History and Misconceptions of Dominance Theory
The information in the following article came from an interview
with Dr. Ian Dunbar, who spent nine years studying the social behavior
of dogs during the study mentioned below. In an earlier version of
this article, Dr. L. David Mech was credited with the 30-year study.
This was a mistake. The researcher who conducted the study was Dr.
Frank Beach. An effort has been made to correct this error. However,
if you know of a place where the original article was published, please
notify the editor and request a correction.
alpha/dominance model was born out of short-term studies of wolf packs
done in the 1940s. These were the first studies of their kind. These
studies were a good start, but later research has essentially disproved
most of the findings. There were three major flaws in these studies:
- These were
short-term studies, so the researchers concentrated on the most obvious,
overt parts of wolf life, such as hunting. The studies are therefore
unrepresentative -- drawing conclusions about "wolf behavior" based
on about 1% of wolf life.
- The studies
observed what are now known to be ritualistic displays and misinterpreted
them. Unfortunately, this is where the bulk of the "dominance model"
comes from, and though the information has been soundly disproved,
it still thrives in the dog training mythos.
example, alpha rolls. The early researchers saw this behavior and
concluded that the higher-ranking wolf was forcibly rolling the subordinate
to exert his dominance. Well, not exactly. This is actually an "appeasement
ritual" instigated by the SUBORDINATE wolf. The subordinate offers
his muzzle, and when the higher-ranking wolf "pins" it, the lower-ranking
wolf voluntarily rolls and presents his belly. There is NO force.
It is all entirely voluntary.
would flip another wolf against his will ONLY if he were planning
to kill it. Can you imagine what a forced alpha roll does to the psyche
of our dogs?
after the studies, the researchers made cavalier extrapolations from
wolf-dog, dog-dog, and dog-human based on their "findings." Unfortunately,
this nonsense still abounds.
So what's the
truth? The truth is dogs aren't wolves. Honestly, when you take into
account the number of generations past, saying "I want to learn how
to interact with my dog so I'll learn from the wolves" makes about as
much sense as saying, "I want to improve my parenting -- let's see how
the chimps do it!"
Dr. Frank Beach
performed a 30-year study on dogs at Yale and UC Berkeley. Nineteen
years of the study was devoted to social behavior of a dog pack. (Not
a wolf pack. A DOG pack.) Some of his findings:
- Male dogs
have a rigid hierarchy.
- Female dogs
have a hierarchy, but it's more variable.
- When you
mix the sexes, the rules get mixed up. Males try to follow their constitution,
but the females have "amendments."
- Young puppies
have what's called "puppy license." Basically, that license to do
most anything. Bitches are more tolerant of puppy license than males
- The puppy
license is revoked at approximately four months of age. At that time,
the older middle-ranked dogs literally give the puppy hell -- psychologically
torturing it until it offers all of the appropriate appeasement behaviors
and takes its place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The top-ranked
dogs ignore the whole thing.
- There is
NO physical domination. Everything is accomplished through psychological
harassment. It's all ritualistic.
- A small minority
of "alpha" dogs assumed their position by bullying and force. Those
that did were quickly deposed. No one likes a dictator.
- The vast
majority of alpha dogs rule benevolently. They are confident in their
position. They do not stoop to squabbling to prove their point. To
do so would lower their status because...
animals squabble. They are insecure in their positions and want to
advance over other middle-ranked animals.
animals do not squabble. They know they would lose. They know their
position, and they accept it.
- "Alpha" does
not mean physically dominant. It means "in control of resources."
Many, many alpha dogs are too small or too physically frail to physically
dominate. But they have earned the right to control the valued resources.
An individual dog determines which resources he considers important.
Thus an alpha dog may give up a prime sleeping place because he simply
couldn't care less.
So what does
this mean for the dog-human relationship?
- Using physical
force of any kind reduces your "rank." Only middle-ranked animals
insecure in their place squabble.
- To be "alpha,"
control the resources. I don't mean hokey stuff like not allowing
dogs on beds or preceding them through doorways. I mean making resources
contingent on behavior. Does the dog want to be fed. Great -- ask
him to sit first. Does the dog want to go outside? Sit first. Dog
want to greet people? Sit first. Want to play a game? Sit first. Or
whatever. If you are proactive enough to control the things your dogs
want, *you* are alpha by definition.
- Train your
dog. This is the dog-human equivalent of the "revoking of puppy license"
phase in dog development. Children, women, elderly people, handicapped
people -- all are capable of training a dog. Very few people are capable
of physical domination.
- Reward deferential
behavior, rather than pushy behavior. I have two dogs. If one pushes
in front of the other, the other gets the attention, the food, whatever
the first dog wanted. The first dog to sit gets treated. Pulling on
lead goes nowhere. Doors don't open until dogs are seated and I say
they may go out. Reward pushy, and you get pushy.
Your job is
to be a leader, not a boss, not a dictator. Leadership is a huge responsibility.
Your job is to provide for all of your dog's needs... food, water, vet
care, social needs, security, etc. If you fail to provide what your
dog needs, your dog will try to satisfy those needs on his own.
In a recent
article in the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) newsletter, Dr.
Ray Coppinger -- a biology professor at Hampshire College, co-founder
of the Livestock Guarding Dog Project, author of several books including
Dogs : A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and
Evolution; and an extremely well-respected member of the dog training
community -- says in regards to the dominance model (and alpha rolling)...
"I cannot think
of many learning situations where I want my learning dogs responding
with fear and lack of motion. I never want my animals to be thinking
social hierarchy. Once they do, they will be spending their time trying
to figure out how to move up in the hierarchy."
much sums it up, don't you think?
mca @ clickersolutions.com
copyright 2001 Melissa C. Alexander
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