Dogs, Dumbness, and Dominance, Redux

It's hard work for dogs to play dumb for humans all of the time.

Posted Sep 03, 2014

As reported in the science press recently, a couple of dog studies presented at an August 2014 meeting of animal behaviorists at Princeton University purport to confirm that early humans selected their first dogs for slavish devotion and obedience to the human patriarch or matriarch—the domineering boss who demands adherence to the order of existence, as laid down by Numero Uno himself.  Uno speaks; Dog listens and obeys, or alpha dog growls and beta to omega dogs grovel precisely to all above them while snarling at those below in the great chain of being because they are dogs and not wolves, say the authors of one comparative study, Friederike Range and Zsôfia Virányi, of the Messerli Research Institute, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Austria.  They argue that from their origins, dogs were selectively bred not to help humans or work with them on the hunt or in guarding the flock but to be docile and obedient.  

Wolf packs are cooperative societies, say Range and Virányi, with non-rigid hierarchies that are nonetheless capable of lethal collective action.  Wolves take their cues from each other, Range and Virányi say, and do not pay much heed to social standing when it comes to something fundamental, like eating—not the way dogs do anyway.  But according to them, dogs in a pack rigorously enforce their linear dominance hierarchy with teeth if necessary, and humans stand at the head of the dog chain of command.                                                                    t

In fact, as dogs grow older, they surrender to humans their ability to exercise independent thought and action, according to another study on dog initiative that Monique Udell of Oregon State University presented at the same Animal Behavior Society meeting in Princeton. Udell compared dogs and wolves in a test that involved opening a can of summer sausage.  Adult dogs in the study could only do that when given permission by their human.   Puppies and wolves of all ages had no problem getting the sausage within the allotted two minutes, Udell reported.

 So, dogs depend on humans for permission to act and are bred to obey us? asks an incredulous Marc Bekoff in his August 24 posting on these reports.  Bekoff, who has spent four decades studying coyotes, wolves, dogs, and other canids pointedly says that solid evidence is needed to support these bold claims—considerably more evidence of higher quality than is presented here. 

He says: I've always cautioned against species-general claims, because after studying coyotes, other predators, and dogs for decades I really don't know who "the coyote" or "the wolf" or "the dog" really is. Surely, with all of the incredible differences among various dog breeds and with astounding and fascinating individual differences to boot in dogs and wolves (and other animals), to claim that dogs play dumb to please us is far too sweeping and premature.


Some researchers now claim dogs were bred to obey us.

A dog watches over sheep and goats in north Texas.

  In fact, a certain looseness of terms—a failure to define key words and concepts marks both the studies and reports on them.

The second point, then, is that crucial words and concepts remain poorly defined at best.  Thus, Jennifer Vegas writes for Discovery News of the work of Range and Virányi: “[I]n a sense  we’ve created submissive mini-me’s that mirror our own difficulties in creating egalitarian societies.” 

Disregarding the absurdity of such a statement:  Who are “we?” Are “we” hindered because “we” are too submissive or too aggressively dominant? Or are “we” lower ranking functionaries always looking to move up?  Beyond those questions lies another—what does ‘egalitarian’ mean?  Does it apply to social, political, and/or economic equality?

 A number of researchers have pondered whether free-ranging dogs organize social structures and if so what form they take, given that domestication destroyed the pack structure of wolves who became dogs.  Just finding whether and to what extent male dogs participate in raising their young has proven a challenge.

Free-ranging dogs have basically been outlawed in the developed world and those in developing countries have been considered unworthy of study.  That is changing. 

 Simona Cafazzo, a Roman ethologist, and her colleagues reported in the February 2010 issue of Behavioral Ecology on an extensive study of the social structure of a group of free-ranging dogs in Italy that examined various forms of dominance hierarchies.  They found that their dogs formed hierarchies but they weren’t nearly as rigid or contentious as the Austrian team’s.

 Thus, Cafazzo writes: “In conclusion, we can assert that the results of this study show that in domestic dogs, as well as in wolves, sex and age affect the dominance relationship, irrespective of the competitive contexts.”

The fact is that as Serpell himself observes, it is not possible to generalize from Range and Virányi to all dogs.  Serpell is quoted in Virginia Morell’s Science article as pointing out that Malamutes and German shepherds when in “packs” are less aggressive than are poodles and Labrador retrievers.  Indeed, there are many variations in behavior, including levels of various forms of aggression, between breeds and within breeds between individual dogs—too many, as Marc Bekoff says, to generalize.

 Moreover, there is far more suggestive evidence that dog breeders have since the advent of kennel clubs and breed standards in the mid-19th century, along with the movement of dogs into cities and pressure to train them to “behave in gentle company,” altered the character, appearance  and behavior of many breeds during the past 150 years.

Within the past few years a number of breeders and trainers have told me in extensive interviews that since World War II, those changes have included lowering the aggression levels of Doberman pinschers, creating coonhounds who work closer to their humans in a way that suits coonhound competitions rather than actual hunting, and breeding Labradors capable of withstanding the sort of hard aversive training to which they are subject for field trials.

 Behaviors people see in dogs today are more likely the result of recent than ancient breeding choices.[link to swartberg] 

 All that said, I wonder whether, the adult dog who waits until invited to open a can of sausage is really “playing dumb?” Perhaps she has learned to let the human open the can for her.