Dominance in Dogs - Dog Behaviour
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Dominance in Dogs - Dog Behaviour

The social behaviour of dogs is often misunderstood and acts of aggression especially are often blamed on dominance or status-seeking motivations. Training techniques are thus also often based on dominance or pack theory. However, this view of dog social behaviour has been disproved and even the scientists advocating it in the early days have moved away from this outdated and scientifically unsound explanation of dog behaviour. Yet some behaviourists and trainers are still using these old theories, which may actually be detrimental to dog welfare and putting the health and safety of dog owners and the public at risk.Dominance theory was first attributed to dog behaviour in the middle of the 20th century when the early studies of wolf behaviour were published. As dogs are descended from wolves it seemed natural that the findings of these studies should also be applied to dogs. However, there are a number of problems with this. These early wolf studies were of captive wolf populations where they found relatively high levels of aggression and strict dominance hierarchies. However, more recent studies of wild populations of wolves show a different picture. Wolf social behaviour revolves around a family unit where cohesion and cooperation is much more beneficial genetically than conflict. Rather than fighting for alpha status the parents are helped by their older offspring to rear the young, enhancing the survival (and therefore genetic fitness) of all members of the family. In fact one of the scientists who first discussed the occurrence of the alpha wolf, L. David Mech, has corrected his earlier theories of wolf social behaviour. He no longer uses the term alpha to refer to the breeding wolves of a natural wolf pack as it implies that the individual competes with other wolves and only becomes alpha by winning contests. Instead the wolves that lead the pack are now simply called the breeding adults as producing pups, which then become their pack, is all they have to do to become the leaders. Contests are very rare in wolf family units and it appears that spontaneous submissive gestures are much more common than displays of dominance or ritualised aggression.In addition to learning that natural populations of wolves do not have strict dominance hierarchies, our understanding of dog social behaviour has also advanced. Comparison studies between the behaviour of adult wolves and adult dogs show that the social behaviour of the domestic dog is not the same as the wolf's. Rather, the dog evolved as a neotonised version of the wolf, meaning that they show puppy like behaviour into adult hood. Scavenging on human waste meant that early dogs no longer needed to operate as a pack by taking away the need to hunt prey as a pack. This in turn had repercussions on the breeding of dogs - there is little collaboration in rearing of young. Even now, feral dogs spend much of their time alone, only forming transient groups around food resources, and therefore do not form packs or family units.Whether dominance hierarchies occur in a species or not, it is never appropriate to refer to an individual animal as dominant. Only a relationship between two individuals can be termed dominant. Several factors can contribute to the nature of these relationships including learning experiences and hormonal fluctuations, in addition to personality traits. This relationship may only exist in one context or it may apply to all contexts in which the two individuals come into conflict. Being the dominant individual in one context does not necessarily mean they will automatically be dominant in all contexts. Thus individuals are not born dominant. Individuals can only be termed dominant by winning a contest or conflict over a resource, and more usually only after winning several contests over the same resource so that a pattern of winning and deference becomes established between the two individuals. However, these patterns are often fluid and can fluctuate over time as the individuals' respective value of the resource changes or their ability to defend it changes. Therefore, a more useful construct for explaining competition over resources is the resource holding potential.If a dog is labelled as being dominant owners are often told that they must dominate the dog, "show it who's boss", be a strong pack leader, and to follow status-reduction programmes. These often involve very physical handling of the dog such as alpha rolling and pinning the dog to the ground. Unfortunately all this will do is scare the dog, which may lead to aggression or cause existing aggression to escalate. This aggression may be generalised to other people making the dog dangerous to be around. Inevitably it will destroy the bond between owner and dog. Although not as detrimental to the dog's behaviour and underlying emotional state, less confrontational versions of status-reduction programmes, such as eating before your dog and not allowing your dog to sleep on your bed or to go through doorways before you, may do little to alter the dog's behaviour perceived to be problematic by the owner or the underlying motivations for these behaviours.Common behaviour problems that are most often misdiagnosed as being caused by dominance issues are in reality likely to be caused by a lack of training or inappropriate training, and fear of the owner's intentions. A lack of consistency appears to be at the route of many conflicts between dogs and their owners, where dogs are sometimes allowed access to a resource, such as lying on the sofa, but not at other times. The dog will believe it should have access to this resource as normal so will be much less willing to give it up on those occasions when the owner decides the dog should not have access than if the owner was consistent in what resources the dog was allowed access to. Therefore, in order to avoid conflict, owners should be very consistent in their interactions with their dog and in what resources their dog is allowed access to. Having a well trained dog who responds positively to commands will also help avoid conflict over resources.

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