Anatomy of a Discussion on Dominance
Generally the discussions I get into on/line don’t go anywhere. When I make a point it is typically ignored. This is easy to do because for one thing there are too many points of contention in play at once which mean one can radiate off in a tangential direction and evade the logical consequences of their position. Secondly, the terms in play are heavily freighted with acquired meaning, and unless one apprehends that, they feel no need to understand what my energetic terms articulate. But for some reason the following discussion unfolded along a logical progression eventually arriving at a place where a meaningful dialogue could have begun. The discussion was prompted by Mark Bekoff’s article on dominance on the Psychology Today blog site and I’ve removed all names other than my own and one entry by Roger Abrantes since we both make public pronouncements on the nature of dogs. I’ve added some commentary between some of the entries to make points that would have otherwise sidetracked the conversation.
Writer A: I read and enjoyed this article very much. In an attempt to promote a specific training philosophy many in the Dog Training Profession have unilaterally decided that there isn't something called dominance. I often see posts lambasting other professionals for daring to use the term. I agree using the idea of dominance as an excuse to abuse animals is wrong, however to deny its existence is wrong and dangerous. For real understanding and learning to happen it is crucial to accept what the natural world continues to tell us.
(This entry is telling because it indicates that much of the debate over terminology is consumed with the politics of dog training, rather than what is going on in the actual behavior. )
Writer B: “People also want to believe such a thing doesn’t occur in human groups. A dangerous belief.”
Writer A: I find in the dog world folks are quick to accept dominance in humans, but want to deny it in canines. People are just weird. That is a professional opinion.LOL!!!
(When talking about dominance which is presumably an instinct, we always find this linkage to animal with human within a moral frame of reference. In my mind this is because the distinction between emotion/instinct, feelings/thoughts hasn’t been made and so the distinction between animal and human is blurred as well. The word dominance automatically makes such distinctions impossible.)
Writer C: Roger Abrantes did a similar article - explaining that dominance is a behaviour rather than a "state of mind" - which is where the problems lay with the idea of dominance - this idea that the dog is always after increasing social status and constantly needs to be put in their place. As with all movements - we may need to go to the extreme, by denying dominance first, before we can find the correct place to position the term in Modern training circles. I agree with Coppinger however - I don't want my pet dog to be thinking it terms of dominance.
Kevin Behan: In my opinion, dominance is a thought and thus does indeed exist in humans. But if it is an instinct shared with animals, then why is the social structure of wolves different from foxes, cats, coyotes, etc.?
Roger Abrantes: You got it absolutely right, Writer A! Thanks.
Writer D: I love the comments section where Bekoff quotes Mech: "This misinterpretation and total misinformation like Kelley's has plagued me for years now." Behan and his puppet Kelley have been talking our of their asses RE dominance for years now and insist on misusing real science to sell their quackery.
(My theory has nothing to do with with whether or not Dr. Mech has seen a little, or a lot of what is termed dominance in wolves, or whether wolves are being observed in captivity or in the wild, or whether or not wolves live in nuclear or extended family groups. Whenever I ran across Lee making that point I thought it was interesting but peripheral and perhaps a matter of ethological hairs being split. Whatever Mech observed and whatever rate it was observed at, was emotional friction because energy wasn’t flowing smoothly into order. Mech did not identify the self-organizing principle in the days when he used the linear notion of a dominance hierarchy, and he has not identified the self-organizing principle when he characterizes wolf societies as a fluid hierarchy of resource control within extended families. The concept of a fluid situational awareness is modern behaviorism attempting to keep up with emergence theory even though it's a self-contradiction in terms. Words do matter.)
Writer E: Cool, thanks for posting this! The word has been so poisoned that most of the time it is used incorrectly or when used correctly, the listener/reader will misinterpret it. With that, I do believe very careful use of the word is important, which is why I try to avoid it. When they say dominance is used in humans....for some reason the word....Bully.....comes to mind. Of course not all dominance is bad, so dominance is not synomonous to bullying. Although some dominance can be bullying. Oh, the complexity of the word dominance and how some people have twisted it.
(The term dominance is hopelessly complex and will be endlessly twisted when applied to animal behavior because it is invested with human thought. It will always run to a self-defeating logic loop because you cannot use a human concept to articulate a self-organizing energy system. Since the animal mind works according to the laws of nature, emotion being its physical embodiment, the only solution is a new term as part of a lexicon that delineates friction from order in terms of an energy system.)
Writer A: Writer E: It is the same as dominant doesn't have anything to do with aggression. However, there are times when aggressive behavior is utilized to secure ones position as it relates to a circumstance or situation. As the article states dominance is often situational and based on control of resources in many cases. A animal or person that uses aggression (bullying) a lot is generally the most insecure in the group (psychologically speaking) and wastes much energy (personal resources) on establishing and maintaining the appearance of control. However, when push comes to shove the bully often crashes hard as they've wasted much energy during times when it wasn't really required.
(So writer A is implying, if not overtly positing, that dominance and aggression can be linked psychologically within the mind of the dog, that there’s some kind of logical interface between these two behaviors atop a platform of rationality. However we have to remember that earlier Writer A held that dominance is a behavior and not a state of mind. Somehow without explication they are now linked psychologically. If dominance is unrelated to aggression, how then can the dominance instinct fail to inhibit the aggressive possibility since it is at the same time held to limit aggressive impulses and is unrelated to aggression? Dominance must be a higher cognitive function than an aggressive impulse, which then means that it’s losing its credibility as a universal feature of animal behavior.)
Kevin Behan: If words have definitions, and then if we're going to say there is such a thing as "situational dominance," then there is no such thing as dominance because by definition, there is a deeper dynamic that causes behavior to vary depending on the situation. The term "situational dominance" inherently contradicts itself.
Writer A: Kevin, you may be correct. However, in reviewing the article it does appear that the author is stating in his experience dominance can be fluid. It may be (my thinking out loud) that dominant is both a state of being and a series of behaviors leading to a successful outcome that increases the likelihood of survival for an individual, thus increasing the chances his genetic makeup will carry-on past his death.
(Here comes the circular logic that can be found in every book on behavioral theory and which is always used to justify the argument for this kind of evolutionary logic. Things are just the way they are otherwise they couldn’t have evolved. An authority figure says it's fluid and so it must be fluid. An instinct can be universal and fluid from situation to situation, with no dynamic made clear for this variability other than it has to be this way in order to increase the genetic fitness of the individual and pass on its genes. It’s a self-fulfilling line of reasoning. This logical error arises from conflating why-are-things-the-way-they-are, with how-do-things-work. For example, physicists don’t ask---Why is there electricity?---as they investigate the nature of electricity, rather they study HOW electricity works. So once you assume that genetic replication is the lynchpin to evolution, then every belief about behavior is predetermined and you will not be able to detect how something that seems self-evident only seems that way because it is being supported by hidden assumptions that have never see the scientific light of day. )
Writer F: I am not quite sure when dominance became the "D" Word? I'm glad you posted this article. You beat me to the punch! A lot of reward-based trainers AVOID using this term and I think that is just as problematic as overusing the term (or using the term "dominance" incorrectly). Again...thanks.
(The hidden assumption here brings us to a false dichotomy, if it isn’t dominance, then it must be positive, and if it isn’t positive, then it must be dominance. Whereas I’m arguing against the notion of dominance (social by instinct) and the idea of reciprocity (social by learning). I’m arguing that dogs are social by nature, i.e. through the principle of emotional conductivity. )
Kevin Behan: (To writer A) That's the point that I'm trying to make, if it is fluid, then it can't possibly be dominance. For example, an army which in a totalitarian state is indeed a dominance hierarchy, does not tolerate such fluidity. There is a chain of command and that's it. The same with a true dominance hierarchy as found in a hard core prison community. In a true dominance hierarchy, fear is the moderating influence and thus a dominance hierarchy cannot possibly be the basis of social cooperation.
Writer A: I don't necessarily agree that fear is a driving force for dominance in the literal sense. It can be that a leader of a group in which the whole is well fed and protected holds a position of dominance that is handed to him/her by the masses. Being important to the survival of a group through sound leadership based in fairness can create an element of dominance. A good leader often allows others in a group to have areas in which they are in control. They hand over control (situationally) to another individual. I think folks don't like the word dominant as it often doesn't describe their status in life; they are usually subordinate to others on regular basis in a negative way.
(When people subconsciously project human concepts into animal behavior, they subconsciously assume that others are doing so as well and so they think the argument against dominance cannot be scientific but is political or moral. The concept of fairness cannot be a component of a self-organizing dynamic, but rather a derivative of it once cognition is high enough so as to compare moments to other moments, or relative points of view. We should also note that in human affairs fairness is very often a moral or political tool used to club others over the head. There is no fairness in nature.)
Kevin Behan: The problem I see with the notion of sound leadership being based in fairness and situational control, is that then one will need to ascribe a complex psychology through high cognitive function to the network of relationships and complex interactions that characterize a wolf pack's social life, and such a complex psychology immediately negates the term instinct. Also you're hinting at a bubble-up dynamic and this means a self-organizing system which is also antithetical to the notion of dominance. Also, wolves show "submissive/appeasement" displays when approaching the fenced-in bison at Wolf Park in Indiana, so any model that attempts to explain behavior must define the consistency between such disparate contexts and between two different species. I do indeed agree that the modern positive movement shies away from the dominance term due to political correctness, but that isn't my objection. My point is that dominance doesn't make sense because it is not comprehensive or fluid enough to accommodate the evidence.
Writer A Perhaps Kevin, it is the evidence you are reviewing that is missing the obvious. I find that from one researcher to the next the "evidence" shown is different. This may be a subject still in need of much more research and study. When many great minds can barely identify any area of agreement means that there is still so much to learn. Until I find stronger evidence (in my personal opinion) to contrary I am going to stay with my initial statement, but am always willing to hear arguments that may sway my position. I also believe that Wolves function in very complex and dynamic groupings. In speaking to your statement on wolves showing submissive behaviors towards, what is historically their prey appears to be misinterpreted. One of the key things I learned from a self-defense specialist is to show weakness or submission to a potential threat (and in other cases one's target); this draws the opponent in and they will often let their guard down, thus making them an easier target. Perhaps, even though in captivity the wolves are practicing a tactic (innate behavior) used for survival. Isn't it in the end all about survival? Of course, this is just my very novice opinion.
(Writer A is beginning to sense a gap in their reasoning. At this point I expected Dr. Abrantes to come to the rescue since he earlier applauded A for getting the theory “exactly right.”)
Kevin Behan The most important criteria for any theory is what is the most logical interpretation of the evidence. So again we come to a conundrum because if the "submissive" wolf is practicing a tactical psychology toward the bison, then the "submissive" wolf is also practicing a tactical psychology toward the "superior" wolf. Therefore there is no respect for the leader or regard for fairness, but rather tactical advantage, which again brings us to an inherent contradiction as to how the same instinct could account for two completely different scenarios.
Writer G: The whole thing about insecurity was nicely put, Writer A. As for Kevin's comment, I had been taught that dominance is entirely a dynamic relationship between two individuals, ever changing. So to call it "situational dominance" is simply redundant. As it relates to dogs, I generally think of the relationship between human and dog as that of a parent and child -- the parent is the dominant individual in the relationship, providing resources and security and boundaries (and love!) with the dog (child) secure and happy in the knowledge that it is taken care of by us bigger-brained humans, rather than us needing to be protected by the dog. To reverse that relationship usually ends up in stressed out dogs with behavior problems:-(
Kevin Behan: The problem with the parent/child metaphor is that it begs the question, why is it that only wolves stay together in extended family groups, whereas for example foxes don't? Since all canines as well as other predators start out in the parent/offspring modality, why is there only room for the young when it comes to wolves?
Writer A Perhaps it's a matter of the type of resources required or utilized for survival. The wolf has evolved to be a big game hunter, which takes more than one to accomplish the task of bringing down a large animal and thus social groupings developed to support this evolutionary process. Where as the fox, lives on smaller game and is capable of killing the meal itself. So, sharing territorial resources has no benefit for them.
Kevin Behan Yes, I believe that the wolf's evolution as a big game hunter, of species that are physically superior to itself, proves to be the most logical interpretation of the evidence. This therefore means that hunting comes first, and then a specialized social life follows. It's a bubble-up self-organizing system with the relationship between predator and prey more fundamental than the relationship between parent and offspring so that what we misinterpret as dominance and submission, are in reality the predator and prey roles embedded as temperament traits. The synchronized activity in the hunt, begets the canine social organization and specialized style of rearing the young. This also best explains the relationship between man and dog, which is why virtually every breed is named after something to do with the hunt, and how dogs are able to live and work with mankind in ways no other animal is capable of.
(Oddly just as we’ve arrived at the beginning of a synthesis, we're abruptly arrived at the end of the discussion. Could it be that when we’re talking about animals, we’re subconsciously dealing with emotion, and when we’re talking about dogs, we’re likewise dealing with feelings? In other words we need to see dominance in animals because we still fear the nature of emotion. So in this discussion I probably haven’t made many friends or influenced any academics, but I did get one like! And to paraphrase Lee, we’ll just have to change the world one Like at a time. Like--to--Like (but only opposites can connect) that’s how nature works. Keep On Pushing!)