There is probably no other ethological concept in dog training that has been misused and overused as social dominance.
The first studies of social hierarchies were done in the 1920s using chickens as the subject. The term “pecking order” was established because chickens would peck or threaten to peck as a means of establishing social rank. The more dominant chickens have access to the best food and nesting sites. Social hierarchies have been studied in wolves, primates, and most frequently in dogs.
An important characteristic of social hierarchies is that they are not constant or absolute. Dominance relationships can change over time, and different physical and
behavioral characteristics may or may not correlate, creating individuals who are dominant in one respect and submissive in another. Dominance in the most basic sense
is related to outcomes of direct or competitive interactions and the giving and receiving of social signals between individuals.
Dog trainers have often applied the dominance theory to dogs. It has been used to describe threats and aggression that occur when the dog is in direct competition with the
owner over a resource (such as the couch). Social dominance is about social relationships and can be only applied towards members of the dog’s social group. This
would include family members, but not individuals outside of the family. In fact it would be incorrect to label certain behaviors the dog does, such as barking at strange people, as a result of dominance.
Dominance in dogs is often misinterpreted as disobedience. In fact, many behaviorists have labeled disobedient behaviors a dog may display as the owner’s lack of dominance over the dog. The idea that a dog establishes his dominance by disobeying the owner’s wishes is a grossly exaggerated concept. In fact, until recently, many dog owners were told to become the “leader of the pack” among their canine friends. This means eating in front of your dog before feeding him, walking ahead of your dog, entering doors before your dog, and so on. However, obedience is about how well a dog is trained, not about dominance. Dogs who don’t obey commands are not well trained. A dog may ignore a command for a variety of reasons. The dog may have not learned or been taught the specific response required such as siting. The owner may be requesting a behavior in an entirely new context: sitting in your kitchen is drastically different from
your dog sitting at the veterinarian’s office. The dog could be distracted by other things. The dog also could have a physical ailment that prevents it from doing the particular behavior. Disobedience is dogs is not a factor of social dominance, but more a lack of training.
Dogs have also been labeled as “dominant” when they are out of control or engage in undesirable behaviors. Examples of such behaviors include but are not limited to: destructive chewing, aggression towards non-family members, aggression towards children, urine marking, and barking excessively. The confusion of dominance and these undesirable behaviors stem from the idea that dominant animals exert strict control over their subordinates, all of the time. Many dog training books have in the past stressed the idea that owners must have control over their dogs at all times. This leads back to the myth that wolves (to which dogs are genetically related) demand strict obedience from
subordinate pack members at all times. This statement about wolves is just a myth. Non-dominant wolves often are the ones that are more likely to engage in territorial
defense. Dogs may engage in undesirable behaviors such as digging, because digging is fun and is an outlet for excess energy and frustration. Dogs may threaten children to keep
them at a distance because they do not like the children poking them or because they are simply afraid of a child’s quick movements. It is not realistic to expect an owner to
control its dogs behavior constantly.
Dominance has also been misapplied to dogs as a stable personality trait. You may have been told that your dog is “the alpha.” If your dog is socially dominant over
one person in the house, this does not make it a permanent personality trait. In fact it would be incorrect to label the dog as dominant in this case. It is not always easy to
determine what set of traits or environmental factors will determine a dog’s motivation to seek a socially dominant position. Also keep in mind that dominant relationships can
constantly change and personality traits (unless you have multiples) are relatively stable. The disadvantage to labeling a dog as alpha is that it can be inaccurate and it often colors the owner’s perception of the dog, usually in a negative way.
There are consequences to invoking the idea of dominance unnecessarily. One such consequence is the idea of ludicrous recommendations that may not be compatible
with your time schedule. An example of this is eating before your dog eats. In many dog training books this technique was to demonstrate to your dog your dominance because dominant pack members eat first. To be honest, unless owners are competing with the dog for the dog’s food, there is not direct competition. If the dog eats at 4 P.M. and the family eats at 6 P.M., these are two discrete events and do not cause competitive interaction.
A major problem to incorrectly labeling a dog’s behavior as a result of dominance is that the real cause of the problem will be ignored. One of the most common examples
is diagnosing a dominance problem with a dog who had threatened or acted aggressively towards children in the family. Dogs most often have problems interacting with children because they are fearful. A misdiagnosis may put all sorts of restrictions on the children’s and the dog’s behavior without really tackling the problem and in some cases can make the problem worse.
Some people also use dominance as rationale to get rough with their dog using physical force in attempt to modify behavior. Examples of this include hanging a dog,
socially isolating it in a crate for days, pinning the dog to the floor, and choking the dog. These sorts of procedures are not only inhumane but they never teach the dog the proper response. They often result instead in emotional arousal in the dog which can make the problem worse.
The steps to creating a mutually beneficial relationship between pet owner and dog is a complex process. It is much like being a good parent. It requires knowledge, commitment, and problem solving ability. Most of all it requires patience. If you are concerned about your dog’s behavior, don’t jump to the conclusion that it can be
explained by dominance, instead take it to a certified animal behaviorist.