Dog Social Structure – De-Bunking Linear Hierarchy - Part one
The old theory of the pack, linear hierarchy, with an alpha and its subordinates, does NOT apply to the dogs we have in our house. Your dog is not a domesticated wolf. Over 10,000 years of domestication and selective breeding has ensured that there are physical, behavioural and social differences, and so your dog should not be treated as a wolf.
It is impossible for your dog to assume that it has status over or under another individual, this is a human concept that in the past we have attempted to apply to canine social behaviour. Attempting to be the dominant member over your dog will be detrimental and cruel to you dog.
Dogs are social animals that are capable of living in a group and while they do not form packs, a well socialised individual can enjoy the company of and live with others. Their social group may consist of other dogs, other species and/or their human family. They are aware they are not the same as other animals or people, their interactions with other species is different to how they interact with other dogs.
Dogs do not have ‘theory of mind’, which means that they cannot put themselves in another’s shoes and understand how they are feeling about something emotionally. This, rules out the possibility of them completing behaviours to try to get under the owner’s skin, to get one over another individual or to even show appeasement as a mark of respect to an individual.
Dogs can feel basic emotions, such as happiness and sadness. Dogs are also capable of forming strong bonds with items and individuals, which some would describe as love. A dogs’ relationship with another is based on how they perceive that individual and it all comes down to trust.
The way that dogs build relationships with other dogs and the way we should build relationships with our dogs is through clear communication. The focus should be what it is we do want from them, not what we do not want from them. Every individual, dog and human, has different tolerances and preferences. Relationships are formed through communicating these and getting to know what is acceptable, what is not, and what different communication patterns mean. These relationships are dynamic, dogs change their behaviour with different individuals, different environments, and who else is present can even affect how they interact with another. Dogs are not robotic in their learning, they are adaptive, they build different associations in every social environment and learn to behave according to past experiences. If we can communicate clearly what we want from our dog, and make this behaviour rewarding, then our dog will become responsive to our communication patterns.
Dogs are not moral creatures, they do not understand right from wrong. But they do understand good and bad in terms of consequences. Dogs learn through consequence and reward, it is very simple, if a dog finds a behaviour rewarding, it will repeat it. If a dog finds a negative result for a behaviour, it will be less inclined to repeat it. A common example would be a dog finds food in the bin, so it repeatedly empties the bin to find the food. It is not being naughty; it is doing it because it found the behaviour rewarding.
When dogs interact with one another, they are NEVER trying to figure out who is the more dominant. They simply are looking for information as to whether the individual they are encountering is a threat or not, the dog is only interested in self-preservation at this point. It is important for social animals to avoid conflict, because the result is potential injury or worse.
Each dog does this in different ways. What we used to call submissive dogs, today we regard as individuals that offer appeasement to others to diffuse any potential threats. Dogs that demonstrate posturing and tension are just as unsure of other dogs as those that show appeasement, they are just not prepared to drop their guard and instead feel the need to show a strong front. Some dogs poke and bark at other dogs, these dogs do not know how to communicate with other dogs, they lack social skills. We call this provoking the environment for information, what they are looking for is feedback. How the other individual responds to their communication pattern will determine what happens next. But ultimately both dogs are looking to stay safe and unharmed.
Dominance is over used in dog training terms, and has confused the dog training world. It has been blamed for behavioural issues that it simply has nothing to do with. Dominance in terms of status over another individual does not exist in the dog world. However, situational dominance does occur. This is usually where a resource is involved, something an individual places value on. When there is competition for a resource, the dog that values it the highest and communicates that it intends to keep the resource, and does keep the resource, is naturally dominant in that situation. But that is where that individual’s dominance ends, from there the situation can change. The dog can choose to leave the resource and allow others to take it, and in a different situation with a different resource another dog may put higher value on that item and achieve dominance in that situation. Their relationships are dynamic, when a dog offers appeasement, it does not mean that it is subordinate, likewise when a dog is displaying tense or assertive body communication patterns it does not mean that it is dominant over those it is communicating with.
A dog’s behaviour is always a result of three factors. Genetics, environment (internal and external) and what they have learned previously. Their genetics is what they are pre-disposed to, their environment including their surrounds and their internal environment, what mood they are in and if their body is affected by pain or not, and previous learnings. Dogs are always learning and past experiences with people, dogs and any species they encounter will affect how they are behaving in every moment. When analysing behaviour, we must always take these three factors into consideration.
When it comes down to it, what a dog essentially wants to feel safe and comfortable, any communication pattern it learns is to gain feedback from others. The most important, and usually the first information being sought after from a new individual is “are you a threat or not”. How a dog behaves when it is not feeling safe and comfortable depends on the three factors above, but the goal is always the same: self-preservation, never to achieve status.