Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Dogs, Dominance, and Guilt: We've Got to Get Things Right

The psychology and reasoning behind suppressing, ignoring, or misusing data

This post is in response to
Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate

It's essential for all people who interact with dogs to get things right

In response to a recent essay I posted called "Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate," I've had a good number of emails, especially from dog trainers, asking me how I felt about using dominance to train/teach dogs. I added some notes to the end of my essay, however, it's clear that many people who wrote to me didn't see them because they were added after they read my piece. Note 1 reads:

"After this essay appeared a few people asked me my views on using dominance in dog training/teaching, because, as I've noted here as have others, debates about dominance come primarily from trainers. Just because dogs (and other animals) dominate one another in different social situations, this does not mean we should when we're trying to teach them to live harmoniously with us. I've made this clear in a number of essays including "Did Cesar Millan Have to Hang the Husky?", "The Kindness of Dogs: New Book Explains Why Cesar's Gotta Go," and many links in these essays."

Dog expert Dr. John Bradshaw wrote the following email to me and my note 3 reads:

"I agree that it’s possible to construct dominance hierarchies from the way that groups of dogs interact – I’ve done so myself. That shouldn’t be an issue, or at least only one of semantics. For me, the real issue is an ethical one, how concepts of “dominance” impact on the treatment of dogs by dog trainers and the owners they advise. What you appear to dismiss as " ideological turf wars among some trainers" has real implications for the welfare of dogs, and should not be taken lightly by anyone who believes that animals have emotional lives. Many trainers use 'dominance reduction' to justify the routine infliction of pain on dogs. For this reason, I believe that all responsible ethologists should take great pains to distinguish between their technical (and, of course, well-established) concept of dominance, as one method for describing social interactions, and the everyday use of the word 'dominant', which denotes a tendency to be aggressive, threatening and/or controlling. Many dog trainers use the two interchangeably, and some take great delight when academics appear to do the same. As a direct consequence, dogs suffer. (There's more on this in the paper of mine that you cite in your post.)"

Here, I want to add to my original essay mainly because it's gotten a large number of "hits" and also because I think it's essential to clear the air on some issues at hand. And, many others agree with him and what I wrote in my Note 1 above.

Dr. Bradshaw raises some incredibly important points, many of which were also sent to me by others. And, in the "Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals" published by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), we read,

"The AVSAB emphasizes that the standard of care for veterinarians specializing in behavior is that dominance theory should not be used as a general guide for behavior modification. Instead, the AVSAB emphasizes that behavior modification and training should focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors, avoiding the reinforcement of undesirable behaviors, and striving to address the underlying emotional state and motivations, including medical and genetic factors, that are driving the undesirable behavior." This organization also is "concerned with the recent re-emergence of dominance theory and forcing dogs and other animals into submission as a means of preventing and correcting behavior problems."

The AVSAB also notes, "Overall, the use of dominance theory to understand human-animal interactions leads to an antagonistic relationship between owners and their pets."

What should we do with data that might compromise the well-being of dogs?

In a number of email exchanges and telephone calls I discussed some of the above issues and concerns. Let me stress right off that I fully recognize that most of the people who argue that we should be very careful about what is written about dominance in dogs because the data might compromise dogs' well-being are well-intentioned. They truly want to protect dogs. However, the question that comes up goes something like, "What should we do with data stemming from scientific studies of dominance that show that dogs do form dominance relationships and there are dominant dogs?"

The empirical and ethical questions. This "What should we do with the data" question can be answered in a number of different ways. There is what we can call the "empirical question," namely, "Do or might the data harm dogs?" and if so, what should we do with this knowledge?

There also is an "ethical question," namely, "Is it acceptable to twist the truth for a 'good reason'?" Loosely put, a "good reason" would be that misusing what we know about, for example, dominance in dogs, could result in training/teaching methods that compromise the well-being of dogs. My colleague and Psychology Today writer Dr. Jessica Pierce and I came up with these questions and she's published an essay called "Models of the Human-Dog Relationship" as a follow-up to what I've written here. As noted above, the AVSAB also is concerned with the first question.

Guilt. I used the word "guilt" in the title of this essay because I've come to learn that some of the same reasoning has been used by some people to protect dogs. Once again, this has been well-intentioned concern. With respect to guilt, we do not know if dogs feel guilt (please see "We Don't Know if Dogs Feel Guilt So Stop Saying They Don't" and links therein). However, I've had correspondence similar to that concerning dominance, namely, that there are concerns that if we acknowledge that dogs feel guilt, which is premature, some people might then feel that it's perfectly okay to punish a dog who has done something for which the dog would/should feel guilty. Of course, whether or not scientific research shows dogs do or do not feel guilt, we should not use this information to harm them in any way whatsoever.

The "just because 'they' do it, we can too" mentality: Representing dogs for who they are

My take, and I know many others agree from emails and conversations over the years, is that we should not suppress, ignore, deny, or misuse what we know about dominance in dogs (and of course in other nonhuman animals). I fully understand that some people seem to feel that we are protecting dogs by claiming that dogs don't display dominance (or guilt) and thus, we should not dominate them when training/teaching them to live harmoniously with us.

On the lighter side of things, the "just because 'they' do it, we can too" mentality clearly doesn't apply to many things that dogs do that we find offensive or downright crude such as ___, ___, and ___. I'll allow you to fill in the blanks!

Acknowledging dogs for who they are is a win-win for all concerned

To sum up, it's essential to "tell it like it is," and the essays I cite by other researchers in "Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate" and in previous essays to which I link clearly show that dogs do form dominance relationships. But this must not be used against them.

It's essential to acknowledge what we know about dogs so that we respect and treat them for who they are as individuals. Trainers and everyone who interacts with dogs must get things right and use what we know to come to a richer and more complete understanding and appreciation of just who these amazing beings truly are. When we do this, it'll be a win-win for all involved.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017. (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)

More from Marc Bekoff Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today