What is dominance?
Updated: Sep 15, 2022
I was inspired today to talk about dominance by a fantastic dog trainer in North Carolina. I think it's a concept that's frequently misunderstood, and often misapplied in the best of intentions - and the reason for the misapprehension is that the concept of dominance isn't well understood in our culture as a whole.
Dominance often has connotations with power, control, and violence in modern society. However, in ethology it has a very specific meaning and a limited scope of description - dominance is the direction of each pairwise interaction, a status that can change daily, contextually, and continually. A dominant animal is simply the individual who tends to be the most capable individual in most interactions.
I like to tell students that in the arena of dog training, I am dominant, but in their professional arena, I am submissive. This seems to help them understand the nature of true dominance - it is yeilded by the submissive actor, not taken by the dominant actor.
This misapprehension about dominance is directly observable mostly in those individuals who themselves are of middling rank socially. When you have questions of leadership and infighting arise, it is almost always in the middle ranks of a social group, not between the most dominant animal and anybody else. Dominant animals rarely have to defend their positions because they are strong, and stable. If one of the middling ranks is put in a position of authority, it often goes poorly because they are overwhelmed, and often this leads to unnecesary violence as they struggle to defend their weak position.
I see very frequently problems arise when an old dog passes, as suddenly there is nobody in charge of the remaining individuals, who then descend upon each other to attempt to figure out who takes responsibility. My suggestion to most is to plan for such an event by making sure you always have a calm, stable dog around - the calmer and more reasonable a dog, generally the more dominant they are.
Capitalize on the fact that dogs transmit cultural information to each other, and teach each other, by ensuring your old dog has a ready and capable apprentice before the question arises.
(In this picture, Anchor yeilds dominance to me by rolling over and showing me his belly. He's also angling for belly rubs.)
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