For a longtime, I have thought that Eliott was « submissive », without really knowing why. But no, it’s just that he is kind, rather calm and attentive. It’s also that we have a relationship of trust. And it took me a long time to understand that. Listening to medieval educators talking about dominance and submission, one is easily indoctrinated.
But Eliott doesn’t dominate me. I don’t dominate him. We have, I believe and I wish, a healthy relationship. I like the term referent. Why ? Because I have the responsibility of him and I think that I feel more conscious than he of what can be dangerous (the hot oven for example). But it is not a relationship of dominance, it’s trust with mutual respect.
This relationship we have is not exceptional. No dog dominates his human, and no dog owner should have the sensation / need to dominate his dog.
These are some of my thoughts on this, illustrated by statements by professionals in the behavior of the dog. Below, a non-exhaustive list of articles / books of interest on this point 😉
Wolves and pack.
Before speaking of dominance as such, it is important to take a look at the notions of wolves and packs. Indeed, if some educators talk about dominance, they also imply that their dog (s) are part of a pack, of which they are the « dominant alpha« .
Except that it does not exist.
First of all, dog’s owner who talk about dominant dog often refer to the fact that the dog is a wolf, that the wolf lives in pack and so that the dog too. This is false. First, the wolf lives in a pack consisting of a breeding male, a breeding female and their offspring. Plus, it looks more like a family pack than a hierarchical pack. The researchers show that there is very little aggressive behavior in wolf packs and that the breeding male does not spend his time showing others that he is the highest in the « hierarchy ».
Then, the dog is not a wolf in the sense that is currently given to this term. It is a variety of wolves in the broad sense, domesticated for thousands of years. Indeed, when you watch a report on wild wolves, do you see your dog? No. The reason is simple, the dog is a species domesticated by man. The dog and the wild wolf have nothing to do with it. Moreover, studies of wild dogs have also shown that domestication is not everything. The dog and the wolf are very different even in the natural state.
The packs of dogs that may exist do not match the observed wolf packs. The concept of pack being quite complicated, I refer you to the recommended readings below.
So there is no question of wolves, or of packs when we talk about canine behavior.
The « dominant dog ».
It’s very often heard from the mouths of dogs’ owners, as well as from those of some traditional educators, that a dog is « dominant ». This actually has NO SENSE. Aside from scaring the new dog owners …
I often see on forums people who ask the question « My dog is dominant, what do I do? » When I asked why they think he is dominant, they do not really know. Most of the time it is because the dog does not listen to them or shows aggressive behaviors. The problem is that it makes them act in a bizarre way with their dog : the need to dominate it and thus to have an asymmetrical relationship of constraint.
I always struggled with the idea of « dominating / submitting » his dog, it always seemed abstract and « funny » as a way of thinking.
Why dominate a dog? What is the interest for yourself but also for the dog?
This was my first question with Eliott: why and how. Put his back against the ground when he makes a mistake, forbid him access to high places (sofa, beds), walk before him at each door, make him wait to eat and many other things. I soon realized that all this was for nothing. I understood that thanks to Eliott, who never understood why to make him do this kind of stuff, so I quickly abandoned all that. Eliott quickly had the right to do everything, almost everything, as long as I feel he is safe. For example, I do not let it pass before me when I hear a dog a little excited in front of the door of my building, I ask him to get off the couch when I have to clean it, he eats at regular hours unlike me so sometimes before me and sometimes after, I never put him on his back and never forced him to do something that bothered him.
First, in the overall behavior of the dog, dominance is a very unclear and often misused term. It is not a feature of personality, it is not something constant. In fact, the concept of dominance can be used only in a precise interaction between two congeners from same species. So to start a dog is not dominant, in a dyad at a time T it can show itself dominant and the other will position itself in submission (this does not correspond to aggression !).
These behaviors are in no way fixed, they are contextual to a social interaction!
→ Dominance is first of all a « descriptive term for the relationships between couples of individuals » and furthermore, « the use of the expression » dominant dog « is meaningless insofar as » dominance » can only apply to relations between individuals. (Bradshaw and X, 2009).
Moreover, these behaviors differ by far from what some can imagine … They correspond to adaptations to each other.
To illustrate this, I would use Danielle Gobout (french dog’s educator) as an example:
A group consists of two dogs. The one with a stronger character and more temperament is recognized as the dominant of the two. On the other hand, feed well your dominant and hungry your submissive for 2-3 days. At the end of this period, place a steak on the ground between the two. Who do you think will get the steak? The dominant? I swear to you that your master will fight to the death to obtain the food, in order to provide for his survival needs.
So the situation has changed.
As far as human-dog interaction is concerned, the concept of dominance is frankly ABSURDE … Indeed, there is no inter-species dominance and the dog perceives well what are a human, a dog, a cat Etc. So the behavior of domination does not exist between an owner and his dog. For me it is a purely silly invention which reinforces in some teachers / educators the feeling of having « power ». For others, it is simply due to an incomprehension of the behavior of his dog and therefore an « easy » solution to put a word on something disturbing.
Many owners want to be « pack leader », « male alpha ». In addition to having no sense, this is very harmful to the relationship between a human and his dog. Indeed, always wanting to get the upper hand on your dog, using force and coercion can lead to fear, anxiety or aggression on the part of the dog. These behaviors will not be signs of dominance, no, but responses to a negative attitude of their master.
There is therefore no question of being the « dominant » of his dog but of being the referent. The term leadership implies clear limits and communication by rewarding good behavior and especially by not using force to constrain the dog. Overall, the master must be the safety of the dog: the dog must have rules for not doing anything.
I would end this article with a very interesting video of Ian Dunbar
To read :
- (in french) : A very well-explained summary of man-dog relations and the use of the term « leader of the pack » to substitute the term « leadership » (which refers more to collaboration between master and dog) → theses.vet-alfort.fr/telecharger.php?id=1731
- (in french) Some very well written and comprehensible articles on the concept of dominance → http://adcanes.fr/tag/dominance/ especially that one that is very clear and complete → http://adcanes.fr/position-de-lafsab-sur-la-dominance /
- English scientific article on the concepts of pack and dominance in dogs → Bradshaw, J. W. S., Blackwell, E. J. & Casey, R. A. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 4, 135-144.
- (in french) And for the last fans of Cesar Millan: http://adcanes.fr/ave-super-cesar/
- Alpha wolf by David Mech : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFIIWuaB6H0