Dispelling the Dominance Myth
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2007
Behavioural Referrals Veterinary Practice
Upton, Chester, England


Over recent years there has been an increasing interest in the application of what we know about wolf behaviour to our understanding of the behaviour of our domestic dogs. While this may have helped to increase our appreciation of some of their natural behaviours, we have to acknowledge that there are limitations to the application of information across species boundaries. One of the aspects of wolf behaviour that has been repeatedly applied to our own relationships with our pets has been that of hierarchy and relative status. There has been a lot written about dominance and the behavioural problems that are believed to be associated with it but recently a better understanding of the emotional basis of canine behaviour has resulted in a questioning of the dominance story and a belief that there is an alternative explanation for the "challenging" behaviours which have traditionally been interpreted as "dominant" gestures.

The Importance of Hierarchy

Dogs are social animals who have an inherent need to be with members of their own species and who co-operate with one another in all of the basic survival behaviours, including hunting and rearing of young. It is essential that the dogs that belong to the same pack get along well and that disruption and conflict is kept to a minimum. By living according to a hierarchical structure dogs are able to minimize tension and competition and thereby reduce the risk of physical confrontation, which could result in injury for pack members. Far from leading to aggression the presence of a high ranking individual within a pack should reduce aggression and make the pack more stable.

Dominance--A Trait or a Position?

In order for a hierarchy to be established, individuals within a social group need to be familiar with one another and some need to be prepared to show subordinate behavioural responses. Establishing relative rank is achieved by a series of confrontations over resources and these confrontations take place between individual members of the social group. At the end of these encounters the individual that retains the resource has established itself as the dominant partner in that relationship and it is important to remember that a dominance and submission relationship is one that exists between two individuals. Within a social group confrontations take place regularly and over time a hierarchy can become established whereby those dogs that have won more competitive encounters are given a higher rank than those that have failed to win. Of course it is important to avoid injury during these competitions and therefore the subordinate individual in any encounter will give clear signals to the other animal that confrontation is unnecessary. In this way the subordinate individual is effectively giving dominance away and the dominant individual has no need to prove his point with physical violence. In some of the literature regarding dog behaviour the issue of dominance is discussed in a way that suggests that dogs are born dominant and that their behaviour is governed by a congenital trait. Such a belief leads to dogs being labeled as dominant individuals from an early age and the unsubstantiated link between this state of dominance and the presence of aggression leads to many of these dogs being further labeled as dangerous. Certainly some individuals may be less inhibited in their behaviour than others and these dogs may be less likely to diffuse a situation with submissive signaling but the question of their dominance can only be settled by an encounter with another individual. If that animal is inhibited in terms of its behaviour then the less inhibited individual is more likely to assume a dominant position in that relationship, but this does not guarantee that he will be dominant in all relationships or that he will necessarily give clear signals of that superiority in all encounters with that partner.

A Flexible and Dynamic Situation

Once a hierarchy has been established through repeated competition the highest ranking individual is secure in its position of leadership, but this does not mean that this animal will always "win" in every encounter with other pack members and there is a lot of room for flexibility within the system. For many dog owners this flexibility leads to confusion and it is common for people to comment that their dog appears to be "dominant" but that there are certain circumstances in which he shows no signs of challenging other pack members and seems happy to tow the party line. In order to understand this it is important to consider the issue of resource holding potential since this holds the key to relative rank and to predicting the outcome of confrontations between pack members. Resource holding potential or RHP is the ability of an individual to retain possession of a resource and it is governed by a number of different factors. The past experience of the individual has a significant effect on RHP and if an individual has won more encounters than it has lost in the past this will lead to a relative increase in potential to gain access to the resource in the future. Physical attributes of the individual such as size, age, sex and physical strength are important factors and a strong, large, young adult male will have a relatively high RHP when compared to a small, weak elderly female. However, the outcome of an encounter does not rely on RHP alone and it is important to consider other factors relating to the resource under dispute before jumping to conclusion as to who is going to win. In fact the outcome is governed by the following equation in which RHP is resource holding potential, V is the value of the resource to each individual and C is the potential cost to the individual if the confrontation continues.


In any particular encounter the outcome will be determined by the relative value of the above equation to each individual and when the equation on the left is greater than the one on the right it is the individual on the left that wins.



If a dog is very excited by the chance of a game with a ball (dog A) and the other dog in the household is very food orientated (dog B) it is likely that the outcome of confrontation between the dogs will differ depending on the resource that is under dispute.

In a confrontation over a tasty tidbit dog A may give way to dog B simply because the value of the tidbit is very low to him and the potential cost in challenging dog B, who regards the food treat as a highly desirable resource that is worth fighting over, is too high. This does not necessarily mean that the RHP of dog A is lower than that of dog B and indeed dog A may be the dominant individual in the majority of encounters between the two dogs and therefore the higher ranking dog within the pack but on this occasion it will dog B that gains access to the resource.

The Importance of Consistency

When considering the relationship between an owner and their dog clinical evidence suggests that it is the consistency of the relationship that is the most important factor in establishing relationships between dogs and humans. For most dogs a low ranking position within a human pack is just what they want and when owners give clear, unambiguous signals of leadership the dog feels reassured. Unfortunately for many dogs this clear leadership is missing and the signals that they receive from the humans in their social group are confusing. In most cases the dog is not a naturally high ranking individual and when owners fail to give consistent signals of leadership this creates anxiety in the dog and a range of behavioural problems can arise as a result. Far from challenging these dogs with clear signals of rank, owners need to make them feel secure by establishing clear unambiguous signals to the dog as to how and when it can gain access to valuable resources, such as attention, food and play.

The Human Dimension

Humans are remarkably inconsistent and their behaviour fosters anxiety and a lack of self confidence in the domestic dog. As the dog searches for information its behaviour is commonly misinterpreted as demanding and dominant and the human response is to "show him who's boss". The result of this miscommunication is a canine expectation of social interaction mixed with an expectation of confrontation and this situation of "I love you but you scare me" contributes to displays of defensive behaviour. Indeed when the owner exhibits their unpredictable and confrontational behaviour the dog responds with signals such as lip curling and growling that are intended to deflect the threat and encourage the owner to back off. If they succeed the dog will learn that defensive signals are necessary in order to avoid confrontation and will be more likely to display these behaviours in situations where it anticipates confrontation in the future. On the other hand if the owner refuses to "give in" to these inappropriate behaviours and decides to "stand his ground" the dog confirms his suspicions that his owner is a threat and learns that he needs to defend himself more effectively the next time.

Bringing Resources Under Human Control

The basic flaw in the dominance myth is that canine society is not regulated through the use of physical conflict but rather through the consistent control of access to important resources. In order to establish a stable and secure relationship between dog and owner, it is important to avoid unnecessary physical confrontation and therefore owners need to establish consistent social rules and give clear signals of resource control. This will create a safe and secure environment in which the dog can relax. When the access to resources is consistently controlled by the owner, dogs can learn to look for cues and signals which indicate that the resource is about to be released to them. This enables them to predict when resources are available and reduces the need to engage in attention seeking and demanding behaviours, which are designed to gain access to resources at other times. Dogs can get very confused when owners sometimes respond to their behaviour by giving them the resource they desire and at other times punish them for exactly the same behaviour. This unpredictable behaviour from owners can lead to problems of anxiety, insecurity and frustration for the dog and these emotions can in turn cause situations of confrontation and aggression.


Lack of firm but fair leadership is a major factor in cases where the dog is insecure and anxious and establishing house rules which clearly indicate that the home is a safe and secure place is often necessary in such cases. However there is no place for confrontation in this process and aggressive techniques will be counterproductive and open to serious misinterpretation.

"Dominance Aggression"--A Common Misdiagnosis

One of the most common misdiagnoses in the field of behavioural medicine is that of "dominance" aggression. In dog to human relationships it is the factors of consistency, predictability and control that are the most important and the behaviours that are so often interpreted as "signs of dominance" can be better explained in terms of emotional conflict. Dogs react to the apparently threatening interactions from their owners with defensive signals which are all too readily misinterpreted as signs of challenge and confrontation and in a large number of behavioural cases, the use of inappropriate and unjustified attempts to assert the owner's dominance leads to escalating conflict and a misperception that the dog is attempting to be "dominant" in return. Far from being "dominant" these dogs are anxious individuals who find the world around them to be inconsistent and unpredictable. When they are provided with clear and consistent signals their anxiety subsides and they can begin to learn how to behave appropriately in a social context.

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