DOMINANCE and all that jazz…

Jul 21, 2020 | Talking About Dogs

Dominance. Argh. I’m not sure how long this is going to take me to write, and I will probably have to go off on some tangents of my own, but here goes.

It’s really dangerous to assume we have ANY clue what a dog is thinking. Most of the time I can’t tell what my husband is thinking, and he’s the same species as I am and has, presumably, approximately the same senses as I have. When we use words describing what the dog is feeling, we are, at best, describing what WE think the dog is thinking, and, at worst, projecting our own feelings onto the dog. This is a slippery slope that brings us words like “blowing off” and “dominant” and “deliberate”.

If we humans stopped at pretending we knew what a member of an alien species was thinking, we’d only be deluding ourselves, but unfortunately we carry things further. We use words which make us angry. Which make us feel blown off, picked on, deliberately defied. And then we act on how those words make US feel. MUCH safer and more reasonable to deal with the behaviour we see. When I’m coaching someone, it’s usually about 6 months before they’re allowed to use ANY word describing feelings, and then only as clearly-understood shorthand for a specific set of behaviours (eg “afraid” as shorthand for “ears back, pupils dilated, weight back, tail tucked, eyes darting, shivering”).

Now, about “dominance”. There’s a very strongly-held idea about dominance endemic in the dog community. That idea is that dogs are in a constant struggle with humans for dominance. Along with this central idea are the theories that dogs fight to determine dominance, that the strongest animal is the most dominant, that dominance comes from proving that you’re the strongest animal, that dominance is lineal, and that dominance is a physical situation. None of these are true. Let’s take them one by one.

Researchers from the vet college at Guelph, Ontario, about 30 years ago, told us that there is ZERO correlation between puppy dominance tests and the family relationship of adult dogs. I’m going to run with that and say, at the risk of the anthropomorphizing I just despised, that dogs don’t care who the boss is. All they care about is that SOMEBODY is in charge of the universe. One way I’ve explained this is that Cavaliers need to have somebody in charge because the person in charge is the one with the money for ice cream, so if no one’s in charge, there’s no ice cream today. And Giant Schnauzers need to have somebody in charge because THEIR person-in-charge makes the grass grow and the sun rise. So Cavs will sit around and hope somebody’s in charge today, while Giant Schnauzers will be staring at you when you wake up, just checking to be sure you haven’t lost your touch. What this means in real terms is that if a dog is having problems that appear to be related to “dominance”, it isn’t that the DOG is too high on the ladder and needs to be lowered, but that the human isn’t high ENOUGH and needs to be raised. All the physical dominance methods aim at lowering the dog by physically controlling it. Then you have a human who isn’t high enough to control the universe, and a dog who isn’t either. Unfortunately, there are unpleasant consequences to ignoring the ice cream money – when a dog, like a child, appears to be living in a world with no rules, they act out, apparently pushing to find that nonexistent line, and they frequently exhibit signs of inappropriate fear. The non-physical “nothing in life is free” programs, like Leading The Dance, on the other hand, build up the human by applying the rules that were missing. Once there’s someone capable of getting the ice cream and making sure the sun rises every morning, the dog can start relaxing.

What does this have to do with the dog biting, the dog not coming when it’s called, the dog having a bedtime running fit, the dog chewing your table leg? Nothing. Nothing at all. Those are behaviours. Behaviours are trained.

Next, the idea that dogs fight to establish dominance. With this, I’ll throw in the idea that dominance is a physical event. Wrong again. Sane dogs who speak “dog” well will do almost anything to avoid fighting. The best teacher isn’t the one running up and down the school hallway fussing about untied shoelaces, but the one who’s class just hums along. Of the best teachers, others will frequently say how “lucky” they are that they always get the “easy” classes. The best cop and the best mother are not the screamers or ranters but the ones who calm things down just by showing up. The most “dominant” dog I ever saw never raised her lip once in her life, but an adult male German Shepherd once scraped a tooth across her croup. She turned slowly to look at him, and he peed himself and released his anal glands. Control is not a physical thing. It’s purely mental. Dogs who fight are dogs who can’t communicate with other dogs, so can’t tell whether another dog is going to ignore them, attack them, play with them, or try to breed them.

“Dogs fight to determine dominance, that the strongest animal is the most dominant, that dominance comes from proving that you’re the strongest animal”

Think of all the facial expressions and body expressions and positions that dogs use to speak. Scuba will teach you if you let her. In another life I’m sure she would be Alpha rolled and disciplined for being “dominant”. She has strong opinions about her personal space. She doesn’t like people in her space when she’s sleeping. She’ll sleep on my bed, but if I move under the blanket or put a leg over her, she’ll get off the bed. She’s more opinionated with strange dogs, especially when we’re doing a seminar and she has a table to lie on as her only private space. Using her on her table, we can start rewarding dogs for reading her correctly and for giving appropriate responses to what she’s saying. And I can teach people to “hear” what she’s saying as well. First she’ll tighten her neck muscles. If the dog fails to respond correctly by moving away or at least turning his head away, she’ll twitch her cheeks. If the dog fails to respond correctly, she lifts a lip. Next she lowers her head. Then she lifts her lip higher. Then she starts an almost silent growling. Finally, she’ll make a bark and pretend lunge which is not in any way intended to come near the other dog. All this is discussion designed to AVOID anything physical.

Finally, the idea that control is lineal. Even humans know that possession is 9/10ths of the law. Scuba may be the queen of the known universe, but that doesn’t mean she can take Stitch’s blanky away from her. Or that she would think to try. One dog may be in charge of the dog bed, another the living room, and another the car. True leadership is a roundabout and convoluted discussion.

So what can we do about “bad” behaviour? We can use the exercises in non-physical nothing-in-life-is-free programs to raise ourselves up the ladder when our dogs appear to be exhibiting NON-SPECIFIC anxieties and misbehaviours. We can TRAIN (gasp) the specific behaviours we want, and train out the specific behaviours we don’t want. We can use management and planning to prevent the dog from being rewarded for behaviours we don’t want. We can TRAIN a cue which says “what you’re doing is not allowed” and we can remember to use it as a prelude to redirecting the dog to behaviour that IS allowed.

Sue Eh?