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Household dominance! ...the dogs, and the domestic realities

We are pack!

Let me say that this post is NOT about the rights anìd wrongs of how to train your dog. I leave that argument to the qualified trainers and behaviourists.

Personally, I have looked into considerable research on dominant training methods (see footnote) and have long since nailed my colours to the mast as a force-free , owner.... 'nuff said.

As owners, however, it is easy to be confused by the matter of dominance, with research into wolf pack behaviour offering evidence that dogs -or, at least, their wolf brothers- do.not operate on a pack dominance basis, instead demonstrating supportive social structures.

So why is it that so many experienced owners of multiple dogs disagree, and are adamant that their households have a "top dog"?

Why did '87% of owner respondents to a questionnaire study believe that dogs rated as dominant do have priority access to resources etc' [sic] ( extract from the study "Dominance in dogs as rated by owners corresponds to ethologically valid markers of dominance" by Enikő Kubinyi and Lisa J. Wallis )

Why is there such a discrepancy between research and hands on experience and observation in the home?

Put simply, the difference lies purely in our understanding of the term "dominant" (or ""alpha").

The definitions differ, depending on whether we are viewing from a training perspective (see first paragraph!) or through the lens of day to day domesticity.

Based on my own experience, I would say that rather than talking about an alpha dog or pack leader in the home, we should deliberately avoid these dominance based stereotypes and instead be describing our dogs as a family.

And every family has a parental figure.....every home with more than two dogs will have one! ..... and if you haven't yet spotted it in your own canine family, just watch the dogs'interactions for a while.

Parental dogs are often the reverse of what we expect of a dominant animal.

In this household, and those of many friends, it is often a female..... often one of the quieter, calmer dogs.

Equally quietly, the other dogs defer to her...... and in a happy, force-free home, the owners bond should ensure that she will defer to you

What are the clues?

Can you spot the dog who gently reinforces your commands e.g no barking!

Which dog always gets to stay in its bed of choice?

Which dog does your new puppy react most passively to if they tell it off?

Spotting all the small clues can be a fun game to play!

I have posted before about my elderly, and unwell, spaniel abdicating from her parental role. She has assumed the human equivalent of great-granny in a chair by the fire, occasionally muttering but otherwise letting the kids run rings around her.

The vacancy gave us a confusing period in which there was some jockeying for position but when a rather forceful foster dog finally left us for her forever home, a clear winner has slowly emerged.

Unsurprisingly, she is the only other female. Of more surprise is that she is not yet 2! She is learning on the job... sometimes a bit too forceful in backing me up, sometimes still distracted by her own affairs... but she is getting there, and the dog family is more settled as a result.

Is she dominant? did she start out as an alpha dog?

I would say no to both.... but she is turning into a fair young parent!

Two minutes after this picture was taken, Charlie deferred... and reluctantly gave up his seat!


For those who do want to review dominance in regard to training, check out this excellent article from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers

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