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Dominance Theory - Fact or fiction?

When people talk about the "Dominance Theory" regarding canine behaviour they are referring to the natural behaviour and dominance hierarchies of Wolves.  The studies that this theory is based on were made on captive wolf packs, who showed unnatural behaviour.  Even if we study wild wolves we will see that they live relatively peacefully, in family groups and share duties. 


David Mech's (1999) research looking at the social order within wild wolf packs contradicts widely held beliefs about dominance hierarchies.  After observing wild wolf packs in Canada he concluded that the behaviour of non-captive wolves is very different  from captive wolves.  In non captive packs there is a natural order based on age.  During 13 years of study he did not once see dominance contests within the packs.


It is also important to note that wolves and dogs are not biologically or behaviourally the same.  Dogs differ from wolves in significant ways - dogs have smaller heads, smaller teeth and smaller brains.


"Wolves evolved as hunters and now generally live in packs consisting most often of family members." (Mech, 2000).


Pack members co-operate to hunt and to take care of offspring. In any given year, generally only the alpha male and alpha female mate, so that the resources of the entire pack can be focused on their one litter. Dogs, on the other hand, evolved as scavengers rather than hunters (Coppinger & Coppinger ,2001).


"The biological reality of all this is that the wolf is the distant cousin of the dog.  That canid family tree split and wolves and dogs went along their separate branches.  The wolf displays specialised adaptations to the wilderness and the dog displays specialised adaptations to domestic life.  The two canid cousins are adapted to different niches and they are very different animals because of it."(Coppinger & Coppinger, 2001)



Image by Thomas Bonometti
What is dominance?

According to msn Encarta online dictionary, dominance is described as:


1. power exerted over others: control or command wielded over others

2. first importance: prime importance, effectiveness, or prominence


Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission.

If dog owners follow the "Dominance Theory" they will be tempted to use coercive and forceful methods during training, including "the alpha roll".  Some dog owners have been told that if their dog is "dominant" they should roll the dog on his back until he submits.  This is not how wolves behave -  in a pack of wolves, higher-ranking wolves do not roll lower-ranking wolves on their backs.  The only thing an "alpha roll" is likely to achieve is a bite or the dog becoming fearful.


"Dogs do not think like wolves, nor do they behave like them.  Books about training dogs would have us believe that dogs get their behaviour directly from wolves.  We are advised to act like the pack leader, the alpha male and treat our dogs like subordinates.  Since dogs came from wolves, they say, dogs should behave like wolves, think like wolves and respond to wolf like signals.

But dogs can't think like wolves, because they do not have wolf brains.  We descended from apes, but we don't behave like them and we don't think like they do.  We are a much different animal than the apes in spite of our common genetic ancestry.  The same is true of the dog and its ancestor...............................Dogs do not understand such behaviours because the village dogs didn't have a pack structure; they were semi solitary animals.  Such behaviour by humans confuses them." (Coppinger, 2001)



There’s nothing wrong with providing some level of leadership to a dog, but it is important to remember that good leaders earn respect and trust through kindness and generosity, not force.

It is important to introduce consistent common-sense rules around the home that you want your dog to comply with for safety and perhaps convenience. These should be trained using positive reinforcement and not be based on trying to reduce his ‘dominance status’.

"To be descended from a wolf is not to be a wolf."(Coppinger & Coppinger, 2001)

So please don't treat your dog as if it were a wolf.



Coppinger, R & L.(2001). A new understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution.  University of Chicago Press



For further reading and information please see John Bradshaw's book "In defence of dogs".



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