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.
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 By contrast, a different school of thought among dog trainers holds that dominance is an outdated and obsolete notion which is not applicable to our domestic dogs.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.
It’s been almost a year and a half since I wrote about the alpha roll myth. Yet, there are still dog trainers who are using methods that are based on outdated thinking about animal behaviour and training.
Here’s a great video by L David Mech, who wrote “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species” in 1968. The book, published in 1970 and re-published in paperback in 1981, is often cited as the reason why ‘dominance’ and ‘leadership’ models for dog training are acceptable.
L David Mech now admits he was wrong and has publicly announced on his website that he has pleaded with the publisher to stop publishing his book.
“Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.”
In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”
I’m a supporter of positive reinforcement training. Please be on the lookout for trainers who still use outdated information and possibly damaging training techniques.
Some information that circulates about dogs just isn’t true. Here are some examples:
Mutts (mixed breeds) are healthier
Actually, any dog can have health problems but pure bred dogs commonly have more genetic disorders. Mixed breeds, according to many vets, have hybrid vigor. This term refers to superior qualities that appear when genetically different animals are crossbred. The technical term for hybrid vigor is heterosis.
Licking helps to heal a wound
This is not necessarily the case. Some dogs obsessively lick a wound and this does more damage than good. You should consult your veterinarian if your dog is worrying a sore or wound.
Puppies and dogs don’t need house training because they naturally know where to go (wolfs, from where dogs descended, won’t soil their den)
Nice try but most dogs and puppies need to be trained to do their business outside. Some dogs (like children) are easier to train.
If a dog wags its tail, its friendly and happy
This isn’t always the case. A wagging tail can mean a dog is excited or agitated. Unless you know a dog, the best precaution is to ask its owner before you pet it.
Only male dogs ‘hump’ or raise their leg to pee
Female dogs will also do this, particularly if they are dominant. Spaying does not affect this behavior.
When scientists studied captive wolves (and I’m talking about research that dates back to the 1960s), they observed fighting for dominance within the group and extrapolated that information as relevant to domesticated dog behaviour. Unfortunately, by studying captive wolves, the scientists were observing an artificial pack – wolves that were placed together in very unnatural circumstances.
Over the years and ‘informed’ by this research, the theory of being the Alpha Dog developed. The alpha dog is the top dog of the pack, the dog who eats first (as an example).
Trainers who picked up on the alpha dog theory taught their clients to ‘alpha roll’ their dog. That is when you force your dog to roll over on its back to signal your dominance.
It is true that wolves roll over as a submissive behaviour, but nothing in the record suggests that wolves force other wolves to roll over. Wolves will roll over on their backs as a submissive gesture – they do it willingly and not by force.
This YouTube video shows a wolf rolling over as a sign of submission:
There are many trainers today who are adopting reward-based techniques, but others still adhere to a rigid interpretation of dominance theory including alpha rolls. I’m saddened to say that when I first adopted Daisy eight years ago, I went to a local dog training club in Christchurch where the teacher believed in alpha rolls. When Daisy didn’t go ‘down’ on my command, he took both of her legs on the right side and flipped her over. I can still remember the frightened look in her eyes and I was almost in tears myself over the incident.
My advice is to stay away from any dog trainer that doesn’t use reward based techniques. Make sure any trainer you use doesn’t have outdated ideas of what is true canine behaviour.