Dominance research

The hierarchy in a group of dogs is not based on aggression but on submissiveness, says newly published research.

A dog ranked lower in the hierarchy displays signals of submissive behaviour towards dogs ranked higher. These findings have for the first time been substantiated by means of measurements by dog researcher Joanne van der Borg of Wageningen University and colleagues based in Utrecht.

wo beagles from the group of dogs studied. Communication by means of postures plays a central role in identifying dominance relationships between two dogs. The display of a lowered posture during an interaction by Zwart (the beagle on the right) is an acknowledgement of the higher status of Witband (left), who adopts a higher posture. Both dogs display mutual aggression (Witband by staring fixedly and Zwart by baring his teeth), which was found not to be a suitable measure of dominance. Photo: Joanne van der Borg.

Two beagles from the group of dogs studied. Communication by means of postures plays a central role in identifying dominance relationships between two dogs. The display of a lowered posture during an interaction by Zwart (the beagle on the right) is an acknowledgement of the higher status of Witband (left), who adopts a higher posture. Both dogs display mutual aggression (Witband by staring fixedly and Zwart by baring his teeth), which was found not to be a suitable measure of dominance. Photo: Joanne van der Borg.

In the study into dominance, a group of dogs was placed together on working days, and stable relationships formed between them after a few months. By closely observing and analysing the exchange of seven postures and 24 behaviours by the dogs, the researchers were able to establish a hierarchy. This proved to be linear.

The suitability of signals as a measure of dominance was determined using the exchange of signals between two animals. Suitable signals are postures or behaviours which are only displayed within a relationship from animal A to animal B and not in the opposite direction. Based on the receipt of submissive signals, the dogs were ranked from high to low.

The study supports the view that the dominance in a group of dogs is not determined by aggression, as many dog owners and dog trainers believe. Aggression is found to be exhibited by higher-ranked dogs towards lower-ranked dogs but also in the opposite direction, from lower-ranked dogs towards higher-ranked dogs. For this reason, signals of aggression are not suitable as a measure of dominance.

Not natural born fighters

The idea of dominance in dogs is popular among some dog trainers in various countries. They believe that dogs, like wolves, are natural born fighters with only one aim: to reach the top of the hierarchy. By contrast, a different school of thought among dog trainers holds that dominance is an outdated and obsolete notion which is not applicable to our domestic dogs. There has been much misunderstanding about the interpretation of this view, because until now there was a lack of substantiation by means of hard figures.

Signals from the dog

The signals of submissiveness from a dog meeting another member of its species can best be read from the lowering of the posture compared to the other dog. Another expression of acknowledgement of the higher status of the other individual is body-tail-wagging. This behaviour, often seen in young dogs when greeting other dogs, involves the tail moving in quite broad strokes, often with the hindquarters (the hind part of the body) moving with it. Both forms of submissiveness are an expression of ‘formal dominance’, because the context (aggression, greeting, play) does not matter. The findings are in line with previous results into dominance among wolves in captivity and Italian feral dogs.
The study contributes to our knowledge about the ways in which dogs communicate their status towards other dogs. This is important for correctly classifying the hierarchical relationship between two dogs, and probably also between human and dog. This in turn helps establish the correct diagnosis in the event of problem behaviour and will therefore improve the welfare of dogs.

Source:  Wageningen University media release

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3 responses to “Dominance research

  1. I enjoy how you bring studies from all over the world to my attention. However there is a statement in this study that needs updating. It is “wolves are natural born fighters with only one aim: to reach the top of the hierarchy”.

    L. David Mech PhD who did the original research on wolves and initially came to that conclusion discovered that it was wrong when he did research on wolves in the wild. He explains why the statement regarding wolf dominance in the study you posted is erroneous in his article “Whatever Happened to the Term ALPHA Wolf?” International Wolf: The Quarterly Publication of the International Wolf Center Volume 18, No.4 Winter 2008, pp4-8
    http://www.wolf.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/winter2008.pdf

    On page 6 he details how this came to be accepted and repeated from his original research with unrelated captive wolves brought together to form what in the 1960’s the researchers thought was a normal wolf pack.

    Studying natural wolf packs in the wild he realized this was wrong. Despite his formally correcting the misinformation in the scientific literature in 1999 in “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs” in the Canadian Journal of Zoology Vol 77:1196-1203. and again in 2000 with the article “Leadership in Wolf, Canis lupus, Packs” in the Canadian Field-Naturalist 114: 259-263. which further elaborates on the role of the parent wolves in the pack’s social order, Dr. Mech writes that this error continues to be repeated in many types of literature.
    Carolyn Moser, Tucson, Arizona USA

    • Hi Carolyn,
      Thank you for writing and for reading the blog; I follow lots of dog-related research because I want my readers and customers to keep up to date about everything we are learning about dogs and to understand the range of people around the world who are working in this important area.

      This blog post is a verbatim copy of the referenced media release to avoid any issues of copyright infringement. I’m in total agreement with you concerning wolf research. You might like to read my other posts about the outmoded thinking about wolves, including Dr Mech’s work. https://doggymom.com/2013/05/10/outmoded-notion-of-the-alpha-wolf/

      and

      https://doggymom.com/2012/01/10/the-alpha-roll-myth/

      You might also like to respond directly to the university about your concerns. Best wishes,
      Kathleen

      • Thank you for the links to your blogposts. I see we both are aware of Dr. Mech’s attempts to correct the understanding of wolves and their social structures. I sent an email directly to Dr. JAM van der Borg in the Netherlands with the same information in my comment.

        I look forward to your continuing blogposts.

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