Is Dominance Always Bad?

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.

COMPASSIONATE DOMINANCE  is a key element when working dogs with the Y Pole.  To learn about the Y pole – an essential tool for every animal shelter – visit our Free Training Library and Y Pole Page

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.


Dr. Mark

21 Responses

  1. I am glad you brought up this topic. Let’s call it confidence. I know for sure that dominance in humans and non-humans is a reality, it is what makes the world go round.

    I like to refer to dominance, or good dominance, as “confidence” when I work with humans and their companion dogs.

    I find the word “dominant” is more easily accepted when speaking with colleagues that handle a broad spectrum of animals versus the average pet trainer/caregiver.

    One of the most difficult tasks is to teach a human how to be calm and confidant in the face of their fearful, reactive dog. Many times someone has called the dog dominant/aggressive, the truth is, in more cases than not, the dog is not dominant, he is afraid due to lack of confidence.

    Confidence and calm directed energy on the humans part will diffuse most any situation if given the chance. This calm energy may include physical restraint, done calmly and confidently it may be called dominance, and if you ask me, there is nothing wrong with that. The earth is calming, it makes sense to use it to help the animal calm itself.

    Sadly, many humans are distracted and out of touch with their own instincts. They have lost their confidence.

    Perhaps people that do not embrace their profession, or participate in the rat race every day are left feeling exhausted. Maybe the term dominance hits too close to home? Maybe the word scares them because they feel dominated at work, school, or at home?

    I believe that this negative response to the word “dominant” is very telling of the times.

  2. Wendy,
    Nice exploration of words. It certainly takes confidence to create dominance. Unfortunately people thinks it takes confidence AND meanness and you support that this is not the case.

    Thank you for your comment.

  3. I am the first to admit that I believe “I” should be alpha in my relationship with my dogs, cats and horses, but that being said, I DO NOT believe in “mean dominance”. I believe that a healthy respect is due to both sides of the coin. I recently had a dog surrendered to my shelter. When I heard how the gentleman handled the dog and heard how the 9yr old son tried to handle the dog and got bitten, I knew what had happened. For two days the dog was growling at us and would charge the gate. The third day, I went in, gestured with my body that it was not allowed and the dog was awesome after that. He had a respect for us and us for him.

    I handle all the animals that come through the shelter the same way. I will respect them, but they should also respect me. No pushing, shoving or “dominance” needed, just a good understanding.

    I call it “man handling” and I don’t like it at all.

    Great post Doc.

  4. The assessment of the alpha concept and the dominance concept on this blog is just about right. They are 2 separate and distinct concepts as applied to wolves. The alpha concept implies having won a contest and remaining most dominant by virtue of having won the contest.

    Dominance is merely self-assertion over conspecifics. Parents of most animals are automatically dominant over offspring, for example.

    • Dave,
      I am honored by your comments. I have enjoyed exploring the concept of dominance and alpha with you and learning from you. I look forward to collaborating with you in the near future. Best wishes in your valuable projects. Your blog Wolves of the High Arctic on your study of wolves on Ellesmere Island is wonderful and very educational. Thank you.

  5. what an interesting post.

    I’m guilty of being ‘one of those blogs’ in which I try to get around the terminology so often misused and abused by mainstream canine training today. I find I’m defensive about the terms because I work with rescue dogs whose owners practiced “mean dominance”.

    dominance has a pretty bad rap these days, but I am not one to say it never exists. I rather see (with my domestic dogs) a partnership of sorts – a team effort. Naturally, I control resources because I’m the species with thumbs. I just hate using the words “alpha”, “dominant” or other related terms, because you are right – most of the time the are in the context of MEAN in the mainstream. it seems many dog owners get the definition from TV shows and not real life examples of their term’s origin.

    I find it so fascinating that you can bring experience with feral dogs, captive AND wild wolves to the table in this post. We all have a lot to learn from you!

    • Jen,
      Insightful and kind words. Your examples add clarification and affirmation to the concept of positive dominance. The thoughtful comments from everyone has motivated me to change the appearance of my blog so the comments are as visible as my articles. Soon! Thank you. Mark

  6. Thank you for this. I just found your blog through Patrick Burns, and will be adding it to my rolls.

    I believe it is an especially (if not exclusively) American thing, to be uncomfortable with the concept and term “dominance” — especially in the context of what people idealize as a loving, caring relationship with a dependent.

    It goes back to our discomfort with political and social inequality, earned by the dissonance between our political ideals and the reality of our history, most especially chattel slavery. That’s some heavy baggage, and it is no way exorcised from our collective psyche.

    Any idea of hierarchy gets fed into a all/nothing toggle system that equates the dominant individual with tyranny instead of benign and responsive leadership.

    Well, those ideals are the most endearing part of us, so I don’t condemn the discomfort that arises from them.

    But people have to get over themselves, stop projecting human political principles, and listen to what the dogs are telling them. They aren’t conflicted about dominance (at least when things are working right).

    There’s a wide ground of reality between a rainbows and fairy-farts version of the natural canine social order and the equally simplistic red in tooth and claw notions.

    • Heather,
      Thank you for your authentic and thoughtful comments. The best I can do for a response it repeat your wonderfully articulate points. Our current dominance is indeed related to our political and social inequality. Unfortunately, this exists strongly outside of the US as well. I loved how you pointed out the importance of listening the dogs and knowing they are not conflicted with the presence of dominance when it is done right. Awesome. Thank you. Mark

  7. Mark, great post. Dominance has become a taboo word for no good reason. I’m sure the concept will crop up sooner or later with a different label, so I’m torn over trying to rehabilitate the word itself from the crazier imaginings of its “opponents”.

    Now, what seems to me to be missing, with respect to dogs, is the way in which the bodily motions themselves, the physical ways in which dominance is expressed, have become synonymous with anger and fighting *because that’s the only context in which some people can imagine allowing themselves to use them.* Dominance and anger/violence are not necessarily intertwined; in fact they cannot be. What I think the “anti-dominance” forces fail to recognize is that it might take some practice to uncouple the two, to “act dominant” without feeling anger or committing violence, much as a martial artist can produce power, not violence. Good dog handlers know this.

  8. Thanks for this post. As I read it I thought of the great border collie handler Jack Knox. Working livestock can be rather overwhelming for even the keenest young dogs [so much to do! I’ll try to do it all at once!], but when Jack comes along and says [by virtue of his presence], “I am the shepherd, and I understand that you are a working dog, so I’ll give you direction and everything will be good,” then everything does indeed fall into place.

    Jack’s leadership gives border collies a tremendous amount of confidence to focus on the task at hand and work sheep as they should.

    It’s astonishing that a skilled trainer, without any shouting, hands-on contact, crook-waving or what have you, can do what he does. As Heather says, dogs aren’t conflicted about the presence of dominance when it’s done right. I believe that it gives them a sense of well-being.

  9. Hi Mark,

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on dominance and your concept of “mean dominance”. I do agree that there is an unfortunate amount of “mean dominance” used in the dog world and the twisted “dominance based” concepts of many trainers and behaviorists are just wrong.

    I am one of those put-spoken people against the use of the term “dominance” when applied to canine behavior. I’m against it because of its vagueness. The simple fact that you needed to come up with a new term (“Mean Dominance”) is an example of how vague the term is.

    I wonder, why can’t the term “dominance” just be replaced with “Social Structure”? The truth is, as you pointed out, feral/domestic/wild dogs do *sometimes* form packs, but not always. It seems dogs do a pretty good job of adapting their relationship with one-another to fit/suit their environment and, to me, it seems that the defining force of their social structures doesn’t follow a set rulebook.

    I could see someone arguing that “dominance” is the “glue” that binds (a group of) dogs’ (social structure) together… But I would argue that you could say “respect”, “seniority”, and “family values” do the same thing (bind a social structure). Its contextual, isn’t it?

    It depends on the group of canine, their environment, and the individual dogs involved as to what their “glue” is. So it comes back around to the term “dominance” being rather vague (IMHO) when used to describe or define the way dogs interact. That’s my point of contention with the term – well, that, and that its lead to some rather sad training practices in the past. :oT

    I enjoyed your article and commend you on writing about a topic like this. I also really enjoy your blog and appreciate the work you do. :o)

  10. My first visit to your site. Thoroughly enjoyed!

    I have often had discussions about types of dominance I recognize in dogs.
    I refer to the alpha dominance as a ‘true dominant.” There seems this type has no need to be mean-they get the message across loud and clear through their energies and presence, strictly through their body language.
    There’s also another type I’ve witnessed. I like to refer to this type as a ‘wanna-be dominant.’ Trying to move up the ladder-HAS to fight because he has something to ‘prove’.(who by the way, a true dominant would never dignify this type’s behavior with a response.
    My slant anyway!
    Thanks for a great blog!

  11. Mark, happy to find your blog, signed up, looking forward to reading more about your thoughts. I also appreciate that D. Mech also clarified his position concerning the use of dominance in discussions.

  12. Another idea that falls into a similar trap is that of negative reinforcement. Because it’s associated with the dreaded ‘n-word’ and so often (and wrongly) confused with punishment – many in the world of dogs dismiss any use of negative reinforcement as cruel and abusive.

    But negative reinforcement (or pressure and release) is the basis of most agonistic behavior – it’s how we communicate how we assert and agree to dominance in relationships. Even among humans.

    People like Jack Knox are masters in the use of it. Their stance, a look in their eyes, a move toward or away from a dog – pressure and release is the basis of a complex dance of interaction. I pressure – you submit. You submit – I release the pressure. And sometimes vice-versa.

    I don’t understand how such basic and important parts of animal communication and behavior got bastardized into a sick parody of their real meaning…

  13. […] The busiest day of the year was March 19th with 408 views. The most popular post that day was Is Dominance Always Bad?. […]

  14. Mark,

    Interesting treatise on the topic of dominance. I am interested to know what your definition of a pack is. I would also like to know what your definition of dominance is. You talk around it, but you don’t define it. Dominance is a construct, and as long as it is useful to describe what is happening between two animals I don’t have a problem. But when it is used to describe how to use positive punishment to get what the human wants, instead of who got priority access to a resource between conspecifics, then it just isn’t good science. If you go into the literature, you can find inter species dominance studies three times-first between reef fish, who want the same food and space. Another between feeder birds-who both want the same food. But by and large, dogs andhumans don’t want the same things, so it is hard to make a sound argument that dominance is a useful construct in describing the relationship. Perhaps though, I have a different perspective given that I am partnered with a dog who knows when I am going to have a migraine, and who will tell mewhen to go to bed. And I go-just as he tells me to.

    • Dear Sue,
      Thank you for your great questions. These are good explorations. I think of a pack as a group of dogs with a common bond who share their time, space, and resources.

      I guess that with dog handling I think of dominance as a relationship between two animals (including between people and dogs since we are both animals) in which one is exerting an influence which motivates the other to do what they may not want to do.

      The problem with definitions of dominance is that people often have a lot of stories attached to their concept of “dominance”. You refer to a human using “positive punishment” but I do not know what situation you are referring to. Dominance does not have to be punitive or demeaning, though many people cannot comprehend that aspect. Positive forms of dominance for me include leadership or parenting, both of which can be done in the most respectful and loving manner. This is the energy and type of dominance when the Y Pole is used properly.

      Here is the best example of “dominance” I can think of to describe what we are doing in Compassionate Dog Handling (The Finesse of Dog Handling) by GWR. Imagine you are on a Search and Rescue Team in an earthquake area and you find a teenage boy deep under a pile of rubble. The only way you can get him out is to wrap him tightly on a stretcher them pull him through a narrow tunnel, but he is claustrophobic. In this case you must be firm, yet convince him to hand everything over to you in order to save his life.

      I still ponder what I am doing when I Y pole a dog in the corner to handle him. I am instilling in him the need to totally give up his protection and hand his well-being over to me. Fortunately, he finds that when he does so, there is only compassion and respect. And the energy is calm and relaxed (from us) which is a big part of the message to the dog. Many times I have found that the dog is more trusting and friendly with me after I have handled it.

      If I did that to another person they may bring their ego into and take it personally. In packs, canids submit all the time to let someone else eat first or lay in the best spot. The dominance in these situation can be with subtle cues such as the position of the tail and the dog who complies will not be taking it personally and hold a grudge.

      If you do not like the word “dominance” referred to in a relationship between two different species, then that is okay with me. This should not be a case of who is right and wrong or who is using good science. It should be a case of letting each person share their perspectives, and if the reader wishes, they can strive to understand the perspective and see what parts can be used in their life and work to make the world a better place or to make their life easier.

      And as for what is “good science”, that is like suggesting what is “good economics”. Science is not nearly as concise as science-based people think. Also, there is so much more than just science. So much more.

      Thank you for your wonderful questions. Dr. Mark

  15. […] Mark R. Johnson has said almost exactly what Abrantes has said here, and his opinion carries additional weight because he has handled wild wolves and feral dogs both […]

  16. […] David Mech, H. Dean Cluff Is dominance always bad..(with a response from Mech […]

  17. […] the real world, there are real wolves and real wolf experts, same as there are real packs of dogs and real dog […]

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