Dogs, Dominance, Breeding, and Legislation: A Mixed Bag

A brief review of dominance and a summary of dogs in recent news

Posted Dec 22, 2016

What if giving voice to the voiceless meant listening to them, before pretending to know what they would say? (Matt Margini, 2016, "What Is It Like to be an Elephant?")

That dogs and other companion animals, AKA pets, are “in” could be the understatement of the Anthropocene. As of this writing, around 65%, or nearly 80 million American households, share space and time with a pet. It’s also been estimated that 78 million dogs are considered to be pets in the United States and about 44% of households have a dogIn August 2016, the town of Cormorant, Minnesota, elected Duke, a nine-year old Great Pyrenees, to serve a third term as its mayor. I heard from a number of people that they would have wanted this for their town and also, perhaps, for the country as a whole. While dogs are “in” in many parts of the world, it’s essential to keep in mind that it’s been estimated that around 75% of dogs globally are on their own. I can’t find any “academic” reference for this number, but it comes up in many conversations. Even if it were 5-10%, it would be far too high. Worldwide, it's been estimated that there are as many as 600 million stray dogs. We often receive, or have a tainted view of “a dog’s life,” in places where they generally are loved and pretty much given what they want and need.

Dogs are amazing beings. In fact, “The idea of World Animal Day was originated by Heinrich Zimmermann, the German writer and publisher of the magazine Mensch und Hund/Man and Dog. World Animal day is celebrated every October 4, in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi who, according to legend, was able to talk with other animals.” A dog named Pepper played a huge role in fostering animal welfare legislation in the United States by motivating the passage of the Federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) in 1966. Pepper, a Dalmatian, was stolen, dognapped, from a Pennsylvania farm in 1965, and sold to a hospital in the Bronx (New York) where she died in an experimental test of pacemakers. By getting people to think about her plight and that of other animals, Pepper helped to bridge what I call the “empathy gap,” about which you’ll read much more later on. Nonetheless, most unfortunately, this act does not protect 99% of animals who are used in all types of horrifically invasive research (Note 1). And, in December 2016, it was reported that an argument over a puppy who had been left alone at home played a role in the downfall of South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, and dogs are able to bring together members of the United States’ Congress regardless of their party loyalties.

The state of dogs 2016. Here, I simply want to offer a brief update on dominance (the "D" word) in dogs and provide an update on some recent legislation that focuses on reducing abuse and greatly increasing the well-being of dogs. 

A brief interview on dominance: Dancing around the "D" word doesn't work

Dogs formed strict, steep hierarchies, with dominant animals demanding obedience from subordinates.”

"Our results suggest that dominance remains a robust component of domestic dog behaviour even when humans significantly reduce the potential for resource competition." (Rebecca Trisko and Barbara Smuts 2015) 

"Agonistic-dominance relationships in the dog group remain stable across different competitive contexts and to the behaviors considered ... The findings of this research contradict the notion that free-ranging dogs are 'asocial' animals and agree with other studies suggesting that long-term social bonds exist within free-ranging dog groups." (Simona Cafazzo, Paola Valsecchi, Roberto Bonanni, and Eugenia Natoli 2010)

Our results are in line with previous findings for captive wolves and free-ranging dogs, for formal dominance with strong linearity based on submission but not aggression.” (Joanne A. M. van der Borg, Matthijs B. H. Schilder, Claudia M. Vinke, and Han de Vries 2015)

The above quotations are but a very few that clearly show that researchers agree that dogs at home, dogs at dog parks, free-ranging dogs, and feral dogs all form dominance relationships. Wolves also display dominance. Wolf expert, L. David Mech, sent me this quotation in an email (16 February 2012) concerning how he has been miscited. “This misinterpretation and total misinformation has plagued me for years now. I do not in any way reject the notion of dominance." 

I recently did a brief interview with Sylke Schulte for WUFF Magazine on the state of dominance in dogs. Her essay titled "Dominanz," available to WUFF subscribers, can be found here, and my answers were woven into her piece. Some people like to dance around the "D" word, but copious detailed data clearly show that dogs display dominance and that it is not a myth (please see "Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate" and "Dogs, Dominance, and Guilt: We've Got to Get Things Right" and links therein). 

Can you briefly outline your view on the dominance debate (pertaining to dogs)?

I honestly don't see why there is any debate about whether or not dogs display dominance. I can't think of any nonhuman animal (animal) who doesn't display some form of dominance including wild canids, and there is no reason whatsoever why dogs should be different from other animals. However, there is a basic misunderstanding of what "being dominant" actually means. Dominance does not mean there is a lot of injurious fighting and harm. Many animals have evolved behavior patterns and strategies to reduce the likelihood of injurious fighting, and all one has to do is go to a dog park and watch dogs to see that they too can dominate one another without any physical interactions at all. A dog can control or influence the behavior of another dog in many ways, some very subtle, without any physical contact or harm. I've argued in a number of essays that there is a basic misunderstanding of what dominance means and that people need to read the ethological literature on dominance in animals to gain a more complete understanding of what "being dominant" means. They will then see that dogs do display dominance just like other animals. 

How do you think the concept of dominance influences human-dog interactions or training?

I know that many people are concerned that if we say that dogs dominate one another then it is okay for us to dominate them. This is not so at all. I understand why this concern arises, but when one remembers that "being dominant" does not mean punishing or actually harming another individual, it's easy to see that dogs do control or influence the behavior of other dogs in non-injurious ways, just like other animals, including humans, do. Once again, when people understand what "being dominant" means they will see that dogs can and do dominate other dogs, other animals, and humans, and positive training/teaching methods that are used to influence or to control the behavior of dogs are very effective. 

How would you define "dominant behaviour" among dogs? And do you think dogs are aware of the concept?

"Being dominant" can simply mean controlling or influencing the behavior of another individual, but, of course, when this happens it does not mean that an individual is always trying to "be dominant." A dog or other animal can control or influence the behavior of another individual by staring at them, moving toward them, vocalizing, displaying specific facial expressions and body postures etc., etc., with no physical contact at all. I don't think dogs or other animals have to be aware of the concept of dominance itself, but surely they know when they are in control of a social interaction and where they fit in some sort of social hierarchy.

In your experience, does a strict hierarchy among domestic dogs exist? 

I've observed strict hierarchies in some groups of dogs as have other researchers studying groups of dogs in different situations and also feral dogs. However, the hierarchies are not always strictly linear, just like those of wild canids (wolves and coyotes, for example) are not always strictly linear.

What do you think about dog trainers who force dogs into submission?

I don't think that dogs need to be forced into submission to train or to teach them how to live harmoniously with other dogs, with other animals, or with humans. I favor positive training/teaching methods and they have been shown to be highly effective in achieving these goals. Of course, these techniques can include controlling or influencing the behavior of a dog(s) but they don't depend on actively dominating them in any injurious way. And, they surely do not depend on forcing a dog into submission.

Along these lines, here is an extremely relevant quotation.

" ... formal dominance is present in the domestic dog, expressed by context-independent unidirectional formal status signals. Consequently, formal dominance (e.g., submission) plays an important role in assessing status in dog–dog relationships ...  the dominance concept might be useful to explain the development of certain problems in dog–dog and dog–human relationships. However, enforcing a dominant status by a human may entail considerable risks and should therefore be avoided." (Matthijs Schiller, Claudia Vinke, and Joanne van der Borg 2014)

"My dog is doing something I don’t want him to do, and he knows better!"

Let me share one more take on the "D" word. Dog trainer and journalist Tracy Krulik wrote to me: "As I continue to ponder the D word in relation to dogs, I realize that this goes beyond 'training.' The people who tell me their dog 'is being dominant' are involved in a battle for power with the dog. They aren’t thinking, 'I’m going to dominate my dog to teach him.' They’re thinking, 'My dog is so stubborn and is doing this bad behavior to show me,' so I’ll show him! So, in my mind, 'dominance' has become a catch-all term for 'my dog is doing something I don’t want him to do, and he knows better!' And because people don’t understand their dogs as 'dogs' — meaning they don’t know that dogs chew because they enjoy it or dig because its a fun thing to do— they jump to the conclusion that the dog chewed their pillow, because, 'he’s mad at me for leaving him alone and he needs to be taught a lesson.’" 

My brief conclusion simply is:

Just because dogs and other nonhuman animals display dominance, this does not mean we should dominate dogs when we are trying to teach them to live in harmony with us and other dogs. We should always work in partnership with dogs with whom we share our homes and hearts to achieve a win-win for all. 

Legislation protecting dogs: There is an enormous amount of work to be done.

As we close down 2016, it's been a mixed bag for legislation protecting dogs from being abused in various contexts.

Dogs, like all other animals, are considered to be objects or property in our legal system and also in many others throughout the world (please see, for example, "The Nonhuman Rights Project: An Interview with Steven Wise"). I’m pleased to say that slowly but surely more and more people are being punished for intentional cruelty, it’s become a felony to abuse companion animals in Ohio, an Ohio hunter was fired from his job for killing two dogs, and an animal cruelty unit was established in Orange County, Florida in July 2016. In November 2016, greyhound racing was banned in Argentina and in December 2016, the Mayor of London (UK) was called on to review the Dangerous Dog Act (1991) because it was ineffective in reducing dog bites and didn’t protect dog welfare. In many states anyone can call themselves a dog trainer, and in December 2016, dog abuse at a training facility in Oceanside, New York, led to a call for legislation calling for a state-issued license for dog trainers “to curb the unregulated practice of individuals claiming to be dog training experts.” For more information and reasons for hope, please see Wayne Pacelle's "Top 10 gains for dogs, cats, and horses in 2016."

There always will be ups and downs concerning the legal status of, and legal protection for, other animals. In December 2016, Ohio lawmakers cracked down on bestiality and cockfighting but continued to allow pet stores to sell dogs from puppy mills because of pressure from the Ohio-based Petland franchise. Petland is the largest puppy-selling pet store chain in the United States. Also, in December 2016, a Canadian judge ruled that dogs are to be considered as property and have “no familial rights.” However, at about the same time that this decision was made, an Ohio Appeals Court ruled “dogs are not dining chairs or television sets” and that damages for an injured pet need to be more than “simple ‘market value’.”

Dogs and other animals also need protection from elected “cosmetic” surgeries. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) offers a useful summary of state laws governing elected surgical procedures (tail docking, ear cropping, devocalization, cat declawing, and piercing and tattooing) last updated in December 2014. Of course, there always is more to do. Concerning debarking dogs, the National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA) that favors the use of animals for research, dismisses debarking as “bark softening” and thinks it’s just fine to do,” yet we don’t really know how this changes the behavior of individual dogs. Others take issue with their position. On the positive side of the ledger, in November 2016, veterinarians in British Columbia (Canada) banned tail docking and ear cropping. I think that dogs who are supposed to have tails look much better than dogs whose tails were cut off for whatever reasons people choose to do so. Let’s work hard to let dogs keep their tails.

Let’s also not forget that dogs continue to be used in “blood sports,” run to death in dog races, and far too many people breed dogs who they know will have short and likely miserable lives because of inbreeding and selecting for traits that makes it difficult to breathe or to walk (please also see Michael Brandow’s A Matter of Breeding  and "A Matter of Breeding: How We've Greatly Harmed BFF Dogs"). At Texas A&M University, dogs with deformities are intentionally bred to study various forms of muscular dystrophy. Many of these experimental dogs are profoundly crippled by six months of age and half of them don’t live more than ten months. There also are issues centering on dogs sold in pet shops. For a list of states in which dogs cannot be sold in pet shops and other restrictions on selling dogs, cats, and other animals please see these references.

I hope this brief essay motivates us all to do more to protect dogs from wanton abuse. We are their lifelines and their oxygen and we must do no less. While there surely has been some progress, there is an enormous amount of work to be done. 

Note 1: The AWA remains a mixed bag and needs substantial and immediate revision. While dogs and nonhuman primates are considered to be “animals,” it is unbelievable that laboratory rats, mice, and other animals are not considered to be animals (please see "The Animal Welfare Act Claims Rats and Mice Are Not Animals"). This is simply absurd and I wonder why researchers, who know rats and mice are indeed animals, aren't speaking out about this idiocy. The science that clearly shows these rodents are sentient beings continues to be totally ignored. Thus, in the 2002 iteration of the AWA we read, “Enacted January 23, 2002, Title X, Subtitle D of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, changed the definition of ‘animal’ in the Animal Welfare Act, specifically excluding birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research.” 

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 April 2017.