Many canine behaviorists agree that when it comes to dominance, poochesdon’t try to compete with people

Late last year, my girlfriend and I adopted a middle-aged beagle mix namedCleo. She is an unusually beautiful creature with a long snout that gradesfrom brown to white, ears that flap like a cartoon swan’s wings as she walksand the muscular shoulders of a boxer — heavyweight human, not the Germanbreed. She is also both obstinate and cantankerous, fixated on food andfrequently aggressive toward other dogs, especially the adorable puppy thatlives on the first floor of our building. When Cleo came to live with us, Iwas unthinkingly convinced that we had to be firm with her if we wanted tocorrect these behavioral issues, sure that she wouldn’t respect us if wedidn’t prove that we were in charge — that we were, to use a word I thought Iunderstood: dominant.

As I would learn, that idea has little to no basis in the actual science ofcanine behavior. Most of the available research indicates that dogs do engagein behaviors of dominance and submission, but not that they try to competewith us for control over the domestic environments in which they live.Important questions still remain, however, especially about whether dogsrecognize our putative dominion over them.

Somewhere to the side of these scientific debates, the conviction that we haveto dominate our dogs is still widely established in dog-rearing circles: Adocument on the SPCA of Texas’s website instructs pet owners: “In order foryour home to be a safe and happy place for pets and people, it’s best that thehumans in the household assume the highest positions in the dominancehierarchy.” Some animal trainers, especially those influenced by Cesar Millanand the monks of New Skete, take such ideas to extremes, advocating physicallyaggressive techniques such as the “alpha roll” — in which a disobedient dog isforced onto its back — supposedly drawn from observation of wolves. Even themild form of the belief that dogs compete with humans for dominance tends toelicit all sorts of contortions from owners eager to prove themselves packleader: insisting on passing through doors before their dogs do, for example,or always eating first.

Much of that, as it happens, is regarded as nonsense by ethologists —scientists of animal behavior — who focus on dogs. Indeed, they contend thatattempts to dominate our dogs can range from the merely unhelpful to theactively harmful. “All you’re doing with that is confusing the dog,” saidJames Serpell, professor of ethics and animal welfare at the University ofPennsylvania. “And what you end up with is frightening the dog and making itmore aggressive.”

With such observations in mind, some dog trainers and advocates have arguedthat there’s simply no such thing as dominance in dogs. Serpell and otherscientists tend to characterize this position as an overcorrection, but thosewho espouse it often begin by questioning the homology between dogs andwolves. It’s true, they acknowledge, that dogs evolved from wolves, but almostcertainly from a species that is no longer extant, which means thatcomparisons with animals living today aren’t directly useful here. Further,they point out that **** many of the ideas about dominance and aggression thathave been espoused by trainers such as Millan are based on observation ofcaptive timber wolves, not wild ones.

Of course, wolves in wild packs do exhibit dominance hierarchies, but thatdoesn’t necessarily mean domestic dogs do. * In his book “Dog Sense,”behaviorist John Bradshaw describes a study that he and his colleaguesconducted at a British sanctuary, which found that dogs showed no “inclinationto form anything like a wolf pack, especially when they are left to their owndevices” — that is, no hierarchy that determines who gets access to what andwhen they get it. * Although Bradshaw acknowledges that dogs can becompetitive, he rejects the premise — central to Millan-style thinking — that“the dog is driven to set up a dominance hierarchy wherever it finds itself,”holding instead that “the use of ‘dominance’ and ‘hierarchy’ to account forthe behavior of pet dogs can no longer be justified.”

Source:Jacob Brogan Washington Post

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