Why dominance won’t die

leather clad torso with whipBefore I proceed, I have to respond to the title of this post with, “I only wish I knew.” I have some ideas, but I suspect reasons vary from trainer to trainer and pet owner to pet owner. However, as someone who has done a bit more than just dip my toes into the pool of information regarding dogs and their behavior, I am continually surprised by the perpetuation of certain myths and misinformation regarding these topics. I know I am not alone in my wonderment. Trainers, neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers also ponder the reasons and meaning of why humans cling to ideas that should have gone out of style ages ago having been shown to be based on inaccuracies, misunderstanding or outright lies.

Animal trainers know that we repeat behaviors we get rewarded for. That reward is defined by the animal ‘behaving’. So what it is about believing that dogs are primarily concerned with establishing dominance that is so rewarding to us? What is it about the excuse this belief gives us for justifying our response to them that is so rewarding to us? What is it about our response to a dog we define as trying to be dominant that is so rewarding to us? Or what is it that prevents us from changing our perception of a dog’s behavior even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary regarding dogs and the idea of ‘dominance’?

Perhaps Tolstoy explained it best when he wrote:

“I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”


26 comments so far

  1. Laurie Buchele on

    Amen!!! Great post. I am a positive reinforcement clicker trainer and run/own a small, local training business. This is truly the most difficult part of my job — convincing people that their dogs are not trying to “dominate” them or their kids, or their home, or their whatever! I think humans like to be right, and dominance is part of feeling “right.” And since many humans don’t like to think of their dogs as dogs (completely shortchanging these awesome creatures), it’s an easy “theory” to subscribe to. Thank you for the post and keep up the good work!!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Laurie. The machine that spews misinfo is very efficient. We just have to keep on keeping on. I find most people ‘get’ that dogs are more than just creatures hell bent on world domination once they have it explained in terms of their own behavior and feelings, score a point for humanity 😉 All the best to you in the work you are doing!

  2. honeysjourney on

    I personally believe it’s the need by humans to be dominate of something. We no longer have control of much, Government, work schedule or really our own life, we need to work to pay bills, high energy costs and the list goes on. There maybe a NEED to boss something around be it our kids or our dogs. We, as of late, go to war to dominate an entire country. Therefore the dominance theory fits nicely in our psyche

    We have been told dogs are descendant from Wolves and they have dominate structure, wrong I know, but that’s what has been published. Humans are descendants of cavemen, so the visual look at a caveman dragging HIS woman to the cave by her hair is dominance personified.

    It’s just the poor dog and some kids who suffer, IMHO.

  3. coinslott on

    So whats the point of this blog. Are you saying some dogs are not dominant? That dominance is made up? I’m not sure i get it. Your not actually denying the existance dominant personalities in dogs are you?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Actually yes I am denying the existence of dominant personalities. When referring to dogs, dominance is not a term that is used to describe personalities (I’m not saying that people don’t do use it this way, just that it is an incorrect use of the term). It is a term which describes relationships. These relationships typically involve access to resources. Some dogs care more about some stuff than they do about other stuff. Some dogs care more about some stuff, like their safety, because they are fearful. Their behavior reflects this and can look like a dog trying to be ‘dominant’.

      I am not saying that hierarchies among dogs do not exist, some dogs care a lot about who gets what within a group, or how others in the group behave. Or that some dogs are more or less confident than others. But to call a dog ‘dominant’ is like labeling someone who doesn’t know how to play the piano, ‘stupid’.

  4. hornblower on

    There’s an interesting book called Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts which examines human propensity for what is, in effect, cognitive dissonance.


    I think it’s quite relevant to this topic.

    I also think honeysjourney has a point – as people feel more disempowered, they want something they can control & dogs are not only conveniently there, they’re a unique animal which tolerates huge hardship from humans and still approaches us with a soft wag.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for the book suggestion, looks great. It’s a sorry state of affairs, IMHO, that we’ve lived with dogs as long as we have and can look at an animal offering appeasement gestures and think they ‘love’ us. Or actually enjoy knowing that they are in a sense pleading for their life.

      • KellyK on

        Can you give some examples of appeasement gestures versus affection gestures from dogs? My dog is both very lovey and easily scared, and I want to make sure I’m reading her body language correctly.

  5. Deborah Flick on


  6. Sue on

    Does it maybe come from people thinking they are better than someone or something else?
    I don’t think anyone is better than another. I do accept that some people are better at certain things than another.
    In the same way, one dog will deal with a situation better than another. Poppy, my ex puppy farm girl is much more fearful than Molly, but she deals with certain situations much better than Molly.
    Poppy has dealt with her 6 years of hell much better than i would have dealt with being incarcerated in a similar situation. I’m amazed at the way she deals with the hurdles she comes up against every day.
    I work in a hospital and the Doctor with all his qualifications, does his job much better than i could. However, i don’t think he could do my job as well as i can!
    We are all special for one reason or another and the way to get the best of everyone is to all work together.
    I think it’s mainly about respect, which is sadly lacking in the world today…firstly between people and most definitely between people and animals.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Dogs really are amazing creatures aren’t they. Somewhere along the way we began to take it for granted.

  7. Lizzie on

    Sue is quite right, respect is sadly lacking around us today.
    Whilst at the vets with Gracie this afternoon, I witnessed a woman bring a tiny puppy into the waiting room. This pup could only have been about 8 weeks old, but it had around it’s neck a pink collar adorned with fake, (I think) jewels and of course, the matching lead.

    This woman initially sat down with the pup on her lap but then decided that she wanted to wander around looking at the dog food for sale. She plopped the pup on the floor which was bad enough but then proceeded to drag the wee dog by it’s neck as she paid no attention to the fact that it was not only unused to being on a lead but terrified of it’s surroundings as well and she had seemingly no idea of either. As she passed by me I couldn’t help myself and scooped the pup up saying to her, ‘don’t drag her along like that she’s scared’. I was saved by the vet at that point who came into the waiting room, saw what was going on and told the woman to keep the dog off the floor as it hadn’t been vaccinated yet!

    It was Gracie’s vet as it happened and we gave each other that knowing look and a deep sigh of dismay rose up from my throat.

    What chance has a dog got when saddled with an owner like that? In her case it was not so much dominance just sheer ignorance. Makes my blood boil……

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good for you for picking up the pup and saying something.

  8. fearfuldogs on

    Appeasement gestures vs affection. Hmmmm..actually I’d have to say it depends on the situation, our interpretation of the behavior and finally, and unfortunately ultimately incomprehensible, is the dog’s intention. But we can make good guesses and assumptions. A dog that lowers their head and body and flops onto their back on an initial greeting is probably feeling something very different from a goofy lab that has just cleared the coffee table with their tail and does the same thing. A dog may come up and give me ‘kisses’ because they are happy to see me or they may be checking to see what I had for lunch (and hopefully still happy to see me)or as an appeasement gesture and is part of being happy. But don’t know exactly which it is.

    I watch dogs. I see how their behavior affects the behavior of other dogs. I am self-reflective and try to notice how their behavior affects how I feel. I try to keep track of how the way I feel affects the way I behave. I notice whether after offering me a behavior a dog chooses to stay close to me or move away. I do trust my gut in many cases, but I also try to make sure I run it by my head too.

    • KellyK on

      Thanks! I’m definitely getting the idea that there’s no real one-to-one correspondence with dogs’ body language (tail wag always means X, ears this way always means Y), and that it’s more a matter of taking the whole picture into account.

      • fearfuldogs on

        I think that is the case Kelly. Everything needs to be put into context. But it is likely that you will see consistency with some body language and what it is likely to indicate in general.

  9. Megan on

    I think a lot of it has to do with the “ease of use” of the dominance theory. (Can it even be considered a theory? Surely not a theory in science terms.)

    I’ve seen dominance used to explain any and all behavior that people don’t like in a dog, simply because it’s subjective and not based on any facts that people need to learn or read about. Anyone can say that any behavior is some form of dominance, and no one needs any formal education in order to do so. There is no need to understand any sort of behavioral science or scientific concepts.

    “Oh, your dog won’t listen when you tell him to come? He’s asserting his dominance.” “Oh, your dog jumps on you? He’s trying to dominate you.” “Oh, you’re dog ate your favorite shoes? He’s trying to show you that those are his shoes, not yours.” “You better remind him who’s in charge!” “Oh, your pup barks and growls on leash when he sees other dogs? He’s dominant aggressive.”

    I could go on forever, really. I’ve heard just about every behavior in dogs explained via dominance. In fact, I was once told that my hand-shy fearful dog was trying to show people she was dominant by ducking away from their hands after I asked them not to pet her. I was told, “She’s trying to show me she’s in charge of me by not letting me pet her, you really should get her dominance in check.”

    My point is that it’s so easy to look at a behavior and say “he’s just being dominant, show him you’re in charge and you will be fine.” It’s a lot easier than spending time reading, learning, and understanding all the intricacies of behavior.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Kinda of like one stop shopping for behavior challenges. 😉

    • KellyK on

      I think you’re onto something. It’s a simple, quick easy explanation for absolutely everything. It’s also convenient because it makes it a problem with the dog’s personality rather than with the way people interact with dogs.

      Explaining a shy dog’s behavior as dominant really just takes the cake though. I guess it’s proof of how good people are at twisting what they see to fit their existing beliefs about how the universe works.

  10. Lizzie on

    On a lighter note, if I may; is the latest video of Gracie’s progress.

    Once a dog who couldn’t cope with a camera pointing at her, amongst other things, now doesn’t bat an eyelid. No dominace required to achieve this!

    I love the way she simply walks off at the end 🙂

    • Debbie on

      No worries Lizzie. Nice to see dogs feeling better!

      Sent from my iPod

    • KellyK on

      Awww…good for Gracie. She did great with the brain game too. I love how at the end when she’d gotten all the blue pieces out and could slide the brown ones, she went through almost systematically trying to make sure she didn’t miss any treats. And she looked so happy.

  11. Lizzie on

    Apologies Debbie I hadn’t expected the video to appear, I thought it would just be the link. Sorry.

  12. melfr99 on

    I think that Tolstoy quote pretty much sums it all up. I’ve long wondered the same thing Debbie.

    I was starting to believe that for some people dominance was a way to reassert their power when they feel so powerless these days. Perhaps there is truth there too, but I have to admit the Tolstoy quote rings so true.

  13. Leah Roberts on

    I can tell you in two words why this ridiculous concept that all dog behavior is attributed to this mythical “dominance” won’t die – Cesar Millan. In our society our idols and icons are TV personalities. If only people would realize that this guy is a celebrity playing the part of a dog expert and not take his word as gospel, dogs all over the world would be treated more fairly and sensibly.

  14. Barbara D. Brill on

    In our society, sad to say, many people were raised by parents who used punitive child-rearing methods — most likely out of a need to feel in control. When those children grow up, they, too, are likely to use punishment-based child-rearing and pet-rearing practices unless something comes along to change their minds. Our society is extremely punishment oriented. Because of this character trait, it’s a difficult mindset to overcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: