by VALERIA ROSSI – trad. Mariafelicia Maione
Here we go again. I heard that, again!
It was long since the last time, perhaps because even people in parks and dog areas are beginning to show some interest in dog knowledge one way or the other (at least because it’s free on TV and on the web, and I don’t want to talk about its quality here), so they started to get rid of some myths about “dominant” dogs ready to fight with everyone and the “submissive” dog ready to lay down before everyone (with much displeasure of his owner – especially when a man – who would prefer a very bold dog to feel like a macho man).
Myth, not just “anachronistic ethology”, because this hasn’t been “ethology” for about 50 years now (no matter what dog-philosophers say, for they own sake).
Since ‘70ies people understood that the hierarchy in a pack was something more articulated, and long before that time they knew that to be an “alpha”, among dogs and wolves alike, meant so much more than “bossing people around”. On the contrary, it means don’t boss anybody around: it means showing to have higher intelligence and skills and experience than the others.
Buuuuut…. Just yesterday, there we go, a row in the dog park (we saw that coming), and the owner of the boaster apologizing (well, that’s a big word, he seemed quite pleased with his dog…) and saying “Eh, always the same (then why do you bring your dog near other dogs, you big jerk? NdA), because, you know, my dog is dominant!”
There. Here you go bullshit.
Now, since I’m always here typing off my fingers to teach a bit of dog knowledge to my readers, you might think I stepped up for a little lecture for the sake of that guy: no way.
No… because, while that guy was apologizing, even his ears smiled. Neither of the dogs was hurt, fortunately, but that’s not the reason why he was so much delighted: he was overjoyed to have a “dominant” dog. It would be cruel for me to explain that, really, what he had was a “row dog”, diffident and neurotic (probably he made him like that), similar to an alpha dog like me to Sharon Stone.
But besides that, that fellow wouldn’t believe me: so it was no point in arguing.
You instead, who I think are a bit less machos and a bit less stupid, I want to ask something that perhaps is not very clear to anybody: try and say, it’s understood that “interpersonal relations hierarchy” it’s something different from the “status/social role”?
Because sometimes I get the feeling that people awfully mistake dominance-submission for hierarchy, two parallel things always running in the same direction, but NEVER meeting.
Let’s try this way: dominance and submission relate to two separate “opinions” showing up when two individuals meet and interact with one another.
That’s a personal matter between any Tom and Harry, NEVER “status” given once and for all.
When dog Tom meets dog Harry, they exchange some information (smells, postures, gestures etc. etc.) that we can all see, lasting for a couple of moments: just enough to smell each other’s butt and ears (from there come very rich odors, but unfortunately our human nose is completely unable to smell and understand them) and then the two dogs know a lot of things about each other. They know how old the other dog is; his/her gender; if he’s sick or healthy; if he’s happy or pissed off; whether he thinks to own that territory or that’s the other’s or none of the two; if he’s willing to know each other and play together or he would rather go separate ways; if he’s on heat or not, if he’s excited or he doesn’t give a damn.
Things that a human would take a month’s blabbering to tell, maybe on a psychiatric couch.
Dogs say this in three seconds, more or less: then Tom looks at Harry’s attitude, his facial and bodily signals: if Harry keeps his tail up, his legs straight, his ears up etc., Tom thinks something like “Wow, so cool! He’s an old expert dog, beautiful shape, he glows with self-consciousness, he’s calm and relaxed and he doesn’t fear me the least bit. Ok, I don’t feel anything near him: and I gonna say it”.
Then, to say it, Tom shows signals of submission: maybe licking his mouth, maybe laying down, paws up, right there on the pavement (especially when Tom is a puppy).
Harry accepts the homage with a haughty air and they go their separate ways.
But, two steps ahead, Tom meets Dick: same scene, smelling each other, signals, the whole thing.
But this time, Dick lowers his head and body, tails between his legs: his pheromones sending signals of “be gentle, please, don’t hurt me, I’m small and fragile”.
This face is a compilation of calming signals, too.
Then Tom thinks: “I could have this guy for supper. I’m cooler, and I gonna say it.”
And now HE assumes the same position than Harry had before: tail up, tense body etc. etc. This time, is Dick’s time to lay down, acknowledging his superiority.
So… who is dominant towards whom?
Il all depends.
It depends on who meets whom, it depends on signals sent by each individual to the other and on the willingness to accept others’ signals of “I’m cooler”. Because if the other dog answers “No, I am cooler”… then they could start a fight: but, usually, they need a reason to (thinking they own a certain territory, or a female, or the human at the other end of their leash).
Usually, dogs don’t give a damn about fighting without a good reason why… if humans didn’t teach them to do so. But this has nothing to do with dominance.
And it has nothing to do with hierarchy either, that’s something totally different, first of all because it’s showing between members of a pack, not in the interaction between individuals.
That means that, to begin with, there must be a pack: a group of dogs meeting in the park, unknown to each other, is nothing like a pack.
After seeing each other for months in the same place, however, you can have something closer to a real pack: but it won’t ever be a “pack-pack”, and you need to keep this into account.
A pack is made of individuals living always together (not just an hour a day, or weekly) and working together, sharing responsibilities, to grant every member’s survival in as good a condition as possible.
That’s why I say our interspecific family IS a pack (with any limitation due to the belonging to different species, such as our weak smelling sense), while a group of dogs meeting in the park is something way farther from this concept, because they don’t need to work together (for what purpose, anyway?), neither they have to manage a society. This said, how members of a “real” pack really work?
Distributing duties between them, as we said: and each duty is attached to a status, such as alpha, beta, number, specialist (omegas among them).
I won’t explain again such roles, you can read further in this article.
Remember that, in a wolf pack, each role means a different treatment about food, that leads to a different fur color: this doesn’t apply to dogs, because they eat from a bowl, without any food difference between alphas, betas and omegas.
So, while wolves are more “dressed up like alpha”, dogs doesn’t have this signal at hand.
But they have a lot of other things: they can show how much cool they are and how good they are (or are not) at hunting (even if, speaking of dogs, it rarely is real hunting, and when it is, it’s ended before the actual consumption of the prey), in scouting, in marking and guarding a territory, in courtship.
Even in fighting, of course: but that appears in playing, not in rows. “Playing war” high rank dogs show their skills and, in the same time, they teach youngsters and/or inexperienced ones how to do it: of course, they couldn’t teach those kind of things in rows, because the young/inexpert would end up in pieces. Master Miyagi didn’t teach Karate Kid how to fight, smashing his face every day.
There, playing fighting, for dogs, is something like “wax on, wax off”. They learn fighting… for the time they need it, even if it looks like something different. And again, they need a strong reason to fight. Dogs never fight just because they “feel like it”.
Now, how does this hierarchy work?
First of all, the “alpha” dog (pack leader, chief, call it as you please) is kinda democratically elected, he doesn’t force his rank upon the pack: and this depends on what the dog (or the wolf) can show about his DNA skills (if he’s genetically a dupe, there’s nothing he can do about it, poor thing, but nobody would ever vote for him, like humans do) and partially on what he learned during his life (experience).
Most of other social positions start from birth; most of skills defining betas, omegas, hunters and so on, belong in their genes (except for numbers, whose DNA is of the factotum-kind, since they must be prepared to cover any role as is needed). Those skills can be improved with experience: but basically they’re there already.
And what have they to do with dominance/submission?
A little bit, because, once a dog has been “elected” alpha, he feels like one, so he’s more likely to show dominance towards other dogs: but with some exceptions!
Just watch a courtship and you’ll see how the great alpha male, very much alpha, always acting cool and staring down at everybody… changes into a fool looking stupid and crazy while he tries to win his female’s favor.
There is more: meeting the alpha from another pack, he could be ready to acknowledge that the other dog is better than him.
So, we can say that he shows dominance towards his pack, feeling superior to them because they told him so (he has “a widespread success”, so to speak, so he feels cool): but don’t take for granted that he’ll try the same trick with those who didn’t vote for him (again, humans are very different). Once again, it all depends.
So, let’s summarize it: a dog “dominant and that’s it” (or ”submissive and that’s it”), always and forever, does not exists. You can have a dog acting dominant towards that other dog (or that human), but he might be submissive towards that other dog down there (or any other human).
The alpha dog does exists… but he needs a pack to play his role in. Without it, who can vote for him? And whom could he lead?!?
Finally, what happens when there is not a pack, but just some unknown dogs or some casual acquaintances just outside his social group?
What happens is that the dog keeps his “acting as alpha” (or beta or omega and so on), because that’s his role and he sticks to it.
Just like a doctor: out of the hospital, he’s still a doctor, he doesn’t become an architect.
He would not be taking blood’s pressure to everybody he meets, of course: but if there is a car accident before his eyes, he knows what to do. And if he’s not a shit, he will intervene, instead of just watching the scene.
That’s why, for example, we can use “tutor dogs”, who, even in strange places, will keep acting as alphas, betas, omegas, nannies and so on, just like at home.
But they act that way because: a) they know what to do; b) because their handler told them that’s what they need to do.
If the same dogs are thrown in at the deep end, without specific training and precise orders issued by his two-legged handler (for example, to stop a fight between other dogs, as you too often see in scaring videos on YouTube), no one of them can “tutor” anything at all. You just risk for someone getting hurt.
“Controller dogs” or “teaching dogs” are something totally different: they’re some dogs (usually betas or omegas) that are spontaneously inclined to soften tension, because that’s in their DNA: and being super-socialized dogs, possessing a wide range of signals and ritualization models, they can work on their own, as in socialization classes or communication classes, ONLY when it comes to teaching other dogs the beauty of playing and being together without fighting.
They CAN’T sedate rows that already began, an throwing them into the fray is a purely insensible thing to do.
I want to say that it’s just sad to see socialization/communication classes for adult dogs, because they should know ALREADY that playing is good and fighting is just wasting energies that would be better used at the service of their pack.
Puppies need to learn it, throughout socialization: but adults should have known that for centuries.
And if they don’t know it, whose fault is it? Take a guess.
Because, for example, people setting two months puppies against anything that moves (even if in a playful mood, you know: “Take the cat!” “Take the doggy! Ahah, how funny!”) are wonderful creators of “row dogs”: exactly the same as people taking their pup in their arms any time they cross another dog “because he’s so small, poor thing” (and the poor thing – I agree, with such a human – never learns to communicate, never learns signals or misunderstands them, and he will be a time bomb for life).
a) Dogs absolutely dominant don’t exist, but they can be dominant in that place towards that dog (and everything can change in another place or with another dog)
b) Alphas, betas, omegas etc. do exist (partly due to their DNA, partly to social acknowledging by their pack), but to show those attitudes in practice they need a pack (a TRUE pack, i.e. a group, two or four legged, living and working together)
c) “row dogs” are unlucky fellows living with the wrong human, feeling the duty to play the big guy when they don’t feel that way: so they fight because they’re afraid, they’re mistrustful of themselves, and/or because they’re unable to enjoy life.
And if having a c-type dog makes a wide smile appearing on you face, like the guy in the park… well, maybe you have a problem too.