Originally posted November 2010

Dominance hierarchies are the popular culture explanation for almost every possible behaviour problem in dogs, yet few people understand what they are and how they are evaluated.  Putting aside that I think that it is pretty silly to try and describe the behaviour BETWEEN species with this construct, I think that there are other ways to look at relationships.

Dogs are a very social species, and although there is only one stick, the dogs are sharing it.  We can tell this is play because both dogs are standing with their feet off balance and their bodies are curved.  When balanced thus, the dogs cannot effectively fight because they are not oriented in a way to do so with intent.  Such playful interactions rarely result in a fight; sharing is another successful strategy that social species engage in.

Copyright: <a href=’’>jalephoto / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

So what is a dominance hierarchy?  Simply put, a dominance hierarchy is a way of describing the relationship between two or more members of the same species when they have limited resources.  A simple and somewhat simplistic way of thinking about this is “Two Dogs, One Bone” and determine which dog wins the bone.  Sounds simple doesn’t it?  In a dyad, or competition between two animals it is easy; two horses, one flake of hay and one horse eats while the other does not.  Two sharks, one anchovie, and one shark goes home hungry.  How about when there are three?  Then you have to pair them off, and figure out if A and B are paired which wins?  Let’s say it is A.  A is dominant over B in that scenario.  Then pair off B and C.  Lets say C wins that one, so C is dominant over B.  Then pair off A and C.  If C wins, then Cis dominant over A and A is dominant over B.  In a linear hierarchy, dominance really is that simple.  The problem comes when a hierarchy is non linear, which happens in many species including humans.

Let’s look at humans.  Consider going to your mother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.  Her house…her rules and don’t touch the brandy in the sideboard; that is for the Christmas pudding.  Perhaps at her house you are a relatively low ranking female, and you do the “left over work” that others don’t get to; you are served last, you set and clear the table and you put the garbage out at the end of the evening.  Except when your grandmother arrives who is more dominant in this situation than your mom.  In that case, as her special grand daughter, you are now more dominant; you get more “stuff”, you get served sooner, you get out of doing chores because Granny likes it that way.  Are you now more dominant than your mother?  Not likely.

Now consider when your mom comes to your home with her sister.  Her sister defers at mom’s house, but at your house the dynamic is different.  At your house, her sister is dominant over your mom, and you are dominant over both of them.  Suddenly dominance hierarchies look a whole lot more complicated and in reality dominance hierarchies are slippery and difficult to easily assess.  This is an example of how a hierarchy can shift and change depending on who is there, and where you are, and what circumstances you find yourself within.  At your mom’s house, Mom is dominant over her sister and you.  If Granny shows up, Granny is dominant over your mom and you, but you are dominant over mom’s sister because you get more “stuff” when she is around.  At your house, you control the resources so you are dominant over mom and her sister, but you defer to your grandmother if she shows up.  It is no longer as simple as A is dominant over C who is dominant over B.  Interesting stuff indeed.

Even more interesting I think is that a good many other interpretations for hierarchies exist, but in a battle driven construct they are much less talked about or even known.  How about subordinate hierarchies?  This is the kind of hierarchy where a lower ranking individual obtains resources for himself by waiting for opportunities to present themselves.  We see this in many, many species.  The first time I read about this, it was in Adrian Forsyth’s wonderful book “The Natural History of Sex”.  He talked about sunfish.  Sunfish have a very interesting mating system.  A big flashy male fish will find a nesting site and make a shallow depression and then hang out to attract a female.  When the female comes along, she lays her eggs and he covers them with his sperm.  Then he swims away.  Meanwhile, there is another male, less flashy and smaller who looks kind of like a female who swims in while the flashy male is out hunting or defending another nest site, and this male also covers the eggs with his sperm.  By being covert and careful and drab, he manages to fertilize many eggs without wasting time building or defending a nest.

People do this.  I well remember realizing that a roommate did this when I watched her cut pie.  My pie in fact.  “Can I cut you a slice of pie she would offer?”  Sure I would say.  She would cut one for me and a BIGGER one for herself.  By being polite, she was able to control how much I got and how much she got.  Watch for this in sibling children; it is rampant!

Not all of the pieces of the pie are the same size and the easiest way to get a bigger piece of the pie is to offer to cut and serve the dessert.  This is not a dominance tactic but rather a subordinate tactic and it is extremely effective! 

Copyright: <a href=’’>chuckplace / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

I have watched this in my dogs too.  Right now, my four year old male is dominant over the six month old male and the three month old female.  The six month old will sometimes come in when my four year old is chewing a bone and drop a toy in front of him.  If the older dog gets up, he darts in to grab what he wants, and usually the older dog will allow this to happen.

Subordinate hierarchies usually involve deference, social diffusion, and sometimes involve outright subterfuge.  Who hasn’t seen the lowest ranking employee somehow manage to swing an invite to the company’s stadium box seats?  Or end up with a big raise for no apparent reason?  This is subordinate behaviour doing what it does best; it gets the performer what he wants or needs at minimal risk to himself.

Dominance is a risky position to be in, because it only lasts as long as others on your hierarchy believe you can hold it up.  If you cannot withstand the pressure of being the leader, there are other ways to get your slice of pie, and often these other ways are safer and involve less energy than trying to lead a group.

So coming back to dog training, it is important to ask the age old question of do you want to be happy or do you want to be right?  Being right is a bit like dominance, it takes a lot of energy to maintain.  Being happy doesn’t though.  Being happy is more like subordinance; you just have to figure out what you want and how to get it with the least amount of effort and energy.  And it is plain old much more interesting than dominance.  So for my money, I would choose to make the bulk of my training on subordinate strategies instead of dominance based strategies.  They are generally less risky, more reliable and I get what I want in the end.


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