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Dominance, Individual Personality, and Leadership in Dogs

Research shows that group decisions are strongly influenced by dominance rank.

"How does a group of family dogs decide the direction of their collective movements?"

This morning I was alerted to an extremely interesting and very detailed research paper published in 2014 in PLOS Computational Biology titled "Leadership and Path Characteristics during Walks Are Linked to Dominance Order and Individual Traits in Dogs" by Eötvös University's Zsuzsa Ákos and her colleagues. This paper is available for free online, and while it's likely it won't be an "easy" read for nonprofessionals, it's well worth considering the overall findings of this unique study not only for what it suggests for dogs, but also for other nonhuman animals and humans. Media coverage can be found here.

The basic question at hand was whether the movement patterns—leader and follower roles—of unleashed family dogs are related to individual dominance rank and personality traits. Or, as the researchers put it, "How does a group of family dogs decide the direction of their collective movements?"

Dogs, like numerous other animals, form dominance relationships, often linear in nature, and the main question at hand is important to consider to learn if one of the perks of "being dominant" is to control or strongly influence the movement of other group members. The researchers used a detailed questionnaire to determine dominance rank (please see the section of their paper called "Questionnaire surveys"). For more discussion of dominance in dogs please see "Social Dominance is Not a Myth," "Dominance and Pseudoscience: Making Sense of Nonsense," "Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate," "Dominance in Free-Ranging Dogs: Age and Social Tolerance," and links therein.

Dr. Ákos and her colleagues collected and analyzed GPS data (823,148 data points) collected from six dogs (five Vizslas and one small mixed-breed) who were walking unleashed and their human, all of whom shared the same home. Individual dogs showed unique characteristics, including running speed and the distance they maintained from their human.

The researchers discovered that dogs were leaders between 50 to 85 percent of the time and that while leader and follower roles were interchangeable when they were not following their human, over long periods of time dogs differed in their tendencies to lead and to follow. When they analyzed the characteristics of leader and follow dogs, the researchers learned that "leader/dominant dogs have a unique personality: they are more trainable, controllable, and aggressive, additionally they are older than follower/subordinate dogs."

Group living dogs, like many other animals, form social networks. By looking at the social relationships among the dogs in the group, the researchers also discovered that "the network constructed from these loose leader–follower relations is hierarchical, and the dogs' positions in the network correlates with the age, dominance rank, trainability, controllability, and aggression measures derived from personality questionnaires." And, what's very interesting and important is they also could determine dominance rank and personality traits of individual dogs based on their movement patterns as leaders or followers. Co-author Máté Nagy notes, "We showed that it is possible to determine the social ranking and personality traits of each dog from their GPS movement data."

All in all, this unique and extremely careful and detailed study showed that the underlying hierarchical social network of a dog group and individual differences in personality strongly influence how the group moves as a whole. It is not an egalitarian system. How their data apply to other nonhumans and to humans remains to be studied in greater detail.

This study shows that dogs form dominance relationships, a fact that's been known for some time for dogs living with humans and for free-ranging dogs who are on their own or mostly on their own, that their rank influences group movements, and that by looking at movement patterns the researchers could reliably determine an individual's dominance rank and personality.

It's always useful to have different ways of assessing social status and personality traits when it's not possible to see everything that individuals in a group do. Of course, under field conditions, it's impossible to see everything that an individual does or everything that is directed toward her or him. In our field studies of coyotes, we relied on different ways of assessing rank and personality traits and discovered that some patterns of behavior were highly correlated.

The practical application of knowing who's a leader and who's a follower

There's also an important practical side to this study. In addition to learning more about social hierarchies, "the researchers hope that this way of studying dogs could help to create optimal pairings of dogs used for important tasks such as search-and-rescue operations. The method could determine how well certain dogs work together, putting together those with the highest compatibility." This would be a win-win for the dogs and for the humans for whom they're looking.

Please stand by for more information on how animals form social networks and how social relationships influence different patterns of behavior. The paper under discussion here can serve as an excellent model for the sort of research that needs to be done.


Ákos Z, Beck R, Nagy M, Vicsek T, Kubinyi E (2014) Leadership and Path Characteristics during Walks Are Linked to Dominance Order and Individual Traits in Dogs. PLoS Comput Biol 10(1): e1003446.