Dominance, Status and Rank Reduction Programmes
By Lotte Griffiths – 2005
During the 1970ies, 80ies and early 90ies, it became ‘fashionable’ for some dog training instructors and behaviourists to view dogs as “tame wolves” and to treat them as such. We were taught it was essential that the humans became the dominant partner in combined human-canine ‘packs’ and, to prevent our dogs from staging a coup d’état, we should implement a list of rules, commonly referred to as a rank-reduction programme. However, the theory on which those recommendations and rules were based has now (thankfully) been thoroughly discredited … to quote Steven Lindsay (2000):
“A long history of domestication behaviourally segregates dogs from wolves, and one must take care not to overly generalise between the two canids in terms of their motivations and behaviour patterns.”[i]
Thus, although dogs do indeed exhibit some severely modified wolf-traits:
DOGS ARE NOT WOLVED, THEY DONOT BEHAVE OR THINK LIKE WOLVES AND THEY SHUOLD NOT BE TREATED LIKE WOLVES!
Think about it logically for a moment, just because you and I are related to and probably descend from the great apes, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we behave like them or should be treated like Chimps!
What is more, the ‘rules’ for rank-reduction programmes were based on the assumption that because wolves live in packs that have strict hierarchies, domestic dogs would be organising their social structure likewise, and we should therefore ensure that we attained Alpha-status within the combined human-canine social unit or, so-called pack. Recent research, however, indicate that domestic dogs do not form packs with dominance hierarchies in the true sense of the word and, although opinions do vary somewhat, L. Boitani, F. Francisci, P Ciucci & G Andreoli’s study of population biology and ecology of feral dogs in central Italy, concluded that: “The kinds of associations and social bonds formed among feral dogs do not follow the precise rules of pack living, as described for other canids (see Keliman & Eisenberg, 1973; Bekoff et al., 1984; Gittleman, 1989), and the term ‘group’ seems more appropriate than pack”.
Another study of feral dogs (MacDonald & Carr, 1989) suggests that “free-living dogs … appear to adjust their behaviour to their local circumstances”[ii] which corresponds with findings by Coppinger (2001), who argues that: ”Research indicates that packing behaviour is a developmental response to a particular habitat … I don’t see much in dogs that indicates they have the fundamental behaviours that would allow true wolf like packing … Dogs are adapted to a very different niche than wolves, and their social behaviour has likewise evolved so that it is appropriate to that niche”[iii]
An explanation of why, despite the above, we still see aggression among dogs residing in multi-dog households comes from professor of Zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Dr. Patricia B McConnell (2001): “Unlike dogs with no alternative but to scavenge on empty food cartons and human faeces, our house dogs are sitting on a veritable gold mine of resources, from gourmet food to free massages every night. If that’s not worth competing for, I don’t know what is”. [iv]
Another aspect which makes this entire subject even more confusing is that:
a) Different breeds appear to organize their social structure in different ways, and
b) Canine pack leadership in multi-dog households is often flexible and may vary depending on particular situations and the environment.
This means that although one dog might be very particular about who gets greeted or fed first, another may be more concerned with who gets the new toy first. What is more, that which appears to be important to one dog at one point in time might not be important to the same dog an hour later. The reason for this may well be that:
a) Dogs vary in both temperament and physiology and we have selected the various breeds to do different things. It is for example interesting to note that gundogs appear to have a relatively low threshold for possessive aggression, possibly because they were specifically bred to hold things and thus holding things are important to them, whereas a dog from guarding breed-type, might be more worried about who enters or walks past the dog’s territory.
b) According to a research at Southampton University, the frequency and intensity of aggressive displays appears to be commensurate with a dog’s ‘Resource Holding Potential’ (RHP), i.e. the dog’s size, health, sex, environment, etc., PLUS the Value (to the dog of whatever is being disputed) OVER the Cost, i.e. the predicted outcome, which may be based on previous encounters or signals observed; or in other words: is it worth risking injuries over, is it worth the bother?
But … if dogs do not form packs in the true sense of the word, is all we have learnt about hierarchies and social status irrelevant to the domestic dog? PB McConnell comments: “that seems counterintuitive, given what we know about how our own dogs behave, and lacks an understanding of how behaviour and the environment interacts.”… She goes on to suggest that “A good hypothesis is that although social status is highly relevant to dogs, it’s much less of an obsession with them than it is with wolves”. [v]
Where does that leave their relationship with us - can we be part of the dogs’ pack? Barry Eaton (2005) writes that: “During the critical period for social development, the interaction with siblings and the dam results in imprinting of the puppy’s brain. In other words it knows it’s a dog, will recognise another dog and behave accordingly. This will shape the development of the dog's future behaviour. We accept dogs into our human family but the dog cannot be part of a pack with humans because of the interaction and imprinting the puppy received in its first few weeks of life. It doesn't think like us, or behave like us, or smell like us, or live by the same values as us.”[vi] Thus, although there can be little doubt that, given the chance, dogs do indeed form very strong, special relationships with humans, it is unlikely they perceive us as other dogs, or even as being part of their canine dominance hierarchy (if indeed they have one), and there is absolutely no motivation for them to challenge us for status … which, in turn, negates the rationalization for using rank-reduction programmes.
Notwithstanding the above, although dogs might not perceive us as being dogs or part of their ‘pack’, in the sense of us being part of their hierarchical structure, I do nevertheless believe that they do perceive us as being part of their social group.
But if dogs do not perceive us as being part of their hierarchical structure, why they then sometimes appear to challenge us for status; posture and exhibit so-called dominant behaviour aimed at us? Well, firstly, there seems to be a lot of confusion about what the terms dominance and status actually means, so let us first clarify the terms.
According to Dr. McConnell (2001) “Status is a position or rank within a society, while dominance describes a relationship among individuals”[vii], while Karen Overall (1997) describes dominance as being: “… a concept found in traditional ethology that pertains to an individual’s ability to maintain or regulate access to some resources. It is not to be confused with Status.” [viii]
Thus, status (or rank within a hierarchy) has nothing to do with dominance and what we might previously have regarded as dominant behaviour, or dominance-aggression, may more appropriately be identified as being exhibitions of resource guarding behaviour. Viewed in this light, it simply makes no sense to use rank-reduction programmes which are primarily designed to elevate our status. We, therefore, have to question whether it is not more appropriate to treat the problem as presented, rather than employing a whole raft of silly rules about who goes out doorways or eat before the other, regardless of whether eating or going out of doorways is a problem or not.
Another aspect we need to bear in mind is that the majority of problem behaviours which previously were diagnosed as being status/rank-related, are in fact learned behaviour and I firmly believe that far too little emphasis has been placed on whether so-called dominant behaviours are, in reality, dominance-related or merely an indication of conditioning (or a lack thereof).
Here I wish to quote Jean Donaldson (1996) who argues that “Parsimony laws dictate … that we rule out learning laws before entertaining arguments based on complex social structure concepts like dominance … The whole dominance idea is so out of proportion that entire schools of training are based on the premise that is you can just assert adequate dominance over the dog, everything else falls into place. This is dangerous.” [ix]
As it turns out, it is not only dangerous for the dog, it is also dangerous for the owner if he or she attempt to employ aversive techniques ‘training’ techniques such as for example the infamous ‘Alpha-roll’ of which Dr McConnell points out that: “Well-socialized, healthy dogs don’t pin other dogs to the ground. Submissive individuals initiate that position themselves. The posture is a display signal from one animal to another, a signal of appeasement, not a wrestling manoeuvre. Forcing dogs into “submission” and screaming in their face is a great way to elicit defensive aggression. Within their social framework, you’re acting like a lunatic”[x]. Moreover, Steve Lindsay (2001) argues that “Many aggressive displays that are currently diagnosed as dominance aggression are aimed at avoiding some perceived aversive outcome rather than establishing or maintaining the offending dog’s status.”[xi]
Thus, if a dog growls at us when we attempt to turf it off the sofa or remove something it has ‘stolen’, we need to ask ourselves:
a. Whether the aggression is a response to our own threatening behaviour rather than an expression of ‘dominance aggression’’
b. Whether the dog actually understands what we are trying to get it to do (i.e. have we taught the dog a get off or give signal?)
Can Rank-reduction Programmes Damage the Owner-Dog Relationship?
It does appear that rank-reduction programmes can be exceedingly detrimental to the owner-dog relationship and that is probably the most compelling reason for not using such methods. By changing the consequences of a specific behaviour which previously was consistently reinforced you are denying the dog an expected reward which, in effect, constitutes the application of positive punishment. Positive punishment is a very tricky technique to use and by instituting a whole series of unrelated wolf-pack rules which the dog does not understand … because it is not a wolf and does not think or behave like a wolf … one is in effect randomly punishing the dog. Random or non-contingent punishment has the potential of inducing serious, irreversible psychological trauma and may induce a condition called learned helplessness when the dog believes that it has no control over the punishment.
In view of the above discussion, let us examine a couple of the so-called dominant behaviours and the rank-reduction rules that were devised to counteract them:
Pulling on Leash:
The argument that pulling on the leash is an expression of ‘dominant’ behaviour because leaders supposedly leads and followers follow is based on wolf ethology. However, even in wolf packs this appears not to be true and Mech (2004) argues that although the Alpha wolf may decide on the general direction the pack should take, due to changes in terrain / topography, other wolves may temporarily run ahead of the ‘Alpha’ without such behaviour affecting the overall hierarchy.
Thus, rather than being an expression of dominance, I believe it is far more probable that this behaviour develops because a dog’s normal gait is much faster than ours and if the owner (albeit inadvertently) reinforce the pulling behaviour by allowing forward movement when the leash is taut, the behaviour becomes conditioned and the dog simply never learns that there is another way to walk on a leash.
Barging through doorways:
The contention that this behaviour is ‘dominant’ is based on the abovementioned, erroneous, premise that the Alpha always goes first.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I am house-training a puppy, in particular if it is in the middle of a cold, rainy night, I simply want the puppy out of the door quickly enough to prevent an accident while at the same time remaining dry myself and worrying about who goes first is simply not at the top of my agenda! What is more, in many South African households there are alarm systems and it makes sense to let the dogs out before arming the system to prevent the alarm from being triggered which implies that in many instances our dogs have been conditioned (taught) to go outside before us.
Note: Notwithstanding the above I do still believe there is a justification for teaching dogs not to rush doorways; not because it may make them think they are ‘higher-ranking’ than us, but simply because it can be dangerous, particularly if there are minor children, elderly or infirm in the household and it therefore makes good sense to condition dogs to wait and only go through doorways on a predetermined signal or cue.
Occupying Beds, Furniture or elevated places:
As discussed in the previous unit, dogs do whatever they find rewarding and given a choice, they mostly prefer to rest comfortably. Thus, unless we have taught them not to jump up on furniture they naturally will do so and, once again the exhibition of this behaviour has absolutely nothing to do with dominance. Therefore:
a) provided the owner can signal the dog to get on and off without the dog exhibiting resource guarding behaviours (such as growling), and
b) provided the owner doesn’t mind sharing his or her bed and/or furniture with his/her canine companion,
There is absolutely no reason why dogs should not be comfortable! If, however, the dog exhibits aggression when signalled to move, then of course it is a problem that needs to be addressed.
About not allowing a dog to instigate interactions/games or be allowed to win games:
Mech (2003) effectively debunks the argument against allowing our dogs to instigate games or ask for attention by informing us that even in wolf packs “any highly motivated wolf can affect the activity of its pack mates, such as play”[xii]. Thus:
a) provided the dog has learnt to relinquish items to its owners when asked to do so, and
b) provided there are no problems such as resource guarding or exhibiting excessive attention-demanding behaviours
There is no reason why dogs should not be allowed to instigate interactions and play and even be allowed to win every now and then!
About eating before our dogs to show them that we are ‘Alpha’:
This rule is based on the discredited contention that the Alpha always eats first. This is simply not true and as Barry Eaton (2005) succinctly puts it: “A wolf bitch has invested 50% of her genes in her puppies. Her priority is to ensure their survival and she will go without food herself if necessary. Therefore it's not so much a question of 'dominance' or being 'Alpha', it's more of a question of resources and survival of the young and therefore, survival of the species.”
Moreover, consider a wolf pack returning from a hunt, full of food to regurgitate for the young and those dogs left behind to look after the young. Those puppies and puppy-minders have not actually observed the hunters eating they prey, do they then perceive themselves as being dominant over the hunters? That is very unlikely and I think we can safely say that it makes very little difference whether the owner eats before or after their dogs. If, however, the dog has a problem with begging, we need to investigate whether the dog has been rewarded for the begging behaviour and, if so, ensure that this does not happen.
Why Then Do Rank-Reduction Programmes Sometimes Appear to Work?
The answer to this question is relatively simple: by instituting rank-reduction programmes we alter the expected outcome of the behaviour and because all behaviour is under the control of its consequences, changing the outcome will change the behaviour itself. Thus, and as discussed in the previous unit, if a certain behaviour works in order to get the dog what it wants, it is highly likely that the dog will repeat the behaviour and if the behaviour does not work, it will become extinct.
Finally, I would like to conclude this discussion with a pertinent quote from the late John Fisher’s 1997): “The purpose of all these mental and physical gymnastics is to try and establish a dominance/submissive relationship between us and our dogs, with us being the more dominant. This is all fine, if it is how you want to live with your dog, but I have news that is going to disappoint a lot of people who have striven to reach this Alpha status - it all means diddly squat to your dog”.
Notwithstanding the above, it is nonetheless important to recognise that in order for humans and dogs to coexist harmoniously and peaceably there has to someone who makes the decisions and who is capable of calmly, confidently, consistently most of all humanely, enforcing sensible ‘house-rules’ … and that ‘someone’ should be the owner and not the dog!
Rather than implementing blanket-type rank-reduction programmes that targets all human-canine interactions it is, however, far more sensible to implement relevant house-rules … and implement them in a manner which the dog can understand. I should also point out that leadership is largely a state of mind rather than the ability to use brute force or bullying. What is more, using loud behaviour to indicate leadership is ‘primate-behaviour’ which does not impress canines who is far more likely to respect and follow the example of a calm, confident, fair and consistent leader.
 This assumption is now also being disputed.
[i] Steven Lindsay: Handbook of Applied Behaviour and Training (2001, p. 12
[ii] D W MacDonald & G M Carr: Variation in dog society: between resource dispersion and social flux: From: “The Domestic Dog, its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people” 5th Ed. P. 202 & 211. Ed. J Serpell. Cambridge University Press. 2001
[iii] Coppinger & Coppinger: Dogs, Scribner, New York, USA, 2001 p. 81.
[iv] P B McConnell: The Other End of the Leash, p. 147. Ballantine Books, NY 2002
[v] P B McConnell: The Other End of the Leash, p. 147. Ballantine Books, NY 2002
[vi] Barry Eaton: Dominance: Fact or Fiction. P 15
[vii] P B McConnell: The Other End of the Leash, p. 149. Ballantine Books, NY 2002
[viii] Karen Overall: Clinical Behavioural Medicine for Small Animals p. 512 (1997)
[ix] Jean Donaldson: Dogs are From Neptune. Pg. 43 Lasar Multimedia Productions Inc. Montreal,
[x] P B McConnell: The Other End of the Leash, p. 137, 138. Ballantine Books, NY 2002
[xi] Steven Lindsay: handbook of Applied Behaviour and Training (2000) p 104
[xii] Mech: “The Wolf – The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. P. 75 (2003)