DOG HIERACHY, THE “D” WORD DOMINANCE AND DOMINANCE AGGRESSION.
This section is really a purely information section to give you some knowledge about what I think goes on between you and your dog and other dogs in relation to canine hierarchy and decision making, hopefully helping you understand what drives and influences yours and other dogs where this is concerned. Dog hierarchy is a controversial subject among the canine world and there are conflicting analysis. Many behaviourists do not like to use the “D” dominance word and have differing views about what it actually means and entails. What follows is what I personally think takes place between dogs and dogs, and dogs and people and how SOME (SOME) dogs with the genetic heratability, environment and early learning become (or rather learn) to become dominant. These conclusions I have drawn from my formal learnings and experiences as a behaviourist, kennel volunteer and long term dog owner and lover.
Personally I think that a hierarchy among dogs, and between dogs and people certainly does exist but that it is a much more fluid affair than many would have you believe. You as the human want to and should be seen as the one to listen too in general but I think that the control of resources (food, toys, access to opposite sex, attention, play, the environment or part of it), indeed anything a particular dog sees as important and a resource in it's own eyes, can play a huge role in the decision making at any particular moment in time when one of those perceived resources is present. Through early learning and conditioning and also some genetic heritability one dog may see something as worth more to it than to another dog which has had different early learning, conditioning and genetic heritability (makes sense really). To one dog something may be seen as an important resource to itself and they may be willing to carry out certain behaviours or even fight to gain access to it and control it. Is this really dominance or is it a dog trying to gain access to an important resource (to itself) that may seen by some as dominance behaviour. A dogs genetics, early learning/environment, learning to date and the immediate environment is fundamental in structuring and shaping the dogs decision making.
For sure I think there is a more definite hierarchy among dogs and owners that know each other well (from same home for instance) for they have had the time to assess the others in their immediate group and to work out where they stand in the group and what it is that drives the other dogs or the humans in that group, but that it is a quite fluid hierarchy with the immediate environment and what is in that environment at any given time and also earlier learning of each individual playing a big role in the hierarchical decision making. Also I think that dogs that regularly meet each other while out walking on a regular basis will quite quickly assess the other dog or dogs and decide what is the status quo between them, but will continually assess the situation as they move through the environment and as things in the immediate environment change so too may the hierarchy. This could include things like food, toys, people, other dogs etc. For sure what is in the environment at any given time and indeed where that environment happens to be (house, garden, woods, streets, fields etc etc) have a big effect on any one dogs decision making given it's earlier learning where these different types of environments were concerned.
For dogs that do not know each other and are meeting for the first time while out and about there is a difference in the way that things happen (have a look at the /how-dogs-communicate topic). On approach the dogs will be signalling to each other trying to assess if the approaching dog is any kind of a threat, wants to play, wants to be left alone etc. They will be continually assessing the immediate environment as things in it like the owners, a ball, a toy, a particular path etc may have some significance to one of the dogs and therefore effect the decision making. The dogs earlier learning in situations like this will be playing a big role in the eventual outcome too. For instance, if one dog had been previously attacked by a German Shepard and the approaching dog is a German Shepard then the dog may be thinking of running away, attacking to make it go away, carrying out submissive gestures to appease the other dog, hiding behind it's owner or just pretend they haven’t seen it and hope it goes away, it all depends how it went before with the earlier experience and how the dog learnt from that encounter and others since.
Other things also come into play when two dogs meet for the first time. Some dogs may have a genetic urge to carry out a certain behaviour, a male Akita for instance that through earlier learning has been allowed to express it's hereditary gene for dominance will want to dominate other male dogs. Put behaviourally what has happened here is that the dominance gene in the Akita has been expressed by early environment and learning and is now part of the phenotype in the adult dog, the dog has learnt to be dominant. This gene driven behaviour (with the additional required environment and learning) can have a big effect on some dogs behaviours where hierarchical decision making is concerned or when the dogs are assessing a situation and deciding on the outcome. Other gene driven behaviours or drives can also affect the outcome, for instance the prey drive.
Research suggests that dopamine (feel good hormone) levels rise after aggressive interactions which in effect are acting as a positive reinforcer for the aggression. It can make an individual feel good and so an individual may seek out aggression as a reward. Something more to think about in certain individuals displaying aggression.
Many of you out there may have several dogs in their household of which one may be seen generally as the leader (hopefully after you of course), but when one of the other dogs in the group wants it's particular favourite toy that it is willing to fight for, the other dogs may let them have it as it is of lower value to them and not seen as worth getting injured over. Undoubtedly there are some very dominant dogs out there that would not let this happen and would fight for anything that came along and I think that they are the ones that are really maladjusted in some way, reasons for this could be genetic, early learning and environmental influences (re-homed stray that previously had to fight for everything to survive for example). In the later example it is really the dogs learning and early environment that has shaped the dogs behaviour and may not be all out dominance in action though to some it may look like it.
So really many factors come into hierarchical decision making especially when a dog is out and about and dogs are continually assessing things as they move through the environment.
All the above factors of genetics, environment and early learning make the hierarchy fluid. The environment can and does have a big affect on hierarchical decision making, I once came across a family with three jack russells and on watching them closely for some time worked out that one was the boss downstairs, one upstairs and the other when out and about, how they came to this is not known but was obviously something to do with environment, learning and conditioning, if the upstairs boss was sat on the stairs the others would not go up until she had moved on, these behaviours were making their hierarchy constantly fluid.
Often the leader so to speak in a group of dogs can be a quite stressed animal as it thinks it should make the decisions, especially if it thinks it should make them for you too. I bumped into a dog walker once in the local forest, she was walking about ten dogs and the large black lab was obvious to me as the perceived leader of the approaching group. His approach to Buster, my intact male lab cross, was direct and full on but with excited squealing noises showing his anxiety and excitement at the approaching situation and possible confrontation; this action also wound up several of the others in his group.
Without any initial greeting behaviour he instantly stood over mine for a second and then with no obvious provocation had a little go, it was all noise and holding but it incited several of his other group members to join in and mine was forced to back into a bush to defend himself. Some normality was resumed and the black lab put on a lead by a very apologetic dog walker. Now to be honest the behaviour of the lab was really fairly normal species specific behaviour between two intact male dogs if not just a little over the top from the other labs point of view as he lacked some social skills for our human environment but he was also being psychologically pushed into this behaviour by his previous learning and the stress and anxiety on him from being the perceived pack leader, “he thought he had to do it”, and regularly did which just reinforced this behaviour. We had a quick chat and I advised her that the stressed out excitable lab was the cause of all her dog walking problems as it was apparently a common occurrence. I said if she was to not walk the group with the lab then things might improve. We met weeks later with no black lab among the group and all was well and her walks were now much more stress free. She walked the black lab on his own and his behaviour had much improved, I think because he had no other group members to impress and the environmental factors and stress levels had changed.
If you go about it right from the start you will be seen as the one to listen too but I do think that in some instances your dog, however well trained, may seem not to listen to you, this is probably when there is something in the environment that is especially important or interesting to that particular dog, this could be driven by genes, environment, early learning, late learning or a combination of such, it is in instances like this and others that hierarchy can seem to change. Most of the time I think the dog is not actually being “dominant” over the owner but carrying out very strong genetically driven or learnt behaviours (or both), that are seen to be dominance issues by the uninformed. Obviously we should all have a decent recall for our dogs but in the above situations for some owners it may not be so easy. If you're dog is following a scent nose to the ground and fixated by the whole thing then standing there shouting for them to come to you will often have no effect, I have often seen this and it is obvious that what the dog is presently doing is much more important to that dog than returning to the owner, the behaviour could be driven completely by the urge to satisfy a genetic drive and this can be a controlling drive to your dog. This is often explained away by the uninformed as the dog being dominant and not listening to the owner which is as explained, often not the case. Through training you need to teach your dog that coming to you is the most important thing though with some higher drive dogs this will be beyond some inexperienced owners; high drive dogs do not make good pets for the inexperienced but do make good working dogs, (have a look at the /high-drive-dogs topic.
If you regularly take your dog to the same woods for their walks some dogs may come to see this area as a resource or even a territory. Some dogs may even see a certain path through the woods as a resource and will have a go at another dog for being on “their” path. Is this having a go at another dog on the path dominance, I am not so sure. It is for sure one dog wanting to control resources (the path) but is it actual dominance over the other dog, I do not think so. Without a doubt I think there are some nervous or fearful dogs out there that when they come across another dog on a small narrow path through the woods their fearfulness increases as the distance decreases, they perceive the environment as suffocating and not allowing them ease of the flight part of their hormonal freeze, fight/flight response, especially if on a lead. As the perceived threat (the other dog) closes they may be forced into the fight response as fleeing is not an option and they attack the other dog, this could easily be seen as dominance by the inexperienced when in fact it is the complete opposite, aggression driven by nervousness/fearfulness. Indeed if two well socialised even tempered (not maladjusted) dogs meet on a narrow path their may be some tension but all should really be well with innate and learnt behaviour patterns and previous learning through experience hopefully avoiding any problems. Problems often occur when one or both of the opposing dogs through learning or lack of it see the other as a threat to themselves and react, the restrictive environment of a thin path (and leads) only serves to heighten tension as ease of escape is compromised and so the amount of aggression may be heightened.
There can be many reasons for aggression between dogs and for aggression between dogs and people, and to the inexperienced many of these interactions may look like dominance behaviour/aggression taking place, but in my experience this mostly is not the case, in fact I personally think that a dog being fearful of the situation it is in is more often the reason for the aggression. There are of course several other reasons for aggression, for instance: territorial, pain (medical), maternal, predatory and others, any of these could well be mistaken for dominance aggression by the uninformed, a good behaviourist should be able to tell what is going on.
Dominance in dogs in it's purest form is one individual trying to cause physical injury to another through it's behaviour and to a lesser extent to control the movements and actions of others using aggressive control like barking, growling, fighting, biting or just aggressive signalling ( stiff body, curled lips, exposed teeth, pilo erection, wrinkled forehead etc etc ). For sure there are some dogs like this out there, though luckily not too many. These dogs are showing true dominance aggression and you would need expert help to make any headway, if the dog is an older dog with the associated learning having taken place from a young age the outlook must be guarded.
Bearing in mind what I have said in this topic I think it is of the utmost importance that a dog/puppy is correctly brought up in a neutering, safe environment with exposure to non-scary stimulus, good socialisation and much more (see other topics) from day one. I think hierarchy problems, dominance, and many of the forms of aggressive behaviour are profoundly linked to early learning, environment and genetic heritability. Drives like the prey drive, defense drives, social drives and others, will have major effect if being expressed. High drive dogs can make great working dogs but unless the owner is knowledgeable they do not make good household pets.
Personally I think a hierarchy among dogs and between dogs and people exist and that it is a fluid affair controlled or rather affected by a number of factors. The main ones would be genetic heritability and expression (using) of certain controlling drives for any single dog, the early learning and environment of any single dog from birth onwards, the immediate environment and what is in it (other dogs, people, owners, resources, other animals etc ) at any moment in time when decisions are being made.
I think that dominance is a learnt behaviour, that SOME dogs learn to be a dominant dog, and that some dogs will become dominant dogs easier if they have certain genetic drives in place that are being expressed (Akita for instance), and experience the associated early learning and environment. There is a more obvious but still fluid hierarchy among dogs that know each other well that can become more fluid when certain environmental factors combined with the early learning of an individual dog come into play.
Dog hierarchy and decisions about such, for instance when meeting a new dog on a walk, will be profoundly influenced by what is in the environment at that specific time, the early learning and experience of each dog present and any genetically inherited traits, behaviours or drives that are being expressed. Most dogs (not all) are not walking around looking to dominate any dog or person that comes along but most I think are watching the environment and what is in it as they move through it, and when combined with that dogs own early learning and genetics will quickly come to a decision about how they want to handle the suituation, this decision will of course be affected by the actions of the other dog/dogs present, and also the owners present too. Dogs are negotiating all the time.
In my opinion the single factor that has the most affect on a dogs hierarchical decision making (and most other behaviours) is that particular dogs early learning, though as above other factors are also very influential.
Canine hierachy, decision making and associated aggression (in some cases) is a complex subject and I hope this section has been informative and gives you food for thought and a basic understanding. If you have a dog that you think is exhibiting serious dominance aggression or any form of aggression for that matter get some professional help.
For some more related advice and information have a look at my /let-a-dog-be-a-dog page.
Why not take a look at my first book, a realistic novel about a wolf called Elmer, his family and their life. My hope is that you will learn much about wolves and mother nature, coming to understand why man first thought to domesticate these amazing social animals to give us our best friend, the dog.