Dominance is a concept we frequently encounter in discussions of companion animal behavior. Many pet owners believe that the most important thing they can do to ensure their animal behaves appropriately is to establish themselves as “dominant,” “the alpha mare,” or “the flock leader.” When behavior problems develop, these are rationalized as attempts by the animal to take control, or a failure of the human caregiver to command respect. Unfortunately, this mindset often leads to the use of positive punishment and the development of an antagonistic relationship between the human and animal.

The role of an animal behavior consultant is to use effective techniques to prevent, treat, and manage behavior problems so that their clients and their animals can live together. To do so, they need a proper understanding of the natural behavior of their chosen species, and of the most effective ways to teach their clients to change their animal’s behavior.[1] Animal behavior consultants therefore need to understand how the concept of dominance relates to animal behavior, so they can give clients the benefit of their expertise.

What is dominance?

“Dominance is an attribute of the pattern of repeated, agonistic interactions between two individuals, characterized by a consistent outcome in favour of the same dyad member and a default yielding response of its opponent rather than escalation. The status of the consistent winner is dominant and that of the loser subordinate. Dominance status refers to dyads while dominance rank, high or low, refers to the position in a hierarchy and, thus, depends on group composition. Dominance is a relative measure and not an absolute property of individuals.”[2]

Any two individuals who repeatedly enter into conflict for any reason may establish a dominance status. The question for behavior consultants, then, is not whether the ethological concept of dominance exists, but whether it is a pertinent, useful concept for managing and treating the problematic behaviors the client’s animal is exhibiting.

What does the science say about dominance in…

Parrots

Studies in flocks of captive psittacines suggest that social structure is organized around pair bonding.[3] There is no evidence that dominance is a feature of individual birds’ temperament; social structure in flocks is fluid, not rigid or linear.[4] In companion parrots, the most common aggressive behaviors that are described as attempts to establish dominance are biting and screaming, but these are not features of typical agonistic interactions between birds in the wild or in group housing.[5]

Cats

Research on social organization in domestic cats has concentrated on competition for resources like food.[6] Domestic cats can form social hierarchies through agonistic behaviors and are more likely to do so in a restricted environment; studies differ on how a cat’s relative position in this hierarchy relates to their access to resources.[7] Giving cats space and sufficient access to litter boxes and food appears to be the most effective way to minimize this stress and lessen aggressive confrontations between cats.[8]

Dogs

Through the process of domestication, the social behavior of the companion dog has come to differ greatly from that of other canids; dogs lack many of the subtle agonistic behaviors wolves use to signal dominance and to de-escalate conflict.[9] Furthermore, comparisons of breeds of dogs have shown that the frequency of aggressive behaviors and the possibility of establishing a stable dominance hierarchy in young puppies is highly variable.[10] Feral dogs may form linear hierarchies, with age as the single best predictive factor of social status.[11]

Horses

Wild horses form natal bands, and bachelor bands composed of stallions that have yet to establish themselves within a harem.[12] There is some debate over whether these social groupings are led by one animal, who is responsible for decisions about herd movement, or whether these decisions are made collectively.[13] Domestic horses have been observed to form linear hierarchies when they are housed in small groups, and triangular interactions when kept in larger herds.[14] Aggression is most frequently observed when there is a limited resource like food.[15]

The problem with dominance

When the concept of dominance is used to justify invasive or aversive approaches to training and behavior modification, then it is a problem.

Dominance is most often understood in the context of leadership. Pet owners often believe that it is imperative they establish themselves as the leader in their human-animal dyad. There is nothing inherently wrong with a client having the desire to assume a leadership role with the animals in their care, but ethical issues do arise when animals are punished, deprived of opportunities, or subject to ineffective, inconsistent behavioral interventions in the name of forcing submission.[16] Punishment-based approaches have been associated with an increased risk of aggression, which is a risk to public and client safety.[17] There is evidence that these methods also compromise welfare.[18]

Thinking in terms of dominance may lead to misdiagnosis. Many behaviors labelled as “dominance aggression” are based in fear, pain, conflict, or resource guarding.[19] True dominance aggression, where an animal is repeatedly resorting to aggressive behavior to establish social status or priority access to resources, is described as extremely rare.[20]

The use of constructs like dominance is based on the principle that animals understand us when we try to act like they do.[21] Many of the behaviors that comprise social interactions between individuals in competition for resources have the function of decreasing the likelihood of physical force being used. We humans cannot be sure animals are understanding what we’re attempting to communicate when we try to mimic their behavior; many social signals animals give to each other have no human equivalent, and other behaviors are only expressed in the presence of humans.[22] Dominance, then, is not an expedient way to understand companion animal behavior or a useful framework to determine how to change it.[23]

What to do instead

The best way to minimize stress; promote good welfare; successfully prevent, treat, and manage behavior problems; and help develop a strong bond for behavior clients and their animals is to focus on positive reinforcement within a LIMA framework.

Behavior consultants need to be aware of how all the animals and humans in a client’s environment can affect the development and maintenance of problem behaviors. When there are multiple animals of the same species in that environment, the behavior consultant may find it useful to consider the social structures and the potential for dominant-subordinate relationships to have developed between individual cats, dogs, horses, parrots, or other animals as part of their intervention design.

Even when dominance and rank are useful concepts in understanding the dynamics of a problem, they don’t justify a punishment-first approach to addressing the problem. An approach based on reinforcing the behaviors we want to see instead, and creating a context where these behaviors are safe and easy for animals to choose, is still the best chance of addressing a behavior problem.

The success of training behaviors based on the understanding of learning theory and the application of reinforcement has been well-documented across a huge variety of species and contexts.[24] Behavior modification plans for every problem, including resource guarding and other issues that have been diagnosed as “dominance aggression,” should focus on an operational understanding of the individual animal’s behavior: its antecedents, function, and consequences.

It’s up to humans to create a context for companion animals to thrive in their care, and the role of a behavior consultant is to give clients the tools to do this. Behavior consultants should focus on teaching animals what they should do instead of the problematic behaviors, and teaching clients how they can avoid reinforcing those problem behaviors and showing them how to be a consistent, caring leader. Dominance, and the attendant feelings of need to impose authority by force, are something we should move clients away from.

Read our official position statement here.

[1] IAABC, 2016

[2] Drews, 1993.

[3] Seibert, 2003.

[4] Doneley, 2016.

[5] Wilson, 2001.

[6] Crowell-Davis, 2004; Knowles, 2004.

[7] Bradshaw, 2014; Landsberg, Huntsman, & Ackerman, 2013.

[8] Ramos et al., 2013; Loberg & Lundmark, 2016.

[9] Feddersen-Petersen, 2007.

[10] Scott and Fuller, 1968; Serpell, 2007;

[11] Bonnani et al., 2017.

[12] McGreevy, 2012.

[13] Bourjade, 2015

[14] Houpt, Law, & Martinisi, 1978.

[15] Burla et al., 2016.

[16] Yin, 2007.

[17] Blackwell, et al., 2007; Herron, Shofer & Reisner, 2009.

[18] Fernandes, Olsson, & Vieira de Castro, 2017; McLean & McGreevy, 2010.

[19] Landsberg, Huntsman, & Ackerman, 2013; Sherman, 2009.

[20] Crowell-Davis, 2007;

[21] Hartmann, Christensen, & McGreevy, 2017.

[22] McGreevy, et al., 2009.

[23] Overall, 2013; Friedman, Martin, & Brinker, 2006.

[24] In parrots, see Martin, 2007; in horses, see McCall, 1990; in dogs, see Hiby, Rooney, & Bradshaw, 2004; in cats, see Bradshaw & Ellis, 2017; Krieger, 2010.