Why did the dog run out the door?
- To get to the other side.
- It needed to pee.
- It saw a cat.
- It wanted to assert its dominance.
Of course we’re not able to answer this question without more information, but I believe that many dog lovers may answer 4. Dominance, Alpha status, Pack Leader, are all terms which seem to apply to the domestic dog if you so much as glance at a TV nowadays. The show doesn’t even have to be about dog training. These words have permeated our modern nomenclature to such a degree that people use them as descriptors without knowing their true origin.
The loose definition that is used in the dog training world is that dominance is an assertive or aggressive behavior displayed by a dog who is trying to assert their alpha status or leadership of the pack. It’s based on wolf pack theory and extrapolated to include the domestic dog based on ancestry. The corollary is that our dogs see us as members of the pack and if we don’t step up and take a leadership role, they will.
Even though most behavioral scientist and ethologists have argued that this view is based on an outdated paradigm which was flawed to begin with, dominance and pack theory are still very much in vogue. I believe the reasons for this have more to do with human psychology than animal behavior.
Dominance is a Black and White Answer to a Grey Problem
Rarely in this world is a behavior ever truly black or white. We cannot remove nurturing and environmental factors from their effects on behavior. No vacuum exists to study them in. Yet as humans we are constantly seeking a short and succinct answer to bulls eye a question. Dominance fits the bill nicely and allows us to move on and “correct” a behavior because its root cause has been clearly defined.
Dominance is Expedient
Part and parcel of being clear cut, dominance is expedient. It allows us to cut to the chase very quickly. If dominance is the problem, then surely asserting our own dominance is the solution. All we have to do is show the dog who’s boss and the problem will be solved.
Dominance Appeals to our Common Sense
If you accept that our domestic dogs are primarily pack animals, then labeling any behavior we see as pushy or undesirable as dominant just seems to make sense. It’s a puzzle piece that fits perfectly with what we think we know about dogs and their pre-wired behavior.
Dominance Fits within the Realm of Human Behavior
As human beings, dominance is a concept we practice and understand very well. Who has not watched a football team on Sunday huddle up and shout “1 2 3 DOMINATE”. It’s an instantly relatable concept and the response to someone or something that is trying to dominate you is for you yourself to become dominant.
Overexposure to Dominance
As I said earlier, it’s almost impossible to consume any media and not run into the terms dominance or alpha or pack leader being used in reference to almost anything. Hear a phrase often enough and it sticks in your mind. Repeat something often enough and it becomes true.
To be clear I don’t want to confuse dominance with leadership. I believe that we all need to be leaders for our dogs to follow. But I don’t believe that dominance lies at the doorstep of every undesirable behavior my dogs display.
My argument against dominance lies in lack of context and lack of instruction. Labeling a behavior as being dominant is often done out of context. To me labeling a dog running out a door as being dominant just doesn’t match the context of the behavior. There are dozens of other things that I would want to rule out before I would cast a glace in the direction of dominance. The main one being that the dog simply hasn’t been taught that waiting at the door has its advantages over running out of it.
Secondly, using dominance as an excuse allows us to use our own dominant behavior as a counter measure. To be honest this does work for some dogs but it can be counterproductive for dogs that are not hardy enough for this kind of correction and it lacks instruction. Your dog may learn that doing a certain behavior is not acceptable and is likely to lead a correction. But isn’t it much more constructive to teach a dog what you want them to do instead?
I know that many of you will still disagree with me on the issue of dominance and that’s okay. I hope I’ve given you a little something to think about the next time you decide to label a behavior as dominant or not.
Cheers and have a great Tuesday.
Kevin and the gang from Dog Lover’s Digest