Roger Abrantes On Dominance

Without a model for the animal mind, Dogdom must always return to the notion of dominance in order to explain social structure. Learning theory hasn’t been able to fill the bill and neuroscience merely reduces behavior to its biological nuts and bolts. Furthermore the notion of dominance seems consistent with evolutionary theory, given the assumption that competition for limited resources is the driving force of natural selection, and that individuals vary one from the other by random. A good articulation of the shift in thinking on dominance in order to sustain the thesis is Roger Abrantes:

Abrantes believes that the reason many people have difficulty with a theory of dominance is due to poor definitions and political correctness, i.e. an anti-Cesar backlash.

Roger Abrantes: “Dominance exists in all species. Recent trends claim that “dominant behavior” does not exist in dogs, which poses some serious problems. There are two ways to argue in favor of such thinking. One is to dismiss “dominant behavior” downright, which is absurd since, for the reasons we saw above, the term exists, we know roughly what it means and we can have a meaningful conversation using it. It must, therefore, refer to a class of behaviors that we have observed.”

KB: Abrantes argues that dominance must exist for one thing because we have so many words to describe it and we all know what those terms refer to. And yes while it's true that there is a phenomenon that is being observed and then interpreted to be dominance, but it would be more accurate to say that social order exists, and so the existence of social order doesn’t necessarily mean it is predicated on dominance. He furthermore says that if two species diverged in their evolution in the distant, primordial past, it may be accurate to say dominance might exist in one and not the other given the evolutionary gap between them but in the case of dogs and wolves since they diverged relatively recently on the evolutionary scheme of things and can still communicate with each other and interbreed, if dominance exists in wolves it is only logical for it to exist in dogs.

RA: “A third alternative is to build a brand new theory to explain how two so closely related species as the wolf and the dog (actually sub-species) can have developed in such a short period (thousands of years) so many radically different characteristics in one aspect, but not others. This would amount to a massive revision of the entire complex of our biological knowledge with implications far beyond wolves and dogs and one which I find unrealistic.”

KB: I vote for a brand new theory because we have want of a model. In the model I propose, dogs are fundamentally like wolves, a fact consistent with their closeness in terms of an evolutionary timetable. However this fundamental common denominator is amplified in dogs due to domestication and this magnification of “Temperament” is what makes dogs different from wolves in many ways. This amplification occurred because domestication was predicated on hunting-as-a-synchronized-group which is a more comprehensive explanation for why only the dog can adapt to every aspect of human civilization and even working cooperatively under extreme conditions. No other species of animal is capable of this range of adaptability. Furthermore, such an approach leads to an energy model which is 100% consistent with a theory of evolution predicated on common descent in a world of UNLIMITED RESOURCES. Resources are not limited in regards to cooperative-based social structures. Mark Derr’s book, “How The Dog Became The Dog,” demonstrates: (1) the domestication of dogs happened much earlier than currently presumed and (2) early hominids became human through co-evolving (rather than human taming wolf) with the dog. The emotional relationship that has evolved between man and dog is a compelling example of cooperation yielding new energy, for example, herding prey animals as opposed to hunting them.

RA:”It is absurd to argue that dominance does not exist when we have so many words to describe whatever it relates to. If it didn’t, we would not have even one word for it.”

KB: This logic is perhaps even more true of an energy theory as well because everyone knows what is meant by animal magnetism (sex appeal/charisma) and if someone were to describe a person as “wired,” or "there was electricity in the air" every one would know what is meant. There are innumerable energetic terms which allows people to talk meaningfully about an infinite range of animal and human behavior.

RA: “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. If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant. Its quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-confident to overtly assertive.”

KB: This is a description rather than a definition. For example, one could quantify, qualify and catalogue the effects of magnetism and then label it as magnetism, as was done in antiquity, but that doesn’t define it. And one could catalogue, quantify and qualify electrical phenomena and call these electricity; and again one would have described rather than defined the phenomena. This is because no model has been provided. Once a model was developed, it was understood that electricity and magnetism are but different manifestations of the same phenomenon.

The first contradiction with this definition is the problem of variability. If maintaining-access-to-resources without resorting to violence is the essence of social structure, and since the competition over limited resources in the face of too many progeny is supposedly the universal problem for all species, then why is there such variability in social structures between species? Why is the social construct of domestic cats so different from domestic dogs since they both compete for the same range of resources in any given human household. And yet they manifest different social structures as well as different capacities to work with human beings.

Secondly, it can be observed that serious injuries often result from encounters that first began with the classic displays of what is described as dominance. How then could that incident of aggression be entirely different from dominance if it can so easily escalate from one to the other? And just because injury resulted from a slow but steady escalation so that it ends up being defined differently, it’s incongruent to say that a display of dominance that leads to aggression is fundamentally different from a display of dominance that doesn’t lead to aggression since the same people would describe the first phase of either kind of event with the same terms. The metric of whether or not an injury is sustained is an arbitrary distinction for the sake of a definition. That would be akin to saying that the shock received when crossing a carpeted room on a cold day and touching a metal switch plate, is fundamentally different from being electrocuted to death.

I’ve used electromagnetism in this discussion because since the phenomenon of magnetism can naturally progress into a phenomenon of electrical discharge, it would be more logical to presume a fundamental connection between these two phenomenon, just as we should with dominance and aggression and so this should cause us to question the artificial lines of demarcation predicated on descriptive treatments. And to carry the analogy further, a magnetic field can deflect an electrical charge so that an electrical charge isn’t transferred from one party or pole to another, and so this suggests within the same phenomenon a process that moderates the transfer of a charge.

Thirdly, a definition by default automatically constructs a model because it immediately poses questions that can only be answered by a human psychology. There has to be a separate intention for dominance, and a separate intention for aggression. Then there have to be separate intentions for the variability of response between contexts as well as additional psychology to account for how long of a time an individual would seek to maintain its access to a particular resource.

RA: “This means that no individual is in principle always dominant or submissive, it all rather depends on the opponent and, of course, the values of the potential benefit and estimated costs.”

KB: We're talking here of an incredibly complex intellectual psychology; why would an individual opt for dominance rather than aggression? And then why only dominate one resource, why not all resources, what’s the complex human psychology in that cost/benefit analysis? We also have to account for how specifically dominance could evolve without submissiveness in tandem for it doesn’t do any good if the sender of a signal can’t trigger the appropriate response in the receiver. What if an individual is dominant toward something that doesn’t have a submissive impulse, that could trigger an aggressive response that could have been avoided? What if an individual shows submission to a belligerent that lacks the capacity to be mollified by submissiveness? That’s an invitation for injury. And if dominance exists in all species, then it must be an instinct and cannot in any way require a cost/benefit psychology, otherwise it’s not an instinct and thus, cannot be in all species.

Fourthly and finally, I can’t think of a less likely governor on violence than one that involves the instinctive compulsion to control access to resources. In my reading of history and in my work with aggressive dogs, the need to maintain access to resources is the number one source of violence, injury and mayhem in the world, between dogs and between dogs and human beings. Whereas a more likely candidate to inhibit violence would be fear, and it can readily be shown that the states of “dominance” and “submission” are in fact states of emotional paralysis due to fear. And so if “dominance” exists in all species, then we are eminently qualified to judge for ourselves our own subjective emotional experiences when we find ourselves in intense expressions of either “dominance” or “submission.” We can judge for ourselves if what we find appealing in a leader is their dominance, or their magnetic, dynamic nature.

The most logical candidate for the inhibition of violence is an emotional bond. An emotional bond can never escalate into violence, whereas fear easily can. And since working together toward a common goal is how strangers can most easily bond, this interpretation is far more consistent with the nature of the domestic dog and the nature of the emotional relationship that’s evolved between human beings and canines.
Published December 17, 2011 by Kevin Behan
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6 responses to “Roger Abrantes On Dominance”

  1. It’s amazing how much time and effort Abrantes has put forth to take a meaningless journey from zero back to zero.

    “We know dominance exists because we have a word for it; therefore it exists?”

    And what a simple, yet spot-on, rebuttal to such nonsense.


  2. Annie says:

    a great discussion here; Kevin, I side with you esp. in your last paragraph, which sums it up; in my own experience with dogs, there is the complex process of building trust…and in a relationship with a person or dog, this is built on consistency….and mindfulness; in my own interactions with dogs, I have observed and felt moments when a situation could tip toward aggression on the dog’s part or dominance on my part- I view them as very separate behaviors but oriented around the power/balance issue.

  3. Victor Ros says:

    Following the comments on Marc Bekoff’s page have led me here. Amazing!!

    First of all, it may be of your interest to know that in my opinion, LCK’s rebuttal of Abrantes’s essay on dominance, was well – extremely rude in its formulation.

    It seems that the actual problem is the word DOMINANCE as this invokes different ideas to different people. If it were GHMIZCK it would invoke less preconceived and anthropomorphic assumptions. Nevertheless it would not change the behaviour of the animals involved. Once a working definition is established, one which has limits, it is much easier to record and share data to better understand the species under scrutiny.

    In your comments I have noted that you are mixing two things under social dynamics, 1) outcome of dyadic encounters over resources 2) Social organization.

    Any definition should emphasize the difference between the two, or leave clear that it is one or the other. It is a presumption in many species that social organization is determined solely by dominance outcomes. About ubiquity across phyla…..well in my opinion this a romantic thought in attempt to discover a universal trait in all organisms ( but lets allow science space to accumulate more data).

    Science uses the term in one way, in this case as a descriptive term to describe a suite or spectrum of observable behaviours which is a handy tool for field work. the same fieldwork that is later presented as a basis for understanding natural behaviours and those imposed by a feral or domestic subsistence.

    I overtly argue against the assumption that horses (feral) are socially organized by dominance order (this is based on statistics and personal observation of several feral populations), but at the same time I have no problem accepting that dyadic encounters be termed dominance/submission or GHMIZCK, as long as the terms are properly defined and generally accepted.

    There is no single notion that has negatively affected the lives of countless horses, as much as that of misunderstood dominance theory. Nonethless it has nothing to do with how (most) biologists use the term, but more so your own personal invocations. There really is no morality behind it, neither good nor bad…just a strategy for differential reproductive success. By strategy I do not mean a preconceived plan.

    The baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater (Abrantes, Bernstein, Reid…etc)! It would be a waste of time! Having said that, I do expect the bathwater to be cleaned…….frequently…it stinks!

  4. kbehan says:

    I think I know what you mean about how you see me conflating outcome-over-encounters with social organization. So if I’m understanding your point correctly, let me put it this way, whenever two “charged” particles interact, there are principles of movement specific to said charge and this will always be reflected in their subsequent organization. It’s a basic principle of nature and I would expect to find it reflected in all levels of organization within any natural system, from the inanimate and even to the animate. What I’m trying to show is that there is a specific principle of movement within the nature of emotion itself, and this is always reflected in the social organization of any species of animals. It’s easiest to see this in dogs for reasons that this website and my books discuss at great length.
    I also agree with you: “that the actual problem is the word DOMINANCE as this invokes different ideas to different people.” which is precisely my criticism of the scientific use of the term and in particular Dr. Abrantes definitions. The term conjoins the phenomenon of friction between two individuals, with the phenomenon of an order that seems to emerge from interactions. So if we were to adopt a neutral term such as “GHMIZCK” we still must ask to which element of the phenomenon that are historically enjoined and then labeled as dominance, would this new term refer, the friction or the order? And if we do not make such a distinction, then it predetermines the conclusion that the order emerges from the friction. Also, Dr. Abrantes didn’t say he was describing phenomenon, he said he was defining it. And yet physicists do not use descriptions interchangeably with definitions precisely because they don’t want to race to foregone conclusions. The term dominance comes preloaded with many human concepts and so even describing a behavior with a term like dominance automatically and subconsciously invests that which is being observed with these human concepts. For example, it predetermines that when two animals experience friction over a resource, that they are competing over that resource, that they have the specific intent of possessing that resource, that they recognize the intent in another to do the same, and that there is some cost/benefit analysis if they should or should not obtain the resource, and that they can compare their chances for success or failure relative to the comparative strength of their “rival.” I believe this is a monumental misinterpretation of what is going on.
    I am arguing that both the friction and the order reflect a principle of motion inherent in the nature of emotion. The signature of this can be seen in the manifestation of what can be called Predator and Prey Polarities, (and if one doesn’t like the connotations inherent in such terms, more precise language is available so that we don’t confuse a bunny rabbit in toto with a prey polarity but in normal discourse this more specific language is a bit unwieldy but it is available on this site). Nevertheless this language serves the purpose of indicating that emotion ALWAYS moves from the Predator to the Prey Polarity in any and all animal interactions, just as heat goes from warm to cool, and these terms adequately articulate the principle of emotional conductivity (the predatory aspect reflects the projection of emotion and resists the expression of emotion—the preyful aspect absorbs the projection of emotion and conducts the expression of emotion). This is precisely what Buck, Monty Roberts, and protection dog trainers around the world are communicating with their bodies and feelings in order to shape their charges behavior.
    As to Lee’s tone, I don’t get the rudeness, but he certainly isn’t deferential, and is sharp and possibly caustic but I pick up that he’s wholly focused on the merits of Abrante’s argument. I’m sure Lee respects his intellect, accomplishments and articulation, but in our eyes the emperor is not wearing any clothes and so the concept of dominance isn’t going anywhere other than confirming its own built in preconceptions, hence his definitions are travelling along a long and winding road from zero back to zero. It’s also interesting that in these public discussion forums, our critics are able to say all manner of derogatory comments, willfully bend the meaning of a word against obvious intent so as to sidetrack the discussion, and yet that does not seem to offend anyone. For example, Dr. Bekoff has specified no anonymous posting and yet Michael P. whoever he or she is, is allowed to say anything and never responds to one substantive point made in counter argument. I only respond to him or her when he or she has inadvertently posed an interesting question, not that I think my answer will register but someone somewhere might read it and see what I mean. But in the event I’m getting jaded and certainly a little punchy, I will indeed take your critique into consideration.
    Now since Dr. Abrantes deigns not to answer questions even though he has claimed to have comprehensively resolved the matter, perhaps you would volunteer in his stead how dominance and submission were able to co-evolve in tandem, and along with “situational awareness” of context, and then again along with the capacity to play out and compare numerous scenarios in terms of risk/benefit analysis, if they are at the same time to be considered primal instincts universal to all social systems. How is this considered possible in the scientific interpretation of behavior?
    So to summarize, I’m saying there’s a logical flaw in the current way of analyzing animal behavior and it will not be resolved by the current direction of research until a number of first principles and hidden assumptions are openly addressed. I’m not arguing with doing the research to gather the data, it’s the interpretation of the data that I’m arguing about. I’m also saying that there is another method of analysis, the immediate-moment theory of emotion, wherein no thought is ascribed to what we are observing.

  5. Hertha says:

    A suggestion that Robert Ardrey’s book, THE TERRITORIAL IMPERATIVE gives some very interesting background to all this, even though it was written in the 1960’s, so pre a lot of field research since then.

  6. Kevin Behan says:

    Ardrey’s “Hunting Hypothesis” was central to my thinking in the seventies, I believe his ideas might have started me on considering how important hunting was to the dog’s makeup and well before I started working with German trainers. In my current approach to territoriality, I believe it has more to do with spacing rather than a cognitive understanding of This-is-my-territory-and-that-is-your-territory as it is commonly postulated. In my model an animal feels safe to express DIS on familiar ground, and not on unfamiliar ground, and this keeps organisms spaced out and looks to us as a territorial intention. In my view, territoriality reflects the thermodynamic basis of emotion that organizes all animal activity and can be likened to a thermodynamic phenomenon that induces a uniform distribution, diffusion. In Constructal Law territoriality is a saturation of the medium. This is why I take issue with formulations such as Abrantes’ because it depends on a human-like intention-driven cognition and doesn’t articulate emotion as a networking agency.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

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.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.