Dominance revisited

Jan 12, 2016 by     No Comments    Posted under: Hünd news

Canine dominance – fact or fiction? 

It has been widely established that wolves are not dogs and dogs certainly not wolves.

The idea of being a ‘pack leader’ and the dominance theory that underpins it is based on outdated thinking that dogs are direct descendants of wolves and that the wolf ‘pack theory’ therefore applies to dogs.

Barry Eaton’s book Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction? offers useful explanations why this common belief is outdated and even inhumane.

Dogs are, in fact, very different in form, behaviour, social structure and motor patterns from wolves. They have differences in the onset of their fear response as well as their predatory motor patterns (in relation to dogs). Dogs are also naturally tameable and trainable. Furthermore, there are significant differences in the reproduction behaviour as well as social dynamics between wolves and domestic dogs.

This divergence is the result of a series of evolutionary changes. Sometime between 7 000 and 16 000 years ago, the domestication process began that altered the genetic code of the wolf (Canis lupus) through an evolutionary process. This left us with what we know as the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), that developed into a new niche foraging on waste dumps outside Mesolithic villages.  These nich foragers became the earliest domestic animal and can be considered an “evolutionary advancement” from wolves, displaying very different motor patterns.

Fossil evidence pinned the transition from wolf to dog somewhere in Europe and Asia, with the Middle East identified as the “cradle” of the domestic dogs (read here for more information). The story is still unravelling as scientists delve deeper to solve the mystery of dog domestication.

2016 may be the year we finally figure out where dogs came from.Click here for the most recent story in Science.

People who support dominance theory often use rank-reduction programmes to deal with dog behaviour problems, including using harsh training methods to try and assert “authority” over their dogs. This includes shouting, man-handling dogs, the use of choke chains and sometimes even hitting a dog. This approach, that rest on the notion of imposing “pack rules” on dogs is flawed and will not address underlying behavioural problem(s).

Pack rules underpins the approach used in a so-called rank reduction programme. It rests on the notion that problem behaviour can be attributed to the dog trying to “dominate” its owner and change its “status” in relation to its human. This has been based on what people think “alpha” wolves would do in a pack.

The irony is that not even wolves are always a pack and that it is questionable whether or not pack rules apply to even free-roaming wolves. The thinking behind this is that the owner must dominate his dog and use ‘pack rules’ to remain higher on the hierarchy (gain “status”over his or her dog). The way this approach is implemented, for instance, include telling owners that they should eat before their dogs, don’t let their dogs sleep on their beds and never let your dog initiate play. These “rules” work on the premises that domestic dogs are really wolves that should be treated as subordinate to the “alpha” in their pack.

This argument is seriously flawed. Observation about wolf packs (let alone captive wolves,) cannot form the basis of the theory on which we base the behaviour and training of domestic dogs. This approach also does not take into account breed charactaristics and individual dog personalities/ temperaments and cause long term psychological effects on more sensitive dogs, including learned helplessness. Confrontational training methods may even cause aggresive responses.

Pack rules do not apply to domestic dogs. Social structures in stable wolf packs differ considerably from dogs. Free-roaming wolves are for instance co-operative animals, with competition in the pack being seasonal. Generally a stable wolve pack consists of a mated pair, their immediate offspring and adult “helpers” from the previous year. Domestic dogs are also not forming packs with owners or trying to raise their “status” above them.

Understanding the difference between fact and fiction in relation to dominance pack theory and the rank reduction programme can go a long way to establish better co-habitation between domestic dogs and their humans.

Additional reading: Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. (2001). Dogs: A new understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution; Mech, D.L. (2008) “Whatever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf?”. International Wolf. Winter 2008; O’Heare, J. (2003) Dominance Theory and Dogs and Donaldson, J. (1996) The Culture Clash.De Waalpark, Cape town


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