I am seeing a lot of blogs about how how horrible dominance is and how there is no need for dominance when working with domestic dogs. They say the use of dominance is now considered ineffective and, worse, it is unethical and inhumane. Those critical of using any forms of dominance are describing what wolves and feral dogs do and do not do and I am seeing so many incorrect statements.
I work with wild and captive wolves, and have handled over 2,000 feral dogs. I was also the Project Veterinarian for the 1995-96 Yellowstone Wolf Reintroduction program and had the privilege of working with Dr. Dave Mech, one of the founders of wolf research, when we captured wolves in Canada and brought them into the US. Many people condemning dominance are referring to Dave’s comments .
This discussion of dominance relates to my work, not only because I work with wolves and feral dogs, but also because I am dedicated to teach animal control officers and disaster responders how to handle frightened dogs without creating a fight with the animal. That is why I write in this blog and website about the Energy of Conflict.
I would prefer to set aside the claims of wolf and feral dog behavior and explore more deeply the concept of “dominance”. But the statements about wolves and feral dogs have been so inherently wrong that I have to offer my viewpoint and then below I will explore what is driving these discussions which is our concept of “dominance.”
I sincerely mean no disrespect to any individual or organization and would enjoy a kind and respectful discussion.
Over and over again there is a deeply seated concept of dominance that is really limiting our ability to objectively study what animal handlers are doing and is, at times, limiting our ability to create a harmonious relationship with the dogs. Many people want to rid themselves of dominance so much that scientific studies are being interpreted to support their beliefs (which is always the weakness of science) and people are coming up with new interpretations of what wolves have always been doing. Any mention of dominance is taboo in these circles.
In our history of how we have treated each other and treated animals, dominance has been typically associated with everything punitive, nasty and negative. People are often referring to Dave Mech’s video which retracts the word “alpha” because he says the word is associated with “the wolves fighting strongly to get to the top of the pack”. Dominance in these blogs is also associated with dictatorial leadership and other horrible ways of treating people and animals. If this is the only thing dominance can be, I totally agree that we should keep methods associated with dominance away from our relationships with animals and with each other.
Punishing a dog into submission is obviously an unhealthy relationship. Strictly giving a dog rewards addresses our warm fuzzy desires, but does not always build the healthiest relationship either. The middle ground can still be compassionate and loving.
I believe there are different types of dominance if we really explore it. What people are complaining about is what I call “mean dominance” and I work hard teaching professionals not to use dominance in this way. In my blog and website I talk about capturing and handling feral dogs without fighting them.
But dominance does not have to be mean and is an integral part of the social hierarchy of many animals including dogs, wolves and horses. Listen carefully to Dave Mech’s video. He says wolves do not fight to get to the top of the pack, but they still get “there”. I agree. Wolves do not continuously fight to get to the top of the pack, there is no argument. Fighting is not in their best interests. But everyone who knows wolves knows there is posturing, tail position, facial expressions, and ear positioning to create that hierarchy without fighting. It is a healthy form of dominance. I once watched a pair of wolves in Yellowstone Park kill an elk calf and one wolf asked for permission from the other wolf before it could feed. It is a reflex for the wolf to define where it is in that hierarchy. But there does not have to be violence to create the hierarchy. It is not demeaning or punitive and they flourish in the pack knowing how they relate to their pack mates.
And why are so many people stating emphatically that feral dogs do not form packs? Please, I have captured and handled feral dogs around the world and feral dogs can run in packs and often do. I have even heard feral dogs in the Caribbean howl at sunrise. But does that really matter?
We are getting caught up in what wolves or feral dogs do or do not do to reinforce a deep seated concept of “mean dominance”. Can we first explore how there can be various types of dominance? I believe that there are healthy compassionate forms of dominance that strengthen, not weaken, our relationships with one another. Can parents create a compassionate understanding with their children about who is in charge? Can a wolf, determined to breed, inform the other males of his intention without killing or injuring them? Can I approach a feral dog in an enclosed area and compassionately convince it to go into a transport crate? I believe the answer is Yes and these are all forms of a healthy dominance in compassionate relationship.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS (10/23/11): Since the Y pole is such a new tool for humane handling of dogs, I am still trying to teach and explain the compassionate methods of using a Y pole. A distinction I have recently made is that when I enter a kennel with a timid fear- biter I am using the Y pole as a kind extension of my hand to comfort the dog. When I enter a kennel with a potentially dangerous dog I am choosing a compassionate form of dominance but I am still using the Y pole as a kind and respectful extension of my hand to offer comfort or assurance in case the dog might accept it.
Also please note: I am not talking about dog training. Dominance and dog training is another issue best discussed by others.