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Many years ago, I clearly remember my first experience testing a dog. After observing the dog and discussing my take on the animal, the senior trainer offered the following view:
“This dog is dominant.”
Of course, being naive, and someone who is never really satisfied with a simple answer, I asked how she knew this to be true. The trainer advised me that one just knew. With experience, you look at an animal and just know if it is dominant.
At the time, I did not ask more questions. But that answer never really left me satisfied. Not unlike a craving, I repeatedly questioned other trainers and all gave me similar answers. Now if you will excuse me for being blunt, I think there is more validity to the answer, “If it quacks like a duck…” At least I can clarify quacking.
Obviously, I am a cynic. It is not always a bad trait, as long as I learn to temper my cynical nature with some excessive happiness and blind faith. Being cynical can encourage one to seek out answers. We look to find the closest approximation of truth that is currently available. That does not mean you ever find truth. But you find the knowledge that is available at the moment and make the best assumptions possible.
That cynical nature let led me to a course on anthropology. It is a course that covered a very diverse amount of subject matter. It runs from prehistoric life, the classification of organisms, genetics, evolution and more. I will say that I still cannot remember how to tell the difference between different skull fossil remnants. And I’m not too sure too many dog trainers would really care unless they found the topic of personal interest.
Like many courses, this course involved a written research paper. The initial groan quickly turned to euphoric anticipation when I realized that part of anthropology was the study of non-human primates in their natural environment. It was the study of ethiology. And so, my topic quickly emerged as a study on dominance structure in non-human primates. Was it possible that there was a logical and coherent answer to my question from years back?
Unlike that paper, this article is not meant to be a technical, cited work. This is what I took away from my research. This is about the “ah hah” moments I had writing a research study. They are points that involve many species of animals. It is about process and points of interest.
So go back with me to the initial situation. A trainer points at a dog and “knows”, the animal is dominant. Is that how field researchers do it?
The truth is that observational studies are filled charts. The charts contain rows upon rows of 1′s and 0′s. Graphs pepper the pages like hieroglyphics. In a nutshell, scientists spend extreme amounts of time observing animals. If Bonzo the ape walks up to Chimpy, and Chimpy vacates the spot, Bonzo has come out on top. Score one for Bonzo. Score 0 for Chimpy. If the ape Sarah wants a banana and takes it from Bonzo, then score 1 for Sarah. Score 0 for Bonzo. It goes on.. and … and on.
In the end the numbers are tallied, sorted and graphed. A picture of the family is created out of all those results. We see how the family works over the course of a fixed period of time.
Finally, this is an answer that makes sense to me. It is not possible to look at one animal and determine where they rank. To do the job properly it takes objective analysis. My initial reservation was accurate.
Simple right? We can all now pull out notebooks and come up with objective relationship patterns. Not so fast. Here is where the structure of group animals gets complicated.
Stress complicates matters. Let’s say that researchers spend months and finally have a result. Then a famine comes along. It may be that Bonzo was never really hungry. He let Sarah have the banana. Now that there is a food shortage, he may be inclined to hold on to the banana. It may be that Sarah does not get it, because Bonzo actually makes an effort to keep it.
Or let’s say that mating season arrives. When the desire to mate rather than a preferred resting area, maybe Bonzo and Chimpy fight it out. We do not know who will win. It could be either one.
But let’s make it more complicated. Bonzo and Chimpy are fighting over a female. As they waste time and energy, a quieter male is busy courting the female. Even without full-blown fights, some animals will spend so much time scaring off the competition; they do not see the guy sneaking up from behind. The battle cost them the ability to mate. Their genes are not passed along.
Could it get more complex? Sure. About as complicated as re-run of Survivor. It turns out that a female often has to accept the male. So even if Bonzo is the strongest, it does not mean that she wants to mate with him. Who will she choose?
How about the male that spent all year being nice to her? Many species of animals engage in social behaviours that can strengthen the bonds between members. When it comes to certain species, it can involve social grooming. It can involve assisting in the raising of young. It seems that sometimes it pays to be the nice guy.
Conversely, sometimes it can really be detrimental to be unkind. There are observational reports of hostile takeovers when a heavy-handed leader takes over. In one report, an alpha male was heavy handed with the younger members. It appears that the females took matters into their own hands and retaliated one night. Upon his death, a more benevolent leader took over and peace was restored. Nature is not always kind. But it seems that it can at times be fair.
Death does not only come from mutiny. Remember that animals do not have the benefit of veterinary care. Each time a violent dispute happens, both animals are susceptible to injury. Mild injuries might heal, but they also might become infected. Those that fight a lot – die. They are removed from the gene pool, or at the very least are left to fend for themselves on the outskirt of the pack. If they cannot find another group to join, and cannot function as a solitary rogue member – they die. If they do find another group, they must find a way to be accepted – or you guessed it – die. I suppose it is possible to fight and bully your way in, but there is another way.
Submissive gestures are nature’s balance to keep peace where possible. You see, in order to fight, you need two willing parties. If someone willing waves a white flag, the conflict is resolved. Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the biggest, strongest or fastest. Survival of the fittest means survival of the one who is best able to adapt to the situation.
When it comes to dogs, they have often adapted to a very interesting situation. They live in confinement with humans. Remember that ethiology is about studying natural behaviour in a natural environment. This means it is possible that any and all research done on Canids has zero application in our human world. It is no more different than saying that a wild chimp behaves differently from a caged chimp. It is not the same.
As a dog trainer, I find learning about hierarchies is interesting. But it is not the same as taking months to follow wild dogs in a wild environment. It does not mean that I want my dogs acting like a wild dog either. They hump, they urinate on things, and they sniff each other. Personally, I teach my dogs to adjust to my way of living. I believe in training a dog to live in our world. I do not attempt to behave like a dog, although I will do what I can so they can be dogs through an enriched environment and tolerance of their needs and wants.
When groups of animals live and work together, it is far more like a family than a pecking order. They work together and they do squabble at times. As older members become seniors, younger members take the lead. It is a progression that evolves over time, where the strength of the group lies in their ability to successfully work together. It makes sense that nature would put this control into place. If a species were to live together and fight on a regular basis, they would die off.
Pack structure is a valid component of some fields of study. With any field, one must take care not to extrapolate bits and pieces of information until it lacks accuracy. It might sound good, but oversimplified still amounts to being wrong. You risk advising, “You must be alpha,” without factoring in the potential exceptions and complications. Dominance is not a straight-line pecking order. It is about relationships, that potentially change over time. It is as much, if not more, about submitting than dominating.
As a pet trainer, I do find the topic interesting. I find it interesting to watch what qualities are desired in a leader. I find it interesting to see how gentle, unassuming members of a pack adapt and thrive. I find it interesting to see how strategies to minimize conflict function to minimize aggression. There are many lessons we can take from the models, but obedience is not one of them.
All animals have the ability to challenge another at any time. Humans do not want this to happen with their companion animals. Humans contrive obedience and other rules. I have yet to see one animal drilling another on obedience. When I see one dog bark out heeling patterns I might change my mind, but I am not holding my breath. Until then, I find that dominance theories are like a fun reality television show. Fun to watch, unpredictable and one never knows who will adapt the best. You might even be surprised to see the nice guy come out on top.