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Social Dominance in Dogs. In multidog households, a hierarchy exists. Here's how to interpret it


© 2008 Dog Watch

No portion of this article may be reproduced without permission of the copyright holder. Reprinted with permission from Dog Watch.

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We recently spoke to a woman who had been bitten in the hand when she attempted to break up an altercation between her two family dogs. When we questioned her about what preceded her young shepherd mix Barons attack on Keesha, her 10-year-old Labrador mix, she was confused about why the fight had occurred.

The dog owner was told by several people that Baron was trying to establish his dominance over Keesha. Solving the problem would require supporting Barons dominant position over Keesha. The word "dominance" is tossed around quite loosely as an explanation for dog behavior, and it seems the people using the term aren't always clear what they mean by it.

Simply put, social hierarchies (sometimes called dominance hierarchies or pecking orders) help animals that live in groups to allocate access to important resources. Usually (but not always), animals in more dominant roles in relationships have priority access to preferred locations, valuable items and social partners. Animals in subordinate roles give way to more dominant ones. In a stable hierarchy, if we were to observe interactions in such a group, we'd likely see subordinate animals often avoiding more dominant ones.

Let's apply this abbreviated understanding of social dominance to Baron and Keesha. Ruth, the dogs' owner, reports Keesha does not challenge Baron for toys, food or treats, attention from her, space on the couch or bed or anything else. This indicates that Baron is clearly in a dominant role in his relationship with Keesha, while Keesha has assumed the subordinate one.

Notice that we speak of dominant and subordinate roles, not animals. Dominance is not a personality trait. The term "dominant dog" should merely be a shorthand way of saying "the dog in the dominant role in a specific relationship" — and not used to describe a supposedly inherent characteristic of a dog.

If Keesha is deferring to Baron, a stable hierarchy exists among the dogs, with clearly defined social roles for Keesha and Baron. Ruth was told to support Baron's "dominance" over Keesha. Baron, however, is already in a dominant role with Keesha, as evidenced by Keesha's deferral to him. Baron will still attack Keesha at times when Ruth tries to pet her. What effect would "supporting Baron's dominance" (a recommendation that also needs clarification) have on this problem?

This would essentially give Baron permission to continue attacking Keesha. It may be that Baron is attempting to prevent Keesha from having access to an important resource — Ruth. To prevent interactions between Ruth and Keesha, for Baron the easier choice is to attack Keesha, not Ruth (there are many reasons why Baron, and most dogs, would be much more likely to inhibit aggression toward their owners as compared to another dog). Supporting Baron's view of the world and allowing him to set the rules as to whether Ruth can pet Keesha is not the solution to the problem.

The primary problem is not Baron attempting to dominate Keesha, who is already subordinate to him, but instead his mistaken attempts to be a "control freak." Admittedly, this is an anthropomorphic characterization of what's happening, but it still describes Baron's problem.

An Attempt to Reduce Anxiety?

It's not clear why it's so important for some dogs to exert greater control over their world than for others. We sometimes find such dogs are actually quite anxious, and controlling what goes on around them is an attempt to reduce anxiety. We don't yet have sufficient information to know what to recommend for Baron, but evaluating whether anxiety is playing a part in his behavior would be the first step. Baron also needs to learn alternative behaviors, and appropriate consequences need to be put in place for aggression toward Keesha.

The take-home message — and one we've stated before — is to be careful about simplistic explanations for behavior. Social relationships among dogs (and between dogs and people, as well) are often quite complex, and when problems arise, a more careful and critical analysis is needed than immediately falling back on the much-abused "dominance" explanation

Dr. Hetts, a certified applied animal behaviorist, owns a behavior consulting practice with her husband, Dr. Dan Estep, in Littleton, Colorado. Send your behavior questions to: DogWatch, Box 7, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, New York 14853-6401.

We regret that we cannot respond to individual inquiries about canine health or behavior matters. In this column, we often mention useful products to help with behavior issues, and they can be ordered at


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