Originally published on April 9, 2009 at PsychologyToday.com.
The Man on the Street
You hear a lot of talk among dog owners, dog trainers, and even the man on the street, about dominance in dogs. What is it, exactly? Is it an instinctive behavioral tendency, an inherited genetic trait, part of a natural power struggle to be the pack leader? We all have our own ideas as to what it means, and we all “know it when we see it,” but what are its scientific origins? How does it manifest in behavioral terms? Does it have a sound evolutionary purpose? Or is dominance based on a simple misunderstanding of a dog’s true emotional nature?
One clue is that in multiple dog households you often hear owners say that one dog is “dominant” over food, while another may be “alpha” over the couch, and a third may be “the pack leader” when it comes to who’s first through the door or who gets to play with which toys. But if dominance were a real genetic behavioral tendency, geared toward ruling the roost, why would it be so specific to food bowls and not to the best sleeping spots and going through doorways and controlling how others play as well? Why wouldn’t one dog in a multiple dog pack be dominant about everything? Isn’t that his role as the pack leader?
As part of a new trend away from this idea, many experts in animal behavior are now beginning to replace the old terms of dominant and submissive behaviors with the more accurate threatening and non-threatening postures. In other words, where before we’d see a dog acting dominant over food but not over the couch or during play, we now know that he might simply exhibit a series of threatening postures to keep other dogs away from his food bowl in the one case, but not exhibit such postures in the others. Is this true dominance, or is the dog simply engaging in resource guarding: keeping the other dogs from having access to the things that mean the most to him individually? If it’s resource guarding, then the behavior is probably caused by anxiety, not by an instinctive need or desire to be the pack leader.
It might clarify things if we knew how the idea of dominant behavior originated.
A Reflexive Dance
Konrad Lorenz was one of the first scientists to outline the basic differences between dominance and submission in canines his 1952 book King Solomon’s Ring. He stated that when two dogs or wolves are engaged in a conflict, the defeated animal supposedly offers his neck to the other because if he does he’ll “never be seriously bitten.” He goes on to describe the encounter as follows: “The other growls and grumbles, snaps with his teeth in the empty air and even carries out, without delivering so much as a bite, the movement of shaking something to death. However, this strange inhibition from biting persists only as long as the defeated dog or wolf maintains his attitude of humility.”
Hasn’t it ever struck you as strange (a word that even Lorenz uses) that when two animals are fighting one would offer himself up to the other to be executed? Why wouldn’t he struggle with all his might to survive? Does this dog suddenly have some magical awareness of Ghandi’s “peaceful resistance?” Has he studied Zen? Or is something else going on?
That’s exactly what biologist Rudolf Schenkel said. “It is always the inferior wolf,” Schenkel wrote, “who has his jaws near the neck of his opponent.” Schenkel also points out that it’s the supposedly dominant wolf or dog who walks away from the fight, making him “more vanquished than victor.”
Now that makes sense. The submissive wolf actually has his teeth closer to the throat of his opponent, putting him at a slight advantage. That’s why the “dominant” wolf doesn’t bite, and that’s why he walks away without finishing his enemy off. Yes, the lower wolf is in a weaker position physically, but he’s not rolling over on his side in submission or to commit suicide; he’s putting himself in a position that, given the weaker nature of his temperament, feels most natural to him, yet still enables him to defend himself if need be.
The behaviors of both parties probably originated simply for the purpose of maintaining harmony between pack mates. Wolves and dogs are group predators. And being a predator of any kind requires that you have a reservoir of aggressive energy available to you at all times. But if you’re a group predator that means you’re a social animal too. And Nature doesn’t want your aggression being directed at your brothers-in-arms, She wants it directed only at prey animals and sometimes at other packs who invade your turf.
Meanwhile, it’s doubtful that either one of the wolves in Lorenz’s example would be consciously aware of his position of advantage or disadvantage, of power or weakness. Instead, it would be much like the interaction between two magnets whose poles counter one another’s magnetic energy: the superior wolf has a direct, assertive kind of energy, which when directed at the inferior wolf causes his indirect energy to spin off in the other direction, both physically and emotionally. If both wolves had a direct and assertive approach, and came toward each other with ears, tails, and shoulders held high, bloodshed would very quickly ensue. (And that’s often the case with some dogs and with captive wolves, which we’ll cover in the next part.) But nature is wiser than the individual wolf; she wants the pack to get along, so she created this reflexive dance.
So here we have, at the very start of this idea about dominance and submission, what is probably a major misunderstanding committed by the person most people think of as the primary architect of the alpha theory, a misunderstanding so major, in fact that it turns out that the “submissive” wolf or dog is in fact controlling the “dominant” one’s behavior just as much if not more than the other way around.