The possible combinations of aggressive, fearful, dominant and submissive behavior in social canines (From "Dog Language" by Roger Abrantes, illustration by Alice Rasmussen). Copyrighted illustration.
The discussion on dominance has run away with us. There is only one thing more absurd and futile than that of taking pains to prove that dominance exists and this is to attempt to prove that dominance does not exist. In the following, I shall commit the first of these futile acts.
Dominance means in daily language “power and influence over others.” It means supremacy, superiority, ascendancy, preeminence, predominance, mastery, power, authority, rule, command, control. It has so many meanings and connotations that it’s difficult to know how to use it as a precise scientific term in the behavioral sciences. Additionally, the scientists who use it (as well as those who repudiate it) haven’t gone to great extents to define it accurately, contributing to the present confusion, to meaningless discussions, fall-outs, and nonsensical claims.
Wolf-dog hybrid (Image via Wikipedia).
It is my intention to remedy this firstly by demonstrating that dominance does exist, then, by establishing that it refers to one and the same class of behaviors independent of the species being discussed. I will then present a precise, pragmatic and verifiable definition of the term, which is compatible with evolutionary theory and our body of biological knowledge. Finally, I shall argue that even though it is true that a good (profitable and stable) relationship does not rely on continuous displays of dominance/submission from the same individuals toward the same individuals, this does not imply that dominance does not exist in dogs (or any other species). Denying that dominance exists in dogs has become a popular argument to defend the claim that we must not build a good relationship to our dogs on dominance.
It is absurd to argue that dominance does not exist when we have so many words to describe whatever it relates to. If it didn’t, we would not have even one word for it. That it exists means that we have seen it somewhere around us. We can argue that we observed it and that the term (1) refers only to particular human relations, or that (2) it refers to particular relations among humans as well as some other animal species. The second option seems more appealing, considering that it is highly improbable that a particular condition would exist for only one single species. It would conflict deeply with all we know about the relatedness and evolution of species.
In a stable pack, wolves display mostly dominant and submissive behavior and seldom aggressive and fearful behavior.
However, there is nothing implausible in stating that the term does not apply to describe the behavior of some particular species. On the contrary, two species which diverged from a common ancestor billions of years ago have evolved and developed characteristics of their own and differ both from the common ancestor and one another. By the same token, species closely related, only diverging from a common ancestor a few thousands year ago, will show various characteristics, similar or equal to the common ancestor and to one another. Some species share many common attributes as to phenotype, genotype and/or behavior, others less, some none at all. It all depends on their common ancestry and their adaptation to the environment.
Humans and chimpanzees (Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes) diverged from their common ancestor about six millions year ago and so we can expect them to be more different from one another than wolves and dogs (Canis lupus lupus and Canis lupus familiaris), only diverging from a common ancestor probably about 15-20 thousand years ago (and in no circumstances more than 100 thousand years ago). The human and the chimpanzee DNA differ in a higher degree than the DNA of wolf and dog (which is almost identical except for a few mutations). Humans cannot interbreed with chimpanzees; wolves and dogs can and produce fertile offspring. Humans and chimpanzees are two completely distinct species. Wolves and dogs are two sub-species of the same species.
These facts considered, we could expect wolves and dogs to show a great number of similarities, which they do, not only physically but also behaviorally. Any laymen will attest to that. Their similarities at one level or another is what makes it possible for them to mate, produce fertile offspring, and communicate. Nobody has questioned that wolves and dogs have a very large common repertoire of communication behaviors; and rightly so, for multiple observations have confirmed that they do communicate perfectly well. Their facial expressions and bodily postures are remarkably similar (except for a few dog breeds), with small differences being smaller than cultural features among some human geographically separated settlements.
If wolves and dogs can communicate, it follows then, that the basic and crucial elements of their languages must be the same. This means that even though they evolved in apparently distinct environments, they kept the most anchored elements of their genotypic characteristics. This may be for three reasons: (1) the common genotypes are vital to the organism, (2) the environments were not so crucially distinct after all, (3) evolution needs more time and more selective conditions (since it operates on phenotypes) before the genotypes begin to differ radically. (1) means that there are more ways of not being alive than being alive, or, in other words, that evolution needs time to come up with different, viable life forms. (2) means that even though wolves and (pet) dogs now live in completely different environments, the phenomenon is yet too recent. It is only in the last century that dogs became thoroughly humanized. Until then, they were our companions, domestic animals, but still had a large degree of freedom and the successful selective factors were basically the same as always. They weren’t pets yet and breeding was not totally (or almost totally) controlled by human selection. (3) means that we might one day (in a million years or so) have two completely distinct species, wolves and dogs. By then, they will not mate, will not produce fertile offspring and will show some completely different characteristics. They will have changed name to maybe Canis civicus, or Canis homunculus. However, we are not there yet!
Recent trends claim that “dominant behavior” does not exist in dogs, which poses some serious problems. There are two ways to argue in favor of such thinking. One is to dismiss “dominant behavior” downright, which is absurd since, for the reasons we saw above, the term exists, we know roughly what it means and we can have a meaningful conversation using it. It must, therefore, refer to a class of behaviors that we have observed. Another argument is to claim that wolves and dogs are completely different and that therefore, even though we can apply the term to explain wolf behavior, we cannot use it to describe dog behavior. If they were completely different, the argument would be valid, but they are not, as we have seen. On the contrary, they are very similar
A third alternative is to build a brand new theory to explain how two so closely related species as the wolf and the dog (actually sub-species) can have developed in such a short period (thousands of years) so many radically different characteristics in one aspect, but not others. This would amount to a massive revision of the entire complex of our biological knowledge with implications far beyond wolves and dogs and one which I find unrealistic.
A far more appealing approach, it seems to me, is to analyze the concepts we use and define them properly. This would allow for their more meaningful use when dealing with the different species, without running into incompatibilities with the entire body of science.
A proper definition of “dominant behavior” is important because the behavior it encompasses is crucial to the survival of the individual, as we shall see.
It appears to me a poor approach to dismiss the existence of facts underlying a term, just because that term is ill-defined, not to mention it being politically incorrect (which means that it doesn’t suit our immediate goals). Dominant behavior exists, merely that it is badly defined (when defined at all). Most discussions involving it are meaningless because none of the parts knows what exactly the other is talking about. However, we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water! Therefore, I suggest precise definitions of dominant behavior as well as all the terms we need to understand it, what it is, what it is not, how it evolved and how it functions.
Dominant behavior is a quantitative and quantifiable behavior displayed by an individual with the function of gaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without either party incurring injury. If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant. Its quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-confident to overtly assertive.
Dominant behavior is situational, individual and resource related. One individual displaying dominant behavior in one specific situation does not necessarily show it on another occasion toward another individual, or toward the same individual in another situation.
Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner, or a patch of territory. The perception of what an animal may consider a resource is species as well as individual related.
Aggressiveness (aggressive behavior) is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition while dominance, or social-aggressiveness, is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition from a mate.
Mates are two or more animals that live closely together and depend on one another for survival. Aliens are two or more animals that do not live close together and do not depend on one another for survival.
Dominant behavior is particularly important for social animals that need to cohabit and cooperate to survive. Therefore, a social strategy evolved with the function of dealing with competition among mates which caused the least disadvantages.
Animals show dominant behavior with various signals, visual, auditive, olfactory and/or tactile.
While fear (fearful behavior) is behavior directed toward the elimination of an incoming threat, submissive behavior, or social-fear, is behavior directed toward the elimination of a social-threat from a mate, i.e. losing temporary access to a resource without incurring injury.
A threat is everything that may harm, inflict pain or injury, or decrease an individual’s chance of survival. A social-threat is everything that may cause the temporary loss of a resource and may cause submissive behavior or flight, without the submissive individual incurring injury.
Animals show submissive behavior by means of various signals, visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.
Persistent dominant or submissive behavior from the same individuals may or may not result in a temporary hierarchy of a certain configuration depending on species, social organization and environmental circumstances. In stable groups confined to a defined territory, temporary hierarchies will develop more readily. In unstable groups, changing environmental conditions, in undefined or non-established territories, hierarchies will not develop. Hierarchies, or rather the involved strategies, are Evolutionarily Stable Strategies (ESS), always slightly unstable, swinging forth and back around an optimal value depending on the number of individuals in the group and the single strategies each one adopts at any given time. Hierarchies are not necessarily linear, although in small groups and with time, non-linear hierarchies seem to have a tendency to become more linear.
Some individuals will have a stronger tendency to show dominant behavior and others to show submissive behavior. This may depend on their genetic makeup, early learning, history, etc. We are not saying that there is one single factor determining this, rather a complex mixture. Let us call this a natural tendency, again not saying that it is not modifiable. It is a fact that some individuals are more assertive than others, while others are more condescending, for many reasons. We are not saying that it is good or bad, just stating a fact—whether it is good or bad, not in a moral sense, rather meaning more or less advantageous depending on context. On one to one encounters, all things being equal, individuals will more likely adopt the strategy they feel most comfortable with, hence maintaining their history of mostly dominant or mostly submissive.
When in a larger group, they will have the same tendency to play the roles they feel most comfortable with. However, this may change due to the accidental makeup of the group. Imagine a group with many individuals more often prone to showing submissive behavior than dominant and with only a few members of the opposite tendency. In this scenario, a naturally submissive individual would have a chance to gain access to resources by showing a more dominant behavior and being successful. Success breeds success and, progressively, this otherwise mostly submissive individual finds itself being mostly dominant. If the scenario opens the possibility for one individual to change its preferred strategy, then others will also have the same opportunities. The number of dominant individuals will increase, but the number of dominant individuals a group can sustain is not unlimited because at a certain point, it will be more advantageous to play the submissive strategy, all depending on benefits and costs.
Therefore, the number of dominant and submissive individuals in a group depends not only on the natural tendency of the individuals, but also of the make-up of the group as to these characteristics. Whether it pays off to play a dominant or a submissive role is ultimately a function of benefits and costs and the number of individuals that adopt the one particular strategy.
Understanding the relationship between dominant and submissive behavior as an ESS (Evolutionarily Stable Strategy) opens up exciting perspectives, which could help to explain the behavior adopted by any given individual, at any given time. A submissive individual will learn to play submissive toward more dominant ones and dominant toward more submissive ones. This means that no individual is in principle always dominant or submissive, it all rather depends on the opponent and, of course, the values of the potential benefit and estimated costs.
As a corollary, hierarchies (when existing) will always be slightly unstable depending on the adopted strategies by the individuals forming the group. Hierarchies don’t need to be linear and will only be in small groups or sub-groups.
In the opinion of this author, the mistake we have committed hitherto has been to regard dominance and submission as more or less static. We haven’t realized that these characteristics, as phenotypes and as all other traits, are constantly under the scrutiny and pressure of natural selection. They are adaptive, highly variable and highly quantitative and quantifiable.
As such, dominance and submission are dynamic features depending on different variables, a view which is compatible with the development of the behavior at the individual level, genetic functions, the influence of learning and, not least, evolutionary theory.
Dominance and submission are beautiful mechanisms from an evolutionary point of view. They are what enables (social) animals to live together, to survive until they reproduce and pass their (dominant and submissive) genes to the next generation. Without these mechanisms, we wouldn’t have social animals like humans, chimpanzees, wolves and dogs among many others.
If an animal resolves all inter-group conflicts with aggressive and fearful behavior, it will be exhausted when subsequently compelled to go and find food, a mating partner, a safe place to rest or take care of its progeny (all decreasing the chances for its survival as well as that of its genes). Thus, the alien and mate strategy originated and evolved. It is impossible to fight everybody all of the time, so a mate is confronted using energy-saving procedures.
Submissive and dominant behavior also control population density, since they rely on individual recognition. The number of personal recognitions an animal is capable of must have a limit. If this number exceeds a certain level it makes recognition inefficient, switching off the mate/alien strategy; fearful/aggressive displays, then, replace submissive/dominant behavior.
The strategy of submission is wise. Instead of vainly engaging in a desperate fight, waiting may prove much more rewarding. By employing pacifying and submissive behavior, subordinates are often able to shadow dominant animals and profit from opportunities to gain access to vital resources. By showing submission, they also gain advantages from the membership of the group—particularly defense against rivals.
Hierarchies work because a subordinate will often move away, showing typical pacifying behavior, without any obvious signs of fear. Thus, the dominant animal may simply displace a subordinate when feeding or at a desirable site. Hierarchies in nature are often very subtle, being difficult for an observer to uncover. The reason for this subtlety is the raison d’être of dominance-submission itself: the subordinate animal generally avoids encounters and the dominant one is not too keen on running into skirmishes either.
Fighting involves a certain amount of risk and can lead to serious injury, or even death. Evolution, therefore, shows a tendency towards favoring and developing mechanisms, which restrain the intensity of aggressive behavior. Most species have clear signals that show acceptance of defeat, which end combat before injury occurs.
To recognize sign-stimuli is the most important task for the infant immediately after birth. It saves its life. Compromise is the most relevant lesson a social youngster may learn after having learned fundamental life-saving sign-stimuli. It maintains the fitness of the social life of the group. Natural selection has proved this, as it favors individuals that develop behavior enabling them to stay together. Other animals, the solitary predators, do not need these social traits. These organisms found other ways of dealing with the maintenance of their metabolism and reproduction.
Learning to be social means learning to compromise. Social animals spend vast amounts of time together and conflicts are inevitable. It is sensible for them to develop mechanisms with which they can deal with hostilities. Limiting aggressive and fearful behavior by means of inhibition and ritualization is only partially safe. The more social the animal is, the more effective mechanisms are obligatory. Inhibited aggression is still aggression; it is playing with fire on a windy day. It works well for less social or less aggressive animals, but highly social and aggressive animals need other mechanisms.
In the long run, it would be too dangerous and too exhausting to constantly resort to aggression and fear to solve banal problems. Animals show signs of pathological stress after a time when under constant threat, or constantly needing to attack others. This suggests that social predators need mechanisms other than aggressiveness and fear to solve social animosities. It is my suggestion that social animals, through the ontogeny of aggression and fear, develop two other equally important social behaviors. If the meaning of aggression is ‘go away, drop dead, never bother me again’, the meaning of social-aggression is ‘go away, but not too far, or for too long.’ Equally, social-fear says ‘I won’t bother you if you do not hurt me,’ while existential-fear does not allow any compromise—‘It’s you or me.’
The significant difference between the two types of aggressive behavior seems to be the function. Aggression deals with the alien and social-aggression with the mate. Conversely, fear and social-fear deal with alien and mate. These are qualitative differences that justify the creation of new terms, hence dominance and submission.
What does this mean for our understanding of our dogs and our relationship with them?
It means that we all show dominant (self-confident, assertive, firm, forceful) behavior as well as submissive (insecure, accepting, consenting, yielding) behavior depending on many factors, e.g. state of mind, social position, resources, health status, opponent—humans as well as dogs (and wolves of course). There’s nothing wrong with it except when we show dominant behavior where it would be more advantageous to show submissive behavior and vice versa. Sometimes we may be more dominant or submissive and other times less so. These are highly quantitative and quantifiable behaviors, with many variables. There is not one single correct strategy. It all depends on flexibility and the strategy adopted by others.
Of course, we don’t build stable and profitable relationships in the long run by showing dominant or submissive behaviors’. These are necessary behaviors to solve the inevitable social conflicts. We build relationships on the necessity of partnership—we as well as dogs (and wolves of course)—to solve common problems related to surviving and preferably with an acceptable level of comfort. We do not build relationships on hierarchies, but they do exist and they do perform an important role in certain circumstances—for humans as well as dogs (and wolves of course)—sometimes more, sometimes less and sometimes not at all.
We build our particular (good) relationship with our dogs on partnership. We need them because they give us a sense of accomplishment that we don’t seem to get anywhere else. They need us because the world is overpopulated, the resources are limited and an owner provides food, protection, health care, a safe place and companionship (they are social animals). It’s too hard to be a little dog all alone out there in the big world! Sometimes, in this relationship, one of the parties recurs to dominant or submissive behavior and there’s nothing wrong with it as long as they do not both show the same behavior at the same time. If both show dominance or submission, they have a problem: they either run into a conflict that they will solve most of the time without any injury (the beauty of dominance and submission), or one of them will have to get his act together and find the bearings for both.
A good relationship with our dogs does not involve any particular and mysterious mechanisms. It’s basically the same as with all good relationships, taking into consideration the specific characteristics of the species and individuals involved. We don’t need new terms. We don’t need any new theories to explain it. We aren’t, after all, that special, nor are our dogs. We are all built from the same concept and with the same basic ingredients. All we need are good definitions and a less emotional and more rational approach. Use your heart to enjoy your dog (and life) and your reason to explain it (if you need it), not the other way around. If you don’t like my definitions, make others which are better (with more advantages and less disadvantages), but don’t waste your time (or anyone’s) with meaningless discussions and knee-jerk reactions. Life is precious and every moment wasted is one less bite of a cake that you’ve devoured without even realizing it.
This is how I see it and it looks beautiful to me—enjoy your cake!
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Thanks to Simon Gadbois (merci), Tilde Detz (tak), Victor Ros (gracias), Sue McCabe (go raibh math agate) and Parichart Abrantes (ขอบคุณครับ) for their suggestions to improve this article. The remaining flaws are mine, not theirs.
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