like we’re swimming upstream, but the more we work together to do so, the more we will turn the tide so words like dominance will no longer be so dirty.
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