In order to understand why dogs do what they do I believe that one must first realize that a profound error is made by projecting human thoughts onto animal behavior. At some point it just clicks that transposing the human intellectual capability of comparing one point-of-view to another point-of-view, or one moment-in-time to another moment-in-time (which as far as I can tell is the basis of an abstract thought) into the minds of dogs is not logical. And the best evidence that it isn’t logical is that such a manner of analysis always generates self-contradictions within its argument. Just to be clear, dogs do process information, but they don’t think. They don’t develop a sense of self that regards its self as an entity separate from its surroundings and from this frame of mind then strive to connect the dots into a rational system of causality. They process information emotionally in terms of trying to convert resistance to the expression of emotion, stress, into an actual flow of emotion, a feeling. This internal emotional mandate ends up collectivizing animal behavior because it takes two to make a wave, i.e. a feeling. Syncopated action with others is not thinking as in comparing perspectives and points of view relative to the passage of Time. The nature of information is the principle of emotional conductivity. This leads step by step to a model of the animal mind as a flow system. Otherwise, by default one will reflexively apply human reason to canine behavior and because the animal mind is a flow system which cannot be articulated through linear concepts, one will always end up contradicting themselves.
The concept of “Resource Holding Potential” (RHP) has been offered as the best explanation for the social structure of canines. This theory has gained favor because it is seemingly more resonant with the fact that the social behavior of canines is very fluid, unlike the old theory of dominance which held that canine social structure was a rigid hierarchy of rank. Eric Brad on his blog, which is a great resource for a synthesis on the latest thinking on dogs, recently explored the notion in regards to the old view of dominance.
“The trouble with the whole ‘dominant’ conversation is that it assigns a motivation to the dog. We don’t know what their motivations are. We don’t have an ability to know with any certainty what dogs are thinking when they do things. Too often this speculation comes layered with a healthy portion of the human preconceptions and bias. We act on what we think the dog is doing and we could be very wrong.”
Right on, RIGHT ON! When we project dominance onto the behavior of dogs, we assume that a dog sees its self in relief against its surroundings, as a self relative to other selves, in competition with these other selves relative to the exigencies that come up over the passage of Time. That is too complicated to be a realistic assumption.
Supporting the RHP thesis is the theory that dogs evolved from a scavenger heritage:
EB: “That scavenger nature goes a long way to explaining why our dogs don’t get any reward out of controlling things just for the sake of having power or control. There just isn’t anything in it for them. Dogs seek to control stuff for they want for themselves. Period.”
Therefore as scavengers dogs can’t possibly be motivated by something as abstract as obtaining control over others for the sake of establish a dominance hierarchy of relative ranks.
But then later EB writes:
“From the dog’s perspective, there are several things to take into account when deciding whether or not to defend or acquire a resource. Is it a rare resource? How badly do I need it? Can I win it given the competition? How badly do my competitors want it? Is the energy I need to expend to get and hold it worth the effort? There are lots of questions. And the answer to most of them is ‘it depends.’ It’s just not a hard and fast decision every time.”
But what’s the difference between this kind of reasoning and reasoning about a dominance agenda? In fact the RHP approach, which purports to be the most efficient way for dogs to sort themselves out into a reasonable living arrangement, assigns even more complex motives to dogs than does the old dominance theory of obtaining control over others for the sake of obtaining control over others. If in the RHP theory a dog can think about wanting something relative to the degree that someone else might want that same thing, and to the degree to which that resource might be rare relative to other resources, then it can think about wanting something in the present relative to the degree it might want it in the future. It would be able to think: “I might not really want it right now, not as much as that one apparently does, so he can have it now, but wait a minute, I can remember when I really, really did want it, or I can imagine that I would really, really want it once I see him enjoying it, so if I really want it later, I won't be able to have it? And because it’s not efficient to contest another for a resource once they’ve taken possession of it because then they’re really going to fight for it, therefore dogs would tend toward becoming proactive. A dog wouldn’t wait for a contest to erupt, he would assert supremacy for no reason other than to ensure that he can have access to any given resource whenever he wants it. And what would we call this proactive tendency? Dominance.
We’ve arrived at a self-defeating logic loop. If a dog is capable of doping out a complex risk assessment that is time and contextually sensitive, then thinking about achieving dominance would automatically follow. If a dog can think about controlling a resource, or a couple of resources, then it can think about controlling ALL the resources. And thinking about controlling all the resources is the same as being dominant. Furthermore, according to Neo-Darwinian logic Nature would soon cut to the chase and just encode an instinct to achieve dominance straightaway into the nature of dogs because this is so much easier than encoding for the capacity within an animal to entertain all that strategizing necessary to track the control parameters of each particular resource relative to each rival and then having to figure out the need to be dominant on its own.
Meanwhile Eric doesn’t notice that these two paragraphs contradict themselves and this is because he’s turning to this second point in order to substantiate the notion that RHP is fluid, dynamically variable and can thus explain how individuals adapt themselves to context. Whereas were he first and foremost concerned with building a model he would have run into this contradiction as an immediate dead end. But the appeal of transposing human psychology onto animal behavior is too expedient to resist given its infinite malleability to putty over glitches as they pop up.
And it’s ironic that the RHP/Village-Scavenger-Dog theory is most aimed at Cesar Milan in order to characterize him as the most misinformed dog guy who has ever held a leash. This will prove to be ironic because the RHP thesis has to play catch up with the relatively new science of emergence, the capacity of animals to spontaneously self-organize into collectivized group action without any direction from a leader. Modern ethology now says that the term dominance can be retained in the lexicon because they now see it as an emergent quality arising from a conglomeration of relationships. So a pack of wolves each work out their individual preferences over a variety of resources relative to other individuals, and from this emerges a stable social system. Each individual relationship can be termed dominant/submissive, it's just that there isn't an overarching dominance template. In the emergence approach, dominance and submissiveness aren’t character traits inherent in an individual, but rather are acquired characteristics by virtue of engaging in a dynamic that works out into a dominance and submissive relationship. Individual wolves vary genetically according to a bold versus shy gradient rather than dominant versus submissive, bold ones tending to have an advantage, but it’s not hard and fast. Every dog has its day, even one who has to act submissive most of the time. Just insert a human psychology of a cost/benefit analysis and the circumstances of a particular context will give us the specifics of any given interpersonal dynamic. And so a loose kind of dominance network settles over the pack so that it more efficiently expends energy on useful pursuits rather than intramural struggles. The individual doesn't want to attain a superior rank, it just wants to maintain access to a resource.
However this reasoning factors out into an oxymoron and the aforementioned irony. For example, Cesar Millan sees himself as a dominant pack leader and according to RHP theory this is a grievous and outdated error. But remember in the modern understanding of dominance as a hierarchy revolving around resources, the characteristic of the structure is now said to emerge from the network of relationships, and since Cesar controls a dog’s access to every resource and is universally and unfailingly consistent in this approach, then operationally he has attained the rank of Pack Leader because he believes this to be the case. He has imposed this belief as the organizing principle inherent in all the relationships he cultivates with each individual dog, and additionally that is the only way he allows them to interact as well. The only one who can show dominance is Cesar. Cesar’s Way IS a rigid pack structure, a rigid chain of command with one supreme leader, no lieutenants, captains, Sergeant’s et al., just privates. (This view strays from the nature of hierarchy as explained in “Design In Nature” as there must always be a system of progressively inferior channels serving as tributaries to the bigger ones.) Since Cesar is an omniscient holder of all resources, and since he sees himself as an alpha figure in charge, and since this is what governs all relationships, therefore according to the new definition of canine social structure as an emergent system characterized by the nature of the relationships, he’s right. His sense of a pack leader emerges from the network of relationships. So those of the emergent, RHP village scavenging dog theory have no logical beef with Cesar.
But none of these self-defeating logic loops and oxymorons are the biggest problem with the RHP approach. The main problem is that this presumed internal decision making process, that is then to be broadcast through a distinctive body language so as to communicate intent to a rival, would have had to have evolved in tandem with the equal/opposite suite of traits, mental capacities and display behaviors so that said rivals are capable of receiving the intended message and are then able to act in a complementary manner so that their signals don’t get crossed and pass futilely between them. We can’t just jump abracadabra to full blown intellectual capacity for risk/benefit analysis that is context sensitive just because this happens to be efficient. So what if it’s efficient, we can’t just invent a human psychology by way of an explanation. The signal of the signaler has to find a ready audience in the individual receiving the signal in order for this capacity to evolve. There’s no point in inventing a signal transmitter without inventing a signal receiver while you’re at it. One half of the communication equation can’t evolve without the other half evolving at the same stage of development, neither lagging nor outstripping it, and while also yielding an immediate benefit in some way eons before it arrives at the full blown expression of cost/benefit analysis and reporting of results via behavior that we are supposedly finding exhibited by animals today. It doesn’t do an individual any good to defer to an inferior that it could have bested (especially from the species point of view which is also said to benefit from the cream of the genes rising to the top of the genome), and then it would prove dangerous to signal deference to a physically superior individual by displays of vulnerability if that physical superior doesn’t recognize the signals of deference. What if at the beginning of the evolutionary process an individual submits and then is injured or killed because the superior interprets the submission as weakness, or as being wounded and hence an invitation to be attacked? That evolutionary thread is immediately terminated.
Before we can be asked to accept such a premise, we must first be provided the step-by-step progression by which the signals that facilitate both sides of the transaction have evolved in syncopated lock step. For example, such an explanation has been offered for the evolution of the eye with each minor advancement laid out step by step replete with its adaptive advantage for the organism at each stage of its evolution as it progresses toward the fully functional complex eye. What then is the original impulse that evolved into a signal of deference? What is the first impulse that went on to evolve into the signal that indicates an individual is prepared to compete over a resource and which at the same time gives a rival pause and the aggressor time and internal motive to hold itself back from getting entangled in an unnecessary aggressive encounter? And what about the inverse, where is the precursor to a superior being mollified and defused by an obsequious gesture? Instead we are only given human psychological treatments, fully formed, fully evolved in order to explain what’s being held as a fundamental organizing principle of canine social life, which as a matter of fact predates by many epochs the invention of language and the evolution of abstract thought.
Interestingly, if the RHP folks were to ask: What is the greatest resource for wolves (hint, large dangerous prey animal) then the body language between prey and predator would provide them with precisely these precursors and a model would follow that is hierarchal, fluidly adaptable to circumstances, resonant with the evolution from the wolf into the domesticated dog, demonstrable in the capacity for dogs to work with and live intimately in man’s world, and which explains all the things that dogs do from riding in cars, howling at sirens to patiently sitting for an errant morsel at toddler’s high chair. In NDT the emotional dynamic that step-by-step evolves into a complex social structure is provided: (prey/predator--male/female--parent/offspring--peer-to-peer) with the benefits demonstrable for each participant in any given interaction.
The easiest way to get a grasp on the animal mind as a flow system is to read “Design In Nature” by Adrian Bejan wherein he definitively shows scientifically, inarguably, that the purpose of hierarchy in nature is to facilitate flow. In each and every structure to be found in nature and even in man's artifices, there is one main channel and a branching system of progressively finer and finer tributaries in order to saturate the field in question. In canine social life the main channel is the hunt, this is the one Big Want. Then there are subsidiary "little wants" manifested by any given dogs so-called personality. The canine nature is to be attracted to other canines with a force that is greater than can be consummated by simple social contact. The friction over these little-wants, and the capacity for these to be easily resolved without violence, reflects that dogs are attracted to each other with a force that can't be consummated by being friendly. Thus they are driven to work together toward a common object-of-attention that can absorb their combined momentums, hence the hunt as the main channel. When we observe friction over any given resource, these are really only "excuses" for them to express the friction that exists between them in the confines of the pack. The dog that guards a resource, doesn't really want it, it needs it. So give it what it really wants, the one Big Want, and friction over the little wants automatically dissipate.
The first question one has to ask when contemplating the source and mechanics of any design whether it be inanimate or inanimate, is: “What is the current? This question will lead one to understand emotion as that current, and the principle of emotional conductivity (E->UE->RE) as its principles of movement around which social life configures.
When interpreting behavior there are two---and only two---options, either one begins with attraction or with intention. If one opts for the latter, and I understand how on the surface that does appear reasonable, nevertheless it is still an assumption one is choosing to make. There is no actual direct evidence to support this assumption, anymore than there is direct evidence to support the notion of attraction. The case has to be made circumstantially and either way one is making an assumption. Furthermore it’s not possible to defer making one of these assumptions in the hopes of taking in as much information as possible before choosing one or the other. The human intellect by default inserts human reason into purposive systems it can’t understand. The human mind always personifies which is why the notion of intention seems immediately logical and self-evident. It is an intellectual reflex of the human mind to insert intention into intelligent action. And therefore the only way one can test any thesis predicated on intention, is to also learn to see in terms of the alternative, attraction. Only then can one follow both systems out to their logical conclusions and then objectively decide which one makes the most sense.