social structure and psychology

Social structure & Psychology

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, because it does not have theory of mind, this is a human concept that in the past we have attempted to apply to canine social behaviour. Attempting to be a pack leader or alpha over your dog and using corrective training methods 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, (the definition of a pack is “a group that hunt live and kill together” dogs do not do this) 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. As stated earlier, 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 manipulate others emotions for good or bad because they cannot comprehend them in the first place.

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 and learn that what we want them to do, to be rewarding for them also, increasing the likelihood of them repeating these behaviours.

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. Every action they do comes with a risk assessment, if they deem the reward to be greater than the negative, they may still suffer the punishment to achieve the reward. 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. If we introduced a negative, such as a reprimand the dog will assess each time if it is worth doing. If we are present, the dog will likely not try to take food from the bin, where as if we are a not present, the reward far outweighs the punishment.

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, because as an animal, they instinctively deem others as a threat until they can be sure otherwise. The dog is only interested in self-preservation at this point and will do what it can and has learned in the past when greeting new individuals. 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, it most likely means that it is so nervous about meeting new individuals that it cannot drop its guard.

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 (click here to read the three factors) but the goal is always the same: self-preservation, never to achieve status. 

Old Dominance Myths Based on Linear Hierarchy and That Assume Dogs Have Theory of Mind That are False

  • You do not have to eat before your dog. You can eat whenever you like in relation to when your dog eats, simply do what is most suitable to you and your dog’s needs.

  • If your dog likes height, then it could be that your dog has learnt to stay vigilant of its surroundings or that the top of your sofa is very comfortable. If you feel that your dog likes to be higher than you, you are mistaken, what height you are in comparison to it has no meaning to the dog what so ever.

  • You do not have to walk in front of your dog. The old theory suggested that the alpha walked at the front, this is not the case, not even in wolves. This one always threw me because what happens if you walk your dog next to you the entire time and then let it off the leash to run around? Is it a dominant dog as soon as it runs in front? Of course not… these old myths are really stupid if we look at them with common sense.

  • If your dog comes over to you to rest itself or lean on you, it is likely that it simply takes comfort from contact with you. The old theory would suggest that this individual is trying to assert itself over you.

  • Humping is often misunderstood, most dogs we come across are de-sexed these days, so its not sexual and we know its not them trying to assert themselves now as well. Humping is usually a displacement behaviour. In moments of stress or overstimulation dogs will defer onto behaviours they find rewarding and feel good. Humping feels good… So when your dog is humping your goal is to settle them down, do not reprimand them or hype them up, this will compound the learnt association and make it worse in the long run.

  • Going through doors before your dog. Your dog does not know what a door is, and so trying to go through a door before your dog to show it you are dominant is pointless on many levels.

  • Moving other individuals out of the way to achieve a resource such as affection or a ball means that they want the resource, not to achieve status over that individual that they moved.

  • Dogs that jump up on beds or sofas are not trying to take your comfy spot away from you, they have no concept that you wanted it. They simply found a comfy spot and so enjoyed resting there. If you like your dog up on the sofa or bed with you, there is nothing wrong with this, just as much as if you do not want your dog on the sofa or bed. It is all personal preference.

  • Rolling and holding a dog on its side does not convince it that you are dominant over it, it can however cause the dog to panic and so will either try to escape, fight or freeze in that situation. A dog that just gives up when rolled on its side is feeling helpless, confused and scared… its a horrible thing to do to anyone or anything.

  • Holding your dog in your arms when you sit on your bed or sofa to show them that this is your item and you are in control is just confusing to the dog.

  • You cannot convince your dog to like something by approaching it yourself and showing it affection. They have no concept as to how you may feel about something emotionally or intellectually. So please do not think that you can get your dog to like another dog by going over to it and giving it a stroke.

Dog Social Structure Summary
(Credit to Australian Veterinary Behaviour Services)

  • Dogs are social animals that are capable of living in a group. Their social group may consist of other dogs or animals in the household and/or their human family.

  • Dogs do NOT think they are people, they are aware people and dogs are different and often behave very differently to other dogs compared to people.

  • It is important in evolutionary terms for social animals to avoid conflict, because physical violence has a high risk of injury.

  • Dogs do not form “packs” but they are a social species and if well socialised, will enjoy each-others company.

  • Dogs are NOT wolves – there is more than 10,000 years of domestication and selective breeding separating the two species and they are physically, socially and behaviourally very different.

  • They DO NOT have social dominance hierarchies. They do not behave in order to exert their dominance over the other animals or people.

  • They behave in order to obtain favourable outcomes and to avoid bad ones.

  • Dogs are mostly non-verbal communicators and use and advanced repertoire of body language to communicate their emotions and intentions.

Dog Psychology Summary
Credit to Australian Veterinary Behaviour Services)

  • Dogs are not moral creatures, for them there is no right or wrong, rather there is only “good or bad” in terms of consequences for themselves.

  • They avoid bad consequences and are motivated to achieve good ones.

  • Dogs are self-serving, they are willing to please themselves, not us.

  • As far as we are aware, dogs do not have “theory of mind” i.e. they are not able to put themselves in your shoes and consider how you feel or feel about them and their behaviour.

  • Dogs have the cognitive ability of a young 18-24-month-old human child.

  • Dogs are not capable of regret or guilt; they are not able to reflect on their actions in a moral sense, but they certainly do learn from the consequences of their actions.

  • Dogs are not capable of being spiteful, vindictive, naughty or stubborn. They are never acting to influence your emotions, only their own.

  • ·There is no such thing as a naughty dog because they are not capable of deliberately doing wrong.

  • There is no such thing as a disobedient dog, just an un-motivated dog or a dog that is otherwise motivated by something else.

  • Dogs are not capable of feeling respect towards people.

  • Dogs are capable of feeling lots of simple positive and negative emotions e.g. joy and disappointment but are not thought to be capable of experiencing some of the more complex human emotions e.g. embarrassment, shame.