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)