A word on dominance (for Tomte)

A while ago, Phoebe made a new friend: Berger Picard puppy Tomte. He’s a few weeks older than she and very cute. 

Tomte is his family’s first dog, and they made sure to properly integrate Tomte into their family. His mum and dad together agreed on the breed, and Tomte is allowed to sleep on their son’s bed as long as his son does his own dog-hairy laundry. He (the son) is already looking forward to starting agility once Tomte is a little older. Their little daughter is only five also adores her new canine companion. Tomte’s mum also hired a trainer to give them private lessons on how to live with a puppy. So, they’re well prepared for their dog, and he will grow up in a family filled with love and action. 

However, the other day, Tomte’s dad told me Tomte has started playing rough with his 5-year old daughter, and he’s worried that the dog might be trying to dominate her. I don’t know Tomte’s dad very well, and he didn’t ask me for training advice. Still, I felt that I had to explain that the dominance theory, while quite popular in the past, has been shown to be wrong, and that a puppy playing rough with a child isn’t trying to dominate her, but simply hasn’t yet learned how to properly play with 5-year-old girls. Of course, it’s important Tomte learns this soon, but clearly not by means of trying to, in turn, “dominate” him. Tomte’s dad seemed surprised, but there was no time to go into details, since our small talk was already over and we parted ways: he to his car, I to mine; work was calling. I don’t know their trainer personally, but I hope she’s not the Cesar Millan type and will tell them more about this topic.

In any case, on my way home, I decided it was time for a post about dominance theory. Let’s assume you need to explain to someone that canine dominance-seeking is a myth, and you only have a few minutes. Here’s three common misconceptions and their corrections.

Myth #1: Dogs are like wolves.

Fact #1: dogs originated from wolves and still share a number of behavioral patterns (e.g. walking in a circle before laying down) and physical qualities (same mitochondrial DNA, same number of chromosomes, same number of teeth) with them. However, dogs have evolved from wolves over thousands of years, influenced by evolution and selective breeding. Whatever breed of dog you look at, it will differ from a wolf in a number of ways:

– a dog’s motor patterns differ from a wolf’s predatory motor patterns. Wolves survive by hunting; their predatory motor patterns are orient – eye-stalk – chase – grab-bite – kill-bite – dissect – eat. Depending on the dog breed, the individual predatory motor patterns of the wolf have either been selectively deleted or enhanced. A border collie, for example, still uses eye-stalk when working with sheep, but doesn’t kill, dissect or eat the sheep. Generally speaking, many dog breeds today either don’t chase at all, chase but don’t kill, or chase, kill, but don’t dissect and actually eat what they killed: these motor patterns have been lost over centuries of selective breeding. Even feral dogs usually don’t hunt, but scavenge in garbage dumps, trash cans and on streets.

– A dog’s skull, mouth and teeth size differ’s from a wolf’s skull, mouth and teeth size. Wolves have stronger jaws and bigger teeth.

– A dog’s brain size differs from a wolf’s brain size (in fact, a dog’s brain is at least 20% smaller).

– A dog’s means of communication differ from a wolf’s means of communication. A wolf has 60 facial expressions to communicate with other wolves; a German shepherd, one of the dog breeds physically most closely resembling a wolf, only 12.

– Wolves live in close-knit packs of related, co-operative animals; dogs don’t. Even feral dogs don’t live in packs, but only join in loose, unrelated, high-turnover groups every once in a while.

– Wolves reach sexual maturity when they about 2 years old; dogs between the age of 6 and 12 months. Dogs have two oestrous cycles a year and may experience heat any time of the year. Wolves, on the other hand, only have one oestrous cycle a year and experience heat at the same time every year to ensure that the puppies are born in spring, when food is plentiful. 

As Barry Eaton has it, dogs are by now “as far removed from their ancestors as we are from ours.”

Myth #2: a dog sees his human family as his wolf pack and tries to gain “alpha status”.

Fact #2: a dog knows the difference between other dogs and people. That is to say, your family pet knows you are not a dog. She looks at her human family as a social community. She is motivated by what she finds reinforcing, and she loves working or playing with her human family members. Status isn’t on the mind of the average family dog at all: she is motivated by what she finds rewarding, not by the desire to gain “status”.

Myth #3: wolf packs are structured by means of dominance; i.e. every wolf strives to be the alpha in his pack.

Fact #3: wolf packs consist of related, co-operative animals. The misconception that wolf packs are structured by means of status stems from observations of wolves in captivity: the wolves kept together are often not related, and it’s not possible for young wolves to leave and start their own pack. Therefore, packs in captivity function differently than in the wild, and there is more conflict in captivity.
A free wolf pack consists of a core male and female and their offspring. The cubs from one litter stay for a year and help with the upbringing of the next litter. Then, having reached sexual maturity, they leave to find another young wolf of the opposite gender and each start their own pack.

Social life in a wolf pack is organized around the cubs, ensuring their wellbeing (in fact, not unlike in a functional human family). Especially if food is scarce, the cubs eat first; only afterwards do the adult wolves feed. The adult wolves don’t hurt and correct the cubs all the time, either: rather, young cubs have a “free pass” to explore life, try out their bodies in play, climb on their older siblings and parents or tug the adults’ tails.

Hence, if we really wanted to apply “pack rules” to dogs, we should learn to treat a puppy forgivingly rather than strictly, make sure it gets enough to eat and has a healthy diet, and protect it rather than trying to “dominate” it.

Why, then, have many professional dog trainers believed correction-based training to be crucial for so many years, and often still believe into the dominance theory?

I believe this is because we tend to judge the actions of others (human as well as non-human animals) from our own experience-based point of view: after all, our own experiences are the ones we know best, and therefore the ones that intuitively make most sense to us. 

When it comes to social co-existence, human culture tends to be structured hierarchically. I’m not saying that it should or has to be structured hierarchically, only that it tends to be structured hierarchically: traditionally, parents raise their children “with a firm hand,” teachers teach their students with an air of superiority, and companies, the military etc. are structured hierarchically as well. There are even circles of friends which are structured hierarchically. Therefore, people tend to assume that wolves and dogs must be constantly striving to further their status as well, just like themselves. Also, unfortunately, feeling “dominant” – whether this is over dogs or other people – can be very reinforcing for people.

While I believe that Western culture is firmly rooted in hierarchies, I don’t believe human society needs to or should be structured this way. I’ve also observed that everyone I meet who subscribes to gentle, positive dog training philosophies tends to approach her fellow human beings in a similarly gentle and positive way. A way that – if you ask me – is much more rewarding for everyone. —

For further discussion on the dominance myth, see Barry Eaton’s excellent book “Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction?” (Dogwise, 2008)

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