But does he though? You’ll hear it just about everywhere dogs are remotely relevant. Pet stores, training classes, rescue events, television shows, the dog park, and so on. Someone always seems to bring it up. The dog is trying to dominate someone or something, is trying to be “alpha”, and you must be the “pack leader” and make them “submissive”. This is the root cause of ALL dog behavior. This is all they ever think of; and the only thing that are capable of thinking of. They are megalomaniacs always seeking to take over the world.
The reason why I use quotations is because these social terms are often used as pertaining to their layman’s meanings, not the precise, nomenclature most researchers and (studied) behavioral professionals go by. That aside, doesn’t this way of regarding dogs seem just a tad paranoid to you? What is all this based on?
In earlier times, the social behavior of dogs was judged by research findings of wolves which has since been retracted due to significant design flaws. This involved obtaining a group of unrelated wolves, sticking them together in captivity, and sitting back and watching social dynamics play out. Much of the resulting social interactions were poorly understood. Wolves form tight knit, family bonds much like most human families. This is the make up of a pack. A bunch of unrelated wolves finding themselves living in captive confinement together is quite a different ball game that won’t reflect the usual wolf social behavior.
What happened in this experiment? Certain trends surfaced. Some wolves appeared to be more in charge than others, others appeared to have less veto of power than others. This was both situational and across the board. Aggression was used to obtain valued resources from others, but other social practices were used as well. Sharing occurred, peace-making signals (mainly body language) were offered, and so on. Aggression did not have monopoly here, but regardless, these are strangers thrown together and havoc will occur. The same can and usually happens with any species. Especially humans. We’re constantly warring with other nations. We fight with friends, family, classmates, colleagues, and so on. No one gets along all the time with everyone. Does this mean we’re all trying to dominate each other, or that we’re simply interacting?
Throw together even a group of humans and strengths and weaknesses will surface, those who are better at a task will usually take leadership for that particular activity as it behooves the group to follow their leadership, also it’s quite impossible for multiple individuals to be doing the exact same thing at the exact same time. Only one person can fit in the driver’s seat. How many people can operate the television remote simultaneously? How many chefs can be in the kitchen stirring the pot? Peace or conflict ebb and flow. Occasionally, you have despotic control where one individual emerges as leader across the board. This is usually the most qualified individual to lead the rest of the group to success. Survival can pend on this individual’s guidance. Experience, intelligence, physical fitness, and more all come into play. A trade off, at least where animal groups are concerned, is that this individual gets prime resources. He or she is being well paid for what s/he’s contributing to the group.
So, we’ve established that most, if not all social species take leadership and follower rolls. Dogs are no different. Dog also aren’t wolves any longer. For thousands of years, evolution has been taking place. This is time enough for social behavior to change. It’s rare that dogs are forced to live in the wild, forced to take matters into their own paws. Even in colonies of feral dogs, their behavior is vastly different than that of gray wolves, which the domestic dog is believed to have evolved from.
In the home environment, we have too much of an influence over a dog’s behavior. They often can’t or won’t react organically without our changing or preventing their choices. Pack behavior can’t exist when it’s constantly interfered with.
Feral dogs are usually known to form loose, shifting, small groups rather than actual packs, sometimes only consisting of only a couple of individuals. Members of the groups often change. Dogs often converge en masse over shared resources (the garbage dump, bodies of water, and so on) and diverge again, territory isn’t usually established. Plentiful resources, even food, are often not worth fighting over. If live prey is had, it’s usually one dog taking what they want, hunts are unorganized and not dependant of each dog’s contributing roll. It’s a free for all. Females mate with multiple males during a heat cycle. Males almost never help with offspring rearing, and very rarely do older offspring stick around to help either.
Compare that to typical gray wolf pack behavior. There is usually an established mating pair. Females don’t usually mate with multiple males, and males usually don’t mate with multiple females. In fact, it’s common that the leaders of the pack are often the mother and father of the other pack members. They defend territory and resources from other packs as a cohesive unit. They also communally take down prey with organized hunting rolls, each contributing a purpose. Males do participate in offspring rearing, and so do older offspring. The breeding male and female don’t always partake of the most valued resources first. In fact, it’s been observed before that the current batch of pups are given first dibs at freshly killed prey. Are wolf pups, only a few weeks old, possibly most dominant or alphas of the pack? And where are the alpha wolves walking first through doors, or in front on leashes?
It’s too easy to explain away all dog motivation for everything they do as a desire to take over. This idea of “dominance” makes everything fit into a neat, little box. But it’s not reality, if even through sheer statistics.
Let’s consider some common occurrences of proposed dominance:
Fido is “stubborn” and won’t sit when told to. Is it possible that Fido doesn’t understand sit when you’re ten feet away when you taught it to him right in front of him? Or maybe he understands sit in the living room, but not on the busy sidewalk. Maybe Fido is distracted by other dogs passing by? Maybe Fido has developed a spine condition and it hurts to sit, or perhaps he’s injured himself in some way?
Fido snaps when he’s being groomed. Is Fido really trying to “be in control”, or could it be that he’s simply uncomfortable or even anxious about the loud, invasive grooming process? Tugging at tangles, loud and hot blow dryers, vibrating clippers, a stranger in your face… It’s a lot for most dogs, particularly as so few were introduced to it early on and taught to view it as a positive experience.
Fido steals food off the table. It’s as simple as the food being available, access being made possible, and Fido wanting some. Dogs tend to like food. Especially novel human food.
Fido pulls on his leash and walks in front of you. But have you taught leash manners or practiced them often enough to maintain them? Could Fido simply walk faster than a human, or want to get where you’re going?
Fido goes through doors in front of you. Again, could he just be a fast walker or really want to get into the next room because his bed is there or it’s dinner time? Did you teach him another option to going ahead of you?
Fido won’t come when called. Maybe you didn’t utilize rewards correctly the times he did recall successfully. Perhaps you didn’t use rewards that he actually wants to earn, maybe you were too stingy with rewards, maybe you didn’t prepare him for the level of difficulty that recalling off a rabbit mid-chase requires, or maybe you keep showing the reward BEFORE he recalled so he’s learned to come only when he knows that it’s forthcoming (not correct usage of food or any reward, by the way. Even with luring (animal follows food), it needs to be phased out as soon as possible).
Fido tries to fight other dogs. Maybe Fido doesn’t like other dogs, or may even be afraid of them for some inherent or developed reason.
Fido tries to er..hump other dogs. Perhaps Fido wants to simply reproduce, or is over excited. Humping is a behavior that some dogs partake of when over excited. Maybe strange to us humans, but commonplace to dogs nonetheless.
In the end, in terms of non-layman’s meanings, dominance and submission are really all about unchallenged access to valued resources. This includes food, water, shelter, mates, and so on. When one has obtained that unchallenged access, one has become dominant over the others in regards to that particular resource. And when the others allow that unchallenged access, they have become submissive in that context.
Let’s not get all caught up in looking at everything a dog does with a dominance scope. You can find animal behavior professionals who can help you resolve behavior issues without rank reduction tactics. You need not create conflict and turn everything into a power struggle. I think you’ll find that removing some of this unnecessary unpleasantness will enhance your relationship with your dog and improve his behavior. Win, win for both of you.