Dominance in Dogs: Owners' Reports Are Scientifically Valid

New research shows owners' assessments of dominance are ethologically sound.

Posted May 10, 2019

I recently read an important new research paper that's available online by Enikő Kubinyi​ and Lisa J. Wallis called "Dominance in dogs as rated by owners corresponds to ethologically valid markers of dominance," the detailed results of which are well worth sharing with any people who live with dogs, as well as those who don't. Dominance in dogs is well established by detailed ethological research; however, as the researchers point out, "to date, no study has examined how owners perceive dominance in dogs, and what different behaviors and personality types are used to describe dominant and subordinate individuals." A detailed discussion of dominance in dogs can be found in Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Doand the authors of this new essay also nicely review available literature.

Nancy Benoit, Pexels free download
Source: Nancy Benoit, Pexels free download

As a fan of "citizen science," the results of Enikő Kubinyi​ and Lisa Wallis's study were of great interest to me, and I was pleased they could answer a few questions about their research project, some of which went beyond what readers will see in the published paper. (See "How Well Do You Know What Dogs Do, Think, and Feel?" and "Dog Smarts: The Science of What They Think About and Know.") Our interview went as follows. 

Why did you do your study, and what questions were you trying to answer?

The term "dominance" is often used by dog owners to describe dogs; however, there may be little agreement regarding its meaning, as dominance is defined differently in ethology, psychology, among the public, and in the popular press. So, we set out to examine what owners mean when they talk about dominance between dogs.

Previous ethological studies have established that dominance relationships do exist between pairs/groups of pet dogs, usually by measuring specific behaviors shown by dogs when interacting in a lab, facility, or dog play park. Scientists record the dogs’ behaviors when interacting, which then allows them to determine each dogs’ position and to predict how the dogs will behave in future conflict situations. This information is vitally important when it comes to managing multiple dogs living in the same household. In comparison to scientists, owners are in a unique position, as they observe their dogs daily throughout their lives, and therefore have a wealth of knowledge concerning their dogs’ relationships and interactions. Despite this fact, only few studies have focused on examining relationships of dogs living in the home environment, and none have sought to determine how owners perceive the relationships between their dogs, and whether they believe that dominance relationships exist. Therefore, we set out to examine if owners reported one of their dogs as dominant and the different behaviors they used to describe dominant and subordinate individuals.

How did you conduct your research?

We surveyed 1,156 Hungarian owners of more than one dog to determine how owners perceive dominance relationships in dog dyads. Based on previous studies, owner questionnaires could be a valid method, as the quality of data produced by citizen scientists has proven to be satisfactory.

How did you define dominance?

Since we were interested in understanding whether dog owners believe that one of their dogs is “dominant” to the other and what sorts of behaviors and personality traits both dominant and subordinate individuals may display according to the owner, we did not define dominance in the questionnaire, as we did not want to influence their answers. Instead, we asked owners: Which of the dogs is the “boss” (has a dominant status) to the best of your knowledge: “A” or “B”? Owners could also select “Similar” if both dogs fit the description, or “N/A”. When the owners marked “N/A,” we assumed that they could not answer the question as neither of the dogs appeared to be dominant to the owner, or they were unsure/did not fully understand the question. We also asked 20 other questions, each corresponding to a different behavior, personality trait, or characteristic (e.g., “Which dog acquires the better resting place?”), and then investigated the associations between dogs that had been designated as “dominant” and the 20 characteristics. Our hope was that owners responded to the questions intuitively, using the knowledge they had gained through daily observations of their dogs’ relationships and interactions, as well as their own understanding of the concept of dominance. Which was the only way we could answer our research question of how the dog-owning public view dominance between dogs living in their households. However, in the paper we emphasized the ethological definition of dominance. In ethology, the word dominance is used to describe the long-term social relationships between individuals belonging to a group, which is established through force, aggression, and submission, and serves to determine priority access to resources (such as food, mates, and preferred resting places). The consistent winner is referred to as the dominant, and the loser the subordinate. Once the relationship has been established, the subordinate offers submission behaviors, such as licking the mouth of the dominant. There is typically no longer a need for the dominant to use force or aggression, and thus the potential for conflict is reduced, which is very advantageous for a group.

What are some of your major findings?

Owners interpreted dominance based on specific behaviors, obtaining resources and certain personality traits, which supports that dominance relationships are robust and well-perceivable components of companion dog behavior. Dogs rated as dominant usually have priority access to certain resources, such as food, rewards, resting places, and they are perceived to undertake specific tasks, such as “guarding” through barking more, walking in the front during walks (i.e., “leading” the group), defending the group in case of perceived danger, etc. They display dominance: more frequently accept that the other dogs lick their mouth and mark over the other’s urination. They have characteristic personality traits: smarter, more aggressive, and impulsive, and they are older than subordinates according to the owners. Asking which dog wins fights is highly predictive if it did occur (fighting occurred in approximately 70 percent of pairs). Physical condition, obedience, sequence of greeting the owner and retrieving balls were unrelated to the perceived dominance.

Were there any surprises?

We were surprised that 87 percent of owners indicated that their dogs differed in their social status, and only 10 percent perceived them as similar. We assumed that more owners would be unable to detect differences in rank in their dogs, perhaps because the dogs had a different type of relationship, which was not based on dominance: For example, they were non-interactive (they co-existed without social interactions, i.e., they avoided each other), or they had an “egalitarian” relationship (the partners affiliated regularly, e.g., played with each other, without agonistic behavior). Also, we did not expect to find that in mixed-sex dyads, females were more frequently rated as dominant than males. This might be because dominant females were more often neutered than dominant males, and previous studies have found that aggression occurs more often in neutered females compared to intact females and neutered males.

We expected to find that age would explain the relationships between the dyads, perhaps better than dominance status, as previous studies have found that older dogs are more often dominant than young individuals. However, in the current study, dominance status, as perceived by the owner, explained dog-to-dog interactions better than the age of the dogs. Yet when we examined only the dyads where a younger individual was dominant, we found that 64 percent of the dominants licked the mouth of the older individual, which is a sign of submission. We reasoned that the owners may have perceived the younger individual to be dominant, as it was more motivated to obtain resources, perhaps because it was faster/more active, as well as showed higher aggression and impulsivity in comparison to the older dog. Possibly, these younger individuals may have started to test the older dog to establish boundaries. Regardless, there is still a lot to learn about how age differences influence relationships in pet dogs.

What are some practical aspects of your results?

Owners are responsible for choosing the social partners of their dogs, so they have a duty to try to ensure that relationships are as amicable as possible. For example, owners could reinforce the position of older individuals in order to reduce competition and avoid keeping multiple dogs of the same sex and age. We found great individual differences in dogs’ relationships and hope in the future to examine these more closely and include affiliative aspects as well as long-term changes. It’s important to note that our study represents a snapshot in time in the lives of the dogs, and that dog relationships are dynamic and may change according to context and learning.

What are some of your current projects?

Both of us work in the Senior Family Dog Project in Budapest. We explore the cognitive aging of family dogs with not only behavioral, but also neuroscientific and genetic testing methods. The results are expected to provide guidelines for a healthy lifestyle to promote successful aging and to aid our understanding of the biological background of human cognitive aging through the non-invasive use of the pet dog as an animal model. The “dominance study” was a side project, and originated from Eniko’s previous study on the collective motion of a dog pack. At that time, it was not clear what questionnaire items should be used to map dominance hierarchies between dogs, and we aimed to fill the gap.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers?

We would like to emphasize that the current study examined owners’ ratings of their dogs and did not attempt to validate these ratings with the dogs’ behavior in real-life situations. Another topic for future research is the relationship of owners with the dogs within their household, and how this might influence the intraspecific relationships between their dogs, a topic that is currently hotly debated. Since some dog owners describe dogs that often show dominant behavior towards other dogs as having a “dominant personality,” studies linking personality traits to owner-perceived dominance status would be especially useful to help clarify the correct terminology to the public. We hope to publish a paper on this topic in the near future. So watch this space!

Thank you so much Enikő and Lisa for your important research and for agreeing to answer these questions, the answers to some of which expand what you wrote about in your published essay. Your results are very important, and I hope others will follow up with more research on dominance and its assessment in dogs. 

Stay tuned for further discussions of the behavior of dogs and the ways in which citizen science can help us learn about them and other animals. It's encouraging that so many of the people with whom Enikő and Lisa had contact know what they're talking about and are fluent in dog.

References

Bekoff, Marc. 2018. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

_____. Dominance in Free-Ranging Dogs: Age and Social Tolerance. Psychology Today, May 18, 2017.

_____. Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate. Psychology Today, July 7, 2016.

_____. Dominance and Pseudoscience: Making Sense of Nonsense. Psychology Today, January 13, 2013. 

_____. Social Dominance Is Not a Myth. Psychology Today, February 15, 2012. 

Kubinyi E, Wallis LJ. 2019. Dominance in dogs as rated by owners corresponds to ethologically valid markers of dominance. PeerJ 

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