Humping, jumping, pulling, barking…you might hear any or all of these sometimes referred to as dominant behaviour in dogs. The same might be said of dogs who get to eat before their owners, or dogs who walk through doorways before their owners. Dominance in dogs has been, and often still is, thought of as dogs’ attempt to obtain leadership, or an “alpha” role, over their “pack”. The pack would of course typically be attributed to wolves, but in the context of pet dogs this dominance theory has extended the idea of a pack to also apply to the human families that our pet dogs live with.
If you remember one thing from this post, this is what I want you to remember: The above theory about dominance in dogs is nonsense.
This theory originally came about from observations of captive wolves in the 1940s, and the theory was that wolves, and therefore, by default also dogs, would engage in violent exchanges with each other or anyone in their social circle in order to obtain “top dawg” status.
However, wolves in captivity will not behave the same way as wolves in the wild; they do not have the opportunity to form natural packs, to choose where to live, or to find their own resources. Instead, they are often adult wolves from different families, chucked together in a confined space, forced to cohabitate and share limited resources. Of course fights are going to break out. It’s like putting men from different backgrounds and families in a prison, and then making sweeping conclusions about the social behaviour of men in general based on the observations made in that prison alone. And since the observations made on wolves in captivity are so freely also applied to domesticated dogs, that’s like applying the observations made in a male prison also to chimpanzees.