Domination in dogs is not motivation and why that’s important.

This is probably the longest post I will make but I wanted my first post to address something important that I frequently find myself discussing, not just with clients but also with strangers, dog owners and dog enthusiasts alike when out and about with the DOGgED crew. The DOGgED crew being myself and a number of weird, wonderful and very lovable pooches.
I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on a fast and furious wrestling match, distracting an avid food enthusiast away from a tasty human picnic lunch or ensuring a work focused furry goes undisturbed by an overly excited ball thief and boom, there it is, a reference to dominance.

A well intentioned human (mostly) will use the term to describe a wide variety of actions and behaviours on display. I hear it used as a reference to motivation, oh they’re trying to dominate are they? It’s used as a description of personality as if this encompasses all one needs to know about that particular dog, oh spot is really dominant! End story. Biological urges, dominance! Resource guarding, dominance! I could go on but you get the picture.

So, if not dominance you say, then what? Well, we all know the expression, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, well the same is true for dominance. By focusing on what we perceive has been achieved, we lose sight of the real motivating factors that lead to this end result and also how to manage them. It is used as a catchall term for an array of biological urges, behaviours and personality traits resulting from experiences where it really has no relevance or use.
In fact I believe that by focusing on this perceived state of dominance we are not only doing dogs a disservice but also ourselves as the humans that care for them. It is reductive at best and harmful at worst. Every dog is a whole being with a unique personality, experience and environment. By assuming that they are in a constant battle of dominance hierarchy with ourselves and other dogs, we not only limit their potential but also the potential of our relationship with them. In worst case scenarios applying dominance theory can actually exacerbate the issues we seek to remedy.

Now, just because I reject dominance as a useful descriptor does not mean I don’t believe in dogs needing boundaries and structure. In fact in today’s society, with so many of us living so closely together, we need these things more than ever to coexist peacefully and safely as a society. If we allow a dog to do as they please at all times, then suddenly expect them not too, this is not dominance when when they continue doing what they want, it’s learned behaviour.
This is why focusing on motivation is important and useful to us in trying to achieve this. I believe that by examining the motivations of the individual animal and taking a holistic approach based on their unique environment and experiences, we can ensure a happier, safer and more sustainable life with our beloved canines.

At a fundamental level we have the dog’s biological needs; drives manipulated through domestication, individual preferences and learned actions or behaviours derived from positive or negative experience. Understanding why, allows us to work with dogs instead of attempting to fight against their motivations, we can channel their instincts or preferences, saving ourselves energy, frustration and creating a calmer, more compassionate environment for all.
Motivation is of course the basis of reward based training, by using something a dog desires as a reward for behaviours we desire, whether it’s simple praise, food treats or toys, we positively reinforce the actions we seek to continue.

Now a classic use of the word dominance is when two dogs squabble or face off against each other. In general, a full blown fight is rare unless an owner has sought to encourage this action at other times which is of course unacceptable. Alternatively, the owner used an aggressive form of training and the dog is lashing out and frustrated.
Other instances of this are usually when two dogs are fairly evenly matched, a conflict is sparked and things escalate quickly. An example being two dogs prioritising a motivation at equal value. Let’s take two collies, both highly work motivated, playing fetch and retrieve with their respective owners in a public space. Their game collides or there is a brief confusion with the toys being used and one collie takes the other’s toy, that’s the spark and if there is no clear victor from the offset things can escalate quickly. Survival is an important motivator, if there was a clear victor one dog will generally defer.

Fear is also a big motivator for certain aggressive behaviours which are also often labelled as dominance. However here we are looking at biology, we’ve all heard of fight or flight (and the lesser acknowledged freeze) it’s nature at its most basic.
Ignoring fear for the time being, the order of priority of a dog’s motivations will dictate how well multiple dogs will coexist with each other or indeed ourselves. If you have two dogs for example, one with a high food motivation, one with a high toy motivation then you’ll probably find that as long as there is no fear in their environment and you the human are consistent and fair,  then one will defer to the other’s priority i.e the food motivated dog will not challenge the toy motivated dog for toys and the toy motivated dog will not challenge the food motivated dog for food providing all their fundamental needs are being met.
In the same vein, if you live with a dog and constantly deny it access to it’s motivations, for example a ball obsessed dog without using the ball as a reward for good behaviour at the very least, then you will likely build frustration and find you have a dog reluctant to behave how you desire. I’m some instances this could lead to conflict if the dog seeks it’s motivation in public spaces, thus encroaching on another dog’s priorities and resulting in a clash of personalities.

It’s important to work in harmony with the dog that you’ve got, rather than the dog you thought or hoped it would be. By focusing on the individual dog that you have, instead of attempting to force them to your expectations, by helping them enjoy life and making it rewarding for them to do what you want we will find that we have better behaved and less frustrated dogs overall.
Before moving on I will quickly mention, un-neutered dogs and to a lesser extent unspayed females. Natural drives to procreate and survival of species could lead to conflict and clashes over territory etc. This is not dominance, it’s biology. There is no gain to be had from attempting to punish this. We are responsible for dogs breeding or not breeding through domestication. Better to neuter/spay if we don’t wish them to use their natural instincts.

Returning to fear, as motivation this can lead to very unpredictable behaviour. Example if we use negative consequences in an attempt to train a dog, first of all this consequence needs to happen within 2-4 seconds of the undesired action for it to be associated with that action by the dog (this also applies to a reward).
Secondly if a human is punishing a dog or seeking to reduce “status” such as with dominance theory after the fact, to what is that dog associating this negative consequence? It could be anything in their environment at that time, including whatever prompted the undesirable behaviour in the first place or perhaps, something completely unrelated. The added fear of the consequence could result in an even worse reaction the next time that dog faces whatever prompted the unwanted behaviour. We may have also inadvertently created more negative associations within the dog.

I am not without compassion or understanding for humans. Life is challenging, it is all too easy at times during negative experiences or when feeling negative emotions to turn to negative consequences. I myself am guilty at times of focusing on the “don’ts” and “nos” and forgetting the “goods” and “yes! Well dones”. It’s natural to not want to be judged by other humans or perceived as irresponsible dog owners/care givers. I believe a lot of the reprimanding we do, in public spaces at least, is for the benefit of other humans, to show we care about our impact on others.
I know one thing to be true though, rewards and positive reinforcement are powerful motivators, at the end of the day, ask yourselves this; if it’s really cold out and you have nothing to do but getting out of bed in the morning resulted in the tastiest treat you’ve ever had, alternatively, staying in your warm cosy bed for as long as you liked resulted in the removal of everything you enjoy and value, which option would you choose? I’ll take my bottomless caramel soy latte and neverending gooey pastries to go please and thank you.

The sooner we realise dominance is not a motivator and that personalities are made of many components the better, some dogs are just grumpy and lacking in patience just like humans, (hey Dad!)  “Dominant” is too vague to be useful and it seems fairly pointless to prescribe solutions that appeal to humans idea of this. Whereas, by making desired behaviours more rewarding than undesired behaviours, over time and yes some dogs take more time than others, (I’m looking at you Schnauzers!) we can all get what we want, safely and happily with just a drop of frustration. At the end of the day the result is worth it. Dog is God spelt backwards, coincidence?


Author: jendogged

I run my own my business, DOGgED, working with dogs. I provide specialist walking, human-dog education and a holistic approach to tackling canine behaviour with reward based training. DOGgED is two years old, I offer alternative options to dominance theory and hopefully improve the quality of life experienced by dogs and the people who care for them. Happiness is a five dog chasing circle.

5 thoughts on “Domination in dogs is not motivation and why that’s important.”

  1. Delighted to make the connection. A result of your recent decision to follow Learning from Dogs. Thank you! By the way, Jean and I spent a very interesting couple of hours yesterday with Janice Koler-Matznick, a biologist specializing in dog behavior, and author of the book Dawn of the Dog. Janice lives just 45 minutes from us here in Oregon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I appreciate you giving it a read. The conversation happens daily. Always a joy to read anything coming from the same place. I bet that was interesting indeed! Based in Cardiff, Wales, lots of positive work coming out of UK universities on the subject. John Bradshaw has been very vocal in the area.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s