Dominance Theory in the Domestic Dog: Exploring a Popular and Controversial Concept in Canis Familiaris

November 16, 2019
As a dog owner with over 25 years of experience, I can attest that having a dog is one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened in my life. The companionship and joy they bring is incomparable.

One must understand that in order for a theory to work it must predict the outcome of any given situation within set parameters.

Dominance seems to be a real hot-button issue in the dog world and is one of the most controversial theories. Dominance, in this context, describes the model that predicts how valued resources will be distributed among members of a canine pack, as Jean Donaldson points out in her seminar "Fighting Dominance in a Dog Whispering World."

The Origin of Dominance Theory

While no one knows exactly where this theory was conceived, it can be traced back possibly to the captive wolf packs of such places as "Wolf Park" where groups of wolves who would not normally maintain a pack are forced to live together and interact with humans on a daily basis. Well, both of these cases are unnatural for the wild wolf, so how can the logical conclusion be made that they will exhibit natural reactions?

It can't, and yet so many people study these wolves for hints into the mind of man's best friend, the domesticated dog. Yes, some behaviors of these so-called captive wolves are very dog like and some behaviors are extremely wolf like, but it is important to understand the very real difference here: these are wild animals held in a captive and somewhat unnatural environment (meaning constant human interaction).

Wild wolf packs are comprised of a mating pair, their older offspring and young pups. As soon as the older offspring reach sexual maturity they move off in search of a mate to form their own pack. If they live long enough they will mate and form a pack. In wild wolves, dominance is only important in mating; after all would you say that a mother wolf is "dominant" over her pups? Of course not, there are better ways to describe that relationship.

"Dominant" Behaviors

Many dog behaviors are described as dominant, such as "pinning" a dog. In this situation the dog on top is seen as dominant and as such will always get the first chance at any valued resource. There are a couple of flaws in this scenario:

  1. The dog on top, in almost every documented case, did not "pin" the dog on the bottom; the dog underneath volunteered to be there.
  2. This same dog that is on top now may next be on the bottom (as seen in the photos of the two dogs), so many people call this a "role reversal" meaning that the dominant dog switched with the submissive dog for a health reason or because they felt like it.

Wait a minute, how can this theory describe something that can be changed by a dog's whim? Sounds like a pretty weak theory.

Use of Dominance Based Training Techniques and the Results

This behavior of pinning another dog has inspired many very dangerous corrections from humans. One such is the "Alpha Roll" whereby the human rolls the dog on his back and holds him there until he submits. See "Biscuits Not Rolls" in The Whole Dog Journal. This procedure is both damaging to your relationship with the dog and to his self-confidence. It very often ends up with the dog either completely shutting down or attacking someone.

All behaviors can be explained without using dominance theory and make much more sense. Keep in mind that there have only been two unpublished research papers on dominance in dogs and both said the same thing, basically being: we cannot find evidence to support this theory.

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