What causes dominance behaviour?
Have you ever wondered how much of your dog’s behaviour has been preordained? Over recent years, behaviourist studies have helped dog owners gain a better understanding of the behaviour of domestic dogs by researching their closest living wild relative – the wolf.
This has certainly helped increase our understanding and appreciation of our pet dogs’ natural behaviours. According to leading behaviourist Sarah Heath, BVSc, MRCVS, one of the aspects of wolf behaviour that shows in our own relationships with our pets is that of dominance in the hierarchy. The need for domesticated dogs to prove dominance in a relationship has contributed to many behavioural problems in the home. What does dominance mean, and what part does it play in a canine society?
The pack instinct
Dogs are social animals who have a pack instinct – i.e. a natural need to be with other dogs. In the wild, they need to cooperate with one another in order to survive. They display all of the basic behaviours, including hunting and rearing of young, in this pack environment. However, because the pack is such a tight structure, it is essential that all dogs within the same group get along well to avoid disruption and conflict. By living according to a strict order, dogs are able to minimize tension and competition. This reduces the risk of physical confrontation, which could result in injury for pack members. Far from leading to aggression, the presence of a “top dog” within a pack should reduce aggression and make the pack more stable.
In the wild, a pack does not establish a natural hierarchy immediately. For a chain of command to be established within the pack, individual dogs need to be familiar with one another, and some need to be prepared to show subordinate or submissive behavioural responses. Other dogs will want to establish their rank in the group, and will start a series of confrontations. These confrontations will take place until each dog has been defeated into submission and one dog is left as the dominant animal. Within a pack, these confrontations take place regularly, and over time a hierarchy is established. The dogs, who have won more competitive encounters, are given a higher rank than those who have failed to win.
Because it is important to avoid injury during these competitions, the subordinate dog in an encounter will give clear signals to the other animal that confrontation is unnecessary. In this way, the submissive dog is effectively giving his dominance away without making the other dog prove his point with physical violence.
Some studies show that dogs are born dominant and that their behaviour is governed by hereditary traits. Such a belief leads to dogs being labelled as dominant at an early age, which in turn relates dominance to aggression in dogs. This misconception of dominance has lead to many dogs being labelled as potentially dangerous.
Some dogs may be less inhibited in their behaviour than others, and therefore may be less likely to diffuse a situation with submissive signalling. For these dogs, the question of their dominance can only be settled by an encounter with another individual. If the other animal is inhibited in terms of his behaviour, then the less inhibited dog is more likely to assume his dominance. But this does not guarantee that he will be dominant in all relationships or that he will always be superior to that partner. At the time, the best dog won, but that doesn’t mean the other dog won’t test him again and win.
The dog that wins the majority of encounters with a range of individuals is given the job of leading the pack. This is the highest accolade but, as with any high-flying job, the position brings responsibility as well as privilege. The top dog maintains his position of authority through respectful communication with his fellow pack members, and bullying tactics are unwelcome and unnecessary.
No interest in being a leader
Many dogs within the pack are not interested in being a leader and are happy to be lower ranking members of the workforce. These dogs often find responsibility difficult to handle, and feel pressured by privilege. While the top job is filled by a stable and secure boss, everything is fine, but any signs of instability in the higher ranks can lead to problems. This insecurity can become a source of anxiety to those further down the ranks, and the pack can be thrown into disarray. A pack without a strong leader is a pack under threat. If the leader fails to demonstrate his position consistently, trouble can often break out in the lower ranks. These lower ranking dogs will jostle for the top position.
Don’t show weakness
In the domestic situation, these dogs are far more likely to present behavioural problems when the dominant human shows weakness. When tackling a dominance issue, the point is not to show your dog ‘Who is boss’, but to show him ‘Who isn’t’ through calm communication and order.
Looking at dogs in the wild and their pack instinct can give a better understanding of why your dog needs to be led. He wants to feel secure and ensure his survival, which to him is as true in his household as it is in the wild.