I dare say that there is one thing special to all my courses and lectures - we do not use the terms "dominance", "rank order" or "leadership" to explain natural (but sometimes unwanted) dog behaviour! We avoid these terms for a very good reason: they are linked with so many bad - and for dogs often fatal - misunderstandings!



When I ask dog owners what they exactly mean when calling their dog "dominant" they talk about the dogs being aggressive, impetuous, disobedient, pushy, lacking self-control and, and, and… But still that's much more information than calling a dog being "dominant"! A least it tells me that the dog and its owner have got a serious communication problem.


Why is it that common to think about rank order, dominance and leadership when we talk about dog behaviour? It all started way back at the beginning of the last century when scientists got interested in watching and describing the behaviour patterns of wild animals in captivity. Obviously they were more fascinated by conflicts and animal warfare than by quiet and peaceful behaviour! And they looked for a model that would easily explain what they witnessed when watching the imprisoned animals. They wrote down which one fought against another and who was the winner. After some time of watching all individual interactions were summed up - and that's what they called the actual rank order of the pack! The one who most often won conflicts obviously held the leader position. Other individuals were said to be submissive. This system for interpreting behaviour is still in use for most of the social animals.



And yet there is a big and dangerous error in reasoning when putting this model of rank order into practice! Please, think about this: What do we see when we put animals into cages and behind fences? When we take away from them the possibility to keep distance from each other or even run away? What kind of behaviour do we watch? Is it "normal" behaviour? Is it the same behaviour that these individuals would show in their natural environment? NO! It definitely is not! What we can watch in caged animals is - stressed behaviour! They are permanently stressed by the artificial and too small environment, too many members of the same species around, people nearby etc. Too many long-term stress hormones in the body reduce the threshold for reactivity and make individuals defend oneself and fight against each other more often. This despairing behaviour with lots of aggressive behaviour patterns has been interpreted as a natural rank order!



L. David Mech, an American wildlife biologist, writes in his excellent article "Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs" (1999): Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a "top dog" ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots is particularly misleading.


Mech states that the typical wolf pack is a family, with the adult parents guiding the activities of the rest of the group in a division-of-labour system. Isn't that very similar to human life?


To come back to our dogs' behaviour: To me it seems that quite a lot of scientists have been labouring under a terribly big mistake - a mistake which dimensions are not yet recognized!


At least, let us spare future dogs from falling a victim to this misunderstanding! We don't need dominance principles to build up a good human-dog-relationship! What we need to know is:

  • How to socialize dogs properly to avoid socialisation problems
  • How dogs communicate and how they learn
  • How to apply positive training methods and
  • How to build up a strong bonding and a trustful relationship.

Recommended reading: D. Mech: "Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs"


(Editor's note - For further reading on this subject, we stock Barry Eaton's book "Dominance: Fact or Fiction?" in our web shop)

About the author of this article

My name is Heidrun Krisa, I live in Austria near Vienna, and I am a Full Member of the Pet Dog Trainers of Europe.

I am a zoologist and I run my own little business teaching dog owners how to train and communicate with their dogs using nice and humane methods.

Contact details -

Die Verhaltensschule fur Mensch und Hund
Mag. Heidrun & Mag. Dr. Harald Krisa
Tel/Fax 0043 2165 66897
E-mail office@hunde-forum.at
Web site http://www.hunde-forum.at


This web site has been written by Sally Hopkins (unless the author of the web page is stated otherwise).


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