Alternatives to Social Dominance in Dogs

         After predominating thinking about the social behavior of dogs for over 60 years, dominance theory (or pack theory) is finally on the decline.  A number of authorities have argued against the application of dominance theory to dogs, but nowhere is the theory more persuasively debunked than in John Bradshaw’s recent book  Dog Sense.   Bradshaw marshals a compelling wealth of scientific data to show how the theory just doesn’t work to explain the social relations of dogs with other dogs or with people. He also shows us how the theory not only does a disservice to our understanding of dogs, but actually harms the well-being of dogs.  
        If dominance theory doesn’t help us to explain how dogs deal with competition and conflicts with other dogs and people, then what’s the alternative? There isn’t a single theory or principle that explains all. A dog’s behavior in a competitive situation is the outcome of a number of variables acting together.
       First and foremost is the predisposition dogs have to cooperate with those they live with rather than compete and seek conflicts with them. The predisposition comes in part from their wild, group-living ancestors and in part from their domestication – where people have actively bred dogs not to be very competitive with those they live with. 
      This is not to say that dogs don’t get into conflicts with others, they do. Conflicts arise from time to time among all creatures that live together. When conflicts do arise between dogs and those they live with, they are managed in a number of different ways. The conflicts are usually over resources – food, toys, sleep and rest spots, and attention from other dogs and people. The options available are to share the resource, alternate access to the resource with others, give up the resource to others, steal it, be pushy and persistent in trying to get it but not be aggressive and last, and least used, is using threats and aggression to get or keep the resource.  The second factor that is involved in dealing with conflicts is that dogs will use a variety of these options to get what they want. They don’t just use threats and aggression as dominance theory would dictate. 
      The third factor is that dogs seem to assess the value of the resource to decide how much they want it, and they seem to judge the value of the resource for the others that want it as well.  It’s as if they think  “How much do I want this thing? And how much does the other guy want it?”   The dog’s behavior is going to depend in part on this relative assessment of how much they want the resource and how much their competitor wants it. If they don’t want it that much, they may just let the other one have it, if they really, really want it, they may try to share it, steal it, be pushy and persistent in trying to get it or in rare cases, use threats and aggression to get it.
       Fourth, dogs learn from previous interactions in different situations and with different opponents.  Those experiences also influence how a dog will respond in any given situation with any given opponent. For example, a dog may not contest his housemate for the food dish because he has learned that the housemate eats rapidly and it is unpleasant to try to eat with him at the same time.  But the dog may also have learned that he can be first to get attention from people at the door because the housemate is fearful around unfamiliar people.
       All these factors interact in complex ways to determine how a dog will react to any given competitive situation involving resources. We don’t know just how the factors interact for any given dog and sometimes it is difficult to predict how a dog will react in a given situation. It is clear however that simplistic rules such as “Try to dominate all those you compete with” are inadequate to explain or predict dog behavior.  You can learn more about what’s wrong with dominance theory as applied to dogs in our DVD program "The Dangers of Dominance."   A thorough review of Bradshaw’s book was recently done for our membership site
      Reading Bradshaw’s book will give you a richer appreciation for the complexity of dog behavior and how over-simplifying it can be harmful to dogs.

Bradshaw, J.  2011.  Dog Sense: How The New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend To Your Pet. New York, NY: Basic Books. 


  • John Bradshaw is a brilliant person! I did my Master’s thesis at the University of Southampton and he was my supervisor. It was great working with him, a smart and nice person!

  • Great article — concise and to the point! We need to keep shouting from the rooftops to get rid of the old, harmful thinking.

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