At the Heart of the Bond; Innate or Transactional?


The R+, or positive school of thought, sees the dominance, or P+ school of thought, as being misguided and scientifically challenged as for example when Cesar Milan claims that a dog’s behavior reflects its owner in terms of their relative ranks in a dominance hierarchy. The P+ school rebuts the notion that dogs are endowed with an innate urge to achieve dominance. They see the relationship between dog and owner as a function of learning-by-reinforcement and so that obedience, or lack thereof, isn’t due to respect for an authority figure. As Jean Donaldson puts it: “Obedience is a Transaction, Not a Comment on Your Relationship.”

The following website extends this argument by adding that the notion of respect, and therefore compliance predicated on respect for a leader, is a high level concept beyond the mental capability of a dog:

“Dogs don’t understand high-level concepts like respect”

“The most compelling argument against the P+ trainer’s view is that dogs … (are) …not capable of processing abstract concepts like respect, guilt, shame or responsibility.  These are concepts that we often attribute to dogs, but that science has shown us are just anthropomorphism at work (Horowitz 2009). “

Cesar would probably counter by saying that the behavior of a dog is not simply a function of a reinforcement history; rather, a dog comes to respect a leader because the calm assertiveness quotient in such an individual’s deportment and actions speak to something fundamental in a dog’s makeup. It’s not transactional, it’s innate, something a dog can pick up immediately.

While I agree with the R+ camp that dogs don’t experience respect (in my view there is only trust and fear) because yes indeed it is a high level concept, nonetheless I know what Cesar means about an innate quality that appeals to something deep within a dog’s makeup. My father was a dominance trainer and all our family dogs were fantastic, they were obedient and never a serious problem in any way. Nevertheless I came to believe that social structure had nothing to do with dominance be it in the old or the new formulation of dominance as control over access to resources. I am confident that my formulation of social structure is logically consistent and therefore I want to ask if the P+ school is being logically consistent in their critique and their formulation. And the only way one can check to see if their theory is straying into the nether fringes of abstract thought, high level concepts beyond a dog’s mental capacity, is to have a model so that all principles can be cross checked against each other. Otherwise we get free wheeling logic streams based on expediency rather than grounded in a rigorous intellectual continuity.

For example; on the one hand the R+ theorists discount the reasoning of the old dominance paradigm, and yet on the other hand they agree with Roger Abrantes’ theory of canine social structure as a dominance hierarchy crystallizing around access to resources. In this formulation a dog isn’t driven by an inherent urge to become dominant, rather, a dominance/submissive relationship, and eventually the entire social hierarchy, emerges as a function of a transaction, i.e. who gets access to any given resource.

Dominant behavior is a quantitative and qualitative behavior displayed by an individual with the function of gaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without either party incurring injury.” Roger Abrantes

Yes this has a transactional component to it, however this formulation requires as much abstract reasoning as the notion of respect.

Tactically, “If I assert myself, you might either resist or give in. If you resist, how far should I go? How are my odds that eventually you will give in and I will prevail without getting hurt?And if you give in, is it specific to this situation or can I generalize further?”

In such scenarios an interactant has to entertain two possible reactions to any given output, a spreading decision tree with a doubling of possibilities as each action can potentially trigger two corresponding counter actions. Furthermore there is a higher strategical dimension to this as well.

In “I, Mammal” Loretta Graziano Bruenning writes about the pressing need for an animal to remain connected with its flock, herd, pack, or troop as this greatly increases its odds of survival and represents its only chance for reproduction and the survival of any progeny. She grounds her argument in neuroscience arguing that the behavior of all animals, the human animal included, is shaped by the neuro-chemical mix of such things as oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin that bathe the mind and incite a range of emotional affects. It is this mix that makes animals crave social status because a secure connection to the group, best ensured by a high rank, elicits the most euphoric mix of emotional affects and at the same time steers us clear of the most painful ones. It’s the best argument I’ve read for social dominance.

But this means that in the mainstream formulation of dominance as access to resources, an individual’s urge for control is always mitigated by an innate compulsion to remain connected, which in addition to contradicting the transactional thesis, introduces a strategical dimension to inter-mural rivalries replete with a whole new level of abstractions: “Whatever I do must be tempered by my paramount need to remain connected to my group.”

So it’s apparently possible for a dog to entertain a situational awareness of its odds across a range of contexts, framed within the strategical need to remain connected at all costs, but then Cesar has it wrong that a dog can entertain an abstract notion such as respect. Why one set of abstractions but not the other, especially given an Austrian experiment touted by the mainstream consensus which interpreted a dog who balked when asked to perform a behavior without reward, for which another dog had been rewarded in its presence, as indicating an understanding of fairness? Fairness …..Yes; but Respect …… No?

When it is intellectually expedient to discredit the dominance school, the R+ position is that dogs can’t understand a concept such as respect. But then in order to account for canine social structure, the R+ position becomes that dogs can understand control-over-access-to-resources which I would argue requires situational awareness, tactical, strategical and theory of mind considerations that play out over a long run of Time.

According to the new formulation of dominance, and since control must be tempered by the overarching need to remain in the group, interactions are modulated by an innate urge as implemented by a primordial mix of neurochemicals. There’s something in the makeup of a dog, even a “dominant” one, that an individual is always subordinate to, and which is the basis of the complementary “submissive” impulse as well. If the R+ position is that a social hierarchy is about control over resources, with violence mitigated by neurochemicals that evolved from millions of years ago, then social relationships ARE NOT transactional. The mainstream is trying to refute the old notion of dominance with a new notion of dominance, but at the same time it needs to appeal to something fundamental within the makeup of a dog that an owner may or may not be tuned into, and which dogs can pick up in an instant.

In conclusion the old dominance paradigm is more logically consistent than the new one since it doesn’t require all the tactical and strategical cogitations and doesn’t deny the innate in favor of the transactional. Instead it relies instead on a primal instinctive impulse as social substrate. Again, I disagree with this particular synthesis of the evidence, but at least it offers a model.

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Published January 22, 2015 by Kevin Behan
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5 responses to “At the Heart of the Bond; Innate or Transactional?”

  1. Rip says:

    Great post, thanks.

    I have trouble accepting the notion that respect is too high a concept for a dog. I would qualify it differently than guilt or responsibility. I’ve seen dogs internalize relatively quickly what I’ve seen as respect (distinct from trust, which implies a time quotient, or fear, which is noticeably and immediately evinced by a dog). I could be wrong and in any case find the proposition interesting and worth thinking about.

    Also, as I see it, the statement that “Obedience is a Transaction, Not a Comment on Your Relationship” reflects perfectly and sadly the controlling, clinical and condescending mindset of a PP behaviorist.

  2. Lucy says:

    If dogs understand fear, perhaps they recognize it in others? And that is the basis of “respect” ie is this person fearful or not? My dh is a big guy, and completely unafraid of any dog. He encountered two Rotties once who were not listening/complying with their female owners’ “Sitz” command. DH had never seen these dogs before in his life. But as he walked past them, he looked at them and said “Sitz” and their butts hit the floor instantly. Respect? Do we humans even know what quantifies the respect we may gain for another human? It’s just semantics, after all.

  3. Kevin Behan says:

    Yes dogs can certainly pick up fear and that tends to excite. The distinction I make between trust and respect is that in the latter, there remains a block, or boundary between subject and object and there can be divergent points of view. In trust there is no separation between subject and object and in such a state there is but one point of view.

  4. b... says:

    Interesting. I’m not following what time quotient would be inherent in trust, but it seems like when people mention respect they often mean compliance, which would also be subject to a point of view from a third party’s observation… One observer might see the compliance as a product of fear, whereas another may see it as a product of trust. Fear and trust do not seem to have this problem of subjectivity, and thus wouldn’t require the intellectual powers of analysis.

  5. Kevin Behan says:

    Yes compliance is often misconstrued as respect. I prefer to focus on trust because then we find that the dog can exhibit its strongest drive in resonance with its handler. If in contrast a dog isn’t capable of giving its most intense expression to its handler, and collect itself calmly in conformance with handlers’ directions, then no matter how much it may love its handler, it nevertheless doesn’t trust its handler with its deepest energy because it holds it back and exhibits it with intense expressions of personality, and especially owner addiction syndrome which is misconstrued as devotion.

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In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
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