A Rose By Any Other Name?

Is this a dominance hierarchy or bunk bed?

They say a rose by any other name is still a rose, unless if you’re naming it ‘tulip’ I won’t know what you are describing. We may both understand that you are talking about a flower, but if you are ordering a dozen roses and ask for tulips you’ll be in for a big surprise when they arrive.

We look at animals and come up with ways to describe and define what we observe. It’s important and helpful work. When we look at wolves and then at dogs we come to conclusions about what is going on among them. The terms we use and the conclusions we come to may be right on, or not. We may be talking about behavior between animals, but if we label something ‘dominance’ and it’s actually ‘fear’ our response to the animal’s behavior may get us a result that surprises us. Or worse, angers us.

Different cultures perceive things differently. This is most obvious when it comes to food preferences. Offer a Nepali a cup of salty tea made with yak milk and chances are good their brains will register that something good is on its way. Hand a steaming cup to someone from the UK and they’ll be challenged to suppress a grimace at first sip. These differences do not end with food. Brains learn to prefer all kinds of things over other things. There are studies which found that American brains register ideas of ‘dominance’ more rewarding than do the brains of people from Japan. Their brains register concepts of ‘submission’ more rewarding. It’s difficult to read about this and not come up with value judgements about which, dominance or submission, is ‘best’. And the culture you come from is likely to affect that conclusion.

Following is a not so uncommon occurrence in our home:

My most fearful dog Sunny is asleep on the floor, somewhere in the path of where I need to travel. As I approach he merely opens his eyes to follow my movement. He does not make any attempt to move out of my way. I step around him.

Is his behavior an indication that he thinks he is dominant to me and doesn’t have to get out of my way or has he simply learned that he doesn’t have to move because I’ve never stepped on him, tripped on him, kicked him or yelled at him in the past when he’s been lying somewhere and I walk toward him?

What if instead of thinking of the social structures among dogs in ways that cause us to feel threatened, as many do when told that their dog is trying to ‘dominate’ them, we thought about each individual within the group having their own traits and inclinations which cause them to behave particular ways. Some are more willing to assert themselves, others more willing to compromise. Some are afraid and behaving aggressively because of it. Others are so excited about something that the last thing on their mind is that you want to go out the door in front of them.

One of the most damaging concepts to come out of pop dog training is the idea of ‘dominance’ being a primary motivator for dogs. Dogs, like other animals, do what works for them. I’m going to guess that few have the same kinds of dreams of power and influence that some people have. Heaven help the dogs who get in their way.

Join me in Santa Cruz CA on September 9, 2012 for a seminar on helping dogs with fear based behavior challenges.

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6 comments so far

  1. engineer chic on

    I might offend some with this comment … But I think it’s funny how people who see dogs as dominant or submissive are so determined to TELL people when they see a dog exhibiting behavior they interpret as dominant. I see that as a sort of dominance in and of itself 🙂

    Example: S jumps up when he needs reassurance. If we are on a walk in a new place he often jumps up. It feels totally different when he jumps on me in greeting or in play. Reassurance jumps are sideways, usually only 1 foot makes contact and it’s a glancing blow or he uses the one foot to keep his balance while looking around from the elevated position. Play time or “OMG you’re back!!” jumps are straight on, 2 feet, and a head on kind of pushing effect. They feel harder and more forceful.

    But I’ve had random strangers see S do his reassurance jumps and say, “he seems a little pushy, is he normally this dominant?”.

    It’s a great way to separate the wheat from the chaff in dog trainers, though. Smart trainers ASK me if he jumps up often (assuming an owner might have a clue is always a nice trait for a trainer to have). One BRILLIANT trainer said, “He’s obviously nervous, we aren’t going to correct him for jumping like this.” when she first saw S and he started jumping for reassurance. I was so shocked that a stranger could understand this I almost fell over 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      I may offend some by saying that any decent trainer should be able to tell the difference between a dog who is happy, nervous, anxious, upset, playful or confident. Alas we know many can’t.

      It doesn’t take much for many of us to offer advice on any number of topics we only have passing experience with. Heck. I read Prevention Magazine, I could probably open up a clinic!

  2. Barbara on

    great comment. in addition to your comment about dominance i am attaching a shortcut to an article on the subject from dr. sophia yin: http://drsophiayin.com/philosophy/dominance/

  3. Lynn on

    This whole dominance issue has been on my mind lately, because as Tulip becomes more confident around humans, she seems to be getting bossy with other dogs. She’s always enjoyed the company of the neighborhood dogs, but now sometimes she’ll see them off when she’s had enough play (just with a quick “grrrr”), or try to stop them from playing with Jasmine, or from getting a treat from me. I make the dogs sit in a row for treats, so that last one doesn’t work – and Tulip seems glad to comply when I step in. Her behavior looks a little “dominant,” but is it just natural among dogs themselves?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Without seeing the ‘bossy’ behavior I couldn’t say for sure what was going on but some sound like resource guarding, which could be described as a dog being afraid they will lose something they value. Some dogs are aroused by other dogs playing and for one reason or another try to interrupt it.

      I think that dogs have preferences for things, feel more or less strongly about stuff, and are more or less willing to behave in certain ways to make what they want happen. Dogs use different behaviors to get the same result. One dog may growl and snap at another dog to get them to stop bothering them, another dog may roll over or sit down and disengage from the interaction until the other dog gives up trying.

      If I see a behavior that is of concern, I try to change the emotional response the dog is experiencing and teach them an alternate behavior that works for both of us.

  4. Donna in VA on

    re dog lying in path and not bothering to move for me – mine does the same. I think it is a matter of trust. I won’t intentionally step on him. If I accidentally trip over him in the dark, he seems to know it and does not retaliate. I think it’s also my body language. I think my movements are much more graceful/predictable/intentional than my husband’s for example. Hubby is always one to drop things, injure himself, and break stuff. He just does not seem to pay attention to the space around him and the dog reacts to that appropriately.

    The other thing my dog does is bring his Kong under the table when we are eating. He is right under our feet. If we need to get up or move, there is always the indignant snark when he is disturbed. One morning I slowly moved my foot towards Kong in order to get out of the chair, and he got the message and took Kong away without the snark of protest first.


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