How Hungarian Dog Owners Perceive "Dominance" Between Their Dogs

New research investigates how Hungarian dog owners with two or more dogs describe “dominance” in the dogs’ relationship, and which pairings are most likely to involve conflict.

How Hungarian dog owners perceive dominance relationships between dogs. Photo shows two retrievers playing in the sea
Photo: Gerard Koudenburg/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

“Dominance” is a loaded word in dog training. A new scientific paper by Enikő Kubinyi and Lisa Wallis (Family Dog Project, Eötvös Lorand University) begins by noting how contested the term is in ethology and psychology, before reporting on an investigation into the factors that influence Hungarian dog owners’ use of the term to describe the relationship between two of their dogs.

They say the results show the Hungarian public’s use is broadly in line with that of ethologists. They also found that when two dogs in the same household are male and female, a spayed female dog is more likely to be considered dominant and to behave in ways that might cause conflict between the two dogs.

Dominance means different things in different circumstances, and it’s important to note this study is not about dog training, but about how people describe canine-canine relationships. Amongst canine scientists, while some refer to dominance hierarchies in dogs, others argue that these apparent hierarchies can be better explained by the value of resources to dogs, dogs’ personality, learning, or age.

Amongst ordinary people, the word dominance is often used to mean the dog has misbehaved, and unfortunately is linked to the use of aversive training methods such as positive punishment, which has risks to animal welfare and may provoke an aggressive response (see: seven reasons to use reward-based dog training for more).

This study, however, focused on the use of the word to describe which of two dogs that live together is the ”boss”.

Dog owners with at least two dogs at home were asked to answer a questionnaire about two of their dogs. This included saying which of the dogs was the “boss” (i.e. dominant), and which of the dogs was the first or most likely to do certain things, or if they were similar.

The results show that 87% of people described one of their dogs as the “boss”, while 10% said they were similar (the remainder did not know). Dogs perceived as dominant were more likely to: win fights; be first to get treats like a marrow bone; have the best resting place; be in front when defending the group; be more aggressive; be in front during walks (presumably off-leash); to be the older of the two dogs; to eat first when they are given food at the same time; be considered smarter; be the first to bark, or bark more, at strangers; pee over the other dog’s pee; be more impulsive; and receive more licks to the mouth from the other dog.

Interestingly, a few of these are like personality traits (being smart, impulsive, and aggressive), and age is included in the list too.

Not correlated with dominance were: which dog was first to greet the owner; spay/neuter status; physical condition; being heavier; whether the dog was male or female; how obedient the dog was; and retrieving the ball more often in games of fetch.

The questions where people were most likely to rate their dogs as similar included the dogs’ physical condition, who greeted the owner first, how smart the dogs were, which dog had the best resting place, and which dog would get a treat first. It seems possible some of this relates to management practices (providing multiple, comfortable dog beds, and ensuring dogs do not have to compete over marrow bones, for example).

The researchers acknowledge that one of the limitations of the research is the large amount of missing data, as many owners did not complete the full set of questions. While 1,151 people completed the questionnaire, some of the analyses were based on a much smaller sample.

It could be that people found the questions hard to answer because they did not pay enough attention to the dogs’ relationship, but I have to wonder if the option of saying the extent to which something applied would have been easier for people to complete than choosing if they were similar or different (this would also have allowed for different statistics).

As participants were recruited via an ethology Facebook page, they are not a representative sample of Hungarian dog owners. There are cultural differences between how people keep dogs in Hungary and north America, and so the results are not likely to generalize to the US.

Nonetheless, understanding how people perceive the relationship between dogs that live together is important. The results don’t answer the question as to whether dominance (as used by dog owners) is simply a social construct or reflects actual differences in canine behaviour. The researchers suggest future research include behavioural observations so as to directly compare dog owners’ usage of the term dominance to that of ethologists.

This study found that in mixed-sex pairs of dogs, a spayed female is most likely to be considered dominant. The scientists suggest that not spaying the female dog (but neutering the male) may help dogs get along, and say further research on the effects of hormones on canine behaviour is needed.

The researchers say,
“Since humans are ultimately responsible for choosing the social partners (human and conspecific) of their dogs, they have a duty to try to ensure that social relationships are as amicable as possible, in order to keep chronic stress levels, and therefore welfare at an acceptable level.”
Earlier research in the US – that instead used the term rivalry – found that low-rivalry dogs are more influenced by another dog. More research on how co-habiting dogs get along would be welcome. Studying the factors that are linked to affiliative behaviours between co-habiting dogs would be especially interesting.

Dr. Marc Bekoff interviewed Drs. Kubinyi and Wallis about the study here.

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Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

Kubinyi, E., & Wallis, L. J. (2019). Dominance in dogs as rated by owners corresponds to ethologically valid markers of dominance. PeerJ, 7.

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  1. the reason why functional behaviour analysis and the science of learning is so useful and precious is because it explains the WHY. dominance at its best describes which dogs can vanquish the other dogs. in the worst case, if you always support the one winning because you believe you should, you get a maniac that has learnt beating the others gets you resources or objectives. that's why i dont usually use the notion of dominance - psychology and biology has better concepts to offer to understanding behaviour.


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