By now most everyone that lives with a pet has heard about the “dominance” theory also known in the popular literature as being the “alpha of the ‘pack’”- which frankly is very unfortunate.
Unfortunate because this watered-down premise does very little to advance our day- to-day relations with our pets and does much harm in submitting dogs to our every desire just because we can make them do what we want by exercising force or intimidation. Pathetic! The problem with this approach is that it’s not based on what scientific studies describe on how a canine family relate to one another.
Any group of animal that lives in a group will have a complex social structure. Think of bees or an ant colony.
Dogs, of course, are no exception as they live in groups in their natural environment. Ah, but you might say, what about a dog that lives with a family or one that does not belong to family but still keeps to isolation? This is where it gets interesting and why once again we MUST move away from the watered-down dominance theory in our daily relation with our dogs.
Dogs form loose associations. They are not even considered pack animals because they do not hunt together which in essence is the definition of a “pack”. As I have written in past posts, even in the wild, wolves and other canine family members do have the flexibility to wander or forced to be on their own until they find another pack of wolves that will incorporate it.
It is worth noting that even today there is still disagreement as to the true nature of dog’s social stratification. Just to give you a taste of the complexity of the topic here, I will enlist below some of the models up for considerations as to how dogs related socially. Ready?
NOTE: The arrangements below are not listed in order of relevance. It is also important to emphasize that because dogs have complex social structures, as previously stated, there is the de facto hierarchy that corresponds with some individuals being the “dominant” and others the “subordinates.” The dominant being the older & mating pair in other words the “parents” of the young pups. The young and non-mating pair taking the place of subordinate.
However, the fact is that these social markers are much more flexible and fluid than what the popular and simplified approach of being the alpha subscribes to.
What’s more, until now there is no clear evidence that the dogs that we call our pets do not consider us necessarily part of their “group” as they do other dogs.
Which boils down to dogs not trying to remove us from the top tier in our mutual relationship as the “Alpha” paradigm claims.
1. Linear Dominance:
The order in the group is maintained by active display of dominance towards
2. Linear Subordinate:
The order is maintained by active appeasement displays toward superiors.
3. Separate Sex Hierarchies:
Each may be dominant or subordinate or other.
4. Dyadic “triangular” or non-transitive:
Fixed relationships between any two animals but not overall order.
5. Three Tier (trait) Model:
Alpha, Alpha types & Beta types.
Is your head spinning now?
As you can see there are still many questions regarding the social stratifications of dogs. Even to this day with all that we do know about dogs, there is ample discussion between the pros studying the world of dogs as to what we know to hold as fact. One of the most salient divisions is between folks that study wolves in their natural habitat and those that study them in captivity- where the packs are not necessarily a family of wolves: parents, related adolescent and mature wolves and the offspring’s of the alpha pair, but more so a bunch of wolves living together and not hunting!
Besides pure interest in learning more about dogs, what can we glean from this information that will make our lives with our pals more rewarding and conflict free?
I will leave you with a couple of thoughts. This will be best observed, of course, if you have the pleasure of living with more than one dog.
Dominance and I will loosely define it here as to who is “pushing its weight around” to get or keep a coveted resource is in fact very fluid and context specific. Here is an example: Rufus cares more about chewies or Kongs than Fido, so Fido abandons its chewy once it has satisfied the need of chewing on its bone. But Fido really cares about the sleeping spot in the sun or the one that permits access to seeing who is coming in and out the front door, since this is less important for Rufus, he just let’s Fido get that spot. Of course, occasionally Fido might want this spot and Rufus is not ready to give up his bone so what happens then?
In most cases – especially so if dogs have not been previously reinforced for “pushy” behaviors, Fido and Rufus will give each other ample DISPLAYS of aggression in order to claim for themselves what is precious and “convince” the other competitor that the resource is not worth fighting for.
Aggression is very ritualized in dogs because they much better not fight for a resource. Fighting is really aversive (to most dogs- again, there are always exceptions to rules). Fighting or getting injured has grave consequences in the wild with both instances having death as its consequence. This genetic predisposition is also hard-wire in our dogs.
Now that we have a better grasp as to why being the “alpha” of your “pack” is truly not needed we can begin to explore how our relationship with our dogs should be and how can we help our dogs say “please, may I?” and “thank you” to each other instead of opting for displaying aggression or a full-blown fight.
Next blog I will expand with practical advice as to how to manage more than one dog in a household and I promise you, that if you follow with this advice, you will be sipping Margaritas more often and less worried about your dogs’ interactions.