We all grew up with the same idea of how dogs work: they use physical force to fight to be the alpha, to submit competing dogs in the pack. This notion is so engraved in our psyche that in English, being the top dog means that you are the most ‘dominant’ around. Even people who have no interest in anything dog-related will have undoubtedly heard about the importance of being dominant, the pack-leader, the alpha.
Even now, when it has been so completely disproven, so much so that most trainers will stare down their noses at anyone who dares to utter the term “dominance” or – worse! – “alpha role”, this idea that dogs are trying to take over the world one owner at a time is still a sadly prevalent thought among dog enthusiasts.
Everything from pulling on the leash and jumping up, to eating something you dropped on the floor and chasing the cat, has been blamed on a dog’s search for supremacy or an owner’s lack of leadership skills.
It really is a wonder that we call dogs man’s best friend at all, what with this supposed friend’s constant attempt to overthrow us. You feed him, bathe him, care for him and in some cases even clothe him, you take him to the vet when he’s sick and give him a comfy place to sleep when he’s tired, and how does he repay you? By staging a coup d’état! The nerve! But how did this misguided notion of rank come to be?
We all know that wolves dominate one another, they have a strict hierarchy where subordinates are denied prime resources and individuals are constantly battling for dominance, right? Well, no, that’s not exactly how it works. It turns out that our previous notions of lupine social behaviour were based on captive wolves. Individuals from different packs were forced to live in close proximity of each other, a highly unnatural condition for them, leading to highly unnatural behaviour. The bloodbaths over resources were the result of stress, whereas in the wild, there are no rival packs because space is not an issue.
In the wild, a wolf pack is made up of a monogamous pair and two or three generations of offspring, who leave the pack upon reaching sexual maturity (at around two years of age). Free-ranging dogs, especially those in a more urban setting, prefer a solitary life. They are opportunistic scavengers eating bits of foods here and there, they don’t need to hunt in groups because they don’t hunt large prey.
In wolves, all members of the pack are involved in one way or another in rearing the young and obtaining food, whereas dogs are not monogamous and only the mother is responsible for raising her pups. In certain areas (typically rural) where dogs have been found to roam in loose groups (‘membership’ is only temporary) a pregnant female will separate herself from the rest of the group to give birth and care for her young. So, you can see the obvious flaw in applying wolf behaviour when studying dogs. Dogs and wolves are distant relatives (despite being of the same species) and thus not ethologically interchangeable. It’s not that these groups lack any semblance of structure, it’s that hierarchy is only important in a few situations, much like it is for us humans.
Since it has been “common knowledge” for decades that wolves are constantly battling for dominance, it’s easy to understand how so many dog owners could mistake a simple lack of manners for an attempt to climb up in rank, but the truth is that your dog is no more dominant when he dashes out the door than the person who just zipped by you in order to secure that last little spot in the elevator you were about to walk into. He’s no more an alpha when he lunges for the food you dropped than the lady who snatched up that sweater you just put down for a moment. These individuals aren’t trying to assert their dominance, they’re just plain rude: they’ve put their needs ahead of the needs of others. Dogs, like people, who aren’t taught to behave properly cannot be expected to know how to do so.
Does this mean your dog shouldn’t be taught any boundaries or rules? Of course not. But adhering to the dominance theory is not the way achieve this. It is very flawed, and used to doghint justify the use of compulsion in dog training. A dog will not fulfill a request for three main reasons: she is frightened, unsure or what to do or simply more motivated to do something else… Not because she is dominant! Just like humans, dogs do better with a benevolent role-model and leader, rather than a tyrant.
Before I go on, I must acknowledge the slew of indignant trainers who are itching to point out that, all together now: “dogs are not furry humans!” Very true, but as far as the brain is concerned (especially the part relegated to hedonistic behaviours and the fulfillment of needs), we are very similar, despite the obvious difference in appearance. Animals are hedonistic by nature; thinking first of oneself is a primordial survival tactic that has stuck with us and will likely never leave. I should note that this doesn’t mean that altruism doesn’t exist in some species (one of which is the dog), but that deviates from the object of this article.
The dog that sits before being let out or waits for something to be offered to her is not showing some sort of subordination, she’s just a ‘polite’ dog. Obviously she has no actual concept of social etiquette, but she’s been taught that certain behaviours (sitting, staying, ceasing to whine or bark… ) are the only way to get what she wants (treats, affection, freedom… ).