“I don’t use the words ‘pack,’ ‘alpha,’ ‘submit,’ ‘submissive,’ ‘dominant,’ or ‘dominance’ — at all, ever, and haven’t done so for almost 20 years,” says Karen Overall, VMD, PhD, a Glen Mills, Pennsylvania-based board-certified animal behaviorist. Neither do many other well-trained animal behaviorists. And for good reason. The word “dominant” and all the other words associated with it have entered the common lexicon in a way that inaccurately describes dogs’ approach to their relationships, both with other dogs and with people. More significantly, it has led people to treat their dogs unkindly, even cruelly, in order to tamp down on their so-called alpha tendencies.
The fact of the matter is that dogs do not spend time striving for dominance. Like most people, they work to avoid conflict and physical aggression, instead deferring to others to diffuse anger and misunderstanding. By defer we don’t mean “give in.” We mean, says Dr. Overall, “assessing an ongoing situation and waiting calmly to get input from another member of the group before pursuing another set of behaviors or social interactions. Combat,” she comments, “is the exceptional choice for resolutions of conflict in both canids and humans.” It’s not the default way to handle conflict.
Does that mean that dominance does not exist among dogs and that they have no social hierarchies, no top-dog alphas?
“This is a third rail,” says University of Wisconsin adjunct professor and certified animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell, PhD, meaning that it creates a lot of dangerous electricity between people in the field.
There is such a thing as dominance, she says, as part of some social hierarchies. But “it has nothing to do with getting another individual to do what you want” or with being “in control” of another, and it certainly has nothing to do with dog training. Dominance in the dog world is simply about which dog has first dibs on resources: food, the comfy chair in the sunlight, the female dog in heat, and so on. And it very, very rarely involves physical coercion.
“If you drop a pork chop between two dogs,” says Dr. McConnell, “who gets it first? If there’s a consistent pattern, then you can talk about one dog being dominant over another. But it’s without fighting, without even having to display.” And it’s certainly not about lording it over the other dog. “Dominance is not about control. It’s about who is first to get something everyone wants.”
It’s the same with people, Dr. McConnell points out. “Who gets the best table in the restaurant just by walking in the door? You or the governor? The governor,” and not because he has control over you or because he’s aiming to “dominate” you. It’s just the social order.
“Scientists who work with other species talk without hesitancy about dominance in relationships,” Dr. McConnell says. For instance, “dominance-based relationships are exceedingly important in chimpanzee groups. Who gets access to what is overwhelmingly important.” So those who study animals other than dogs are “often surprised when you tell them” that the term “dominance” is controversial when it comes to domestic dog training and behavior.
But the fact is that it has been “so misunderstood and so misused to justify all kinds of old-fashioned and often punitive, counter-productive training methods.” Dogs don’t need to be taken down a peg or two. They’re not trying to gain status over their owners; they are just responding to cues you’re giving — or not giving — about how to act in your presence. That’s true even of a dog who tends to be on the willful, or pushy side.
Dr. Overall makes the point that even among dogs, status and hierarchy are not fixed but change with the situation. Tufts Behavior Clinic director Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, agrees. “It’s higgledy-piggledy,” he says. “There’s not a straight line in the hierarchical structure among a group of dogs. The ‘alpha’ dog is not always the ‘alpha’ depending on the context.” For instance, one dog might be the alpha when it comes to getting wonderful bones to chew, while the other is the one who gets petted first when his owner comes through the door. Says Dr. Dodman, “the quality of dominance doesn’t exist in spades or not at all.”