Leader of the Pack

Group of twelve dogs

If you ever talk to people about dogs, you’ve probably come across someone who espouses “dominance theory” – the idea that dogs are constantly grappling for rank with other dogs and with humans. Proponents of dominance theory often advocate for “training methods” (I use the term loosely) that seek to prove the human’s “alpha” status over the dog(s). These methods range from fairly benign – always cross through a door before your dog, always eat first – to downright abusive, including physically bullying or forcing the dog to roll over, inflicting pain or fear, and in extreme cases even choking dogs on leashes until they pass out. All in the name of “showing the dog who’s boss.”

While I find these methods personally distasteful, more importantly, they are also appallingly misinformed.

Behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel is one of the men responsible for the origination of dominance theory. In the 1930s and 40s, Schenkel studied groups of captive zoo wolves, noting how they interacted, how they resolved conflict, and how they determined who had priority access to resources. As a result of his observations, he determined that wolves were constantly vying with each other to achieve higher status. It was a short mental leap to extrapolate this idea to dogs; after all, dogs are domesticated wolves, so the assumption goes that they must have the same social and behavioral patterns. Dr. David Mech, a research scientist, later popularized the concept of dominance theory with similar studies and conclusions, the findings of which he published in the 1968 book, “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species.”

Here’s the problem with dominance theory: the study was performed on a group of unrelated captive wolves. A wolf “pack” in nature is a family group, typically a mating pair and their offspring, and sometimes other family members. They operate as a family, and they have relationships that we would likely recognize as similar to our own. There is no struggle for dominance – the adult pair are “in charge,” for lack of a better term, in the same way that the adults in a human household are in charge. They enforce established rules and the younger members typically follow, and sometimes test. The adult wolves are responsible for the well being of their pack. They have conflict, as any family group does, which is resolved with ritualized aggression. This means that they have posturing or fights to resolve conflict without anyone actually getting hurt. It is the human equivalent of an argument. They do not jostle for rank, they do not physically harm one another, and they do not fight over who gets to walk through the door first. There is an understanding of how resources are distributed, and each wolf knows what resources are important enough to them to engage in conflict over, should they take issue with the established system.

Captive wolves, in contrast, are rarely a family group. More often – and this was the case in the original study done by Schenkel – they are unrelated wolves who are forced to live together. These wolves do not have the benefit of family ties (which, significantly, means no genetic interest) and no history of conflict resolution with one another. There is no understanding about who has access to resources such as food, space, or reproductive opportunities. Therefore, there IS very frequent conflict, vying for resources, and often, physical fighting and injury. Unrelated wolves do not have an interest in the well being of the group in the way that a familial pack does; they are primarily concerned with their own survival.

So right away we can see how dominance theory is based on a flawed premise. However, it gets worse.

Dogs, while descended from wolves, do not have the same social structure or behavioral repertoire as wolves. Behaviorally, dogs are more like juvenile wolves, an attribute called neoteny (the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood.) So, to put it plainly, dogs behave more like wolf puppies. They play, vocalize, and socialize with unrelated conspecifics far more than adult wolves do. And that latter behavior is important, because what it indicates is that dogs aren’t pack animals. While there are certainly many instances of dogs who dislike strange dogs, that is typically attributable to poor socialization. Properly socialized dogs are generally friendly or at worst indifferent towards strange dogs. It’s why we have dog parks. We don’t have wolf parks*.

To apply wolf behavior framework to dog behavior is to ignore the glaring and significant differences between the species. It’s akin to trying to use primate behavior to interpret how humans interact. Yes, there are useful comparisons, however there are as many differences as there are similarities. Domestication makes all the difference, in this case.

But, HERE’S the kicker: Dr. Mech himself has denounced dominance theory, for the reasons I’ve outlined here, and has admitted that he was mistaken. He has explained at length that his theory was flawed and that we should not be using it to describe wolf OR dog behavior, because both are far more dynamic and nuanced than was understood by the original dominance framework. This is very nearly the Wakefield Study of canid behavior.

It is my sincerest hope that not only do we leave the language of dominance theory behind – stop using phrases like “pack leader” and words like “alpha” or “dominant” to refer to our relationships with dogs – but also that we insist that dog trainers have an understanding of this very basic concept before we allow them into our homes to work with our dogs. This is entry-level stuff. If someone, dog owner, trainer, or otherwise, tries to whip out dominance theory on you, you should tuck tail and run – or tell them to look up Dr. Mech.

*except for Wolf Park in Indiana, which is not a fenced-in area to take your wolves to play off leash but an incredible organization dedicated to conservation, education, and canid behavior research.

Article by Ursa Major

Further reading:

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior – Position Statement on Dominance Theory

University of Bristol Article on Dominance Theory

“Dumbed Down by Dominance,” a 2-part article by Dr. Karen Overall, veterinary behaviorist

“The Dominance Controversy” by veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s