Thursday, November 17, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: The D Word

Do dogs have dominance hierarchies? Do wolves? And does it matter?

Many people argue that canine behavior can be explained by dominance- or its flipside, submission. Books have been written, television shows have been produced, and there are arguments all over the internet about “the D word.”

One of the biggest problems with the concept of dominance is that the term has been so overused (and, Patricia argues, misused) that it doesn’t mean much at all anymore. I have coworkers who talk about how dominant (or submissive) their dog is, and I’m often left wondering just what exactly they mean by that. And Maisy? Well, I’m just thankful they’ve never asked me to categorize her.

Scientists describe dominance as “priority access to a preferred, limited resource.” In other words- if there are two dogs and one beefy bone, who gets it? Which dog will stubbornly insist it’s his, and which will defer to the other’s assertion? This definition is very narrow, and the concept of dominance is really only relevant when there is competition over a resource.

But it's not just any resource. What if one dog doesn’t really care who gets the bone? Maybe he’d fight for a hunk of chicken, but doesn’t care enough about the bone to go head-to-head for it. Dominance really depends on the resource in question. Is it a preferred resource? If not, then it's not dominance.

That other word- limited- is also important. If there is only one bone, we’ve got a problem, but if there are two dogs and twenty bones? Well, both dogs are likely going to get a bone. The resources aren't limited enough to create competition, and again, there’s no need to assert dominance.

If you’re getting the feeling that dominance is very context specific, you’re right, but it gets even more specific because dominance is determined on a case-by-case basis. Unlike in birds, dominance hierarchies in most mammals are not linear. There is no “pecking order.” Just as I can get my way with my husband only to have to defer to my boss, Maisy might be willing to take on Fido to get the bone, and then submit to Rover. In other words: the term dominance describes a relationship between two individuals, not personality.

So, do wild canids have dominance hierarchies? It depends on the canid, of course. Patricia told us that foxes have dominance relationships dependent on the resource base- in months where there are plenty of small critters, the need for dominance is much smaller than in leaner times. Coyotes tend to be “faculatively social,” with only some signs of dominance and submission. And wolves? Well...

Much has been written about dominance in wolves, to the point that the notion of an “alpha wolf” long ago entered the popular lexicon. But many of the studies of dominance in wolves were based on captive situations. L. David Mech, the man who did some of the most well-known studies, went on to study wild wolves and found that they tend to live in family systems, not packs of unrelated wolves. To become the leader, the alpha wolf, requires reproduction more than dominance. The differences are profound; a family member can leave if there is conflict, a captive wolf cannot. As a result, Mech has now gone on record as saying that the term “alpha” really only applies to captive situations which require extreme signaling and displays in order to maintain harmony in a very unnatural situation.

We’ve already talked about how wolves and dogs are very different, both physically and behaviorally. So does this mean that we should drop the concepts of dominance and submission for dogs entirely? Both Bradshaw and Coppinger suggest that we do. Bradshaw even says that dogs don’t have the cognitive ability for status. Instead, he talks about “resource holding potential,” which seems like a nice way to discuss “the d-word” without all the baggage that comes along.

Patricia shared that she believes there is some sort of dominance/submission relationship between dogs. After all, when there’s two dogs, someone has to get the bone. She has also seen puppies who seem very interested in controlling resources at an early age- so much so that she thinks there is probably a genetic component to this tendency.

She’s not entirely sure what to call the tendency though. Do you call it “controlling resources”? “Status seeking”? “Dominant”? No matter the words chosen, though, one thing is clear: the concept as a whole is just not useful in living with dogs. Our dogs are very rarely in competition for resources with us, and failing to respond to our commands has nothing to do with who could win the bone- it has to do with training.

Nor is dominance related to aggression, at least not in the sense that aggressive dogs must therefore be dominant. Aggression can be a way to win the bone, but so can groveling. There’s a pretty big difference in the tactics of Gaddafi and those of Ghandi, and yet both could get priority access to desired resources.

I’m very thankful my coworkers have never asked me if Maisy is a “dominant dog.” I honestly don’t know how to answer the question. It just doesn’t come up in our relationship. Part of this is probably because I view her as a teammate or partner; we work together to achieve our goals. She has the freedom to request things she wants, and I am free to say no... or more likely, to spoil her rotten. It doesn’t seem to matter, really. If she is “dominating” me, then it is with my permission… and enjoyment.

If You Want to Know More
Dog Sense, by John Bradshaw
Dogs, by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger
L. David Mech's website- complete with links to articles and videos

Patricia's Own Blog Posts on the Subject:
The Concept Formerly Deseribed as Dominance
Dogs and Dominance: What's a Person to Do?
Dog Training and the D Word
Dominance Mythologies (Patricia's summary of a presentation by Suzanne Hetts)


K-Koira said...

Some very interesting points. Your specifics about two dogs and one bone made me think a bit about how my two interact. Pallo always grabs first and then growls loudly when Koira comes near. But, Koira largely ignores him and whatever he has that he so desperately wants to protect. The few times Koira decides she wants what he has, it takes one quick grab and the precious object is all hers. And, no growling or posturing from her at all, from either side of the equation, whether she has the object or not.

I don't think, however, that Pallo is or is trying to be "dominant". I think he is more insecure. However, I do think many people would call his behavior dominance or dominance seeking.

Crystal Thompson said...

I would agree with your assessment that Pallo is more insecure than dominant in that situation. (I would also agree that many people would call it dominance.)

I've heard- thought can't remember where, nor if Patricia said it- that TYPICALLY the dominant dog in an interaction has little need for the over-the-top theatrics and posturing people typically associate with dominance. The loudest dog? Probably not the "top dog" so to speak. Generally speaking, the dominant dog in an interaction is dominant because he doesn't NEED to be loud and obnoxious. He can get what he wants without it.

Your example would illustrate that well- Koira can quietly reach in take what she wants with very little drama because she truly has the control/power/status in this situation.

If you haven't read them, I highly recommend both of Patricia's books- they has some great examples of this.

Ninso said...

Such an interesting topic! For me, the only point that is pretty clear is that dominance theory is useless between a dog and a human. Dogs do what you want either because they are going to punished if they don't or they are going to be rewarded if they do. It's as simple as that. If a dog is misbehaving and you scruff him and he stops misbehaving, he's not acting better because he now sees you as "dominant", he's doing it because he's learned and doesn't want to be hurt again. One interesting thing to think about is why some people just naturally seem to get better compliance from dogs than others (I think Cesar Milan could be in this category). I think some people are naturally more "commanding" to dogs just like some people naturally seem to command the respect of other people. Call it dominance, charisma, "calm-assertive" whatever. Again, I think it's a useless concept to worry about because I think you either have it or you don't. If you don't you better find another way to influence the dog.

Between dogs, I think it's less clear. Speculation is interesting, but I also don't think which dog is "dominant" is at all relevant to my interactions with them. I am the "boss" of everyone and while they are allowed to protect what I give them from each other, they are not allowed to bully each other or guard things that are not theirs. Ultimately, these are three adult individuals that I force to live together, and since none of them can leave I think it's my responsibility to make sure nobody is too disadvantaged. I have heard of some people who believe in dominance hierarchies letting the dog they perceive as dominant treat the other dogs however they want. But I think the living situations we set up for our dogs are way to artificial that even IF a dominance hierarchy would emerge in nature it has no place in my home.

Lots of interesting things to speculate about, but ultimately it doesn't affect the way I treat my dogs.

Crystal Thompson said...

Ninso, I agree with your last sentence wholeheartedly- dominance, whatever it may or may not be, has no bearing on how I interact with my dog. I think about it so rarely in daily life that it may as well not exist at all.

I also really like your statement about how your dogs don't have a choice about living together, so you have a responsibility to make sure no one is bullied or taken advantage of.

Lots of interesting things to think about, though, absolutely. I'll probably leave that to someone else. My interests lie in other places. :)