Rank and Domestic Dog Dominant Hierarchy Structures


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Authors: Colin Tennant, MA and Susan Gilmore, BSc (Hons), MA

The notion that a dominance hierarchy is central to the social organisation of animals living in groups is the subject of ongoing debate. Observation of behaviours amongst captive wolves and free-ranging dogs support the assertion that there is formal dominance and/or agonistic dominance within the hierarchy (Joanne A M van der Borg, et al, 2015). Quantitative research is scarce when applying this theory to the concept that these same behaviours are present in domestic dogs.

Humans and animals across millennia have existed in social groups organised within a hierarchical system that varies to suit the prevailing circumstances and environment of the group. The dynamics of such groups depend upon leadership, coalitions, affiliations and a social determination to work for the betterment and survival of the group.

Wolves and domestic dogs are social animals, both being of the Canid species (Creel S, MacDonald D, 1995). The benefits to wolves of living in a structured pack system extends beyond survival; a successful, working linear hierarchy ensures that each pack member knows its place and role within the social organisation headed by the alpha wolf or wolves. Environmental challenges, external threats to the cohesion and survival of the pack depend upon leadership. Determination of hunting efficiency, availability of prey and locating it; territorial defence and the social strength of the pack and integration of cubs, depend upon this social cohesion. Ensuring that cubs learn to respect the pack hierarchy will strengthen the social group and reduce conflict over food, mates and resources.

Mech, LD, (1999) observed peaceful interactions within wild wolf packs. This raises conjecture as to whether dominance could be a significant factor in the social relationship between domestic dog groups and the relationship between domestic dogs and their owners. 

The term “dominance” has been researched and debated over time in relation to canine behaviour. The structure of the model of dominance by van Hooff, J and Wensing, JAB, (1987) is based on studied dominance and behavioural measures in a captive wolf pack. This work has been applied across many species of mammals.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “dominance” as “the quality of being more important, strong, or successful than anything else of the same type”. Other definitions include power and influence over others; control; leadership; superiority. When used by veterinarians and animal behaviour practitioners in the context of domestic dogs, the term “dominance” is often interpreted to describe a dog that is directing aggression towards an owner or other dog that is not already showing aggression towards it.

Defining “dominance” is, of course, subjective and dependent upon one’s personal life experiences, environmental factors, political persuasion and perhaps just as important, the ability to listen and consider other people’s belief systems. That is, unless there is evidence based science with sound unequivocal outcomes.

In a nutshell, science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence. Standards for scientific evidence vary according to the field of enquiry, however the strength of scientific evidence – supporting facts and data – is generally founded on the outcomes of statistical analysis and crucially, the strength of the scientific controls.

The important components of evidence-based practice are generally considered to be the best available evidence; the inquirer’s knowledge and skills and the subject’s wants and needs.

Joanne van der Borg, et al, (2015), published their findings in a research article entitled: “Dominance in Domestic Dogs: A Quantitative Analysis of Its Behaviour Measures”. It states: “A dominance hierarchy is an important feature of the social organisation of group living animals”.

Studying seven body postures and 24 behaviours in a group of domestic dogs, it was observed that ‘high posture’ in a dyadic relationship was common and ‘muzzle bite’ was displayed by the highest ranking dogs. These two indications were considered to be the best evidential outcomes of formal dominance.

In contrast, the best submissive formal indicator in most relationships was ‘body tail wag’, with two ‘low body postures’ exhibited in 66%; this figure rose to 91% when similar body postures, such as lowering of posture into ‘half-low’, ‘low’, ‘low-on-back’ or ‘on-backindicators were indicated in dyadic relationships. Van der Borg further asserted that ‘mouth lick’ and ‘pass under head’ characterised formal submissive indicators, generally shown to the highest ranking dogs.

In her study, van der Borg inquired as to the model of a social construct of groups and how, and if, it can benefit wolves and domestic dogs. The ultimate aim of any species is survival both short term and long term. It has been accepted over time that successful social groupings rely on a safe, structured construct with respect for all members of that construct founded on high rank. Social cohesion is necessary to ensure efficiency when hunting, learning, alloparental care, territorial defence and the like. Competition amongst individuals over food, mates, space and so on may even result in chronic stress and harm that disrupts the social cohesion necessary for a group to survive. In contrast, dyadic relationships tend to alleviate intra-group friction.

The Canidea species, including wolves and domestic dogs, are social creatures and as such each social grouping tends to differ in many aspects; physical characteristics (power, weight, age, etc.) influence relationships within groupings. The individuals that comprise the group may have conflicting motivations; some may be assertive and seek higher rank, whilst others may be submissive and content to follow. There are others that strive to ascend to the apex of the group hierarchy resulting in conflicts between individuals and unpredictable behaviours.

Motivation may also be considered a variable, as van der Borg explains: “It is thus only useful to speak of a dominance relationship between two individuals when a number of (behavioural) asymmetries correspond. Thus a number of different behaviours exchanged within each pair of animals should show corresponding main directions: e.g. individual A shows some relevant dominance related behaviours more frequently towards individual B than vice versa, and consequently some submission related behaviours consistent with these main directions could be shown more frequently by B towards A. If this is the case, then dominance may be regarded as a so called intervening variable that summarises a set of behavioural differences between individuals (Hinde RA, 1978). (Rowell TE, 1974). If it then turns out that the individual group members can be ranked according to this intervening variable, the concept of dominance as defined above is applicable.”

Van der Borg notes that intra-group interactions are fluid inasmuch that they vary as circumstances change, influenced by external factors in the form of rival groupings, environmental changes and for wolves, irregular source of food, fashion behaviours.

In the literature there have been many science-led inquiries into canine psychology that over the years have offered theories, explanations and methodologies to enable an understanding of the domestic dog. Many have been discredited and filed appropriately, but many have entered the public domain given the oxygen of mainstream publication in the form of books, printed national media and in later years on the internet. One such book was written by Dr John Bradshaw, “In Defence of Dogs” in 2011.

Bradshaw’s assertion that the concept of a dominant dog is “meaningless” is at best misguided; in fact, chimerical.

In order to undertake meaningful, evidence based research, the parameters of the study need to be stated clearly and fully explained, with hypotheses tested, the depth and breadth of the methodology adopted: the participants, environment, procedure, what was manipulated (independent variables), what was measured (dependent variables), how the data is analysed and the outcomes, in support or otherwise of the original question posed.

It should also be noted who or what organisation is funding or sponsoring the research and any academic inquiry undertaken to deliver a definitive, scientific research outcome must be based on sound, extensive research and observation of a substantial number of subjects, in this case wolves and domestic dogs.

Muncke, S, (2012), an eminent expert in the field of animal rescue and rehoming work, notes that Professor John Bradshaw’s research with a group of dogs at a rescue centre has not been ratified scientifically, because no data has been produced as evidence as to the efficacy of his assertions. By not providing evidence, it makes such conclusions questionable, at best.

She goes on to say that there is a marked dichotomy in thinking and practice between Bradshaw’s conclusions and many leading canine professionals with vast experience in dog behaviour and training.

Dogs residing in rescue centres come with histories that inform their psychological and often physical states; some have no known history, some have a chequered history of neglect, abuse, lack of socialisation with other dogs and people; some have had no training and little exercise, if any. There are other factors, too: breed/breed type, age, temperament, external environmental influences and the like. Some are strays from the pound.

Dogs that have been re-homed, generally by rescue centres or to another human owner, may be described as being insecure and uncertain of their current situation, that may change at any time. The stereotypical snapshot of a dog being wrenched from the relative security of a settled home relationship, where most dogs are happy to eat the food given at regular intervals, be taken for exercise regularly and be part of a social, family unit, find themselves, without notice, plunged into a realm of uncertainty. Some dogs may be submissive, some challenging.

Wells and Hepper (2000) noted that dogs that have been re-homed may display hyperactive or aggressive behaviours or, in contrast, may be submissive and withdrawn.

Muncke suggests that the experimental design of Bradshaw’s study leaves it open to criticism on a number of levels: Were the 19 dogs the entire population of the rescue centre or a selection and entirely random? It is likely that centre staff would know the characteristics of dogs in their care and as such would not wish to jeopardise the welfare of these dogs; thus some assessment of risk would be essential and could potentially risk distorting the results of the research.

It is also noted that of the 19 selected dogs, all of which were neutered, 12 had been resident at the rescue centre for more than five years and some for at least six months. (This data information was obtained by Dr David D Sands during personal communications with Bradshaw in 2010.) Thus, it can be deduced that more than half of the dogs were adult, possibly elderly. Canine groupings naturally centre around high- ranking bitches, their puppies and include adult males of varying ages, all entire. Castration diminishes testosterone levels, but does not eradicate aggression and competitive tendencies. Bitches were absent from Bradshaw’s research sample thus removing the possibility of sexual rivalries. In grouping, mature bitches exert extremely powerful influence within the natural group structure.

It was noted by van der Borg that three females within their research grouping had to be removed from the group for safety purposes, one being pregnant, the other two for aggressive behaviour. This illustrates that Bradshaw’s sanitised research group is not a representative sample.

Muncke goes on to state that because the selected dogs were familiar with each other, any rivalries and rank had already been decided naturally. Given that the reputation and the welfare of the dogs involved being of paramount importance, it would be unwise to introduce dogs with a history of aggression or high dominance;

The environment in which the research is undertaken also influences the outcome. The fact that one third of an acre enclosed 19 dogs is an inadequate space and after the initial excitement of being released together subsides, they would naturally be inquisitive of the observers and once content that they posed no threat, the dogs would naturally settle, but remain alert – effectively assuming the classic ‘ignore ‘ approach.

Drawing on her extensive experience, knowledge and understanding of working with dogs of all characteristics, breeds and backgrounds, Muncke observes that creating selective social groups of dogs is common practice at rescue centres. To this end Bradshaw uses a triangular model to classify three groups of dogs, thus:

‘Hermits’ – tend to be solitary:

‘Outsiders’ – show one or no dominant relationships:

‘Insiders’ – exhibit significant dominant relationships and no subordinate relationships.

Muncke goes on to say that given the appropriate support, ‘hermits’ learn to integrate into the group, finding their place within the prevailing hierarchy, whilst ‘outsiders’ rarely seek to dominate, being submissive by nature and they tend to fit into the group. These two models of dog characteristics generally recognise and respect a dominant dog. The ‘insiders’ are competitive and regularly seek to reassert their high ranking within the group. This concurs with van der Borg’s research reveals that it is the middle-ranking dogs that tend to mount challenges amongst themselves.

Observing a group of 19 dogs familiar with each other would suggest that there was no need to display any behaviours other than those usually expected from a group of dogs where disputes between protagonists may have been settled with an acceptance of their ranking within the group. With tick box observations, such as looking for ‘confident behaviours’, that is growl, inhibited bite, stand over, mount, stare at, chase, bark at and the ‘submissive behaviours’ including crouch, avoid, displacement lick/yawn, run away, it should be noted that a plethora of other body language would also be apparent between the various dyads and the group as a whole. As Muncke notes: “The presence and energy of certain dogs can be the most subtle communication between the pack members, easy to miss or misinterpret by observers with a check list and yet immensely powerful and controlling.”

Sands, Dr D, (2012, Bad Dog-Science) in his review of Bradshaw’s work, notes that he neatly packages all dog trainers/practitioners into one single negative group – the exceptions being those who agree with him and adopt his academic perspectives. Sands notes that identifying signals can be difficult, inasmuch that the status-quo amongst dogs in groups, whether domesticated or otherwise, is often fluid or changes with circumstances or the environment.

Muncke rebukes Bradshaw for ignoring the deeper, more complex relationships within groups of dogs, that even such an unrepresentative sample here (19 dogs) clearly exhibited hierarchical relationships.

Within groups of dogs particular stimuli trigger hierarchical disputes; this may be over food, possessions, personal space and so on. Having resided in a rescue centre for years inevitably removes the need to scavenge for food or compete for personal space, so this is further evidence that an unsafe small sample of rescue dogs cannot reliably elicit any definitive answers.

Bradshaw declared that “It is therefore doubtful whether the concept of ‘dominance’ can make any useful contribution to explaining dog to dog aggression and is therefore even less likely to be applicable to aggression directed at humans.” This is dangerous and misleading.

Sands (2012) notes that owners who humanise their companion dogs form a mutual interspecies relationship, effectively treating dogs as a member of the family. As such, the dogs become a replacement companion or partner, child replacement or buddy. The fact that some dogs do not acquiesce with their owners’ instruction is often put down to the linguistic barriers between human and dog. Dogs cannot respond verbally in the form of  human language, resulting in actions that may or may not be acceptable behaviour.  “Hyperactivity, continual and repeated vocalisation and attention demanding are the most frequently recognised unwanted displays by these dogs”, according to Sands.

The use of language in dog behaviour has become a hot topic of debate. For example, to argue against use of the term ‘dominance’ in dog behaviour is fanciful; substitute it for similar words such as ‘assertive’, ‘confident’, ‘controlling’, ’superior’, ‘commanding’, it is a matter of semantics, but ultimately dogs have teeth and can use them. Arguing about use of the word ‘dominance’ does not help handlers, owners and trainers; in fact, it can potentially be harmful.

Experienced professional dog behaviour practitioners have for a century or more used the terms “dominance” and “dominant dog” to describe the manner in which character traits, socialisation and breed disposition when combined significantly influence the behaviour of domestic dogs. Adopting these terms has commonly been used to describe the challenges within a relationship between human owner and domestic dog. The notion here is that by challenging the owner, the dog is attempting to raise its status and climb the hierarchy above that of the owner.

Benz-Schwarzburg, J (2020) concluded that there is growing evidence of dogs understanding human emotions, gestures and actions enabling them to be part of human social culture and if “caregivers” (humans) are unaware of how a dog perceives them, potentially a range of conflicts can arise. The human-dog relationship is a social construct, within which there are clear power relations: Benz-Schwarzburg argues that “the human-dog relationship ship is a dominance relationship where humans are usually in command of power”.

Dog trainers and professional behaviour practitioners may use the term “dominant dog” when describing a challenging dog, that is, they rail against any form of control from owners by ignoring verbal instructions, growling, biting, other aggressive behaviour, taking an elevated position, etc. In domestic situations, some family members may prefer to passively defer to the dog and avoid confrontation rather than attempt to change the unwanted behaviour presenting.

From Bradshaw’s perspective, the use of the term ‘dominant dog’ is meaningless, but this is challenged as groundless by Muncke when she illustrates how a group of puppies was hand reared by herself and a colleague. Of the eleven terrier puppies, one bitch exhibited behaviours that could be typified as ‘dominant’. She claimed the most food, climbed over the other puppies to gain her favoured spot; she growled to get her own way. Such control by a dominant puppy is not unusual and they are prepared to nip to gain high rank. With careful socialisation and training the rescue centre staff successfully prepared the litters for rehoming, but with special attention to the two commanding puppies who continued to show controlling, i.e. dominant, behaviour.

To suggest that rescue dogs are ‘problematic’ and ‘psychologically troubled’ is a one size fits all category. Without doubt the aim of good rescue centres is to achieve a safe, comfortable environment where each dog is treated and trained on an individual basis, ready for rehoming. As Muncke observes, flexibility in dealing with the needs of individual dogs of different ages, types and backgrounds is essential. Being a ‘dominant’ dog does not necessary equate to being an aggressive dog and with appropriate behavioural training rehabilitation can be achieved. With an understanding of rank and considered measures to make a dog safer there is no need for punishment or abusive training methods. As such, Muncke asserts that “an acceptance of the construct of dominance should never be regarded as synonymous with punishment.”

Mugford, Dr R, (2012) witheringly responds to academic edicts on dog behaviour as being ‘dangerous tosh’,  because anybody who converts to such beliefs potentially puts the lives of people and dogs at the ultimate risk. As he points out, after more than 40 years in practice, there has been a substantial increase in dog bites, more public complaints, more dogs requiring re-homing and more euthanasias of healthy young dogs than ever before.

He is damning about the plethora of so called ‘scientific research’ “attracting the least able academics exploring the most anodyne research topics”. He draws attention to the  analysis by Liverpool University, sponsored by DEFRA, into the scientific worth of all published papers on the subject of dog behaviour. Their conclusion was that of the hundreds of publications reviewed few were properly conducted and produced robust data. Of all the publications by Professor John Bradshaw, none were considered worthy of being included.

Mugford is scathing about the methodologies Bradshaw adopts, using inexperienced students to conduct research on a limited sample of selected rescue dogs in order to analyse dubiously scored behavioural data. As he calls it “rubbish in, rubbish out’. He further asserts that to use untested theories to promulgate academic funding does not contribute to the development of dog culture, but has damaging consequences should the outcomes be taken seriously.

In his view, Mugford stresses that to imagine that dogs are unique amongst all species on the planet that “do NOT develop social order by competitively determined dominance : subordinance systems is a narrow interpretation of the ethological consensus resulting in the death of many more dogs and their people”.

Tabor, Dr R, (2012) responds to the Bradshaw edict that the concept of a dominant dog is “meaningless”, by stressing that Professor John Bradshaw’s book “In Defence of Dogs” in no way reflects the reality of canine behaviour practice on the grounds that he has no discernible experience in the field.

To quote Tabor in this respect: “A particular rank can be scored between two wolves, two dogs or even two people, but that does not mean that a whole range of other relative rank positions between other individuals beyond that cannot be taken into account. In technical terms a ‘workable transitive dominance hierarchy’ is present, and in constant revision. You may have just gone down the relative pecking order with Smith or Jones because your boss barked at you, but these are still issues of relative dominance.”

In van der Borg’s research, the group consisted of sixteen dogs of different ages, gender, weight and breeds. All dogs were intact sexually. There were three adults, two sub adults, seven juveniles (four of which were siblings) plus three puppies. When the twelve week period of observation ended, ten dogs had formed the core group; In week 5, an adult female and a sub adult female were involved in a severe fight and were removed for safety purposes in addition to an adult female in advanced pregnancy. Three puppies were introduced to the group in week 10. When the group was not being observed the adults were housed individually; the puppies were housed together.

As mentioned above, this diverse selection of dogs contrasts sharply with the 19 neutered males as described in Professor Bradshaw’s research.

The definition of dominance used by van der Borg is based on Drews’ (1993) The Concept and Definition of Dominance in Animal Behaviour and Schjelderup-Ebbe’s Beiträge zur Sozialpsychologie des Haushuhns: the outcomes of agonistic dyadic interactions result in consistent winners being dominant and losers being subordinate. The primatologist de Waal (1989) in his paper Dominance style and primate social organisation, distinguished two additional types of dominance, thus: Formal dominance develops through ritualised and/or greetings indicators when status information is exchanged. The second type is that of Competitive Ability that considers “the incentive for animals to obtain or possess resources, as described in tests on canids using priority access to food or water.”

“Uncertainty concerning the resource holding potential (RHP) could lead to agonistic interactions. These provide individuals with opportunities to gain information on the strength of opponents, which consequently can result into avoiding fights with animals that could defeat them. In this way, physical harm or worse may be reduced” (de Waal, 1989).

Van der Borg noted that ritualised communication patterns emerged in the study of wolves (Harrington F H, Asa C S, (2003) and it was observed that such communication indicators appeared to de-escalate conflicts, thus reducing the potential risk of physical injury or fatality (de Waal, 1989). In dyadic encounters, these indicators, which were mostly body postures and facial expressions, were shown in one direction only. This pattern of formal behaviour serves as signals of dominance submission, for example, bare teeth display in wild and captive wolves as well as free-ranging dogs. (Feddersen-Petersen, DU, 2004).

This dominant behaviour was observed by Van Hooff & Wensing, (1987); they were the first to study body postures as indicators of dominance in a captive wolf pack. High and low body postures, in addition to seven agonistic and associated behaviours, were the key indicators displayed in mainly one direction in dyad relationships, thus were stronger indicators of formal dominance than the seven behaviours in essence. Van den Borg asserts that It was thus possible to construct a rank order that was not only transitive, but also linear, to justify the concept of dominance in a captive wolf pack and construct rank orders on the basis of several formal status indicators.

This thorough use of detailed observation contrasts with Professor Bradshaw’s unpublished qualitative study, who based his research on apparently (he uses the term) confident behaviours, e.g. growl, inhibited bite, stand over, stare at, chase, bark at, mount and submissive behaviours, such as crouch, avoid, displacement lick/yawn, run away. Van Hooff and Wensing (1987), in their study of captive wolves, found these behaviours to be useful to their research. Although of interest to Bradshaw et al as indicators of rank, they did not investigate these behaviours. Having found no linear hierarchy within their study group, they concluded that dominance does not play a role in the domestic dog and that dogs do not strive for a dominant position. Van der Borg noted that Bradshaw et al’s research excluded posture as a behavioural variable, that had previously proved an important variable for dominance relationship assessment in wolves by van Hooff and Wensing, (1987), as mentioned.

Van der Borg found one posture, i.e. high body posture and one behaviour, i.e. muzzle bite, to indicate formal expressions of dominance. In contrast, two low postures i.e. low and low-on-back, and three behaviours, i.e. body tail wag, mouth lick and pass under head, to be formal status indicators of submission. It was noted that only high posture and body tail wag were indicated in most relationships within the group.

Van der Borg asserts that “the high correlation between rank order for lowering of posture, body tail wag and high posture justifies the use of the term dominance as the intervening variable in domestic dogs. Moreover, for the first time, steepness (de Vries H, Stevens JMG, Vervaecke H, 2006) has proven its usefulness when describing the social organisation of a group of domestic dogs in terms of dominance style.”

When asked: “Does dominance exist as a phenomenon in dogs?” James Serpell, Professor of Ethics and Animal Welfare Emeritus at University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, (2014) said “the answer is clearly, yes”, although he notes that there are breed differences. It has been suggested that German shepherds and malamutes are less aggressive than poodles and Labradors when in packs, according to other researchers.

Range, F. and Virányi, Z, (2019) research scientists at the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, found that, in their study of laboratory-raised dog and wolf packs, the wolves were more tolerant and cooperative within their groups. In contrast, they noted that the dogs formed strict, linear dominance hierarchies that necessitated obedience from subordinates. This, it is suggested, reflects the human-dog relationship is dependent upon obedience to the human master.

To test their theories, Range and Virányi devised a series of tests using four socialised packs of each species of mixed-breed dogs and wolves. Their mealtime challenge was designed to test their tolerance. Selecting a high-ranking dog with a low-ranking pack member, a bowl of food was set out and in every test the high-ranking dog took control of the food, whereas the same test with wolves showed that both high and low ranking wolves had access to the food and ate together. There were times when the more dominant wolves became “mildly aggressive towards their subordinates”, however, it was noted that a low-ranking dog would not even attempt to eat with the higher ranking dog.

In further tests to assess whether dogs and wolves worked together to find food, the wolves cooperated and communicated with each other when a group decision was required or if there were disagreements. This is in contrast to the dog packs where even the slightest misdemeanour by a low ranking dog was likely to be met with aggression from the higher ranking dog.

Range and Virányi note that it is probable that the human-dog relationship, with the human as the higher ranking partner, is hierarchical rather than cooperative as in a wolf pack. They also question the notion of human-dog cooperation and if domestication has enhanced the ability of dogs to cooperate. According to Range and Virányi, “it’s not about having a common goal, it’s about being with us, but without conflict. We tell them something, and they obey.”

In reviewing Range and Virányi’s research, Professor Serpell praises their work and goes on to say: “But it’s not what the dog training community wants to hear; you can’t say the word ‘dominance’ around them. Does dominance exist as a phenomenon in dogs? The answer is clearly ‘yes,’”

Monique Udell, (2021), an animal behaviourist at Oregon State University, concurred with the findings of Range and Virányi that dogs are waiting for human orders, having conducted similar tests.

Udell (2021) set a test for 20 adult dogs, 10 of which were from rescue centres and 10 were pets, to ascertain if dogs are “independent problem solvers”. She gave each dog two minutes to open a sealed container of summer sausage. Ten captive wolves were also given the same test. Eight of the wolves opened the containers within the time limit. The adult dogs failed the test, most did not even try, however, when some dog puppies were tested they also succeeded, which indicates that dogs were capable of completing the task just as the wolves did. Udell concluded that as the dog matures and becomes more dependent upon its human owner, its independent behaviour is inhibited.

To confirm her findings, Udell noted that adult dogs could in fact open the containers when told to do so by their owners. She added that by suppressing their independence, it is difficult to assess a dog’s problem solving capabilities.

Dogs still share more than 98% of their DNA. Dr Angela Hughes, (2018) a veterinary genetics researcher notes that dogs and wolves belong to the species Canis lupus and share 99% of their DNA. Technically they can interbreed, but this is rare. Some breeds of dog, e.g. Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky and those that closely resemble wolves are more closely related to the wolf than the poodle, for example. She also notes that all breeds of dogs are more closely related to each other than to the wolf.

Sands, (2012) notes that to make sweeping statements that wild wolves, as they live today, are “certainly quite different in behaviour from their – and dogs – ancestors”, as Bradshaw asserts in Chapter 1 of his book. Bradshaw goes on to say that “since comparisons with the wolf are no longer valid” his research was focused on “the biological characteristics that make up the dog’s true nature”. Sands notes that “this separates wolf behaviour from the dog in order to eradicate any comparison that could undermine his theories or research based on his particular theory. Any consideration that ‘innate social-status’ behaviour inherited from a wolf-ancestor has an influence on the domestic dog we know today is ruled out by Bradshaw and his opinion should be challenged.”

According to Silk et al, (2019) in animal societies, dominance hierarchies are common and reduce the costs of intra-group conflict over resources and reproduction. They assert that, contrary to previous models of hierarchy, the middle ranking dogs were more associated with unstable relationships and tended towards aggression than higher ranking dogs. Their research was based on a pack of free-living (street) dogs with a sex-age-graded hierarchy. Dominance hierarchies are present across animal societies, where high social rank generally confers privileges of access to resources, particularly food and reproduction opportunities. From their analysis of the free-living pack, the hierarchical structure was less stable for middle-ranking dogs where aggressive behaviour was more evident, but was less conflict observed in dogs that were close, but not adjacent, to each other in rank.

It was noted that dominant individuals occasionally stole food from lower ranking pack members, who did not react. In their research, Silk et al, (2019) observed within the group that dominant episodes were more dependent upon context and motivation, e.g. the competition for food, rather than asserting dominance. Male aggression and ritualised dominance focused on other males within the group, but females were seldom targeted.

Silk et al concurred with Font, (1987) who observed that males in a different group of free-ranging dogs were reported to retreat when a female made claims over food or a resting site. This anecdotal evidence would appear to concur with Silk’s assertion that dominance is a characteristic of certain dogs within a free-ranging grouping, underlining that there is a linear hierarchy necessary to maintain the stability of dogs living within a group.

Silk, (2019) further assert that rank influences hierarchy stability for both ritualised dominance and aggressive interactions, the latter being harder to predict. Mid-ranking sub-adult individuals may be trying to establish their dominance over close ranking individuals rather than those adjacent in the group because they may be aware of each other’s strengths, thus they target other subadult individuals to assert their positions within the group. Attempting to elevate status within the mid-ranks may come at a cost with more aggressive interactions noted than at the upper and lower ends of the hierarchy. Similar behaviour has also been found amongst other species. This instability in hierarchy may be  due to the irresolution in the dynamics of hierarchical relationships.

As mentioned above, results of research conducted by van der Borg et al, (2015) indicated that high posture in most dyadic relationships and muzzle bite, exhibited only by the highest ranking dogs, were the best indicators of formal dominance. In contrast, body tail wag, shown in most relationships and two low body postures were evident in 66% of the relationships. Both mouth lick and pass under head qualified as formal indicators of submission, both behaviours were shown only to the highest ranking dogs.

Bradshaw et al, (2009) found no linear hierarchy in their research and concluded that dominance plays no role in the domestic dog, neither do dogs strive for a dominant position. Posture as a behavioural variable was excluded from their research, however, in wolves it has been shown as an important variable for dominance relationship assessment. In contrast, Schilder et al (2014) concluded that formal dominance is present in the domestic dog.

As part of Bradshaw’s team, Casey (Bradshaw, et al, 2009) made the following statement:

To form dominance relationships resulting in a rank order, animals do not need to have a concept of dominance. It suffices that dogs know who is superior and who is subordinate, and a self-organized rank order emerges (Beacham, 2003).”

What are the implications of the statement “dominance in dogs is meaningless” as Bradshaw et al assert? Answer: Confusion.

Sands, (2020) notes that “the logic of asymmetric contests was first pioneered in Maynard Smith and Parker (1976). The various significant roles in, mainly, asymmetric animal contests and their predicted outcome including the result of contests between fighting animals depend much on the rate that information is acquired. This, in turn, is known to be relative to the rate at which costs are expended, and on whether contests normally escalate in intensity, remain at the same level or de-escalate as detailed in Parker and Rubenstein, (1981).”

Sands draws attention to the fact that, in common with the vast majority of dog behaviourists in the UK, to attempt to use any form of physical aggression towards an aggressive dog in order to gain control is futile. Reference here may be made to Thorndike’s “Law of Effect”: a dog is likely to perform a risk assessment before committing to aggression against other dogs or humans before committing to an attack.

Thorndike, E, (1911) coined the term the “Law of Effect,” which suggested that when satisfaction follows an association, it is more likely to be repeated. If an unfavourable outcome follows an action, then it becomes less likely to be repeated. Behaviours immediately followed by favourable consequences are more likely to occur again.

The “risk assessment” to which Sands, (2020) refers is based on the fact that dogs “think like dogs”, not humans who (generally) do have the brain capacity to deal with complex thought processes and switch perceptions. He suggests that dogs use their enhanced sensory faculties – olfactory, visual (facial expressions, gestures, body language), audible vocal tones – to assess the person or human group (family) to establish if they are a threat, not a threat or an outsider. The ensuing actions may trigger flight or fight mechanisms if the dog feels challenged or, if not, the dog may passively accept the situation. An aggressive response is likely to be influenced by previous experience, inasmuch that if the outcome of a previous act of aggression was successful, the dog is likely to repeat the action when feeling threatened.

Owners with aggressive companion dogs may inadvertently reinforce unwanted behaviours by playing competitive games, i.e. wrestling or rough play, that challenge the dog. Such activities at the litter stage between puppies introduce competition and with it a hierarchy based on strength-testing to determine the dominant dog in the litter. Such challenges may be launched in juvenile and adult dogs – middle ranking dogs – in order to gain high group status, especially when the former reach sexual maturity, as mentioned above.

Research conducted by Perez-Guisado and Munoz-Serrano, (2009) to determine factors that may be linked to dominance aggression in pet dogs, showed that possession aggression is the first expression of dominance aggression and its basic form. They identified several factors, some modifiable, (e.g. lack of obedience training, lack of discipline, first time ownership, spoiling the dog) and others non-modifiable, (e.g. breed, gender, age, size) related with higher levels of dominance aggression with the significant influence being the owner.

Their research was based on random selection of 700 dogs in five cities across Spain. None of the dogs were previously known to be aggressive, being that researchers approached members of the public whilst walking their dogs. This contrasts to Bradshaw’s carefully selected group of 19 dogs in a rescue centre, as mentioned above.

Perez-Guisado and Munoz-Serrano concluded that the greatest influence on dominance aggression in dogs is the owner. It was also noted that older owners tend to be more responsible to and for their dogs, spending more time training their dogs into enforce control.

Chris Laurence, MBE, Veterinary Director at the Dogs Trust, believes that he can tell when a dog that has been subjected to dominance reduction treatment by trainers, enters the Trust. The dog can be very fearful, a behaviour that can lead to aggression, he asserts.

He goes on to say that training techniques promoting the owner as being leader of the pack are counter-productive. Instead of improving the dog’s behaviour, it could become so fearful that  natural behaviours are suppressed, it will do nothing or become so aggressive that it is dangerous.

Sands, Dr D, (2020), notes that competitive-interaction between owner and puppy/dog when playing tug games and allowing the puppy/dog to win inadvertently encourages challenges to the owner. Similarly, as in many mammalian species, an elevated position confers an advantage; if a pet dog is allowed to assume elevated positions on furniture, stairs and on beds, this is effectively a successful challenge, thus raising the dog’s status within the domestic hierarchy. As mentioned above, these resource holding potential mechanisms frequently trigger dog – human aggression.

Cameron, (1997), indicated that in puppies, this “dominance-associated aggression” is less significant to owners, but becomes more serious when the dog is 6-24 months old. He goes on to state that most owners reported an improvement in dominance-associated aggression after gaining psychological leadership over their dogs following receiving education. This contrasts with the assertion made by Bradshaw (2009), mentioned above.

Takeuchi et al (2001), concluded that a “status-reduction” programme that counters or controls “aggressive competitive behaviour” is successful inasmuch that a more positive and safer relationship between owner and dog is affected. Again, this is contrary to Bradshaw’s assertion.

To dismiss the fact that societies across the world are based on the need for governance, in whatever form, be it democracy, dictatorship or other, the antithesis is anarchy. So, the alpha wolves or dogs in a free-ranging group need leadership; without it there would be constant challenges or conflicts. It has been noted, as previously described and noted, that middle ranking wolves and dogs tend to mount challenges in order to achieve a higher ranking. There will always be submissive wolves or dogs content to follow; conversely there will always be those that aspire to lead. Dominance is not always synonymous with aggression, although when necessary, the alpha’s instinct is to rebut any such challenge. Professor Serpell stated that dominance does exist in canines, as noted above. Dominance within the canine world is necessary to ensure that the species is sustained; if there is no leadership, the known conflicts that occur between middle ranking canines would escalate throughout the pack or group. Inevitably a dominant force would eventually emerge or they would become extinct. The need for harmony is as essential as the need for a working hierarchy. Every pack member knows its job when out on a hunt; without this military-like discipline, a successful kill would not be achieved and the pack would die. To argue that there is no such thing as dominance is semantics. There is evidence that dominance does exist, as has been shown here. To suggest that dominance is “meaningless” – Bradshaw (2009) – shows a contempt for scientific process and a blindness to observe a system that spans the globe in both human and animal social groupings, as it has done for millennia. 

Further investigation and more data gleaned from more research into the ever changing relationship between human and domestic dogs are required to reflect the changing social and environmental atmosphere that has moved on considerably since the turn of the century. Clarification and understanding of the term “dominance” needs a broader church if the conflict between “positive only” methodologies and finding real world solutions to unwanted behaviours that cause injuries, maiming and death to both humans and dogs is to reach a fair conclusion. Offering food or treats to bribe such dogs would sit well in a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

More data would be a useful base from which to statistically test success rates and to standardise systems in order to educate dog owners in best practice to achieve a lasting, rewarding relationship with their dogs. The term “dominance” is useful in describing unwanted behaviours exhibited in aggressive dogs, as characterised above. The model of RHP may be more appropriate when describing competitive, intra-specific and possessive aggression in domestic dogs. By adopting this term or “aggressive competitive behaviour” we should not lose sight of the success that status reduction programs, obedience training and the introduction of a domestic structured hierarchy have achieved, particularly with red-zone aggressive dogs. It may be that to those who find the term “dominance” offensive, these modern descriptions pour oil on the waters of the conflicting camps.

In conclusion, the concept of dominance is validated by the scientifically gathered evidence cited and reveals formal dominance to be apposite to domestic dogs. This is useful when analysing the relationships between dogs in groups and human-dog, where a level of tolerance was revealed. Research gathered by Van der Borg (2015) supports the notion that there is a rank order as well as status apparent in the relationship between dogs at the dyadic level. Dominance is moreover present in all breeds of dogs and the level of status may be milder in some breeds, but more despotic in style in bolder breeds. There is a great variation between breeds and within breeds as to the level of dominance presenting. To suggest that dominance does not exist in dogs is thus unfounded.

June 2023


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