The Settled Science of Dominance in Dogs

From time to time Dr. Bekoff writes articles to clarify the matter of dominance in dogs.

Bekoff: “I’ve argued in a number of essays that there is a basic misunderstanding of what dominance means and that people need to read the ethological literature on dominance in animals to gain a more complete understanding of what “being dominant” means.”

Because Bekoff believes the evidence is conclusive, he terms those who question the notion of dominance in a dog’s mind “deniers.” In his view the science is settled and there is no room for debate.

In the modern synthesis we’re told that dominance is NOT an inborn, innate trait in the makeup of a dog. Rather, a dominant/submissive relationship EMERGES from an interaction over a contested resource. And the intellectual justification for this reasoning is that dominance and submissive relationships are more energy efficient as opposed to members having to constantly haggle over things and risk unnecessary injuries, which would of course constitute an even greater waste of energy.

Bekoff states:

“Complicating the picture is the phenomenon of situational dominance. For example, a low ranking individual may be able to keep possession of food even when challenged by another individual who actively dominates him or her in other contexts. I’ve seen this in wild coyotes, dogs, other mammals, and various birds. In these cases possession is what counts.”

But why would possession matter between those in a dominant/submissive relationship? In that same article, but here in service to emphasizing the strong scientific opinion behind the existence of dominance, Bekoff cites another researcher:

Dogs formed strict, steep hierarchies, with dominant animals demanding obedience from subordinates.”

These two statements, Bekoff’s about situational dominance, and the one above about strict obedience as a function of dominance, are contained in the same article that is attempting to clarify the matter.

Even more confusing, in an earlier article written to clarify the notion of dominance in dogs, Bekoff cites Dario Maestripieri Ph. D:

“Continuous fighting or negotiation also makes relationships unstable and stressful. Mother Nature has found a better solution to the problem of settling disagreements: dominance.Two individuals in a relationship establish dominance with each other so that every time a disagreement arises, there is no need for fighting or negotiation. The outcome is always known in advance because it’s always the same: the dominant individual gets what he wants and the subordinate doesn’t.”

Now if dominance emerges as a characteristic of a relationship because this is more efficient, with efficiency defining the way interactants relate to each other and the ultimate justification for how any given behavior evolved, how could it vary situationally if obedience is DEMANDED from subordinates by their superiors or the outcome is known in advance, and this is more efficient? If dominance and submission frames the relationship, how could the relationship vary from the template that defines it? How would a dominant or a submissive individual recognize that the pre-possession of a resource nulls and voids the terms of their relationship, and then why would a dominant abide by this violation of the relationship, and why would a submissive return to it in another situation, accepting a subordinate role after having tasted the sweet fruits of non-compliance? And if the emergent characteristics of dominance and submission are not in this instance responsible for inhibiting the dominant from attacking the insubordinate in possession of a bone, then therefore there must be another dynamic, even more primordial and basic to the makeup of a dog that is responsible for mitigating the potential for violence and protecting the two parties from unnecessary injury. Could this deeper dynamic possibly be linked to the internal metric of efficiency and which would be guiding these variable responses? If the science is settled, why do we find contradictions in articles intended to clarify, and why aren’t researchers interested in such questions?

In the article linked above Bekoff is asked:

How would you define “dominant behaviour” among dogs? And do you think dogs are aware of the concept?


”Being dominant” can simply mean controlling or influencing the behavior of another individual, but, of course, when this happens it does not mean that an individual is always trying to “be dominant.” A dog or other animal can control or influence the behavior of another individual by staring at them, moving toward them, vocalizing, displaying specific facial expressions and body postures etc., etc., with no physical contact at all. I don’t think dogs or other animals have to be aware of the concept of dominance itself, but surely they know when they are in control of a social interaction and where they fit in some sort of social hierarchy.”

Well the IRS doesn’t put a gun to one’s head to collect taxes, but if one doesn’t pay their taxes every taxpayer knows that sooner or later someone with a gun shows up to enforce the collection of taxes. Staring someone down with prolonged eye contact is kind of like that as well.

So summing up, the efficient disposition of energy is the rationale for the modern synthesis, within which dogs are held to be aware of social status, they are aware that high status confers benefits and is therefore preferable to low status, and yet this is all malleable to situational parameters so that the individuals are free to make tactical decisions depending on local and transient circumstances, and yet while all this cognitive capacity is mentally on/board, at the same time they’re not aware of being dominant or superior to another by virtue of occupying their respective positions within the hierarchy. And then finally, if a dog isn’t aware of his place within a dominance hierarchy and yet he performs this way innately, isn’t that just another way of saying an inborn drive to achieve dominance? Settled science sure is confusing.

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Published December 26, 2016 by Kevin Behan
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One response to “The Settled Science of Dominance in Dogs”

  1. Sheri Miller says:

    This is hilarious. Thanks for the laugh.

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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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