Snow dog

Is there such a thing as 'Dominance' in dog behaviour?

It used to be believed that the way to influence a dog’s behaviour was by exerting ‘control’ in order to establish superiority over the dog and overcome what was felt to be the dog’s desire to be ‘dominant’. Very few responsible behaviourists use these methods anymore, but regrettably these outdated methods can still be seen on popular television programmes, leading to problems when owners try to use them.

The problem stems from early research undertaken by scientists studying wolves in captivity during the 1950s and 1960s. It was noted that captive wolves will often elect an ‘alpha male’ as pack leader and so, given that dogs are (loosely) related to wolves, behaviourists began to believe that the dog owner should impose the same hierarchy on their dog(s) in order to establish and maintain control.

More up-to-date research (often carried out by the same distinguished scientists such as L. David Mech) has revealed that this behaviour only really applies to wolves in captivity and doesn’t apply to wolves in the wild or to domestic dogs. Social groupings of wolves actually rely on co-operation and collaboration between the various pack members, with very little aggression, whilst studies of dogs show no evidence whatsoever of fixed hierarchical relationships; instead more often the dogs will work as a team and learn from one another. Modern behaviourism is based on this kind of relationship, rather than one reliant on control.

In short, ‘dominance’ is now regarded as far too simplistic a term to describe the relationship that exists between dogs and owners. Few social mammal species, left to their own devices, will choose a dominant/subservient relationship. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complex than that, so we need to be prepared to invest more time and effort in building a collaborative and co-operative relationship with our dogs.

There is a wealth of information emerging on this topic, and I would strongly recommend any responsible dog owner to read at least some of it. It can only benefit you and your dog. I make it part of my job to stay absolutely up to date with the latest research, so rather than post links on here (which will quickly be out of date), contact me and I will recommend some reading for you.