Discussing Dominance Theory (Deep Breaths, Everyone)

For the past couple years, I have begun to research dog behavior and training as extensively and best as I can. One concept that I struggled with immensely was that of “dominance.” I did not feel that I ever found a simple, easy to understand explanation in one place. This made me feel very frustrated (and even more determined), so I continued to educate myself, and eventually it all started to make a little more sense.

Meanwhile, I was also working on creating the start of “Tails with Gia,” which at the time was meant to be installments on dog behavior and training that I would email out to a list of people. The content was supposed to be fairly simple, for anyone to read and absorb easily. The very first installment was on Dominance Theory and dated July 21, 2014. I am going to share it below and leave the text as it was.

July 21, 2014.

General Recommendations:

“Kikopup” | Emily Larlham
Check out her great video tutorials!

Patricia McConnell
I really enjoy her work.

Topic of the Day: “Dominance Theory”

 Primary Works Consulted:

 The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell

Decoding Your Dog by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs
by Suzanne Clothier

The first chapter of Dog Sense by John Bradshaw

Dog Whispering in the 21st Century by Prescott Breeden

& an endless amount of articles, discussion boards, life experience, etc.


Welcome to Tails with Gia! To kick things off, we’re going to talk about Dominance Theory first. My grandma, Mo, always asks me why I make such a big deal about Dominance Theory. The reason why I am always fussing and squabbling about this is because “dominance” is a concept that is vastly misunderstood, one of those words that is thrown around and heavily misused, one of those situations where everyone thinks they know what they’re talking about, but… they really don’t, or not as much as they think they do. In my opinion, “Dominance Theory” is where a lot of misinformation starts and the reason that well-intentioned people can be unexpectedly harsh with their dogs. (Or they just do some really silly and unnecessary things.)

So, let’s talk about “Dominance”… or, to quote from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

 (Believe it or not, Mo, the following is me ‘summarizing.’ And yes, it near killed me.)

So let’s talk about a basic definition of dominance right here. (And then you can read my easy snip-snap summary.) I’ve taken this directly from the glossary in Decoding Your Dog, written by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. It just came out this year (2014), so it is only in hard-cover, which basically means that I paid an arm and a leg for it. (An arm and a leg are apparently equivalent to 27 dollars.)

“Dominance: In a relationship between two dogs, the dog who more often than not controls access to valuable resources is considered to have dominance over the other dog. Dominance does not equal aggression. Dominance can also depend on context; one dog may be the winner in one context but not in another. Dominance is only expressed within that specific relationship and that context. The idea of possessing the dominant position in any relationship or hierarchy has inappropriately been applied to dog training, based on faulty research on wolf behavior. That idea now has been disproved by research on free-ranging wolves, and with that in mind, certainly does not apply to dogs” (322).

“Aggression: Behavior that harms or threatens to harm another individual. Because aggressive behavior bears a cost to the aggressor (who might get hurt as well), the function of aggression is often to increase the distance between the aggressor and the target” (320).

– – –

After many months spent researching, I have learned all there is to know about dogs. Just kidding, I wish. I actually just barely scratched the surface, and there are certain topics that I’ve found more difficult to digest and fully process than others. “Dominance Theory” is one of them, and I have groaned about it quite a lot. Quite a lot. I read excellent books and articles that discussed some aspects of it, but I felt that the subject matter was not explained as thoroughly and clearly as I needed.

Then, after recently reading (and underlining and scribbling all over) Prescott Breeden’s “Dog Whispering in the 21st Century,” and considering the proposed information with everything else that I’ve absorbed, I feel like I had a giant light bulb moment and finally connected the last of the missing dots. (I found his essay to be extremely fascinating, and if you’re interested in learning more about “dominance” and different training methods used in the dog community, I highly recommend it.)

I have prepared a summary of my overview on “Dominance Theory” and “dominance” as a general concept. I want to specify that this is my understanding of it all, formed after digesting various materials to the best of my ability. Always feel free to challenge ideas, ask questions, and share your own information.

  • Dominance is not a personality trait. Rather, it has to do with how two individual personalities interact. Dominance is a state of relationship during a specific encounter involving limited resources. The dog that gains primary access to the resource is considered to be the one that has “dominance” in that specific situation and context.
  • Dominance does not equal aggression.
  • Circa the 1930s-1940s, studies were done on wolf behavior. However, these wolves did not accurately represent the wild wolf population, because the animals being studied were unrelated wolves that were forced to live together in captivity. We now know that wolves in the wild typically live together in small family units, and they work together as cohesively and peacefully as possible. However, in the early studies, researchers were observing random, captive wolves that were kept together in an enclosed space. They were stressed and did not behave normally, simply dealing with each other as best they could. Therefore, the wolves did not express their behavior in a typical, healthy manner. Instead, they reacted violently to one another. The studies came to certain conclusions based on the fact that there was a lot of conflict in the group dynamics.
  • Although dominance does not necessarily equal aggression, in this scenario, the wolves used extreme aggression to express themselves and “gain dominance,” in the sense that dominance is “priority access to a resource.” Usually, the relationship of dominance and submission should be expressed through much more refined behavior. Dogs have very subtle and intricate ways of communicating.
  • However, people saw dogs as being the same as wolves, so people assumed that dogs must boss each other around by gaining dominance through aggression, even though we must take into consideration the following points: dogs are not exact replicas of wolves, wolves themselves do not usually exert dominance through aggressive behavior, and “gaining dominance” does not mean being the most aggressive possible.
  • Though most people have come to see dominance as equaling aggression or gaining control through physical force, I would argue that it has to do with being the least aggressive possible, in order to avoid aggressive conflict during social interactions and every day situations involving limited resources.
  • There is a training philosophy, which I always attempt to implement, called LIMA (Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive). For me, it was very helpful to imagine the relationship of dominance and submission as a process of LIMA—the least invasive, minimally aversive way to interact and resolve the interaction, without resorting to aggression.
  • Body language really depends on specifics, and it does not necessarily have to do with “gaining dominance” or “showing submission,” it simply has to do with expressing intention. For example, back inverted, ears back, tail down, head up can actually demonstrate a “highly prosocial behavior that is key to building strong social bonds with companions” (Prescott Breeden).
  • I believe that states of relationships and levels of status are more fluid and nuanced than we realize. If we have to discuss “dominance,” I think it’s best that we look at it as an intraspecies occurrence—this is between dogs and dogs. There is no need to bring humans (or other critters) into it.
  • Dogs do not have secret evil plans to gain dominance over us and take over the world. It is okay to let your dog walk through the door before you and sleep on your bed. (If you choose to allow this.)
  • We do not need to gain dominance over dogs by using alpha rollovers or rough/painful physical corrections. (Wolves do not even use alpha rollovers on each other.) We do not need to worry about gaining dominance over our dogs, period. It is definitely possible to train dogs and see effective results without the use of verbal and/or physical intimidation and corrections.
  • We do need to set boundaries, be clear, and stay consistent. Behavior modification isn’t happening in the ten minutes that you set aside for specifics. Behavior is being shaped constantly through every day interactions.

– – –

This article, “Dominance and Dog Training,” by The Association of Professional Dog Trainers, is a great, simple overview of the topic that we have looked at today.

So that concludes the first installment!

Always do your own research, ask questions, trust yourself, learn from others, connect with your animals, and remember that this is supposed to be fun.  😉

*Scroll down for some extra info, which I highly encourage you to read*

Extra Info:

Someone whom I really admire in the animal community is Patricia McConnell, a dog trainer and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. Here are some excerpts from her book, The Other End of the Leash, which was published in 2002. I have included page numbers for easy reference.

“[People] have been advised for years to “get dominance over their dogs,” and so often getting dominance meant getting aggressive. Even the Monks of New Skete, [in their book How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend], advised owners to act like wolves and do “alpha rollovers”—to throw dogs down onto their backs to ensure that their dogs would accept them as leaders. The book’s main author, Job Michael Evans, later said that he deeply regretted this advice” (137).

“Well-socialized, healthy dogs don’t pin other dogs to the ground. Submissive individuals initiate that posture themselves. The posture is a display signal from one animal to another, a signal of appeasement, not the result of a wrestling maneuver” (137-138).

“Four reasons not to use alpha rollovers on your dog: dogs aren’t wolf replicates in the first place; wolves don’t use alpha rollovers themselves to discipline other wolves; the action elicits defensiveness and sometimes aggression; and it teaches your dog to mistrust you” (138).

“Understanding social status is particularly important because misunderstanding what ‘dominance’ means has led to appallingly abusive behavior. So much old-fashioned obedience training could be summarized as, ‘Do it because I told you to, and if you don’t, I’ll hurt you.’ … If a dog didn’t obey, then he was challenging his owner’s social status and needed to be forcibly disciplined to be kept in his place” (147-148).

“As first used in the study of animal behavior decades ago, the term dominance described a relationship between two animals. Dominance was defined as ‘priority access to preferred, limited resources’—nothing more, nothing less. It’s about one bone on the ground, two individuals who want it, and who gets it” (150).

“Many humans equate ‘dominance’ with ‘aggression’ and quickly buy into using aggression to get what they want. The irony is that dominance is actually a social construct designed to decrease aggression, not to facilitate it. A hierarchical social system allows individuals to resolve conflicts without having to fight. Any individual who truly has a lot of social status has enough power that he or she doesn’t need to use force” (148).

“’Status,’ ‘dominance,’ and ‘aggression’ are completely different things, and it does our dogs no good when we confuse them. Status is a position of rank within a society, while dominance describes a relationship among individuals, with one having more status than others in a particular context. Aggression is not a necessary component of dominance. Aggression, as defined by biologists, is an action that intends to cause harm, while dominance is a position within a hierarchy” (149).

In 2010, Patricia McConnell wrote a post on her personal blog, entitled “Common Underlying Assumptions about Dominance,” after a lecture given by Suzanne Hetts. Here is an excerpt:

“Some dogs are just ‘dominant.’ Whoa, careful here again. Dominance is a descriptor of a relationship, not a personality or an individual. If you have 2 individuals and a piece of food between them that they both want, one individual would be described as ‘dominant’ if he or she gets the food 20 out of 20 trials. That’s all the concept meant as it was and IS used in science. What’s often not considered by the general public and advocates of ‘getting dominance’ over your dog, is that it is context dependent. Indiv A might get the bone every time, but Indiv B might get the sleeping place. Motivation and context is everything, and behavior in one context does NOT necessarily predict behavior in another.”

– – –

I have taken the following from dog trainer Suzanne Clothier’s book, Bones Would Rain from the Sky, published in 2002.

“Along the continuum between dominance and submission lies a whole world of possibilities, and to my mind, the term status—fluid, dynamic, contextual—is a better way of looking at the complex realities of how dogs interact with us and other people and animals. Status is a dynamic, fluid quality that can shift based on the situation and the context and may be quite specific to a particular relationship. For example, a mother driving her child down the road might well be seen to be the higher-status member of the pair; the child, appropriately, defers to her greater control of resources and is willing to accept her control and direction of his behavior. (All right, it’s a very young child…) When Mom is pulled over for a speeding ticket, her status shifts. Relative to the police officer, she assumes a position of lower status; she is deferential to him if she’s smart, and assuming she’s not interested in a high-speed chase through three counties ending in a standoff at the local mini-mart, she’ll accept his control and direction of her behavior. Dropping the kid off at school where unbeknownst to her he’s the king of his class and even the teacher gives him her milk money, Mom then proceeds to work, where she is middle management and has status higher than those under her supervision but less status than her superiors. In the evening, she drives home alone. We cannot determine her status in that moment, because just like our dogs, no one is dominant or submissive, high status or lower status except in relationship to someone else. In this simple truth, the complexity of social hierarchies can be seen: It all depends on where you are, what you’re doing and who you’re with. In the absence of another, status is meaningless. A billionaire on a deserted island is just a lonely man” (143).

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