Exploring Dominance A Bit More

I just had such a wonderful group of questions from a reader that I decided to present this as a post so more people will see it.   I hope you will enjoy this exploration.  Dr. Mark

Dr. 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 and humans 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 me when 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.

With dog handling, I think of dominance as a relationship between two animals (including between people and dogs since we are all animals)  in which one is exerting an influence which motivates the other to do what they may not want to do.  But this does not have to be punitive or demeaning or negative.  It can be something as simple as a dog raising his tail to send a message.

People have many definitions of dominance and may not like mine.  That is okay.  The problem with definitions of dominance is that most people cannot comprehend a good or positive from of dominance. They often have a lot of stories attached to their concept of “dominance”. You refer to a human using “positive punishment” and I do not know what situation you are referring tom but I am not endorsing or encouraging any form of punishment or punitive or demeaning actions.  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 and terrified.  In this case you must be firm, yet convince him to hand everything over to you in order to save his life.

Most people cannot comprehend a positive form of dominance so here is another way to describe how we are using the Y pole properly.   The Y pole is simply a metal extension of your hand.  Use the Y pole to comfort the dog and earn his confidence enough to relax.  Typically, he finds that when he does relax, there is only compassion and respect and an energy that 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 you do not like the word “dominance” referred to in a relationship between two different species, that is okay with me.  Use the words “leadership” and “confidence” and combine that with a calm and compassionate manner.  These discussions 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 referring to “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.  Science cannot quantify compassion and intuition.  And the relationship and connection between the handler and the dog is a very personal thing that cannot be replicated for all people.  That is one of the challenges in teaching this compassionate form of dog capture and handling.

Thank you for your wonderful questions.  Dr. Mark

One Response

  1. I totally agree with you Dr. Mark. I have seen so many people say different things with respect to dominance. I don’t think when your dealing with a frightened animal that being dominant with a forwardness to your stance is at all helpful to the situation. The body language and quiet approach is more respectful to a frightened animal than an overly forward dominance. Sometimes the “book smart” people do not understand that that can make a situation with a frightened animal so much worse.

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