What does dominance mean in animal training?

Understanding what dominance is and what role it plays in training is important to understanding and working with our canine friends.

Dominance is a fluid label and is used to help predict relationship dynamics in a breeding pair among canine relatives – and that’s really where it ends for our dogs.

Many animals, even chickens, have turned out to have more complicated relationships than we once thought. Their relationships are fluid, based on a probability of past observations. We see complex communication that helps minimize damage in a variety of social species – think of dogs and body language. Much of what we see as aggression or threats are rooted in avoidance of possibly damaging conflict.

The definition of dominance in science refers to many observations in the same environment, looking at the interaction between individuals and potential outcomes.

In training, dominance can be a label that obscures data and prevents objective data taking. It can lead to inappropriate training plans and false exceptions. Remember – by definition, dominance has to do with the relationship dynamics of breeding pairs. In training, we can never actually be a dog, or be a breeding dog, and our dogs never have the option to just leave the territory.

Even in proper scientific use, this label does not stick with an individual. It changes readily, as relationships are established to minimize future physical contact, damage, and wasted energy.

The data you take for one group is very context dependent, and animals may run to a new food source very quickly in one area than they would in another environment. Competition is not a desired state – it’s a perceived last resort as it takes energy and has many risks.

Dogs are complex and flexible socially. They take on the system you give them. Cooperation can be huge, and it works between species very well. Many examples of cross species cooperation exist outside our homes: the coyote and badger are among animals that can learn to cooperate. They learn to hunt together, rest together, and travel together. When cooperation pays off, animals are quick to notice.

When training, try to find ways to offer choices and options for cooperation instead of conflict. Your dog will thank you, and your relationship will be much stronger because of it.

Author: Kate Wilson, BS, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA


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