« My dog ​​is dominant » or why the term dominance is obsolete.

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. 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. And that, it took me some time to understand it. 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 have the responsibility of my dog. I think I’m more aware of what can be dangerous (the hot oven for example). Also, I decide his hours of walks and eat and I control his reproduction (that he has not because of my opinion on this point). But we must remember that we are in a relationship between human and dog AND that it is based on 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, in dogs and in wolves 😉

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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 ».

First of all, the dog is not a wolf (NO KIDDING). Then, the « pack » is a very special concept: it is a social group consisting of a breeding male, a breeding female and their youngs. 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 ».

The dog is therefore 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 there? No. The reason is simple, the dog is a species domesticated by the man. The dog and the wild wolf have nothing to do in common. By the way, 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.

Also, the 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 ».

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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. Apart from frightening the new dog owners since we get the dog into a box …

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 thus to have an asymmetrical relationship of constraint. In addition, tidying up his dog in the dominant box is for me the ease of misunderstanding of dog behavior …

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 used for NOTHING. I understood that bacause of Eliott, who never understood why to make 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 think 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. And yet, it is a dog very obedient and very wise (yes I am a proud human!): he has a very good reminder, I walk without a leash regularly, he is very attentive, he responds to the few tricks that we have learned, he comes to bed in the morning but the evening sleeps in his own etc.

What is dominance ?

First of all, in the dog’s overall behavior, dominance is a very vague and often misused term. And I have my slap to see people talk 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 an other dog and the other will position in submission (this does not correspond to aggression !).
  • These behaviors are by no means fixed, they are contextual to a social interaction!
  • Dominant behavior implies submissive behavior on the other side
  • These behaviors 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


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