The Dominance Debate


Dr. Marc Bekoff in a recent article …..

……  claims that if one doesn’t believe in dominance as an organizing principle in canine social life then they are therefore “deniers.” (BTW Lee Charles Kelley offers some excellent rebuttals in the comment section. I wonder if they will be addressed.) Meanwhile in the article Bekoff says that denying the existence of dominance is like denying the existence of gravity. However he has it backwards and in fact is unaware of just how profoundly gravity (not to mention the principles of thermodynamics and the laws of motion) are the basis of animal behavior.

Now the image above would probably qualify for most as a prototypical display of dominance and submission, and interactions  such as these are why most people, layman and expert alike, find the idea of dominance substantiated in nature. And let me be clear, there is such a thing as dominance in human beings who can indeed conceptualize about rank and scarcity of resources. So for example a prison community or an absolute dictatorship would be about the purest expression of a dominance hierarchy that I can think of, and we can see that this type of social structure is the most dysfunctional kind of system individuals can operate under. Lee Kelley offers some research in his comments that back this up. And elsewhere the science of collective behavior clearly demonstrates that complexity is simple, not complicated. Social structures are self-organizing systems, sans a leader.

So then whats is going on in between these two wolves?  In my view, each wolf is stimulated by the other and therefore because they are stimulated, they MUST move. And in order to move one MUST shift their weight. And when shifting one’s weight, one must project to a forward point that defines a new state of equilibrium. This is true whether one just wants to travel from point A to point B, or if one wants to engage with another living being that is the stimulus compelling the individual to move. In other words, the individual must reacquire a state of equilibrium by occupying with their body, the point around which the other body is configured. So each wolf represents the new point of equilibrium that the other must achieve. So why is one UP and the other DOWN? Because one’s anatomy is one’s destiny. To move well, one must move as a wave. A wave is how a bilaterally symmetrical anatomy moves well. This is a principle of physics, and physics, the anatomical construction of the organism so that it can move in deference to gravity, is the basis of behavior, not psychology. In other words the only way they can both occupy that point that each represents to the other, is to manifest complementary phases of the locomotive rhythm, the physics of moving well as discovered by Adrian Bejan in “Design In Nature.”

In the picture above, one individual is projecting force—the projecting phase of locomotion, and the other is absorbing force– the collecting phase of locomotion. They are literally reconfiguring their bodies so as to occupy a common point between them. Each one becomes the state of equilibrium to the other. They become the emotional ground to the other. (Furthermore I believe that mirror neurons are instrumental in how an individual maps its locomotive rhythm onto the form of another.)

Why would this be adaptive? Because if two individuals can combine their locomotive rhythms as their new definition of equilibrium, then they can “wave-couple” and this then allows them to combine their collective energies and thereby do more work. On a low level of expression this allows a hawk to ride a thermal. A higher order of magnitude is geese migrating in formation. And in canine societies doing more work means working together in order to overcome an even greater object of resistance, i.e. a large, dangerous prey animal. If they can project their combined force on a prey animal, they can compel it to move. And if it moves they can harass, harry, wound and ultimately bring it to ground and thereby occupy the point around which its body is symmetrically configured. This is how wolves make their living and allow their young a prolonged and prosocial style upbringing. It’s a hierarchal flow system, not a dominance hierarchy.

This is the only interpretation of behavior that doesn’t deny the existence and overwhelming influence of gravity on the mind of the animal. Any other interpretation is inserting human thoughts into the animal’s mind. If one believes in dominance, then they indeed they will see it. As one astute observer put it (thanks Melissa) “Your dogma is your mirror.”

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Published July 8, 2016 by Kevin Behan
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9 responses to “The Dominance Debate”

  1. Alecia Evans says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for your insightful article.

    Having known Marc Beckoff for the better part of 15 years, I can personally attest that he knows of what he speaks. Having trained over a thousand dogs myself and observing the characteristics and body language of wolves I can say beyond any scientific theories or laws that we are playing a semantics game. For wolves there is law that humans cannot see clearly and very few have any idea why these laws are really carried out. To the human eye it looks like domination- to the wolf or dog, it is leadership asserted with clear boundaries and absolute yes’s and no’s in regards to behavior. To truly understand the depths at which these animals communicate and the very subtle levels on which this takes place we must actually not put any of their behavior into “scientific terms or evaluate it by scientific laws” because the problem with this is that the human interpretation of what is taking place is always contained within a scope that the humans mind can fit into a neat box. Unfortunately there are so many more levels on which behavior is taking place then our current box of humanity can comprehend. So we can’t really accurately call a behavior anything other than something we observed in the moment. Just like the picture and perception of domination. We have no idea if the “dominant wolf” is simply holding a clear boundary and the younger wolf is apologizing and taking responsibility for their misconduct or if the older wolf is scolding the younger one for a behavior that is dangerous.

    The problem with any domination theories are that in most cases only the physical behavior is commented on and it does not take into account the larger energy field of instinctual wisdom wolves or any animal contain as their learning is based on a model of thousands of years of useful information and boundaries that save their lives and get passed down from generation to generation. To assume that dominance is a bad thing is like making dominance bad because its not politically correct yet if clearly interpreted “dominance” is simply about establishing clear boundaries- not like dominance by bullying. In nature there always needs to be a leader – that leader has a clearer and more focused awareness about the bigger picture. Dominance to me means that once in a while they will need to exert or expand their energy to dominate the situation to correct any misalignments in the behvior of their pack members.

  2. Kevin Behan says:

    I think at rock bottom Dr. Bekoff is on a crusade to prevent animals from being abused. This is a noble intention. But to prove the point he is pursuing the tack that animals are rational and moral just as are human beings. Apparently if animals can be seen as more human like then the masses will have more respect and compassion for them. Maybe he’s right politically, but it doesn’t advance the science and neither is the moral argument necessary for someone to have respect and compassion for animals. In point of fact, the more one can appreciate a dog’s true animal nature, the more humane one would prove to be when it comes to living and caring about them. I also don’t believe we’re having a game of semantics. Rather, words mean something. The notion of dominance requires a human intellectual construct of reality, it is a “brain bound” approach, a me-relative-to-you psychology. Otherwise the word means nothing. So in the picture of two wolves I’ve featured in this post, the question Bekoff and behaviorism should answer is why, if dominance is an organizing principle—why then is the so-called dominant individual acting so constrained? In protection training such behaviors indicate insecurity, exactly as does so-called submissive behaviors. In both cases trainers use flow principles, i.e. chase the prey object, to change the dog’s perception of the situation. Moving freely changes the dog’s mind. In human affairs we see that when true leaders lead, they are not constrained, they are energized about the path they’ve chosen. Another example, there are innumerable dogs that when walked on lead or when behind a barrier, would fight another dog on sight. Yet were the same two dogs free to move in an open area not only do they not fight, but they play with abandon. Have they lost the territorial, possessive, dominance or fearful mind set that behaviorism inserts into these contexts simply because they now find themselves in the open with an individual that they would otherwise have great antagonism? That would be like a person being so suspicious of an approaching stranger whom they perceive as about to break into their house, then happily switching to wanting to picnic with them were they to change locale to the park. Or on the other hand, might there be a simple principle of conductivity wherein we can see the many organizing as one as they reacquire the locomotive rhythm with their counterpart?

  3. cliff says:

    Interesting discussion. I continue to wonder re words like “laws” and “apologizing”— let alone “dominance”—when applied to animals. New terminology needed? I’ll leave it to the experts to continue the conversation.

  4. Kevin Behan says:

    What’s pernicious in applying a moral dimension to the interpretation of behavior is that it inevitably leads to the preclusion of debate. Note that the term “denier” is now being applied to those who question the current consensus. I, like Bekoff, was told decades ago that dogs were so distorted by the hand of humans that they weren’t relevant to the question of animal nature. But now dog trainers are being told by the likes of Bekoff that only experts can discuss the nature of animals and we must dutifully accept the conventional wisdom. Yes indeed, there is dominance in the mind of humans.

  5. miss rachael says:

    ‘So then whats is going on in between these two wolves? In my view, each wolf is stimulated by the other and therefore because they are stimulated, they MUST move.’

    Well I think that is nonsense. In this particular moment, the lower wolf has adopted a very typical submissive pose which not only enables him to cower down further if necessary but also to escape quickly if required. End of story.

    I have lived with a pack of dogs all of my 53 years and worked with & observed thousands of dogs in group situations for over 13 years. There is a pecking order and for a pack/family/group to function well there has to be an alpha and if there isn’t one there are problems. A good alpha, human or dog, is ideally calm and consistent but also very definitely in charge. In my experience, if nobody is perceived to be in charge, then somebody will eventually apply for the position and that’s when problems can arise.

    The natural social structure of a dog pack/family is complex but also flexible…..alpha dogs pick their arguments and will sometimes even seemingly defer to a lower ranked dog because it’s just not important enough to them or worth the risk. A good alpha doesn’t have to continuously assert dominance. When a new dog is introduced to the pack, the alpha will usually check them out (unless they are so benign they don’t even warrant the alphas attention) and if necessary, will put the ‘fear of god into him or her’. Once a new pooch has demonstrated to the alpha that he/she has accepted the terms of acceptance, usually via a grovelling submissiion, it’s usually hello stranger and welcome to the family.

    I want to hear from people who have worked with, lived with and properly observed various dogs, on a daily basis. Not professionals who only see one dog at a time, for a limited time or even worse only in a laboratory situation.

  6. K says:

    To be honest, it sounds like you and marc bekoff are describing the exact same thing. A behavior by any other name is still the same behavior. If the argument against the existence of dominance is that animals cannot conceptualize “domination” in the same way that we do, and therefore are incapable of engaging in any behaviors related to dominance, then wouldn’t it also be the case that they are not capable of social bonding, happiness, or aggression? They can’t conceptualize these things the same exact way as we do and have no in-depth understanding of what it means to be happy, to bond to another being, or to be aggressive. They are a reaction to stimuli and the dog doesn’t understand why these reactions occur.

    Everything animals, including ourselves, do is a reaction to stimuli — we simply have a more complex relationship with those stimuli than most other animals. I don’t think this invalidates the behaviors that other animals display.

  7. Kevin Behan says:

    The big distinction to grasp is that I’m saying all behavior is a function of attraction, whereas Bekoff is saying intention, even when he delegates it to genes. Neurobiology is beginning to understand that social beings are hardwired to be social. So it’s not a question of reacting and cognitively figuring it out. There are principles of nature that makes sociability axiomatic and inevitable. This is what behaviorism and modern learning theory doesn’t yet grasp and why they constantly conceptualize complex social structures as dominant hierarchies.

  8. Kevin Behan says:

    Thinking in terms of dominance and submission to account for canine social behavior is the default setting and the path of least resistance for the human intellect. One must first grasp that it doesn’t make sense before they can see alternative explanations that make more sense.

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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.
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