Thursday, October 4, 2007

Is Your Dog Dominant, or Just Feeling Anxious?

The following post is already available elsewhere. Summer’s Mommy e-mailed me today about a trainer she’s been working with who uses some of the same techniques we do, but is still hung up on the dominance label. If you know anyone like that, e-mail them this post.
Is Your Dog Dominant, or Just Feeling Anxious?
Dominance: I Know It When I See It!
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 become top dog? 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 it 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 simple possessiveness, not by an instinctive need or desire to be “alpha.”

It might clarify things if we knew how the idea of dominant behavior originated.

A Reflexive Dance
Konrad Lorenz was the first to describe the basic difference 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. 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, who disagreed with the alpha theory from the very outset, 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 evolutionary purpose of defusing tension and maintaining harmony between pack mates. Wolves and dogs are 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, meaning you’re a social animal too, nature doesn’t want that 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. (Which again, is a form of resource guarding.)

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 energy: the superior wolf has a direct, assertive energy, which when directed at the inferior wolf causes his indirect energy to spin off in the other direction, both physically and emotionally. If they were both direct and both assertive, and came toward each other with ears, tails, and shoulders held high, bloodshed would quickly ensue. 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 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 as much if not more than the other way around. Yet despite the simple, obvious logic of Rudolf Schenkel’s view, Konrad Lorenz’ misinterpretation that the weaker wolf is offering his neck because he’s showing submission, or “humility” (as Lorenz calls it), continues to be handed down to us as “fact” today.

They Aren’t the Same Animal
Part of the problem with the manner in which the ideas about dominance and submission emerged may come from the belief that Lorenz and others of his time had that the social behavior of captive wolves, being held prisoner in zoos and sanctuaries, would be much the same as it is in wild wolves, who roamed free in the wilderness. This belief may have arisen partly out of scientific necessity, because during the 1930s and 40s, when these initial studies were done, wild wolves were almost totally inaccessible. That’s no longer true.

Dr. L. David Mech (pronounced Meech) of the University of Minnesota, who has spent his entire career studying wild wolves in their natural habitats, writes, “In captive packs dominance labels were probably appropriate, for most species thrown together in captivity would usually so arrange themselves. In nature, however, the wolf pack is not such an assemblage.” [1]

If Mech is right, then captive wolves and wild wolves aren’t the same animal, at least not when it comes to their social behaviors. In fact, in Mech’s observations over the past forty years, there actually is no pack leader in wild wolf packs, at least not in the traditional sense. He writes, “The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots is particularly misleading.” Mech and his colleagues are also reluctant to use the word alpha because, as they put it, “It falsely implies a hierarchical system in which a wolf assumes a place in a linear pecking order.” They reserve the term alpha for the breeding pair, though Mech says that’s a bit like calling your dad a “male” father.

So in wild wolves there’s usually no hierarchy, no pecking order, and no pack leader. Is there such a thing as dominance?

Yes, says, Mech, though it only occurs in rare instances, and usually only take place over how to disburse food to the young. Yet one of the most striking things about these battles is that it’s usually the “submissive” (or non-threatening) female who triumphs over the “dominant” (aggressively threatening) male! She actually wins by acting in a manner that we’ve all been taught is the instinctive way one wolf will submit to the authority of a dominant pack mate.

How Does a True Dominance Display Happen?
The male has killed a hare and comes trotting back toward the den where, presumably, he wants to eat his kill in peace and safety. As he approaches, the female comes toward him. His neck and back go up. He stands tall and stiff. She approaches, low to the ground. The closer she comes, the stiffer he stands. The stiffer he gets, the lower she gets to the ground. Then as she comes right up to him, while he’s growling and standing firm, she very nearly rolls over on her back in the way the inferior wolf in Lorenz’s description does. Here, though, she’s not on her back and not offering her neck. So why is she so low to the ground? The next part of the drama explains it: crouching in front of her mate, so low to the ground as to almost be on her back, her jaws are actually now in a perfect position to grab the hare right out of the male’s mouth. Which is exactly what she does! Then she runs back to her pups, leaving the male standing there, hare-less and “wondering” what the hell just happened.

So again, this natural behavior in wild wolves is in direct contradiction to the idea that dominance is about being in control. It’s not; it’s simply about resource guarding. (The male wants the hare for himself; she wants it for her pups.) And just as in the battle Lorenz described, it’s the non- threatening wolf that actually exerts more control and eventually wins the confrontation.

Are there other times when dominance displays erupt between wild wolf pack members? Yes, they happen rarely and usually occur when the pack is hungry and hasn’t hunted large prey in a while. This might explain why dominant behaviors are much more common in captive wolves who never get a chance to hunt large prey together as a real wolf pack would.

Dominance = Anxiety
Wait, let’s go back. Why would hunting large prey reduce a wolf’s tension?

Simple. Because hunting large prey uses up a lot of aggressive energy. In wild wolf packs this goes a long way to reducing their individual levels of internal tension and stress. But since captive wolves don’t have access to this natural method of reducing stress, or of offloading their natural predatory aggression, or of fostering group harmony (you can’t hunt large prey without working together), captive wolves find themselves fighting over little things instead; that’s what they do with their aggressive energy—they scrimmage.

The same process would be apparent in both village dogs and domesticated dogs. Village dogs don’t usually hunt together; they mostly scavenge. So they tend to have the same build up of tension seen in captive wolves, so they skirmish a lot. With pet dogs, who are like both village dogs and captive wolves in that they don’t routinely hunt as a group, it’s often the most “dominant” dog in a household who doesn’t know how to play, for example. And since play is nature’s stand-in for the hunt (it teaches young predators how to catch prey, and young prey animals how to avoid being killed), it’s a great tension reducer, as well as a kind of social “glue”—it bonds dogs and owner together emotionally. And for dogs, in fact for all animals, social play is probably the best tension-reducer there is.

That’s why when a “dominant” dog is taught how to play hunting games in a harmonic social context, or when his owner or trainer find another way to reduce his inner anxiety, you’ll find that all his supposed instinctual dominant behaviors begin to “magically” disappear.

So it turns out that what we’ve all been taught was “dominance” is really two things: a build up of internal stress, and a form of resource guarding, which is an anxiety-based behavior.

Wait, dominance is nothing more than a form of anxiety? Yep. The standard pharmacological treatment for “dominance aggression” in dogs comes in the form of anti-anxietal medication. And though these drugs don’t cure “dominance aggression,” they are generally effective at managing it! So yes, clearly “dominance” is just a symptom of anxiety.

Dr. Karen Overall of the University of Pennsylvania writes, “The ‘alpha’ concept is an outdated one with almost no data to support it. There are no truly ‘submissive’ or ‘dominant/alpha’ dogs, and by [using] these labels we blind ourselves to all of the interesting information that dogs are communicating with [their] postures.” (“Interdog aggression: What are the warning signs?” April 1, 2002, DVM Magazine)

So now we’re back to our new terminology: dominant and submissive behaviors aren’t what they seem: they’re more rightly called threatening and non-threatening postures. And they aren’t inherited traits in dogs and wolves, nor are they part of the pack instinct’s non-existent hierarchical structure; they’re simply communicative actions and postures that express a dog’s inner tension, stress, and anxiety. So the upshot of all this is, if you think your dog is dominant, you might want to take another look. He could just be anxious and need a lot more play time…

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"
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1) Mech has since gone back on this statement. Ignoring the data he gathered during his 9 summers studying the Ellesmere Island pack, he now says that dominance is a key feature of canine social behavior.


Angela said...

Hi Lee! I finally got around to reading this post and you hit the nail on the head! After working with 4-5 trainers (+R only and others who used a combo of compulsion/treats) and being told my now 5 year old GSD was 'dominant aggressive', 'very dominant dog', 'dominant and insecure' etc. I was left with a lot of management techniques (some worked) for his leash reactivity and told to not go to dog parks. I was a nervous wreck walking this poor dog, that I adopted at 1 year, that I loved and wanted to help and understand.

Nothing helped me release my tension and nervousness when walking Roman until I met my current trainer a year ago. He never talked about dominance he just posed the question, "Don't you think he's just anxious?" He helped me teach Roman better choices in situations that made him anxious and better ways to release his energy (ball, tug, games, etc.)..we do use corrections, too.

Now, my 'dominant aggressive' dog is off leash at dog parks. No longer does he display dominant postures to other dogs...though other dogs display them to him and he just shrugs it off (they must be anxious!). He is not perfect, and we still work on his anxiety on leash around dogs (though now he will look to me, choose not to lunge, but will whine with hackles).

With so much energy being put into the current 'trend' of +R only/operant conditioning/'science' based training methods (and, can you tell me why this method did not work at all for Roman? I went to one of the leaders of this method in the country...she's written books, travels around giving workshops on dog aggression...why couldn't she help us? We were put on a no pull harness, given what looks like a fly mask to put over Roman's eyes, told to work under his threshold to desensitize, etc. and even told that we could give him back to the rescue when it was obvious he was not improving. We always left the trainings with me in tears and Roman stressed with diarrhea!

Will we find, in the future, that this 'science based' method is not all it's proclaimed to be, just like the alpha theory?

LCK said...

One can only hope. The problem is, though, that the entire scientific community backs learning theory. Plus some of the underlying principles are either valid or so close to what's really going on that it's hard for those who are ideologically committed to their techniques to feel the need for something new. And no matter how often we can prove that +R is ineffective at resolving behavioral problems, until enough people feel comfortable with Kevin's energy theory of behavior, a lot of dogs and dog owners will be stuck with self-righteous dog trainers like the one you wasted your money on.

Have you tried pointing any of this stuff out to her? (If you do I would leave out the part about the electronic collar; there's only so much her ideology can tolerate).


PS: I love that your trainer, the one who finally helped you and Roman, asked that simple question: "Don't you think he's just anxious?"

Maybe he read my article? It's available online at many different websites...

jack said...

dog housebreak

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my
first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I
will keep visiting this blog very often.

LCK said...

Thanks, Jack. I'm glad you liked it.

Changing the World, One Dog at a Time
My Psychology Today Blog

Familia De La Cruz said...

fascinating. So, why would my male dog most often get into scuffles with just other males. How does gender play a role in triggering anxious behavior? Also, would a solution for my anxious dog be more exercise and mental stimulation? thanks, great post !

LCK said...

The anxiety is there; it's essentially a build-up of internal tension or stress that your dog isn't able to release in a safe, socially appropriate way.

From an evolutionary standpoint, one way that canines have of reducing the stress of living together is through intricate social behaviors. They have to sublimate their aggression in order to get along. They have to get along in order to be able to hunt together. The only time there's any real, lasting friction is during mating season. (Dominance and submission are actually sexual, not social behaviors.)

Meanwhile, think of the pack as a group of electromagnetic +s and -s. The -s balance the charge of the +s, and vice versa. So male and female energy balance each other out, making it easier for a dog with excess energy to feel more balanced around his or her opposite than a dog with the same polarity.

When a dog carrying too much charge meets another dog with the same polarity, there's nowhere for the energy to flow, so it gets released in a more explosive way.

Exercise is always a good thing, but since dogs aren't mental by nature, the idea of giving a dog mental stimulation is a bit off. What's usually meant by that is giving the dog something to do with his energy. I don't know enough about your dog to say anything with absolute certainty, but the pushing exercise would probably help. (Read "An Open Letter to New York Dog Trainers.") And games like tug-of-war, tug/fetch, and push-of-war, would probably help because they release a lot of energy and kind of force the dog to switch polarities while playing.

I hope this helps,


Unknown said...

Incredible! I was wit's end trying to find an explanation and a solution to the problem that I have (two female dogs fighting occasionally). I read every piece of advice there is (be the alpha, be calm, be in charge, be the leader of the pack), but none made sense to me.

What I did not understand is why the male/ female fights ended by themselves and why the female/female fights would be so fierce...until I read your article and the answer you gave to Political Change:

"When a dog carrying too much charge meets another dog with the same polarity, there's nowhere for the energy to flow, so it gets released in a more explosive way."

And you're right because, as I remember, the most fierce fight between them was when after they were kept in the room almost all day long.

What kind of exercises would be best to simulate the "pack hunting" dynamics?

P.S I have a pack of five dogs.

LCK said...

Curling Smoke: "What kind of exercises would be best to simulate the 'pack hunting' dynamics?"

It's not about the exercises, per se, it's about fostering an "us" v. "me" dynamic in the dog.

Playing tug-of-war, where you always let the dog win and praise her for winning, is probably the best way to do this.

I recommend you read Natural Dog Training, by Kevin Behan. It's like the bible for this type of training, both in terms of its form and the underlying dynamic that shapes all interactions with your dogs.

I also recommend reading Kevin's blog at, and Neil Sattin's blog.

I hope this helps!