Pack Theory and Dominance in Domestic Dogs
Pack theory suggests that within a social group, there is a dominant member. According to Danish ethologist Roger Abrantes (1997) dominance in wolves is defined as ‘a drive directed towards the elimination of competition for a mate’. The human definition of dominance in psychology according to Dictionary.com is ‘the disposition of an individual to assert control in dealing with others’. Whilst it is known the humans are capable of wanting to be in charge or in control of every situation, it begs the question whether dogs feel the same. Applying this human theory to dogs would suggest the dogs have a theory of mind (Udell, Wynne, 2008) and are able to make forward plans and conscious decisions, along with being aware of motives and consequences. Previous research has shown that dogs make decisions based on the likelihood of reinforcement (Udell, Wynne 2008) so it is difficult to believe that a dog would assert dominance in the same way humans do.
Dr Ian Dunbar detailed the assumed flow chart for dominance in wolves as follows; wolf social structure can be explained by a purely linear dominance hierarchy in which there is a constant battle to become the alpha dog; domestic dogs are descended from wolves so therefore the same rules must apply; domestic dogs are constantly trying to dominate us and to avoid this, they should be treated harshly and should be dominant by us as owners. In actual fact it should look more like this; wolf pack structure is not simple and most groups live together harmoniously; domestic dogs are not wolves. The misleading assumption that dogs are dominant has come from the beliefs that a dog’s behaviour closely mimics that of a wolf and that a dog will aim to be dominant over a different species, in this case humans, although interspecies dominance has never been documented.
It has been well over a decade since the dominance theory in dogs was debunked. The American Veterinary Society for Animal Behaviour now actively urges veterinarians to avoid recommending trainers who use dominance-based methods (Stewart, 2007). Unfortunately some of these older methods have recently come to light thanks so certain TV personalities that advocate these methods. Cesar Milan is the most well known TV trainer to use dominant methods and will often use alpha rolls and many other techniques that have been scientifically proven to be incorrect.
Those that still believe that pack theory and dominance are prevalent in domestic dogs will most likely have the view that most behavioural problems arise from the dog trying to assert dominance. A recommended solution is for the owner to assert dominance and enforce a particular hierarchy because within a wolf pack behaviour is stable and aggression is minimised when the hierarchy is clear and strong. There are two major factors that must be considered for those who buy into this theory. The first is that in wild wolf packs this kind of hierarchy does not seem to exist, it is more common in captive wolves but therefore suggests that perhaps this is a bi-product of captivity and not a natural behaviour. The second is that feral dogs does not display a pack structure. If dogs did form packs with a dominance hierarchy like many believe, then we would expect this behaviour to be apparent in feral dogs.
Parker’s Resource Holding Potential (RHP) is also another interesting factor to examine when looking at pack structure and dominance in domestic dogs. Parker suggested that the animals use contests and fighting to resolve disputes over finite resources. The resources fought over can affect their fitness either directly (e.g., mating opportunities) or indirectly (e.g., food) (Palaoro and Briffa, 2017). The contests are frequently decided when one of the individuals flees the fight, or one animal kills the competitor. RHP relates to attributes such as size,, weight, experience, physiological state and many more (Batchelor et al, 2002; Hsu and Wolf, 2001; Parker 1974). It has also recently been suggested that some behavioural traits should be included in RHP such as boldness and daring (Rudin and Briffa, 2012). Further research has shown that that RHP is not useful when examining dog behaviour which is another factor that points to the fact the pack theory and dominance is less prominent if at all in domesticated dogs. (Bradshaw et al, 2009).
Pack theory was first bought to light by Robert Schenkel in 1947. Shenkel was a Swiss animal behaviourist who studied interactions between a pack of wolves at the zoological institute at the University of Basel. His observations did show a clear hierarchy in the wolf pack but the application of the study was limited as the pack was not in the wild. Additionally the so called alpha members were a breeding pair and their pack was made up purely of their offspring. Then in the early 1980’s, Robert Mech, a wolf behaviour expert and biologist, proved a lot of Schenkel’s work incorrect. He studied wolves in their natural habitat in Canada and found the packs behaved more like a family than a dictatorship. Whilst wolves and domestic dogs share a close genetic make up they are not as close as many believe. There are many variables such as where they live, how and what they eat and many more that influence behaviour, but it is hard to believe that pack theory and the dominance model that follows it is apparent in domestic dogs, when it is also not seen in wolves (Babaco, 2018).
Overall modern evidence suggests that whilst pack theory is apparent in wolves, many have confused the meaning of this assuming that pack structure dictates there must be a dominant individual who controls resources and fights to keep their position. Dogs are not wolves and whilst they do share some similar traits they differ hugely and it seems unlikely that they would display dominance in a pack structure if their ancestral cousins wolves do not. It’s even more unlikely that interspecies pack structure exists, this has never been documented however many believe that they need to be dominant over their dogs. Whilst there is no disputing that certain boundaries need to be in place in order for a dog to lead a happy, well balanced life and there must be some element of control from the caregiver, dominance in terms of submission and alpha has no place in modern dog training and behaviour and can have serious welfare implications.