The Vanity of Dominance

For the most part, my dogs never do anything to surprise me. It’s not that they don’t do unexpected things that can both delight and frustrate me, but if I take the time to think about it, they’re behaving exactly as I should expect them to.

Evolution, in addition to at least 15,000 years of selective breeding and cohabitation has led to an animal that is simpatico with, if not in symbiotically joined with our nature. Yet, as suited as they are to our lifestyle, they are still an animal apart from us and so we have to speculate as to the reasons they do the things they do.

As humans, we like to think that we have the brain power to figure out motivation in others. But as an animal endowed with the ability to apply critical thinking, we are very susceptible to an idea that pushes the right buttons. Lawyers who argue in front of a jury aren’t paid because they know how to present evidence; they are paid because they know how to argue and push those hot buttons that will inject emotion and speculation into a jury’s deliberations.

To me, this emotional logic lies at the heart of the notion of dominance that is so often misapplied to the domestic dog. With no real scientific weight behind it, the notion that our dogs are trying to be the alpha wolf of the house is nothing but an emotional appeal to our vanity. It goes something like this…

Dogs are wolves and so see us as competing pack members. Their misbehavior (as we see it) is an attempt to assert their dominance and it’s up to us to human up and show them who is boss or we lose face.

Never mind that this analogy doesn’t really apply to wolves let alone dogs, our vanity has been challenged and the proverbial gauntlet has been thrown. Just who the hell do my dogs think they are?

When any of my dogs are doing something I disapprove of, it’s very easy for me to become upset. My emotions at the time allow me to assume that they are misbehaving despite any admonitions or training to the contrary. But taking a step back from emotion reveals some simple truths…

  • My dogs are not hearkening back to their ancient ancestry with wolves, they are behaving in a manner consistent with the environment they find themselves in now. They are behaving exactly how I should expect a domestic dog in my house to behave.
  • Their behavior is most likely a result of reinforcement somewhere in their environment and not out of a desire for pack status within my house. Their behavior results simply in a need being met that has nothing to do with status or dominance.
  • My emotional involvement in the situation leaves me vulnerable to arriving at explanations based on emotional assumption rather than conclusions based on critical thinking.

We expect a lot out of our dogs in terms of obeying rules that are totally foreign to their nature. It’s only fair that we ignore the emotional appeal to our vanity that dominance wrongly implies and simply show the dogs the rules using simple and effective reinforcement.

Cheers and Happy Holidays from the gang at Dog Lover’s Digest

One thought on “The Vanity of Dominance

  1. There is a lot in the fact that ‘natural ability’ comes into getting through to a dog.
    One of the pre-requisites for selecting a Police Dog Handler is “Must be able to get down to the Dog’s level of intelligence”
    But the following line says “Should not find the above too easy” I think that the person who wrote this had a lovely sense of humour!

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