Dominance in animals is a concept that describes a relationship between two individuals or groups, where one individual or group is able to exert control or influence over the other. This control can manifest in a number of ways, such as access to resources, mating opportunities, or social status.

The scientific consensus on dominance in animals is that it is a complex phenomenon that can be influenced by a variety of factors, including physical size, age, sex, and social experience. Dominance relationships can also vary depending on the specific species and social structure of the animal group in question. 

In many animal groups, dominance is established through aggressive interactions, such as fighting or displays of strength. However, in some cases, dominance can also be established through more subtle behaviors, such as posturing, vocalizations, or even changes in body posture or facial expressions.

Is Dominance important and relevant in dogs?

The more you can understand dog’s true animal nature, the better decisions and care you will be able to provide to your dog or dogs. Dominance and dominance hierarchies is something to consider when dealing with dog’s behavior. A good diagnosis is always a must in order to achieve a good outcome. 

The problem is that dominance can be easily misinterpreted and misapplied by dog owners and trainers. There are two different tendencies or trends that can lead to bad outcomes:

  • 1. The Alpha Theories. This theory has the tendency to think that most behavioral problems are caused because of dominance issues and solved by reestablising dominance hierarchies. This is specially true with aggressive dogs. Most aggression issues that I’ve worked on are not because of dominance status. Some of them are, but there are a wide variety of reasons for aggression. Ex: fear, specific triggers, frustration, restrainers such as a leash or a fence, negative associations , etc. Assuming that all or most issues are related to dominance is misleading and potentially dangerous. 

 

  • 2. The Deniers. This new trend has the tendency to deny that dominance issues do exist. They tend to avoid addressing dominance hierarchies as part of dog’s social interactions with both dogs and humans. Denying this and not addressing it when it is an issue it’s not helpful and can get you stuck in a never-ending loop of behavioral problems. 

 

Why is it so controversial with dogs and appears to be no consensus?

There’s been a crusade to prevent animals from being abused in the name of dominance. While this crusade is based on a noble cause which I applaud and support, on it’s way had somehow distorted the concept of dominance and in some cases even tried to ban the use of the word “Dominance”. 

This dogmatic approach is not science, although some supporters claim to be science-based. Let’s be clear, denying the existence of dominance and hierarchies in the animal kingdom it’s simply wrong.

 Scientific consensus says that most organisms organize themselves into hierarchies. It is also known that the fundamental biological mechanism for the regulation of hierarchy is serotonin. This is not disputable. Hierarchies are not a construct, they are observed in nature and they are 350 million years old.

Here is a good article on this subject from University of Cincinnati by Michael Miller: Unlocking the misteries of the pecking order 

How dominance affect dog’s interactions?

It is important to note that dominance in animals does not necessarily imply cruelty or oppression. Rather, it is a natural part of many animal social structures, and can help to maintain stability and order within the group. Additionally, dominance relationships can often be fluid and change over time, as individuals gain or lose social status or as the group dynamic evolves.

Disagreements still occur among dogs that have formed healthy relationships with each other. Some dogs can display socially inappropriate behavior and will challenge the stability and order within the group. 

While dominance hierarchies in dogs can be a natural part of their social behavior, it’s important for dog owners to be aware of the potential consequences of these hierarchies. In some cases, dominant dogs may become aggressive towards other dogs or humans, leading to fights and injuries. Additionally, dogs that are constantly subjected to dominance behaviors may become anxious or stressed, which can have negative effects on their overall health and well-being.

Good reads on these matter are authors like Elizabeth Hoobson:  (2022 edition) New preprint: pertutbetions shift social dominance patterns or Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe 

Should I assert dominance to my dog with alfa rolls?

The short answer is NO. During my first year of training dogs over a decade ago, I practiced successfully alfa rolls a few times. I soon stopped doing it. There are several problems with this:

  • 1. Alfa rolls do not solve the underlying behaviors and emotional responses of your dog in the long term in most cases.

 

  • 2. It’s not easy to do. WHY? Because submission doesn’t come from asserting physical force. Submission is an offered behavior from the surrendering individual, not one that’s purely enforced. I did 14 years of Judo and Jujitsu so I know very well how to apply this techniques. I’ve experienced both ends. Most people don’t know how to do this. If you’re using pure force, you are doing it wrong and you will never achieve submission. Most probably you’ll get bitten or you will shut down your dog into a fear loop. 

 

  • 3. There are many other ways where you can set rules and boundaries through Body language, controlled games and routines without confrontation, physical force or intimidation.

 

  • 4. By doing alfa rolls you’re risking doing it wrong, doing it for the wrong reasons, doing it to the wrong dog and getting bitten or installing fear in your dog in many cases. Not only you will have not solve anything, but you would have make it worse 

 

  • 5. It is not a pleasant experience for neither the human or the dog.

There are many different ways to set up rules and boundaries to your dog without asserting dominance or being confrontational. Having said that rules and boundaries are absolutely necessary. 

In conclusion, dominance is a common trait observed in many animal species and refers to the hierarchical ranking of individuals within a social group. While dominance hierarchies are often associated with aggression and conflict, they can also have positive effects on social cohesion within a group. Dominance is a complex concept that It is important to understand and should not be treated lightly when conflict arises. If you think your dog or dogs are struggling with dominance issues I would highly suggest to ask for help from an experienced specialized trainer in this issues. A basic obedience class is not going to get you very far and an inexperienced handler or trainer can make things worse.  

 

© Gabriel Riesco, Pawmos Dog Training LLC |   All Rights Reserved December 2022