A Question of Dominance: The Vending Machine

Dominance continues to be a very hot button issue for dog lovers everywhere, and with good reason. Deciding the reason for a behavior is often prescriptive for its modification, whether to increase, decrease, or change its expression.

I’d like to try an experiment with you, one that involves everyone from trainers to behaviorists to dog lovers of all kinds. I want to compare and contrast a similar behavior pattern between a human and a dog. I’ll give an example of two similar behaviors, one human, one canine, and ask you to comment and explain them in the hopes that we all gain a better understanding of both human and dog behavior.

I’ll start with an experience that should be common to us all, a recalcitrant vending machine.

The Human Experience

A person puts in a dollar in a vending machine, makes their selection, and watches. The motor makes a satisfying whine as the steel coil advances the peanut butter cracker towards the abyss from which the person will spelunk for them. You can see the anticipation in the persons face as they wait for the familiar kerplunk signaling that snack time is here.

But something’s wrong! The familiar whine of the motor has ceased without the kerplunk coda! The crackers cling to the ledge, refusing to drop into the yawning chasm below.

You watch as the stages of grief play out before your eyes. Shock and denial register on the persons face. Skipping the pain and guilt phase, they go straight to anger as they do their best to simulate an earthquake which will dislodge the crackers from their purchase. As they expend the energy they were hoping to replenish with their purchase, they finally decide that crackers are worth two dollars today and they put another dollar in.

The Experience Canine

A dog circles around its caffeine deprived owner as he stumbles out of bed to greet the coming day. Yapping and yipping, the dog follows the man from the bathroom to the living room providing obstacles for his still unsteady feet.

Once they reach the living room the dog does the auto-sit-stare (legal tender for all doggy debts public and private) in anticipation of the ritual morning treat. Severely caffeine deprived, the man decides to forego the normal treat dispensing in favor of a java fix.

As the man stands at the coffee maker waiting for his morning nectar, the dog is barking, jumping, and tugging on the man’s pajamas. As the man looks down at the dog, the dog does an emphatic sit, followed by an “I Dream of Jeannie” eye blink and nose wiggle.

The Question

  1. Do you think either the human or the dog is displaying dominant behavior here? Why?

Please help others by sharing your views here. Let’s learn from each other so we can be better humans for our dogs.

17 thoughts on “A Question of Dominance: The Vending Machine

  1. Can man dominate a machine? No, didn’t think so…
    Is the dog trying to dominate his owner? Absolutely not….
    Is the dog trying to attract the owner’s attention to remind him of something he has ‘forgotten’ to do? Absolutely!
    Like Roxanne above I too think ‘dominance’ is a load of bs. But then, what do I know….just this minute heard a person on a radio programme say ‘that was the dominant position of our group’!!??

  2. Haven’t read the “other” comments above mine yet..as I write this because I don’t want them to influence my answer. But right away I would say neither is dominant behavior. The person is frustrated, maybe they aren’t rich and just lost a dollar, perhaps they are in a hurry, but trying to dominate the machine is an endeavor in futility. The dog is simply exhibiting excitement for the patterns that were also habituated….the dispensing of treats first thing in the morning from the caffeine deprived owner. They are very similar situations. The dog doesn’t get angry, doesn’t shake the man, but does attention seeking behavior to try to get his person to give them the prize. Dominating the person/owner I’d say emphatically no. So there you have it. Now I’m off to read the other posts.

    Great article Kevin, as usual and really provides a food for thought!!!!


  3. A great analogy, Kevin, and written so well! Absolutely not — dominance does not apply in either case. Maybe some emotions — frustration, eagerness — and behaviors to try to achieve the goal, the elusive food. Nicely done!

  4. Clearly the above example of dominance seems to be from someone with a tentative grasp of behavioral psych (I know that’s why you’re using it). Far, far to often dominance is blamed for learned and conditioned behaviors. (Here comes the but)

    But, I do believe I see dominant behavior daily in my pack. I am in a very atypical situation. I live with about 20 dogs, 15 of which are fosters that rotate regularly. I work with dogs with mild to severe behavior problems. I need my personal dogs(3 of them) to be at the top of the pack to help maintain order in a positive way. I therefore don’t necessarily see dominance as a negative trait. Dominance being defined as the need to maintain order and raise/maintain one’s status in the pack. This does NOT mean that I approve of dominance training. We know there are better more affective training styles.

    I appreciate all alternate views. If we stop discussing, we stop learning.

    • I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts with us.

      Could you tell us what you mean by having your dogs maintain order at the top of the pack? I am assuming that you are fostering some dogs that have fear aggression issues. Also do you feel that the dogs look at you as a member of a pack with status above, below, or equal to your own?

      Thanks again for your comments.

      • I don’t want to be too wordy here. Feel free to email me for longer discussions.

        I treat dogs with all types of problems such as aggression, fear, and anxiety. I find having very stable lead dogs to serve as role models for clients’ dogs and foster dogs significantly reduces the time needed for training and rehab.

        My dogs maintain order by monitoring and regulating the behavior of the other dogs. Ex – Let’s say 2 dogs are in a tense standoff, a fight could occur. One of the lead dogs can diffuse this situation by walking between them, or bumping or barking at one of the dogs. If a lower dog tries this it would likely be ignored, or possibly even attacked. Status is definitely important.

        You ask of my status. I make the rules, the schedule, and provide the food. Of course, I’ve conditioned them to respond to me through affection, play, and food. So, do they see me as some kind of uber lead dog, or as their favorite and most relevant person in their life? I’m unsure. Ask nicely and maybe they’ll tell you. 😉

  5. Clearly the vending machine asserted its dominance by doing what IT pleased and disregarding what somebody else might have wanted it do! LOL The one who’s dominant makes the rules.

  6. Both clearly dominant – not! Both are frustrated that something they have been “trained” to expect has not materialised. The dog if anything is being more creative in trying to get what it expected – the human is using brute force. Maybe that tells us something too…. 😉

  7. Behavior that produced desired result in the past no longer works, both for dog and human. Behavior escalates, “trying harder”…isn’t that what you call an extinction burst? Has nothing to do with dominance as far as I can tell.

    • I don’t see dominance here either Karla. But there are many who do and I want to try and understand why they see it that way. 🙂

  8. I enjoyed this post and enjoy your writing style. 🙂 The dog is not being dominant at all, but is having behaviors I would never allow (pulling on clothing, mouthing ,etc…). That doesn’t make the dog dominant by any means, it just makes the dog smart. The dog has learned that if he displays these behaviors, eventually his groggy owner will comply and listen.

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