It's not Dominance - It's just not! So why do Dogs Fight?
Despite the huge progress is the world of modern, science-based training and our understanding of dog behaviour, almost daily emails come in from people looking for help for their dogs and at some point, the word “dominance” comes up. Mostly, it is used in relation to aggression between dogs in the home: “I think they are vying for dominance” or “My one dog is really dominant and goes for my other dogs when there is food around”.
Well, I guess that dog owners are not really to blame for this. The idea of dogs striving for dominance is still so pervasive in society, because it is still pushed by self-proclaimed, unqualified experts and then perpetuated by the media, who for some reason so often latch onto these charlatans when seeking “expert” opinion, rather than calling on qualified professionals. I guess that science and credentials are just not exciting enough for mainstream media – eccentricity, “energy” and myths about the “wolf” in your lounge are much more appealing and satisfying.
It is just so frustrating that time and again, before one gets down to trying to assist with a proper, science based, behaviour modification plan, we first have to wade through layers of nonsensical beliefs and attitudes which interfere with training and building a healthy dog-human relationship. So, this is another attempt to clear away these ideas and present the truth, because whatever the problem is, I can guarantee that it ISN’T dominance – it just isn’t.
How can I be so sure? Well, let’s look at what we do know about the concept of dominance:
Dominance is a human construct. We could say that a particular athlete always “dominates” in a particular type of challenge, meaning that they always seem to win or do better than others in that event. We can also use it to describe processes, like how genes are expressed – so the gene for brown eyes is a “dominant” gene, meaning that if it is paired with the gene for blue eyes, it will “override” the blue gene and the person’s eyes will be brown. These are practical and unemotional uses for the idea of dominance, but as humans, obsessed as we are with status, we have added another connotation to it: we tend to think of dominance in terms of how much respect a person gets i.e. their social standing or power in society.
Unfortunately, many years ago, a very flawed study on captive wolves led researchers to believe that wolves in a pack strove for dominant positions in their social grouping. Even more unfortunately, this idea was transferred to dogs, simply because dogs happen to be distant relatives of wolves. The results of these studies have since been refuted by the very people who first put these ideas forward. They realised that they were not observing wild wolves in a natural family group, but unrelated wolves in a stressful, captive environment and this changed their behaviour completely – they have since likened these studies to drawing conclusions about human family dynamics by observing the inmates in a prison! The high levels of conflict and aggression that were observed in the captive wolves, does not in fact occur in wild wolf families, who avoid conflict with each other as much as possible (expending energy on fighting and injuring your family members who you are dependent upon for survival is totally counter-productive).
We have also come a long way since then in our understanding of dog behaviour. We know that dogs are not tame versions of wolves, they have in fact evolved to fit into a completely different ecological niche. Dogs are no longer cooperative hunters, dependant on a close-knit family group for survival – they are opportunistic scavengers, who while still being social animals, are not part of a tightly structured pack and are nor dependant on each other for food acquisition. Dogs may have special “friendships” or relationships with a few individuals, but they form mainly transient and loose associations with other dogs.
So, in terms of animal relationships, is there such a thing as “dominance”? Well technically, yes – but it is NOT what most people think. The appropriate application of the word describes the outcome between two individuals in a PARTICULAR scenario at a PARTICULAR time. These scenarios relate to resources i.e. if two dogs both want the same resource and both have the same opportunity to obtain that resource, the one that succeeds in obtaining it would be dominant in that situation at that moment.
The crucial thing to take note of here, is how specific the situation is – it is a particular scenario at a particular time. It is not static. It does not apply to every scenario, so it is not a description of a dog’s personality or a permanent relationship that never changes. For example, I would say that most of the time, if there is food on offer, Rosie will make sure she gets there first and Cruz won’t argue about it. When it comes to food, I would say that Rosie tends to have priority access in most cases and so could be said to be “dominant” over Cruz in that particular scenario. However, when it comes to a favourite ball or sleeping on our bed, Cruz generally gets there faster and will end up with the ball or the best bed spot 90% of the time. So, technically one could say that Cruz is “dominant” over Rosie when it comes to priority access to the ball and the bed. So, who is ultimately dominant? My answer – WHO CARES! I don’t, and I am pretty sure they don’t, because dominance is not some THING or permanent status that dogs are striving for – it is confined to a moment and then the moment passes.
So why do dogs fight and why does is seem that some dogs “defer” to others in certain situations? What is all that about?
Dogs are social animals and dogs learn very early in life, from their moms, how to use appropriate social behaviour to get what they need and to avoid conflict. As soon as puppies are old enough to start engaging in social behaviours, their mother will start to shape their behaviour in a positive direction, by reinforcing polite social behaviours with access to her milk and later to food she has brought back for them. Increasingly, demanding and pushy behaviours no longer work (and may even result in a telling off) and puppies have to use polite or deferential behaviour to get what they want. These behaviours become the norm for the way that puppies relate to older dogs. So, the natural and very normal behaviour pattern that young dogs learn is “be polite and defer to your elders”. This deferential behaviour towards adult or older dogs is transferred to other dogs in the home that the puppy is brought into and so a relationship on this basis is formed from early days. Avoiding conflict with an older dog in the home automatically reinforces this kind of deference (normal, healthy dogs actually want to AVOID conflict, not start it!) and so there is no reason for this behaviour to change, even once the puppy has grown up. A dog does not wake up one day and think, “Actually, I feel like climbing the social ladder today – let’s see if I can challenge [insert older dog’s name] and improve my position in the household. I want to be greeted first by the humans and I want my supper dished up first, so let’s see what I can achieve.”
Squabbles and fights can occur for many reasons and these are the most common:
THE NEEDS OF ONE OR MORE DOGS IN THE HOME ARE NOT BEING MET – if dogs are bored, frustrated, lacking in environmental enrichment, lacking in opportunities to engage in normal dog behaviour, stressed, anxious or in anyway emotionally out of sorts, they will often become reactive and take out their frustrations on other canine members of the household. In my experience, this is one of the most common root causes of conflict – the dogs just have no real lives. In many cases, these situations occur in households where there are just too many dogs that never go out anywhere, never do anything interesting and pretty much just hover around each other all day long. This is pretty much like the captive wolf or prison situation – the dogs are stressed and unhappy and so they start squabbling over everything.
MISMANAGEMENT OF RESOURCES BY HUMANS – Sometimes you will have two dogs that really want the same resource quite badly e.g. you could have two dogs that are both highly food motivated. This in itself doesn’t have to be a problem, but if those two dogs are fed next to each other with no supervision and one tends to always finish first and wander over to the other’s bowl, making the other dog feel tense and stressed while he is still eating, eventually that situation can tip over into a fight. Once it has happened once, the dogs will be far warier of each other in that situation in the future, meaning that they will be far more likely to be reactive towards each other around the food bowls. Eventually one dog can become so defensive around food that even the sight of the other dog in the area will cause an aggressive response. These things usually don’t happen overnight and can be easily be prevented with proper management i.e. not allowing that situation to develop in the first place.
GENERAL OVERAROUSAL – dogs that are over-stimulated by a busy or stressful environment or that are frustrated, can become easily over-aroused by things like visitors arriving, getting ready to go for a walk or people or dogs passing the property. In their extreme excitement, they may redirect onto each other and end up fighting with each.
INNAPROPRIATE HUMAN INTERFERENCE – It is normal and healthy to want to protect a young puppy – to a point. While it is normal for older dogs in the home to lay some ground rules with the pup, using ritualised and harmless responses (growl, snap with no contact etc), some people will not let older dogs do this and will punish any sign of displeasure that the older dog shows. Of course, we do not want older dogs to bully or hurt the puppy physically in any way (and well-adjusted adult dogs won’t do this), but an older dog should be allowed to indicate “push off, you’re irritating me!” or “don’t even think about taking my chew”. These kinds of normal and harmless interactions help to establish that polite deferential relationship with the older dog that I mentioned earlier. However, if the older dog is prevented from laying these ground rules, the puppy is likely to think it can get away with being pushier than is appropriate. Later, once the puppy is older and the poor adult dog finally gets so fed-up that he does tell the pup off, the puppy, now an adolescent, will be so surprised at this unexpected response that they may become defensive and retaliate.
PERSONALITY CLASHES – In some cases, you can have a really chilled and easy-going adult dog and a really rambunctious puppy. Although the puppy tends to be “a bit much”, the older dog may be so laid back that he couldn’t care less and doesn’t bother to let the puppy know that he or she is actually quite irritating. The puppy therefore develops a pattern of getting away with quite rude behaviour with the older dog. However, as the puppy matures, the older dogs starts to realise that this young dog is now super irritating and its “puppy license” has expired. The older dog may finally take a stand and tell the young dog off – again, this might not go down very well at this stage and the young dog might retaliate.
SIBLINGS OR DOGS THE SAME AGE AND SAME SEX- The more similar dogs are, the more they tend to want the same things, so the more likely they will be to squabble over resources. When two dogs are the same age, there is no automatic deference as with a puppy and an adult dog, so there will be a lot more conflict to decide who gets what. This is one of the reasons why having siblings or two dogs of similar age is such a BAD IDEA.
7. FIGHTING BREEDS – Dogs bred to fight with other dogs may be fine with other dogs until they get into a fight. Unlike most other dogs, dogs bred for fighting are predisposed to experiencing a chemical high during conflict, while carrying out "grab-bite-shake" behaviours (like a border collie rehearsing "eye-stalk-chase" while herding sheep), so once they have experienced this, they may seek it out again and again. Please note that "predisposition" does not imply that every dog in this category will automatically experience this and display the resulting behaviour or that they are not capable of other types of more "normal" aggressive responses. There is a however, in my professional opinion and extensive experience, an increased risk of dog fights in the home, if you have one or more dogs of this type. Fights will often also be far more serious, because these dogs have been selected to kill each other. What I am referring to here is difficult for people in regions where there is tight control over dogs in this category or where they are banned. In Cape Town, we have an endless supply of puppies whose parents were literally used in dog fights and their parents before them. These pups are rescued by pro life organizations and re-homed to young families looking for an easy pet dog. The resulting tragedies are something that trainers and behaviourists in SA encounter all the time. We are in a crisis here - we are drowning in the tide of popularity of these dogs. If you are in any doubt as to the situation here, please have a look at statements by the Pit Bull Federation of South Africa who are the biggest advocates AGAINST ordinary people acquiring these dogs.
POOR EARLY SOCIALISATION – if a puppy was removed very early from the litter and hand reared, that puppy may not have learned the necessary social skills to avoid conflict with other dogs. They may behave inappropriately and other dogs may misunderstand their behaviour which can lead to fights.
So, what about dogs that just seem to “hate” each other? Those that pretty much start fighting “on-sight” and without any apparent triggers. Is this not a fight for dominance? No – this is usually the end result of conflict that has been going on for some time, to a point where these dogs have learned that the presence of the other dog signals that something bad is going to happen. They now have a very negative association with each other and no longer need any external triggers to engage in conflict - the other dog in itself is now the trigger.
Another common scenario where people describe their dogs as “dominant” is when their dogs are reactive to other dogs on walks. Firstly, if dogs actually formed highly structured dominance hierarchies with dogs they lived with (which we know they don’t), what would this have to do with a dog they do not live with and are just passing on the beach or in the road? Dogs react to other dogs on walks due to poor socialisation, insecurity and fear. This is the very opposite of the human understanding of “dominance”.
What about inter-male aggression? Intact male dogs may compete with other intact male dogs for access to bitches or other resources related to passing on their genes to the next generation. If two male dogs were posturing with a particular resource at stake and one backed off while the other was successful at retaining that resource, then the successful one could be described as being dominant in that scenario. It doesn’t however mean that this dog is now a “dominant dog”, this is now his character trait, or that the rest of his life would be devoted to keeping this imaginary status.
So again, if any two dogs are fighting over a particular resource, they are fighting for THAT resource and NOT over some position they want to attain in the household or family. Even if they are fighting over more than one resource, it is still about those resources and NOT about wanting to be “dominant”. In most cases when multiple resources are involved, it is because aggression generalises – fast. Once conflict starts in one scenario, without proper management, it will spread.
So how do we avoid conflict developing amongst our dogs:
Make sure that you meet your dogs needs. Dogs are not a security solution, lawn ornaments or lap warmers. They are sentient beings and they need a variety of activities daily to be content. For more on this please see: https://www.tarynblyth.co.za/single-post/2017/07/20/IS-A-DOG-RIGHT-FOR-ME-Examining-a-dog%E2%80%99s-needs-BEFORE-making-that-decision
Don’t have too many dogs! The more dogs sharing the same space and the same limited resources, the more stressful your home will be for them and the more likely you will be to have conflict.
Avoid getting dogs of the same age i.e. two puppies at the same time
Make sensible choices over the dogs you integrate – consider their breed type, sex, individual temperaments etc. and consider how well they are likely to get along, in what ways they might annoy each other and how you can manage them to prevent this as much as possible.
Manage resources carefully! Don’t ignore early warning signs that your dog is not comfortable with the other dogs around his food etc. Give them space when they need it!
Above all, don’t listen to people who refer to your dogs as a pack and tell you that if you can just sort out their hierarchy, with you as the “alpha” everything will be fine. Stressed, anxious, bored and frustrated dogs do not need a hierarchy or an “alpha” – they need you to change the environment, so that stressors are minimised and their needs are fulfilled.