The Idea of Dominance

Taking a leaf from The Dog Whisperer you may understand that Dominance is what your dog, or even bird, is scheming to exert control over you. After all, they have so much time to plan human domination while we're away!

Unfortunately, just because "a guy on TV said it" doesn't mean it's true.

The idea of dominance was based on an outdated (1975), and very flawed study on social hierachies in captive, unrelated wolves by a researcher known as Erik Zimen. In the unnatural environment the captive wolves acted aggressively towards each other due to lack of space and being placed with unrelated wolves to form an unnatural, distantly related pack.

In the wild these are two things that promote group cohesion: lots of space and family groups. Wild wolf packs are structed much differently than what the average American imagines it to be. Wolf packs are essentially a mom, dad, and kids up to 3 years of age. Sometimes, when the boy "kids" get kicked out for being too old they stalk the group waiting for dad to die of old age so they can take over. This is the only kind of "dominance" in the natural life cycle of the wolf.

At this point in my research I was thinking "So what? Even if wild wolves aren't dominant that surely means captive wolves are dominant. It wouldn't be much to assume captive dogs are dominant." 

Perhaps, but consider this. Wild, domesticated dogs that have been turned loose to scavange in garbage heaps show no packing behavior whatsoever. Domesticated dogs simply wander aimlessly forming short term, loose "packs" (if it can even be called that) that may last a few day at most. Not the family grouping that lasts for years in wolf packs. Dogs have been so deeply domesticated that pack behavior doesn't form strongly enough to mean anything!

And the primary literature supports this view. Listed below are just a few studies that I found in a quick search for "dog dominance". 



A Fresh Look at the Wolf-Pack Theory
of Companion-Animal Dog

Social Behavior
Wendy van Kerkhove
Minneapolis, Minnesota




The Concept of Dominance and the Treatment of Aggression
in Multidog Homes: A Comment on van Kerkhove’s Commentary

Petra A. Mertens
College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Minnesota




Pack theory – Is the domestic dog still a pack animal?

          by Diane Rowles 2009




Dominance in domestic dogs, useful construct or bad habit?

John W. S. Bradshaw, Emily J. Blackwell, Rachel A. Casey
Anthrozoology Institute, Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, University of Bristol, Langford, North Somerset, United Kingdom



Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and
non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors

Meghan E. Herron, Frances S. Shofer, Ilana R. Reisner
Department of Clinical Studies, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

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