What’s the Deal with Dominance?

What’s the Deal with “Dominance”?

Roberta Press, Lead Trainer, CPDT-KA

Let’s talk dom­i­nance for a minute. I’m going to ask you to put aside the idea of a “dom­i­nant dog” while we look at the sci­en­tif­ic def­i­n­i­tion of dom­i­nance, which is essen­tial­ly that dom­i­nance is the out­come of a social inter­ac­tion. I’ll give you an exam­ple:

1506807_673979126001434_224215624_nThis pho­to shows my two dogs. Ojo, the black dog on the left, is about two and a half, a rel­a­tive­ly recent addi­tion to our fam­i­ly. On the right is Cobi, almost six years old and we’ve had her for most of her life. They’re both res­cue dogs, both females.

Right now I’m at my com­put­er, and as it’s near­ing din­ner time my two dogs are get­ting a bit antsy. A few min­utes ago I asked them to set­tle, and of course they both made a bee­line for the donut bed which is the most com­fy spot in the office. On a col­li­sion course, both rush­ing towards the bed, Cobi gave Ojo a “look” and Ojo imme­di­ate­ly backed off. Cobi set­tled into the bed, while Ojo made a few cir­cles and then chose a blan­ket near­by.

The two dogs want­ed the same resource (the donut bed). Cobi got it, so in this case she is the dom­i­nant dog. And this is usu­al­ly how it pans out in my house — if there’s a dis­pute over an item or a spot, Ojo usu­al­ly defers and Cobi gains dom­i­nance.

But this sto­ry doesn’t end here. Also in the donut bed was the new squeaky sheep I bought them yes­ter­day. Cobi picked it up in her mouth and gave it a few good squeaks. Ojo imme­di­ate­ly leaped up and came over to exam­ine the sit­u­a­tion. She decid­ed that she want­ed that squeaky toy. She want­ed it very bad­ly.

So she began to whine. She barked. She made these fun­ny “grrrm­r­rr” nois­es, half growl, half plead­ing whine. More whines, more barks. Final­ly Cobi stood up and vacat­ed the donut bed, leav­ing the toy behind. Ojo imme­di­ate­ly launched into the bed and grabbed the toy. Squeak squeak squeak.

So who is the dom­i­nant dog now? In this case it would be Ojo, because she got con­trol of the desired resources, both the bed and the toy.

Dom­i­nance is flu­id. It changes from sce­nario to sce­nario, some­times very rapid­ly. As I not­ed above, in many cas­es Cobi gains dom­i­nance over Ojo, but not always. And this cer­tain­ly doesn’t make her dom­i­nant over me or any of the oth­er humans in the fam­i­ly. (Guess who gets the couch? We do. The tasti­est food? That’s us humans too.)

Speak­ing of humans, here’s a human exam­ple. I work for Sherry’s busi­ness, and as such you could say that she has dom­i­nance over me. What she says goes, at least in our dog class­es. How­ev­er, she came over to my house for din­ner last night. Does she retain “dom­i­nance” in this sit­u­a­tion? Not at all. In that case I was the one telling her where to sit and what to eat. (Although she didn’t seem to mind!)

The con­cept of “dom­i­nance” is flu­id. In us, and in our dogs as well.

To fin­ish, I’d like to leave you with this thought…

I con­trol what my dogs eat and when they eat. I con­trol where they sleep. I con­trol whether or not they get to repro­duce (they don’t, they’re both spayed). I con­trol when and often even where they get to pee and poop. I con­trol where they walk each day, and for how long. I con­trol whether they are sport­ing dogs or couch pota­toes.

I have an awful lot of con­trol over their lives. Does the fact that one of them dash­es out the door in front of me make them dom­i­nant over me? Nope. They just want to get out­side faster, that’s all…

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