For a couple decades the common wisdom surrounding humans’ best friend is that they are controlled by an internal drive for ‘dominance’. We have been told that dogs will try to take control of our family and that our job as the human is to show them who is in charge – that we are the “pack leader”. How did we come to believe this? Is it true? If it’s not true, then what is?
How We Came to Believe the Dominance Myth
It started in 1947 with animal behaviorist, Robert Shenkel, studying wolves that were living together in captivity in a zoo environment. His observations led him to believe that this artificial “pack” was controlled (dominated) by a single male wolf which he called the ‘alpha.’ And this ‘alpha’ status was often precarious, with regular challenges from subordinate members who were jockeying for the role of ‘alpha.’ I call it an “artificial pack” because these wolves were unrelated adults that were housed together at the whim of the humans who put them in the zoo, and this is not at all how wild packs come to live together.
In those early days we believed that wolf behavior and domestic dog behavior were very similar. Trainers began treating dogs as if they were part of artificial wolf packs with a focus on this concept of a dominance hierarchy.
In the mid-1980's another animal behavior expert, David Mech, studied wild wolves. What he learned changed everything. In the wild, a wolf pack is made up of the parents (breeding pair) and their offspring from last year and this year. So, the breeding pair is “alpha” because they are the parents. It’s their responsibility to keep their children safe, fed, and to teach them how to hunt and survive as adults. There are no battles for status. When a young adult decides they are ready to find a mate, they leave their family pack and go find another solo wolf and start their own family (pack).
Domestic dogs who live ferally (on the street) do not live in family units like wolves. They don’t hunt together in a coordinated manner to take down prey larger than themselves. In fact, domestic dogs are primarily scavengers and only hunt small prey when the opportunity presents itself.
Unfortunately, even as David Mech has spoken at length for years about the original misunderstanding of wolf relationships, it has not yet really resonated with the average pet owner. Popular, television shows have served to bolster this dominance myth, making it even more confusing for pet owners who are trying to navigate living with a different species.
So What is Dominance?
Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual members of the same species that is established by force or aggressive displays and submissive/deferential displays, to determine who has priority access to resources such as food, water, resting spots and mates. This relationship is not stable until one individual consistently defers to the other about a specific resource. In some species, a dominance/submissive relationship will be stable across all resources. In domestic dogs, however, this relationship is quite fluid. If you have two dogs living together one may always get their pick of toy while the other always gets their preferred resting spot. It all comes down to how much does each individual want or care about a given resource.
Most importantly, because this is a relationship between members of the same species, the entire concept of dominance is irrelevant to our relationship with dogs. They know we are not dogs and so there is no competition with us in that way. Besides, our opposable thumbs give us priority access to everything the dog could ever need or want from food to access to outside to toys. There are dogs who are ill mannered because they lack training. But they are not trying to control the house or take over the world. The truth of it is simple: the popular concept of ‘dominance’ has no role in our relationship with our furry family. So instead of laying Fido’s poor behavior on his desire to be in charge, get to training! Have fun. Work together to build your bond and help your dog understand how you’d like him to behave in your home.
Author - Jody Epstein
Jody Epstein is a certified behavior consultant, certified professional dog trainer, and holds a master’s degree in animal behavior from Tufts University. She has been training professionally for more than 12 years and is pleased to be part of the Academy of Pet Careers team, teaching the next generation of trainers. Look out for her blogs on all things dog training and animal behavior.