When I say that we shouldn’t judge each other because we all make mistakes, I’m the first: for a longtime, I thought that Eliott was a « submissive dog », without really knowing why. It’s probably a way of talking that is too much rooted in our language : people everywhere describe their dog with these words: « I’m careful when I walk him, he’s a dominant dog », « he’s stubborn but I don’t worry, he’s submissive » (WTF?!). And then after a lot of discussions (and readings) I understood that it’s just that he is kind, calm and attentive to my requests and behaviors. It is also that we have a relationship of trust based on compromises of our respective lives and needs. It took time to understand. Listening to middle age educators talk 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 prefer, in the inter-specific relationship, the word « referent » rather than dominant (and pack leader/Alpha!). Why? Because I am responsible for my dog. I’m more aware of what can be dangerous (the hot oven for example). Also, I decide when he walks and eats; And I control his reproduction (that he has not, because of my opinion on the subject). But we must remember that we are in a relationship between human and dog AND that it is based on trust and mutual respect. Also, I decided to share my life with him, so I have to make sure that I adapt my life to his.
The 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, justified with 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, in dogs and in wolves 😉
A pack is a social group consisting of a breeding male, a breeding female and their young. In most cases, this is more like a family pack than a hierarchical pack. Moreover, 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 ».
First of all, the dog is not a wolf (NO KIDDING). One cannot compare these 2 species even more in their relationship with humans: the dog lives with humans, the wolf runs away from them. When you watch a report on wild wolves, do you see your dog there? No. The reason is simple : the dog is a species domesticated by Man. Dog and wolf have nothing in common. On top of that, studies on wild dogs have also shown that domestication is not everything. The dog and the wolf are very different even in their natural state.
Furthermore, packs of stray dogs, that may exist, do not match the packs of wolves observed. The pack concept being quite complicated, I refer you to the recommended readings below.
There is no question of wolves or pack when talking about dog behavior.
The « dominant dog ».
It’s often heard in the mouths of dog owners, as well as in those of some traditional educators, that a dog is « dominant ». This actually has NO SENSE – Apart from frightening new dog owners.
I often see on forums, people who ask the question « my dog is dominant, what should I do? » Or « I can use a humane dog education because he’s too much dominant ! » When asked why they think he’s dominant, they don’t really know. Most of the time it is because the dog does not listen to them or shows aggression. The problem is that it makes them act in a strange way with their dog: the need to dominate their dog and therefore to have an asymmetrical relationship of constraint. In addition, classifying you dog as dominant is, for me, the easiest way of misunderstanding dog behaviours…
Why dominate a dog? What is the interest for oneself but also for the dog?
This was my first question with Eliott: why and especially how. Put his back against the ground when he makes a mistake, deny him access to high places (sofa, beds), go past him at each door, make him wait to eat before me and many other things. I quickly realized that all this was for NOTHING. I understood that because of Eliott, who never understood why I made him do this kind of stuff, so I quickly gave up all that. Eliott had soon the right to do everything, well almost everything, as long as I know that he is safe. For example, I do not let him go before me when I hear a dog a little excited at 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 (and sometimes with me), I never put him on his back and never forced him to do something that bothers him. Yet, he is a very obedient and very wise dog (yes I am a proud human!): he has a very good reminder, I walk without a lead regularly, he is very attentive, he responds to the few tricks that we have learned, he comes to bed in the morning but in the evening sleeps in his own etc.
What is dominance ?
First of all, in the dog’s overall behaviour, dominance is a very vague and often misused term. And I have had my slap of people talking about things they do not know, in principle, of their experience with dogs … Also, the definitions are complicated but there is consensus:
« Dominance describes dominant long-term social relations within a dyad or group »(Clutton-Brock et al., 1979, Drews, 1993).
« Dominant individuals generally have priority access to key resources, such as food and reproductive partners, because of the constant conquest of agonistic or defense interactions, in which an individual consistently gives way. to another «(Lorenz, 1966, Smith & Price, 1973).
« Dominance is first of all « a descriptive term of relations between pairs of individuals » and furthermore the use of the term » dominant dog « does not make sense to the extent that » dominance » can only apply to relationships between individuals. »(Bradshaw and X, 2009).
« Data on kennel dogs suggest that dominance is based on submission (reported mainly by the movement of the body’s tail and low posture) rather than aggression«(Van Der Borg et al., 2015).
« Although personality is largely context-independent and stable over time, dominance status depends on interacting partners »(Jones & Gosling, 2005)
From this, your brain must focus on that:
- Dominance is not a trait of personality, it’s not something constant. In reality, we can use the concept of dominance in a precise interaction between 2 congeners (in the same species). So to start, a dog isn’t dominant: in a dyad at one time he can be dominant to another dog and the other will position in submission (this does not correspond to aggression !).
- These behaviours are by no means fixed; they are contextual to a social interaction!
- Dominant behaviour implies submissive behaviour on the other side
- These behaviours differ by far from what some can imagine … They correspond to adaptations to the other, like communication
- To say of an aggressive dog towards the others that he is dominant does not mean anything
- PS: In psychology (thus in humans), dominance is often referred to as a personality trait (Gosling and John, 1999) and describes an individual’s willingness to assert control when dealing with others.
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 (yes the one that say there is hierarchy in dogs) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFIIWuaB6H0
Sorry for that :