Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Mea Culpa to Mech, an Apology to Bekoff

When it comes to understanding canine behavior, Dr. David Mech—the world's leading expert on wolves—and Dr. Mark Bekoff—the world's leading expert on coyotes and canine play—are two of my biggest heroes. So imagine my chagrin to discover that they're both irritated with me.

I wrote a piece last week titled "Deconstructing the Dominance Myth (Again...)," which was a response to a personal blog post written by Dr. Roger Abrantes, posted on another part of the internet, far, far away. The main thrust of my article wasn't that dominant behaviors don't exist, but that the terms we're using to describe them are anthropomorphic, and that saddling dogs with these labels is harmful to any dogs whose behaviors may, in fact, be the result of stress or anxiety, not dominance.

I now realize, and freely admit, that I made mistakes in my article, mistakes I wasn't aware of until Dr. Bekoff pointed them out to me here.

My first mistake was referring to the concept of dominance as a myth. That's a charged word, one that carries with it the implication that scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding animal behavior are all operating under some kind of mass delusion. I deeply regret making that insinuation, however unintentionally. In recent years, it's become fairly common in the dog training world for some of us to talk about "the myth of dominance" in a somewhat cavalier way. What's generally meant by this is that the idea of dominating a dog, as the basis for a training system, isn't based on real science and can be harmful to the human-canine bond.

Dr. Bekoff also took me to task for the following passage:

"Dr. David Mech, the world's leading expert on wolves, says that in 13 years of studying the wolves on Isle Royale in Michigan he never saw any displays of dominance. In other packs Mech says that dominance displays are so rare as to be almost nonexistent."

I turns out that this isn't exactly true. I was basing what I said on the following passage from a 1999 paper ("Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs," Canadian Journal of Zoology.): "In natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none." (I made another mistake by getting the geographical location of Mech's studies wrong.)

Dr. Bekoff apparently sent a copy of my post to Dr. Mech, who responded with the following: "A quick scan of the Kelley article reveals much misinformation attributed to me. This misinterpretation and total misinformation like Kelley's has plagued me for years now. I do not in any way reject the notion of dominance."

In his post, Dr. Bekoff pointed me (and other readers) to a 2010 paper written by Dr. Mech and H. Dean Cluff ("Prolonged Intensive Dominance Behavior Between Gray Wolves, Canis lupus") in which they write: "Dominance is among the most pervasive and important behaviors of wolves in a pack."

Clearly, I'm not keeping up on my research. So I was wrong to insinuate, here and in other pieces I've written on dominance, that Mech believes dominance is rare or doesn't exist at all in wild wolf packs. I apologize for my mistake and will attempt to make corrections to all the pieces I've written that contain this outdated view (there are a lot of them).

But wait. It gets worse!

My thesis about the cause of dominance and submission—as outlined briefly in my post—is that they're primarily the result of a wolf's internal tension and stress. But in the comments section of Dr. Bekoff's post, Simon Gadbois, from the Canid Behaviour Laboratory at Dalhousie University in Halifax, wrote: "My PhD thesis was on social stress in wolves... Jane Packard, that had done the stress studies with Mech in the 80's was on my committee. Here I can tell you that your interpretation is wrong because you are over-generalizing. We simply do not have enough data to jump to the conclusions that you get to."

I freely admit that I am guilty of over-generalizing. That tends to happen in a short blog post. But it's also true that I have no academic training, and perhaps as a result, I have a tendency to think in broad strokes and connect some dots that might not warrant such connections. I see patterns in the data and assume correlations, but have little or no evidence that a causal relation exists. So that's another mistake on my part. (Dr. Gadbois has kindly agreed to share his research with me, so I'll be looking it over to see where my errors in thinking have occurred in this area)

However, I don't think I'm totally alone in the idea that a wolf's (or a dog's) emotional states or stress levels may be relevant to the frequency or occurrences of dominant behavior. In fact, on a personal note, Dr. Jane Packard writes, "I tend to think of the alpha behavioral profile as an internal state or mood. Moods are subject to change as the health and environment of the individual change." (Wolves: behavior, ecology, and conservation, Edited by L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani, 2003.) To me this suggests a certain, perhaps small, similarity in thinking about the causes of dominant behavior. (Or maybe I'm still connecting dots I shouldn't.)

Finally, as I said, the two main thrusts of my reply to Dr. Abrantes was that I think the words dominance and submission come laden with a lot of baggage that can be very harmful to dogs diagnosed with dominant tendencies, etc., when in fact the dog may just be anxious or stressed. Tell a dog owner that their dog has "alpha tendencies" and there's no way out. Stress and anxiety, on the other hand, are potentially fixable. However, while such matters may concern scientists on a personal level, they're of no concern to science in general. In other words, science can't change its positions just to be helpful to dogs and their owners.

My other main point was that I think the words dominance and submission—and in particular the way Dr. Abrantes' has defined them—are anthropomorphic, and that the scientific language needs to be changed. (One of the things I love about reading Dr. Bekoff's research is that he assiduously avoids being anthropomorphic; the same goes for Dr. Mech.)

My biggest error was thinking anything I posted here could in any way influence a change in scientific language. That was not only extremely naïve on my part, it was also, perhaps, the height of arrogance.

Since I consider myself a neo-Freudian dog trainer, and since young puppies doexhibit behaviors that could be viewed as dominant and submissive, behaviors that take place before the pup's brains are fully developed (meaning they're the products of unconscious urges, not rational thought processes), these labels may not be as anthropomorphic as I thought. It all depends on one's point of view. The truth is, everyone has their own ideas about what dominance is, what it looks like, how to describe it, and what to do about it. As Jane Packard writes, "Perhaps the relative importance of dominance varies with pack composition, food availability (and thus competition), and even the eyes of the beholder."

As for the concept of submission, I'm more than willing to submit to the greater wisdom of Drs. Mech, Bekoff, and Abrantes. And I sincerely apologize for my lapses in judgment and decorum.

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