Dominance is a very over used word in dog training. It is also often a word used by trainers who prefer to use aversive methods (correction collars, prong collars, e collars, and the good old alpha roll) in training dogs. This has been documented. It is also a word that seems almost “dirty” to the positive only trainers. So why the controversy? What is it about dominance that has dog trainers the world over taking sides? Are there sides to take?
I say no. Dominance is science. A summary of the lecture by Prof Wynne is as follows;
Dominance is defined as when once individual has a superior position in rank or hierarchy. Where an individual gives way to another. Dominances is NOT static, it includes subdivisions and will vary with context. This is where many dog trainers get lost as they see dominance as a static thing that is all or nothing and they do not see that dominance can be contextual, that is, an individual will be more dominant in certain situations depending on the individuals value for that situation or resource they are in/want.
So what is dominance as it relates to our relationship with our dogs?
Dominance is about the control of resources such as territory, movement, sleep, toileting, food and mating. Prof Wynne asks who in the relationship with your dog (the majority of times) determines where you go when you walk? Where and when you sleep? Where and when you toilet? Where, when and how much you eat? Where you can and can’t go (boundaries)? and when and who you mate with? Even people who indulge their dog will tell you that in all of the above and the majority of the time it is the human in the relationship who has the control. This means that it is the human who is exerting dominance over our dogs.
Now I know some of you are shuddering to think that you are “dominating” your dog, but that is because you are confusing having a hierarchical relationship with your dog (that they understand and makes them comfortable) with having an aggressive, aversive relationship with your dog. You can be dominant without ever being mean/aversive to your dog. You can have a balanced relationship with your perfectly behaved dogs by teaching them that they don’t have to fight you and you certainly don’t have to fight (punish) them for resources, instead you will teach your dog that it is worthwhile doing the things you want (such as giving up resources) by training and offering alternatives. (Westgarth, C )
Dogs are hierarchical and have a particular dominance style, this has been researched and published by several people now, but, as mentioned in Prof Wynnes lecture the first was a paper called Dominance in Domestic Dogs by J Van Der Borg, M Schilder, C Vink and H deVries. But they are not dominant in the same style as wolves. Wolves have a Despotic dominance style (which means they have one alpha wolf in control of all others) domestic dogs on the other hand have a Tolerant dominance style which is more changeable that a despotic style and will change dependant on context.
Dogs show dominance to each other (and us) by muzzle bites and higher stiff, posture. They show submission in body tail wags, low posture, passing under the chin and licking the mouth of the more dominant dog/person. This does not mean that if your dog is not rolling over in front of you all the time and trying to lick your lips it is trying to be dominant!
Humans are nearly always dominant in our relationship with our dogs, and this is a good thing. We tell the dog where and when we will go for a walk, where and when to eat, where to toilet, we decide where we will sleep and when (even if our dogs sleep with us we are still the ones to decide that it is the bed we sleep on and when it is bed time). We decide where the dogs are allowed to go when we are not home (our yard) and when (if ever) they are allowed to mate and with what dog. Anyone who has trained dogs with behavioural problems will tell you that dogs that do not get clear boundaries set by their humans often end up with behavioural problems and these are not usually aggression problems (like you might think) but anxiety problems. Years of selective breeding of dogs make them good companions for us. We have selectively bred dogs that are not challenging us for possession of resources. Dogs don’t want to be dominant over us. Being the dominant is a stressful position to hold and animals that hold this position show increased levels of stress hormones.
So as this pertains to us dog people; yes we are dominant in our relationship with our dogs. To have a dominant relationship with your dog you do not need to also have an aggressive, overbearing, aversive or mean relationship at all. You dog does not need to give you submissive gestures and body language to be submissive. A dominant relationship of the tolerant style is a healthy relationship.
Westgarth, C. "Why nobody will ever agree about dominance in dogs." Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research
van der Borg, J. A. M., et al. (2015). "Dominance in Domestic Dogs: A Quantitative Analysis of Its Behavioural Measures." PLoS ONE 10(8): e0133978.