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Are Dogs Utterly Subordinate to Humans?

The claim that dogs are deferential toward humans is overblown and misleading.

Key points

  • Given the incredible diversity among dogs and dog-human relationships, normalizing them is fraught with problems and risky business at best.
  • Claiming positive dog trainers are asserting dominance ignores what they're really doing.

During the past week I've received numerous emails asking if I've read a recent essay called The Indispensable Dog by Arizona State University's Dr. Clive Wynne. Because of the concerns expressed in most of these notes that many of his claims and conclusions are unsupported, I read it sooner than planned. Wynne's essay is available online and readers can decide what they think about his main hypothesis that "people occupy a status of 'super-dominance' over dogs."1 His piece raises a number of excellent questions that require more detailed research, but so too do some of his conclusions because of a lack of relevant research.

Another problem is that using the word "dogs" to refer to these incredibly diverse mammals as if there's some sort of "universal dog" sends the wrong message that what holds for homed dogs also pertains to around 75 percent of the world's dogs who are free-ranging or feral. Wynne notes this, but this distinction is often glossed over as he puts forth his grand theory of the nature of dog-human relationships.

Wynne begins by selectively reviewing various aspects of the dog behavior, often comparing and contrasting it with the behavior of wolves, from which dogs emerged, including reproductive behavior, social behavior among dogs and with members of other species, dominance relationships, cooperation and competition, and attachment to and cooperation with humans.2

He concludes with a section called "Dogs’ Adaptations To Humans," and it's here where many questions arise.

Wynne begins, "Dogs’ enormous success living in a human-dominated world rests on a set of adaptations to living in close proximity with our species." While this is most likely so, he also writes in contradiction to researchers who claim that dogs are less aggressive and more cooperative than wolves, "several studies clearly show that dogs, in their interactions with members of their own (sub) species are in fact more competitive and aggressive than are wolves." I would like to see some references that compared dogs and wolves living in the same social and ecological conditions, because a valid comparison requires the accumulation of these data.

Wynne bases some of his major conclusions about the nature of dog-human relationships on the idea that dogs are more competitive and engage in more hierarchical interactions with members of their own species than do wolves because dogs don't need to cooperate to get or consume food. Maybe they do and maybe they don't, but we really don't know. He then uses this very tentative conclusion to note that there is a paradox of sorts, namely,

"How to conceive of dogs’ different patterns of social behavior toward their own species on the one hand and humans on the other? It is implausible to propose that dogs have different programs of social behavior that they bring into play depending on the species identity of the social partners they are interacting with because no mechanism of species identification has ever been proposed."

I had trouble following the logic of the discussion of mechanisms of species identification, and the lack of a mechanism doesn't mean that one doesn't exist.

Finally, Wynne cites the work of Dr. Friederike Range and her colleagues who claim, "dogs’ behavior toward humans could be viewed as 'deferential' and that this is then consistent with what they view as a 'conflict-avoidant' pattern of social interaction with conspecifics." Just as it could be viewed this way, there also are compelling reasons why it couldn't or shouldn't be. I also question the ubiquity of this claim, wondering to which dogs and which humans might this apply. Given what we know about the different sorts of relationships dogs form with humans and vice versa, this sort of deferential relationship clearly doesn't apply to all dogs and dog-human relationships, or even perhaps many or most of them given the different ecological niches in which dogs find themselves.3 Research also shows that from a dog's perspective, humans over-play our own importance. All in all, we must be very careful about the perils of mislabeling dog behavior and we also must provide the most emotionally supportive environments we can no matter where or how they live.

Wynne also notes that there are similarities in formal markers of dominance between dogs and humans, but it's clear that dogs express dominance and social relationships in markedly different ways than do humans, using various facial expressions, their tails, ears, various vocalizations and perhaps odors. He goes on to write, "when people stroke dogs’ heads, accept licks near the mouth and make themselves taller than dogs they are unconsciously expressing formal dominance over their dogs. Combined with human’s total control over the resources that matter to dogs, such as food, freedom of movement, access to shelter, and even mating opportunities, this establishes dogs in a state of utter subordination to humans."

Wynne proposes to refer to dog-human relationships as one of 'super-dominance' because no conspecific could possibly control a dog’s access to resources to the extent a human does. In some cases, perhaps for homed dogs, this could be standard fare, but among free-ranging dogs living in packs research shows that other group members can be quite controlling and assertive.

Some of these claims raised the hackles of the people who wrote to me. Many referred to people who rescue dogs and who devote their lives to making the lives of dogs better, noting that they aren't super-dominators. Others were appalled by Wynne's writing, "Indeed, the 'positive' trainer who controls an animal’s behavior with contingent treats, strokes her dog’s head and allows it to 'kiss' her, is expressing dominance over her dog to a greater degree than the misguided person who imagines dominance is conveyed by always walking through a doorway first (Millan and Peltier, 2007)."

Putting Cesar Millan aside, while Wynne's mistaken claim about what positive trainers are purportedly doing is of great concern, it meshes with his ideas about dogs' supposed subordination to supposedly super-dominating humans so it is not really all that surprising.

Normalizing dog behavior and dog-human relationships is highly problematic

While there are many problems with Wynne's sweeping generalizations that normalize dog behavior and dog-human interactions, he does raise a good number of questions, some of which can easily be answered by critically evaluating what we now know. Others require future comparative research. Other misleading myths that are related to some of Wynne's ideas include that dogs are unconditional lovers and that we're their best friends. Neither is true. Consider, for example, dogs who are used in dog-fighting and those who are crated for hours on end, sexually abused, forced to live in horrific conditions in puppy mills and forced to breed until they die, and those used in abusive research.

We must be very careful and critically evaluate what different studies of dogs really tell us. Regardless of my and others' concerns about some of Wynne's ideas, I agree when he writes, "Whatever the value of the super-dominance hypothesis, studies of this kind could shed light on and offer to improve dogs’ lives in human society." This would be a win-win for all.

Update: Also see "Dogs live in a human-dominated world. And that’s just fine with them."

References

Notes

1) The abstract reads: Dogs’ remarkable success in living in a human-dominated world rests on a set of adaptations to cohabitation with humans. In this paper, I review the nature of these adaptations. They include changes in reproductive and foraging behavior from their ancestor species, wolves, which can be understood as adaptations to the change from hunting live prey to feeding on human food residues. Dogs also show several changes in social behavior which are more controversial and even somewhat paradoxical. Contrary to theories of canine domestication which view dogs as less aggressive and more cooperative than wolves, several studies show that dogs’ social interactions with conspecifics are more hierarchical and competitive than are wolves’. As scavengers rather than hunters, dogs do not need to cooperate with conspecifics the way that wolves do. But how then can we understand dogs’ willingness to cooperate with humans? I propose an integrated account of dogs’ social behavior that does not assume that dogs need to recognize the species-identity of the individuals with whom they interact. Because of the overlap in formal signals of dominance and submission between dog and human and people’s complete control over the resources dogs need, I propose that people occupy a status of “super-dominance” over dogs. This conception suggests several new lines of research which could shed light on the human-dog relationship to the benefit of both partners.

2) Wynne's coverage ignores seminal research and ideas of a number of researchers including Michael W. Fox, Eric Zimen, Ray Pierotti and Brandy Fogg, Zazie Todd, and Mark Derr about the behavior of dogs and related canids and the process of domestication. The lack of even a mention of Mark Derr's work on domestication is the most startling omission because of its fundamental importance to some of what Wynne writes about how dogs became dogs and the sound rejection of the dogs-as-scavangers model of domestication.

3) For example, consider stray free-ranging dogs living in and around Istanbul who coexist peacefully with local people.

Bekoff, Marc. Dumping the Dog Domestication Dump Theory Once and For All.

_____. How the Dog Became the Dog.

_____. The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved.

_____. Dumping the Dog Domestication Dump Theory Once and For All.

_____. Dog-Human Relationships From the Dog's Point of View.

_____. The Perils of Mislabeling Dog-Appropriate Behavior.

_____. Why It's Important (and Fun) to Study Free-Running Dogs.

_____. Science Shows Positive Reward-Based Dog Training Is Best.

_____. Dominant Alpha Humans Don't Garner Dogs' Respect and Trust.

_____. Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?

_____. Do Your Dog and You Agree About What You Want Them to Do?

Pierce, Jessica and Marc Bekoff. A Dog's World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans. Princeton University Press, October 2021.

_____. What would become of dogs without humans? Here’s how they’d evolve. New Scientist, July 21, 2021.

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