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Dominance in Dogs?

Napoleon Dog

Dominance is a word used by the community widely to describe many forms of behaviour in dogs. But what really is dominance? It may be described as gaining priority access to all resources of value, all of the time within a territory, or the control of the behaviours of the pack of which the 'alpha' is at the head of a hierarchical system. Perhaps acting in a way of lesser or greater inhibition depending on who the dog is interacting with. Many believe, especially historically, this to be the case; but new studies suggest almost the complete opposite, that certain behaviours in dogs which were previously described as dominant displays are in fact simply performed to ensure an inner state of self preservation.

Those who believe in the dominance/submission theory, believe that dogs form a hierarchical system and simply do not expect equality. This being primarily influenced by genetics. Influences may also include sex, age, size, hormonal status, territory and personal space. Using subtle demands, a dog attempting to via for the alpha position within a household for example may be successful if the owner does not carefully discourage this behaviour, so the dog requires boundaries and further dominant displays to discourage and 'put the dog in his place' within the pack. The development of this social behaviour is typical to wolves living in the wild, think of a pup being disciplined by mum, or another adult. Dominance must therefore be both inherited and learned, and dominance and pack structure must be intricately linked. So, the dog getting his own way through these subtle demands, results in his movement toward the alpha role. Moving toward aggression, the primary display of dominance in many eyes, agonistic body language and behaviour is said to be linked to a lack of discipline given to the dog and his requirement to show his authority. Aggressive encounters however may be in the form of competition over a resource - the opportunity to enhance genetic potential for survival such as food, shelter or territory. We can see many forms of dominance and submission when dogs interact, such as chasing, pouncing upon, and the classic play bow. For a dominant dog, an attack mode may be employed, such as the heckles raised, teeth bared and obvious aggressive body language. Submission gestures such as tail between the hind legs, lowering of the head, exposure of the belly and urination may occur as a result in meeting a dominant dog. After all, how can we see submission and appeasement without the other dog being more dominant? A dog may not even require the need to show his physical dominance, rather using psychological harassment and ritual behaviours finely developed, which are non sinister or pathological to gain access to what he perceives to be important at that time. So, dominance may even be temporary and circumstantial, as not all dogs value items, food or whatever the same. Victory in a bout of dominant behaviours do not only have a psychological effect, but a physiological one too; this may influence the adrenal and pituitary gland, responsible for the production of testosterone.

For all the evidence of dominance theory in canines, the new understanding may be that it does not actually exist, or at best greatly exaggerated. This belief states that the dog exists to maximise his inner state of well being, to preserve peace without the need for an authority figure. During the first meeting, dominance is non existent, and a form of compromise is what is displayed. This exchange of information requires a mutual balance, not submission but compromise. The dog follows a set of simple rules, not aggression but signals to avoid physical damage, the respect of space and counterpart preferences. In this way each dog ends up with his most valued possession, at that time, and social peace is preserved. Dogs are able to seek and find equilibrium at many differing levels at once where there is no hierarchy, just a range of possible balances, mutual predictably and trust. So, if we think of a dog giving up his ball to another, he is relinquishing this asset for another more valued - peace. When we consider aggression, this is the fault of poor misplaced human guidance, not natural to the dog. Aggressive body language is not dominance, but intended to inform another of his inner state, emotion and motivation. This informs of his lack of trust of intention and is seen as a lack of confidence. Therefore, aggression is simply fear based, and again the fault of human interaction and poor canine social skills. When we speak of dominance as access to resources, resource guarding is when a dog acts in an aggressive way to remain in control of something of value, such as food or territory. This is not status. Some dogs are clearly more efficient at keeping one resource from another, again such as food, but if the resource alters that same dog may easily relinquish for example the ball, clearly again not dominance as hierarchy or status but an individual's ability to maintain or regulate access to some resource. So, if an owner does not understand the concept of resources, or cannot read a dog's body language, the dog may become aggressive when attempting to guard that resource. Here, inappropriate owner response such as harsh punishment will only serve to confuse the dog and heighten aggression further perhaps also in a different scenario. This cannot be described as dominance.

Dominance therefore, when analysed as the word alone with a specific meaning; for example gaining priority access to any resource at all times, I cannot believe to be the case. However, dogs do show dominant behaviours toward each other, and humans, when he requires access to a valued resource. Most dog owners will experience this at some point, probably every day, especially if there is more than one dog in the household. My Husky, will show the other dog in the house, she is not happy if he approaches her bone. If this was a tennis ball, she would not be bothered. Rocky, the Staffordshire has his own crate, if Mya the Husky steps inside he will certainly give dominant signals to indicate his lack of appreciation. When hierarchy is concerned however, I do not believe either considers themselves to be above the other all of the time. When greeting new dogs however, there is a bit of a problem. Both dogs, although (I would like to hope, Mya less so) are fairly well socialised and know 'how' to greet. Sometimes. Mya being worse will simply take umbrage to some dogs and will not allow them near her, showing aggressive and 'dominant' behaviour. There may be no visual signs of an information exchange. There are no fearful signs, and the stranger may or may not yield. If the stranger does in fact become submissive, Mya has 'won' and a normal greeting may continue. Without dominance, how can we see submission? I believe dominance does exist in dogs, but varying over a range of circumstances. I do not believe in a fixed hierarchical system where one dog vies for position constantly, this evidently does not fit with behaviour. Dominant behaviour may depend on mood, value of resource or simply even the time of the day!

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