Dominance: the position of having power and influence over others.
It would be incorrect to say that dominance does not exist in dogs. It does, although it is a very fluid concept and usually involves dog to dog communication around possession of a resource – the one possessing the resource is the dominant dog in that situation. At a different moment or with a different resource, another dog may well be dominant.
What dominance is absolutely not is the dog being in a state of constant vying to top a hierarchy. We do not live in a ‘pack’ with our dogs, they do not think of us as dogs, and they are not trying to be in charge of us. The ‘alpha’ pack leader myth comes from a study published in 1947 called ‘Expression Studies on Wolves’ which was based on observations of a wolf pack in a Swiss zoo. It was thought that the way these wolves behaved reflected natural wolf behaviour and, as the closest relative of the domestic dog, also our family dogs.
The problem with this study is that the zoo’s wolf pack did not accurately represent a wild pack. The zoo pack was made up of unrelated wolves, in an enclosure smaller than a typical wolf pack would inhabit in the wild. Wolf packs in nature are made up of related animals. The wolves who are in charge of the pack are the parents, so a wolf pack actually functions much more like a human family, with the parents in charge. The family members in the pack help to care for the young and, when ready to breed themselves, disperse to form new packs where, as the parents, they will then be the ones in charge.
There is also the matter of thousands of years of domestication that separates dogs from wolves. Countless generations of animals ever more developed to live in close proximity to humans in a way that wolves are not.
There may be a number of reasons why dogs display behaviours that have in the past been put down to an attempt to assert dominance over other dogs and humans. Fear, pain, illness or resource guarding (often from having items taken away from them in an attempt to prove that mythical ‘alpha’ status) can result in aggressive displays. It is perhaps most often due to a misunderstanding, of not understanding the causes of canine behaviour, of not understanding canine body language, and of not understanding that our dogs really are not trying to be the bosses of us.
If the true definition of dominance is that of having power and influence then it is easy to see that humans are automatically dominant – we control what, how, and when our dogs eat. Where they sleep. Where they walk. When and if they can socialise with others. In every corner of the dog’s life, they are under the control of the humans in their lives.
So, let’s not worry about them napping on the sofa or wanting to share a corner of a human bed at night. It’s really not an attempt at world domination, just a dog looking for a comfy sleeping spot. There’s really no need to eat before our dogs, as it’s not teaching them anything. And there is definitely no reason to take their food away while they are eating ‘to prove that we can and that we’re in charge’ – all that will teach the dog is that we can’t be trusted and we’re going to steal their food, and there is no quicker way to cause a dog to feel like they need to defend their food.
Let’s live in harmony with our dogs, and live our best lives together.