Dominance is alive and well so let’s get over it and understand what it’s all about

When I began studying dogs and other canids many years ago, I also was studying classical comparative ethology and getting ready to begin a field project on the social behavior and ecology of coyotes living in the Grand Teton National Park that went on for almost nine years. I retained my interests in learning about the behavior of domestic dogs and this has remained on my research agenda for many decades.

When I first began focusing on dogs I was told—as were many others I’ve learned—it was a waste of time to study dogs to learn about other nonhuman animals (animals) because dogs weren’t a real species, but rather artifacts of human selection. Indeed, when I applied for one of my first jobs, after the search committee discovered that I was interested in dogs as well as wolves and coyotes, I was told they weren’t interested in my application because dogs just weren’t a suitable subject for comparative research in animal behavior. I ignored these “warnings” as did others, and I’m sure glad I did. And, over the past decades, it’s become clear that what we learn about dogs can be extended to other species, and vice versa.

The damned “D” word: Dominance is not a myth and dominance deniers offer nothing substantial in their arguments against it

One important aspect of the social behavior of numerous species is called dominance. In earlier essays I’ve written about the ways in which ethologists and others students of animal behavior view and define dominance and there’s no reason to repeat the details here. For more information on comparative aspects of dominance please see “Social Dominance Is Not a Myth,” “Dominance and Pseudoscience: Making Sense of Nonsense,” and renowned primatologist Dr. Dario Maestripieri’s outstanding essay called “Social Dominance Explained: Part I” (in which he mildly takes me to task for trying to accommodate the deniers) and many links therein.

A large number of colleagues have told me over the years that dominance is ubiquitous and deniers don’t know what they’re talking about. Denying dominance is like denying the force of gravity on Earth. Species-wide surveys show clearly that dominance hierarchies in animals are real, as do rigorous science and well-received evolutionary theory. Dr. Maestripieri writes: “Bottom line: dominance between two individuals helps keep the peace and increases stability and predictability in the relationship, thereby allowing both partners to benefit from their relationship.”

Dominance relationships in dogs are real and can be linear

“Our results suggest that dominance remains a robust component of domestic dog behaviour even when humans significantly reduce the potential for resource competition.” (Rebecca Trisko and Barbara Smuts 2015)

“Agonistic-dominance relationships in the dog group remain stable across different competitive contexts and to the behaviors considered … The findings of this research contradict the notion that free-ranging dogs are ‘asocial’ animals and agree with other studies suggesting that long-term social bonds exist within free-ranging dog groups.” (Simona Cafazzo, Paola Valsecchi, Roberto Bonanni, and  Eugenia Natoli 2010)

… formal dominance is present in the domestic dog, expressed by context-independent unidirectional formal status signals. Consequently, formal dominance (e.g., submission) plays an important role in assessing status in dog–dog relationships …  the dominance concept might be useful to explain the development of certain problems in dog–dog and dog–human relationships. However, enforcing a dominant status by a human may entail considerable risks and should therefore be avoided.” (Matthijs Schiller, Claudia Vinke, and Joanne van der Borg, Dominance in domestic dogs revisited: Useful habit and useful construct?)

As I’m writing a book on dog behavior, I’ve been very interesting in keeping up with the literature in a wide variety of fields, and in the past few days I’ve been focusing on dominance. As I went through my notes, I re-discovered a comment from a dog trainer I received on one of my former essays that got me thinking about dominance in dogs. The comment read as follows: “And, yes, Marc, I still insist that dominance in animal groups is a myth. For one thing, there are far too many inconsistencies in how these behaviors fail to conform to a single coherent model. For another, the concept of the dominance hierarchy is antithetical to Darwin’s thoughts on the nature of social animals.”

These sorts of denial are thoroughly inconsistent with available comparative data and well-accepted evolutionary theory. Note that the person who commented wrote “dominance in animal groups is a myth,” and did not limit his comment to dogs. The above three essays and countless others make it abundantly clear that denying the existence of dominance can be taken to constitute pseudoscience, as do the three essays about which I write below. (The author of the comment also wrote, “There is no such thing as a ‘dog pack.'” This also isn’t so, as made so very obvious by the work of researchers who have been studying feral dog packs for years. But that’ll require another essay that’s in the works.)

As I went through piles and piles of papers, I came across three that are worth mentioning here, although there are many more sitting on my floor, published in journals and in books, that make the same argument, namely, that dominance in dogs is real, not a myth.

In an excellent and comprehensive review essay available online called “Dominance relationships in a group of domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris),” Rebecca Trisko and Barbara Smuts write, “Our results suggest that dominance remains a robust component of domestic dog behaviour even when humans significantly reduce the potential for resource competition. The possible proximate benefits of dominance relationships for dogs are discussed.” I highly recommend this essay to everyone, especially perhaps, to dominance deniers.

The second essay that caught my eye, also available online, is called “Dominance in relation to age, sex, and competitive contexts in a group of free-ranging domestic dogs” by Italian researchers Simona Cafazzo, Paola Valsecchi, Roberto Bonanni, and Eugenia Natoli. They write, “We investigated the existence of a social-dominance hierarchy in a free-ranging group of domestic dogs. We quantified the pattern of dyadic exchange of a number of behaviors to examine to what extent each behavior fits a linear rank-order model. We distinguished among agonistic dominance, formal dominance, and competitive ability. The agonistic-dominance hierarchy in the study group shows significant and substantial linearity.”

The researchers also note, “Agonistic-dominance relationships in the dog group remain stable across different competitive contexts and to the behaviors considered. Some individuals gain access to food prevailing over other dogs during competitions.” Finally, they conclude, “The findings of this research contradict the notion that free-ranging dogs are ‘asocial’ animals and agree with other studies suggesting that long-term social bonds exist within free-ranging dog groups.” These researchers also have done excellent research on feral dog packs.

Moving beyond ideological turf wars

The third essay that’s relevant here is called “Understanding Canine Social Hierarchies” by Dr. Jessica Hekman. She recognizes that social relationships among dogs are complex, that “The question of how dogs understand and assert rank has provided fodder for ferocious contention among dog trainers,” and agrees with noted student of dog behavior, Patricia McConnell, who called dominance “one of the most misused and misunderstood words in the English language, at least in relation to dog training.”

It’s time to move beyond the ideological turf wars among some trainers and look at the facts. Thus, I’m glad Dr. McConnell highlighted the debates that occur among some dog trainers, because no one who’s actually studied the social behavior of dogs in detail could possibly claim that they don’t display dominance or that dominance hierarchies don’t exist. It’s just that they usually don’t understand what “being dominant” means, as Dr. McConnell notes.

Dr. Hekman goes on to report on a study done on a group of dogs in The Netherlands about which she writes, “this group was not particularly egalitarian. Division between ranks was nearly always strict, requiring a dog to greet his superior, even one just a single rank above him, with deferential behavior such as lowered body posture.” And, in agreement with the study done by Simona Cafazzo, Paola Valsecchi, Roberto Bonanni, and Eugenia Natoli, Dr. Hekman writes, “Indeed, the social hierarchy in this group did look ladder-like. Some species have a dizzying hierarchical structure, in which rank order may loop in an entirely nonlinear fashion. In this dog group, however, the hierarchy was strictly linear: if dog A was higher ranking than dog B, and dog B was higher ranking than dog C, then dog A would always be higher ranking than dog C. No weird circular messes—occasions, for example, when dog C was surprisingly dominant over dog A—were observed.”

“We won’t know until we ask:” Myth-busting and paying attention to facts will be a win-win for dogs and humans

Dr. Hekman also writes the following, about the reality we all must thoroughly embrace: “The dominance theory of dog training depends heavily on the hypothesis that dogs consider humans to be part of their social hierarchy. This hypothesis remains to be investigated. In some species, males and females occupy two completely separate hierarchies. Similarly, dogs may see humans as living in their own separate rank order, or they may see us as part of their societies. We won’t know until we ask … There is so much more to know about our closest friends, and we are just beginning to learn.” Thus, as I wrote above, it’s time to move beyond ideological turf wars and look at the facts.

To sum up, it’s high time to do some serious myth-busting and to get things right. All of the above researchers note that more research is needed, but it’s abundantly clear from what they and others have learned that debates about whether dogs display dominance don’t really get us anywhere. The real questions at hand center on why has dominance evolved, how it differs from group to group, and how and why these differences emerge.

It’s also abundantly clear that dogs, like other animals, display wide-ranging individual differences, and talking about “the dog” or “the dog group” can be very misleading. Paying attention to individual differences and facts are critical for understanding, appreciating, and training/teaching dogs: Variability is the name of the game. I get incredibly excited when I expect to see something happen, say, in a group of dogs at a dog park, and it’s the varying and fleeting dynamics of different groups of dogs that always caution me about speaking about prescriptive rules of social interaction. Just when I think I’ve got this pegged, something happens that makes me revisit what I really know. Sure, there seem to be some general “rules of thumb” that might apply in many, but surely not all, situations. But, it’s the exceptions to these “rules” that keep me going. And, I know I’m also speaking for researchers who have studied the same animals for years on end. Just when you think you know it all …

I’ll end here because as I search for more examples, not only of dominance in dogs but also dominance in other animals, I’m overwhelmed by how much information there is from detailed comparative studies. There are absolutely no credible reasons why dogs should be uniquely different from other species in which dominant individuals and dominance hierarchies have been observed. .

Beliefs don’t substitute for facts

Beliefs don’t substitute for facts, and it’s time to put aside beliefs, pay close attention to what we know, and let the facts speak for themselves. When we do this, it’ll be a win-win for dogs and humans in all of the social venues in which their and our lives cross and become intimately entwined. And, just in case it’s still not clear, let’s remember that there still is so much to learn about the cognitive and emotional lives of these most amazing beings, and there are no substitutes for watching and studying dogs in the various contexts in which they interact with their friends and foes and with us. What could be more exciting? In my view, clearly not much.

Note 1: After this essay appeared a few people asked me my views on using dominance in dog training/teaching, because, as I’ve noted here as have others, debates about dominance come primarily from trainers. Just because dogs (and other animals) dominate one another in different social situations, this does not mean we should when we’re trying to teach them to live harmoniously with us. I’ve made this clear in a number of essays including “Did Cesar Millan Have to Hang the Husky?“, “The Kindness of Dogs: New Book Explains Why Cesar’s Gotta Go,” and many links in these essays.

Note 2: After I wrote this essay I discovered that a special issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior is devoted to “The ‘dominance’ debate and improved behavioral measures.” Many of the papers point to misunderstandings of what dominance means, and John Bradshaw and his colleagues note “there is no evidence that dominance is a character trait of individual dogs, but rather that it is a property of relationships, that can arise due to asymmetries in any one of at least 3 distinct personality traits.” Indeed, I agree that dominance hierarchies are all about social relationships, however, I have lived with dogs I would call “dominant individuals” and have observed dominant dogs at dog parks and other venues. I also discovered an essay devoted to ethological analyses of dominance relationships in dogs called “Dominance in Domestic Dogs: A Quantitative Analysis of Its Behavioural Measures.” I still maintain there are absolutely no credible reasons why dogs should be uniquely different from other species in which dominant individuals and dominance hierarchies have been observed.

Note 3: A comment from Dr. John Bradshaw:

I agree that it’s possible to construct dominance hierarchies from the way that groups of dogs interact – I’ve done so myself.  That shouldn’t be an issue, or at least only one of semantics.  For me, the real issue is an ethical one, how concepts of “dominance” impact on the treatment of dogs by dog trainers and the owners they advise. What you appear to dismiss as ” ideological turf wars among some trainers” has real implications for the welfare of dogs, and should not be taken lightly by anyone who believes that animals have emotional lives. Many trainers use ‘dominance reduction’ to justify the routine infliction of pain on dogs. For this reason, I believe that all responsible ethologists should take great pains to distinguish between their technical (and, of course, well-established) concept of dominance, as one method for describing social interactions, and the everyday use of the word ‘dominant’, which denotes a tendency to be aggressive, threatening and/or controlling. Many dog trainers use the two interchangeably, and some take great delight when academics appear to do the same. As a direct consequence, dogs suffer. (There’s more on this in the paper of mine that you cite in your post.)

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017. (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)