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DOGS AND DOMINANCE: Is it time to move on?

Updated: Apr 13, 2019

An Overview

For thousands of years dogs have played a fundamental part within the human culture; over the years training methods have varied significantly, continuously evolving and interchanging between positive and aversive procedures (Pregowski, 2014). One practice that has remained solid over the years, despite being debunked by esteemed wolf biologists; is the dominance ideology (Mech, 2000). “Dominance” is widely used to explain, train, and classify the behaviour of the domestic dog (Canis Lupus Familiaris). The term can also be seen throughout popular literature and respected academic sources. However, in the last century, the recommendation of utilising dominance as a correctional behavioural protocol is questioned for its accuracy and consequences. Scientific articles are now providing evidence suggesting the use of dominance can accentuate aggressive or stereotypical behaviours (van Kerkhove, 2010; Bradshaw et al., 2016). Alternatively, the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and its recommended code of practice for canine care may have made an impact; professionals argue dominance-based techniques do not adhere to the legislation and are detrimental to the canine’s wellbeing (DEFRA, 2017; Sonntag et al., 2014).

Two of the largest animal rescue centres in the UK produced the following statistics in 2017: Dogs Trust (2017), reported 15,446 dogs were placed in their care, along with Battersea (2017) reporting nine dogs were relinquished to their centres per day; this suggests certain aspects are failing within dog ownership. This paper aims to review the role of dominance within dog ownership; from the initial ideology to current day, to analyse how dominance affects dog-owner culture within society and to discuss the consequences of its uses reported within scientific data.

The Dominance Theory Evolution

Within animal behaviour, dominance is defined as a relationship between individuals in which is ascertained by aggressive, forceful and submissive behaviours. Animals can then establish presidential access to desired resources such as; food, sex and rest (Morina et al., 2018). In groups with strong hierarchy platforms, establishing dominance is imperative to pass on the individual’s genes; this is significant in evolutionary purposes and is seen across the animal kingdom (Weiss, 2017). Linear rankings are mainly seen within social mammals, such as chimpanzees, baboons, chickens, birds and mice (Langergraber et al., 2013; Chiao, 2010). For example, once a rooster has verified his hierarchy position in its flock, he is then entitled to the females who are ready to mate (Wilson et al., 2008).

Current literature observes wolf packs working cooperatively in providing resources to ensure the offspring can survive, thus the alpha male and female are responsible for producing offspring, indicating more of a protective family role; a contrasting statement to those made by Schenkel in 1947 (Liang et al., 2018). The notion of the ‘alpha wolf’, which consequentially lead to our modern day “alpha dog”, originated from a then-revolutionary study into the ‘sociology of the wolf’ (Schenkel, 1947). Schenkel identified: two dominant members of the pack, noted ‘violent rivalries’ and observed ‘jealousy’ from pack members. The use of anthropomorphism in proclaiming wolves can feel ‘jealous’ however, questions the reliability of Schenkel’s study. Harris et al., (2014), states it is possible that dogs or wolves possess jealousy as an emotion, however research is still ongoing to prove this indefinitely. Using captive wolves to demonstrate a theory of dominance in domestic dogs is also questionable in its validity, however during the 1940s, research was extremely limited (Yin, 2009). A key factor which shaped modern data within Schenkel’s paper was the comparison to wolves and dogs; stating the domestic dog draws parallel to the dominant behaviours observed. Thereafter, David Mech compiled “the Wolves of Isle Royale”; a thirteen year-long study, echoing Schenkel’s dominance theory. Again, Mech (1974) supported Schenkel’s theory; affirming zero variances in karyotype between the dog and the wolf (Canis Lupus). However, consideration should be taken into the proficiency of DNA technology obtainable in 1974. Furthermore, primary studies listed above, Fox’s (1971) comparative study on canids, and Zimen’s (1975) social dynamics of the wolf pack shaped society’s understanding of the social structure of the domestic dog.

It could be argued, that if Cesar Millan’s “The Dog Whisperer” had not become such an international success, the theory of dominance in domestic dogs could have dwindled. Millan (2008) advocates “being the pack leader”, “knowing your dog’s pack position” and advises clients to “create your dog’s submissive state”. Millan continues to practise dominance despite the sizeable scope of scientific data in circulation, in which concludes a correlation of negative behavioural and emotional responses to those methods. On the contrary to Millan’s canine philosophy, a study conducted by McGreevy et al (2012) explored dominance methods via ethograms with conclusions of psychological tension and a mistrust within the human/canine dyad. Additionally, Wlodarczyk (2017) has intensely studied training methods from 1805 – 2000’s; she, like many others describes Millan as “extreme” and “machismo”. Not only does Jackson-Schebetta (2009) agree with Wlodarczyk in her critical analysis of “The Dog Whisperer”, she goes on to insinuate the episodes are staged, proposing the early 2000’s dominance trend, headed by Millan, was partially fabricated. Despite Wlodarcyzk’s reporting, the 2000’s sparked the “positive reinforcement revolution”, current studies imply social media platforms like YouTube are now favoured areas to gain knowledge (Cunningham et al., 2017). Interestingly, Millan has 413,017 YouTube subscribers, this could suggest that although professional canine training approaches may have moved on, the public is still captivated by Millan’s methods; exposing modern influences as to why dominance is still relatively prevalent in today’s society (YouTube, 2018).

Dominant Methods and their Consequences

Although in recent years positive reinforcement is utilised by many canine professionals, aversive “dominating” techniques are still employed and thought of as a proficient method of

everyday dog training (Blackwell et al., 2012). Many dominance techniques usually fall within positive punishment or negative reinforcement; according to Chance (2003), these methods can produce harmful effects such as displacement behaviours, detachment and aggression. Interesting research by Siniscalchi et al., (2018), illustrates the canine’s ability to distinguish human emotion by their facial expressions; they are also capable of matching those expressions to vocalisations, to decipher if the human is “happy” or “angry”. In Engle and Zentall’s (2016) special edition on cognition in dogs, functional homology found similarities between the human and canine cognitive functions were cited, including behavioural inhibition (lateral prefrontal cortex), Hare and Tomasello (2006) linked human-like social skills in dogs in the use of a task commonly used within human-infants, and Berns (2013) made significant comparisons into the limbic system of the dog; suggesting capabilities of empathy and emotion (Kujala, 2017; Schirmer et al., 2013).

This indicates a deeper understanding of the human-canine emotional dyad and may explain why we observe both physical and psychological responses in a dog after being verbally scolded; a popular “dominance” method (Kwan et al., 2013). There are countless contrasting arguments into this delicate subject, therefore it is important to analyse and discuss a range of scientific data in this subject, thus Table One offers an overview of additional existing experiments. In section A, a survey-based study of aversive methods suggests over 80% of dog owners will use scolding as a correctional method, along with around a quarter reporting using training methods related to punishment (Arhant et al., 2010). A study by Deldelle et al., (2014), which tested two training methods, one positive – one aversive, showed a clear link between negative body language and the aversive methods. The body language recorded is indicative of stress within the canine; signs such as lowered body and tail, oral licking, body shaking, and yawning (Jones et al., 2014; Overall, 2013; Aloff, 2005). Similarly, Herron et al., (2009) conducted a study in which a survey of 140 owners revealed the confrontational scold: “no” correlated with aggression in 15% of the cases (see Table one - B). Among the most controversial methods are electronic devices; an electronic impulse or spray, triggered by remote control. Such methods uphold their provocative status due to their hazardous capacities (see Table one – C/D). Legal and widely used in England up until March 2018, the government prohibited the device; concluding an ability to re-direct behaviours and generate anxiety-based behaviours. In many instances, owners were exploiting correctional collars to inflict harm to their pet (GOV.UK., 2018). A study conducted by DEFRA (2011) supports the recent legislation, stating despite best practice used by canine professionals, the behavioural observations proved consistent with negative emotional states. In comparison, Sargisson et al., (2012) conducted a study with varying results to an anti-barking spray collar; ten dogs were used during the study, with a significant decrease in vocalisation for three of the canines. Although not all dogs responded to the anti-bark spray, it is clear for some dogs this method is effective to a degree. It must be noted however, only a small number of dogs participated, therefore more test would be needed for validity. Additionally, a number of manufacturing faults were uncovered during the process, such as collar oversensitivity to head shakes and car door slams; suggesting an unreliable relationship between the vocalisation and the activation. Similar manufacturing faults have been uncovered in several other studies, most in agreement of the wide scope for stimulus oversensitivity (Schalke et al., 2007; Lines et al., 2013; Overall, 2018).

A secondary observational study surrounding the use of e-collars and livestock chasing was conducted by DEFRA (2011); an increase in vocalisation was observed, providing an interesting paradox to the overall efficiency of the collars (Cooper et al., 2014). Homologous findings of dogs yelping are also detected in the DEFRA study; the yelps were perceived as a response to pain (DEFRA, 2011). In the public consensus to the new legislation, some professionals declared e-collars can be beneficial to dogs who portray dangerous and harmful behaviours; additionally, it was found many trainers use the collars as a last resort in prevention of euthanasia (DEFRA, 2018). Moreover, a study surrounding canine acral mutilation syndrome used e-collars as a preventative method to further mutilation with positive results (Paradis et al., 2005). It could be argued, that some “dominant” techniques used out of the “dominance” context, can be efficient tools; although still contentious. Despite the minority of beneficial functions of e-collars, the general consensus in the canine industry and popular literature, is the damaging emotional consequences by far outweigh the few successful practises (Ziv, 2017; Overall, 2018; Masson et al., 2018).

To Conclude...

It is a fair assumption to conclude dominance is still a huge part of today’s society, even worldwide. However, not only has Mech debunked his own theory on dominance (Mech, 1999), there is an abundance of literature observing wolves out of the dominance contect and more as a family, who live and work together within a hierarchy structure. Therefore, it would reasonable to assume dominance as a technique to train a domestic dog is unrealistic and cruel. Academic papers have verified the dog as a social specie, those of which possess a complex emotional state in which needs to be nurtured not subjugated (Kujala, 2017). Through an exploration of current literature, this paper can conclude the implications of imposing dominance in training are more likely to be negative, however there are small areas of dominance in which have proven to be effective. Nevertheless, the minority of successes do not outweigh the undesirable after effects evident in modern research. With a greater understanding of the canine mind, the catalysts for their behaviours and expanding levels of modification approaches it could be predicted that, just as electronic devices are becoming prohibited, society may see dominance as a technique eradicated completely (Overall, 2016).


Jessica Tuck, FdSc Canine Behaviour and Training

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