The Dog Dominance Myth

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One of the things I often hear about dogs is that they are always trying to be dominant. It comes up in advice that is sometimes given about dog training. For example, that you should always eat before your dog, otherwise it will think that it is dominant; that you shouldn't let your dog walk in front of you, or go through a door ahead of you, or win a game of tug of war. It makes people's relationships with their dogs sound like a constant battle.

Fortunately it's not true. This idea of dominance comes from what I'll loosely call 'pack theory', and is based on studies of captive wolves. In a captive wolf pack, it seems that there are battles between wolves fairly frequently, and at the top is the 'alpha wolf', the one that is in control. Since dogs are evolved from wolves, a long long time ago, it was thought that this also applies to the domestic dog. However, captive wolves are not like a wolf pack in the wild; they have limited territory and resources, and are usually a group of unrelated wolves that has been put together by people. Their behaviour might not be the same as wild wolves - and in fact it's not.

The term 'alpha' was coined by Dave Mech (pronounced 'Meech') in 1970, when scientists only really knew about captive wolves. Since then, things have moved on, and as Dave Mech explains in this interesting video about the term alpha wolf, it isn't an accurate term for most wolf packs. Instead, scientists refer to the 'breeding pair', since they are the parents and got their position in the pack by breeding and having offspring.  If life as a wolf isn't a constant struggle to become the 'alpha', it doesn't seem likely that dogs would be like that either.

Another thing about the idea of dominance as applied to dogs is that it implies a constant, fixed feature of a relationship; that one dog is always the alpha. If you observe groups of dogs together, however, the dynamics of the relationship are more fluid; it's not usually the case that one dog is in charge all of the time. In a future post, I'll look at what we know about the dynamics of relationships in groups of feral dogs.

When dominance is used to explain doggy behaviours, there are often better explanations, such as impatience, wanting to get to meet another dog, or being rewarded for jumping on people. So it doesn't matter if the dog eats before its owner or goes through the doorway first. Of course, if you want to teach your dog to wait for people to go through a door first that's fine, because after all it's up to you to decide what is good manners, but it's not about establishing dominance.

Further reading: John Bradshaw (2011) In Defense of Dogs (UK). In the US, the title is Dog Sense: How The New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend To Your Pet. Allen Lane.

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