Thursday, 27 August 2015

Dominance.. again. What it is, what it ain't.

Before I start this, its worth keeping in mind the phrase 'A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing'...

Never does that apply more when it comes to discussing dominance and dogs, and dog training and dog behaviour!

So first of all let me be clear about some of the following terms:

Context - a set of circumstances or facts surrounding a specific event or situation.

In discussing dominance, we need to know about the environmental context, and the social context.

In other words, WHERE it happened/happens, and WHO was involved.

Resource - something valuable to the involved parties.

So here we mean toys, food, water, attention from a person, access to a choice sleeping position.

So what is dominance - well that depends on who you are, whether you are discussing in a purely scientific context, or a more general context. Here are some definitions of 'dominance' or 'dominating' or 'domineering', some of them are in fact incorrect but are in common use.

Dominant - the winner of a competition, the strongest, the fastest, the top of the heap, the boss, someone who controls others actions

Domineering - behaviour displayed by someone that controls the actions of others

Dominating - the act of controlling others or taking over a situation, conversation or other social interaction

Dominance - power or influence over others, suppressing others

SO now lets look at dogs. For a long time a large section of the dog owning public has believed a number of things that aren't quite true.. or are even entirely false.

Here's one.

Dogs want to become dominant over their owners.

Here's another.

Dogs fight for dominance over each other/over humans.

Thats just not true, looking at the dog - human social context first, dogs have no concept of DESIRE to dominate human beings for the sake of then being the dominant party.

Looking at the social context of dog to dog interactions again, dogs do not want to dominate other dogs so that they are then 'top dog'.

This is why people will tell you, 'it doesn't exist'.. what they mean is, the DESIRE to become dominant, does not exist.

And that is true.

BUT... dominance does exist.

Every person or dog, who has their actions controlled by a dog - so the person who's dog growls when they try to sit on the sofa, so they sit on the floor instead, the person who's dog yells at them till they take it for a walk... the person who has a dog who won't let the other dog play with a particular toy...

In all these situations a dog is dominating another dog, or a person....

But here's the crucial point... this dominance is the OUTCOME of a social interaction and usually, is specific to a particular environment as well.

It is not something the dog set out to achieve for its own sake. The dog did not think 'ah ha, I shall control my owners actions, by refusing to allow him to sit on the sofa I shall achieve dominance over him and thus I shall raise my social status'.

Nope. What happened was the dog liked lying on the sofa, the dog learned that growling at the person meant he could stay on the sofa, maybe he learned that the person approaching the sofa was scary so growl, oh they go away, that works, repeat it.. hey I get to stay on the sofa, excellent.

This outcome however, does end up domineering the humans life, but it IS NOT because the dog desired to control the humans life, its because he wanted to stay on the sofa.

The same applies to the dog who won't let the other dog he lives with, get the ball. He has not a single care about being dominant, having any kind of social status, what he cares about, is the ball. He likes the ball, he values it highly, and he has via trial and error, figured out that he can prevent the other dog from having the ball by displaying certain behaviours.

So, why is this important and why do so many trainers and behaviourists tell you dominance doesnt exist.

Well, several reasons - and back to my 'a little bit of knowledge is dangerous'...

Because there is this misconception that dogs WANT to become dominant, and because unfortunately so many shysters and TV shmucks like to blame every behaviour they see on 'dominance', the word has become poisoned. We don't want to use this word because its real meaning is lost, because sadly a huge number of people use it wrongly, we don't want to be mixed up with that.

I don't need to tell you that your dogs inappropriate behaviour is dominating your life .. you know that! I don't want you to hear me talk about dominance, then hear some bumhole on the TV talking about it and think we are discussing the same thing, because we sure as shit ain't!

The major point is, dominance is really nothing to worry about, its not relevant, I don't need to discuss it with you when I come to your house to assess your dog, you don't need to know about it.

In the same way that you can appreciate the blue skies on a sunny day without knowing that the molecules in the air scatter blue light more than they do red light and so the sky appears blue... or you can watch TV without needing to understand how electricity works or how digital signals are transmitted or how an LCD actually turns that digital signal into a picture...

You can deal with behavioural problems, you can live happily with your dogs, without knowing how dominance actually occurs.

All you really need to know, is this:

Dominance does not CAUSE behaviour, dominance is the possible OUTCOME of behaviour.

So when you hear that a dog pulls on the lead because he is dominant - no. When you are told that your dog barks at you when you tell him off, because he is dominant - nope. When you see on TV some pillock explaining that a dog is shitting on the carpet, weeing up the walls, raiding the garbage can, humping his toys, growling at the kids, running away from home, killing squirrels in the yard, guarding his food bowl from you, stealing items and guarding those from you.... because he is dominant.

The answer is no, none of those things are caused by dominance. To say something is 'caused by dominance' is like saying 'smell the colour 9'... it actually doesn't make sense.

So when we tell you to forget dominance, you really can do so, just do it - because even though all those behaviours above and many many more MAY WELL dominate your lives...

We can fix them without once thinking about our dogs as being dominant, or domineering, because they don't WANT to be. They just want to chase the ball, lie on the sofa, eat their own meal in peace.

So, now I hear you saying ok, but what about with other dogs, how about when my dog is stealing other dogs balls in the park.

Your dog may well be dominant over another dog in a particular context, over a particular resource.

Fluffy may not allow Fido to have that ball, Rover may not want Spot to sit next to him on the sofa.

As long as the dogs themselves understand these rules and can get along, thats fine, its not a problem, frankly, its none of your business don't interfere, keep your clumsy human nose out of things. 

If Fluffy is the dominant dog when it comes to Fido and the ball, as long as Fido doesn't give two shits, thats fine.  If Rover is the dominant dog when it comes to Spot and the sofa, and Spot couldn't give a flying fuck, thats also fine.

It's totally irrelevant to you. Its also totally irrelevant to any other context and any other social grouping. The fact that Fluffy is dominant over Fido when it comes to the ball, in your house, has NO bearing whatsoever on whether Fluffy is dominant over Rover in the field.

The fact that Rover is dominant over Spot when it comes to the sofa has NO bearing whatsoever on whether he is dominant over Charlie at Nana's house.

These situations are determined by behaviour, they are driven by the desire to win the resource, and of course, the desire not to be involved in conflict, because its not just about 'who is strong enough to take what they want' its ALSO about 'who is diplomatic enough to quit rather than start a fight'.

In all these situations where you could identify a dominant dog, keep in mind that the OTHER dog chose to back down.

Problems can of course occur, when two dogs want the same resource, both are well matched and value it highly and are willing to fight over it.

But even here, DOMINANCE is not the problem, the desire for a limited resource, and the inability to resolve who wins it IS the problem.

This situation is generally not that common UNLESS the dogs in question have particularly poor skills at communicating with one another! Generally speaking, dogs who communicate well, will back down, will find a way of diffusing the situation.

More commonly I see dogs who are in fact highly anxious, that are described as 'dominant' who are not at ALL dominant.. but ARE constantly fighting to guard, or keep control of resources that they fear they will lose.

These dogs are not attempting to take over the world to gain social status, they are not attempting to control others so that they achieve some grand high poohbah prize of a Chufty Badge and a We Am De Best hat...

These dogs are highly anxious and stressed and just want to feel secure and safe!

So lets put this one to bed for good shall we? Dominance is not your concern, unless its with a fully consenting adult of the same species as you, a can of squirty cream and some handcuffs!



Jay, Sparking Synapse said...

Our Jeffie was a dog who might have appeared dominant to others, simply because he was a bag nerves.

He was 'food aggressive', constantly 'hip blocked' our other dog, 'pushing in front' in an effort to be first, growled at me when I went near his head or his feet and walked in front of us and tripped us up when we were walking.

The 'food aggression' was gone in a week and the growling about his mouth was gone shortly afterwards once I'm managed to look in his mouth and see the horrible deep ulcer where a canine extraction had failed to heal. Once that was dealt with we had him accepting an electric toothbrush in no time. The 'hip blocking' - an American term based in dominance theory - was simply anxiety. He had no idea Sid was there, and no intention to knock him about, but his mind was so full of anxiety that he didn't notice him.

I hate to think of the fate of that poor dog in a less understanding or knowledgeable home.

Annie Cholewa said...