Debunking the Dominance Myth

The “Alpha” Myth: Debunking the Dominance Model of Dog Behavior

One of the most pervasive ideas in dog behavior is that dogs organize themselves into hierarchies, constantly assessing their status within a pack, which to the dog’s mind includes his human companions.

Famous dog training gurus of book and television assert this constantly and advise strong corrective measures on the part of dog owners, yet there is absolutely no proof that the dominance model is accurate.

I recently read a dog training article claiming that dogs care about the order of exit through doorways and charge ahead of their owners to establish dominance. But isn’t it just as likely that the dogs are not considering the owners at all, but simply can’t resist the lure of the great outdoors?

In her important paper, “A Struggle for Dominance – Fact or Fiction,” Susan Friedman, professor of applied behavior analysis at the University of Utah, addresses the dominance theory as it is applied to the “misbehavior” of parrots. She suggests that perhaps parrots who don’t step right up to be returned to their cages are not trying to exert dominance over their owners, but simply prefer to stay out.

To Friedman, the dominance theory is a convenient construct, an inference about how or why an animal behaves as it does. This sort of thinking can be helpful in identifying constellations of behavior, but it can also retard true understanding.

Unfortunately, such constructed explanations cannot easily be proven wrong. This seems especially true of canine dominance, where any observation that contradicts the theory is explained away with a new unproved assumption. For example, if a lower-ranked dog in a pack is observed to get priority access to an important resource, dominance proponents invoke “temporary rank reversal” or “the order is in flux lately” – or some such idea – as an explanation.

In the absence of any real research on social dominance in dogs, advocates borrow and expand from the captive wolf world. Discrepant spins on dog social systems abound. Depending on which training book you read or popular seminar you attend, you may hear that dogs form:

Linear dominance hierarchies, in which order is maintained by superiors actively exerting rank over subordinates (e.g. pinning, bullying, standing over);
Linear subordinance hierarchies, in which order is maintained by displays of appeasement by subordinates toward their superiors;
Non-transitive hierarchies, in which relationships within any dyad (pair) are fixed but out of which no overall hierarchy can be built;
Contextual dominance arrangements, in which the nature of a disputed resource determines who wins;
Hierarchies that include humans; and/or
Any number of other interesting but unsubstantiated dominance theories.

Bear in mind that there is no evidence for any of these, with one exception: Ian Dunbar’s bone dyad tests in the 1970s. A quick Google search will yield scores of research papers on cheetah reproductive physiology, hundreds on woodpecker foraging strategies, and thousands on ant social behavior. You’d think there’d be roomfuls on dog hierarchies, given the abandon with which dominance is employed to explain behavior and develop training strategies. (I suspect that the ground for “Build Your Own Catchy Canine Social Hierarchy System” is rendered more fertile by the impressive void of evidence.)

Ah, but what about those wolves?! Everybody knows that wolves form linear hierarchies (except sometimes they don’t). In wolves, as in any non-domesticated species, social dominance is useless unless it confers reproductive advantage. Among dog people, it is widely assumed that the alpha pair are the exclusive breeders in a wolf pack (except sometimes they’re not), get first crack at carcasses (except sometimes they don’t), and lead the pack in its various activities.

But here’s the rub. In a wild wolf pack, the “alpha” pair are parents in a nuclear family. They breed because they are socially mature adults. They are dominant over their offspring in the way all parents can be said to be dominant over their children.

Professor L. David Mech, who has researched wild wolves across the globe for nearly forty years, is perplexed by the love affair with dominance among wolf people. After all, when offspring in a wolf pack reach reproductive age, they disperse in order to find mates, reproduce, and start their own packs – after which the parents behave dominantly over their offspring. In all his years of research, Mech never saw an animal fail to reproduce if it lived long enough, making all wolves “alphas” once they mate.

Mech fears that some of his own early writings on wolves have fanned the dominance flames among dog behaviorists. Many of these writings are no longer under his control and so continue to be published unrevised, even though they do not reflect his thinking after a lifetime of research. He has published papers debunking dominance-as-trait, but this has yet to slow down the exuberant fans of the dominance theory of dogs.

So why is dominance so hot? The answer might lie in human brains. In a 2002 paper published in Nature Neuroscience, Duke University researchers Scott Huettel, Beau Mack, and Gregory McCarthy found evidence of a brain module that continually seeks patterns whether or not any actually exist, and even when study participants have been told that there are no patterns.

It could be that any perceived asymmetry in our dogs’ win-loss records or dealings with other dogs will cause us to see a pattern – a hierarchy, say – and then search for an explanation for it. Social dominance is just one possible explanation, but it has clearly hooked us. I see two major reasons for this:

It is, I submit, a good model for explaining human social order and we project this readily on to dogs; and
It is a super-catchy idea, a successful “meme.”

Memes are ideas or pieces of information that are transmitted via imitation. The single greatest criterion for the success of a meme is its tendency to be repeated, not its accuracy. In fact, an idea can be so catchy that it lives on even when it is demonstrated to be false.

It is fascinating to me, and more than a little disturbing, that even if we could prove that dogs are just not into dominance as much as we thought, the “alpha dog” mind virus might still live on and on and on.
Jean Donaldson,, is the founder of The San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers as well as an instructor there. She is the award-winning author of The Culture Clash, the soon-to-be released Oh Behave! Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker, MINE! A Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs, the instructional DVD Perfect Paws in Five Lessons, and FIGHT! A Guide to Dog-Dog Aggression. She is currently studying evolutionary biology.

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