Dominance Part I: True, false, real, mythical…?

July 1, 2012

Most dog-people will be familiar with the idea of dominance in dog training and behaviour. Whether you are an average dog owner, experienced trainer, devoted rescue worker or arm-chair behaviourist watching Cesar Millan ‘The Dog Whisperer’- as an interpretation of behaviour and causation of behaviour problems ‘dominance’ is just all too prevalent. The flip side to this, however, is the more recent insurgence that dominance is “a myth”, usually advocated those supporting modern, scientifically-endorsed rewards-based training practices. 

Nonetheless, although my allegiance is firmly with the latter in terms of training practices and ethics, neither stance on the efficacy of ‘dominance’ as a concept in animal behaviour makes me entirely comfortable. In this three-part blog series, I will investigate dominance and how it relates to domestic dogs. Firstly, whether dominance exists or not is, in my opinion, a sloppy question to ask…

A scientific invention

The simple fact is: dominance is a scientific invention. Until 1922, it was not recognised in the scientific literature. However, in 1922, Schjelderupp-Ebbe, whilst researching social hierarchies in chickens, offered a definition of dominance relationships that is still well-cited in the literature today (e.g. see Drews, 1993 and the next 2 parts of this series). Dominance has since been heavily debated but nonetheless used to explain the social relationships of a number of animal species.

However, dominance still remains theory. More importantly, dominance is not necessarily a tangible behaviour, only a label to describe the outcome of social interactions or, at the most, patterns of behaviours that animals perform during social encounters. As Altmann remarks:

“Dominance relationships are an invention, not a discovery. Asymmetry, transitivity, linearity, and the like are not rules that animals must obey but regularities for the scientist to discern. Dominance relationships are an epiphenomenon of agonistic interactions” (1981: 430)


“[R]elationships are inferred rather than…directly observed. We need to remind ourselves that the inference is being made by the human observer” (1981: 430)

Thus, I struggle with the debate that takes place between many dog enthusiasts- on and offline- that asks “Is dominance real?”, “Does it exist?” and by the same token the assertion that “Dominance is a myth”. The concept of dominance has been invented by scientists, so whether or not it is real or mythical misses the point. The real point in question is, can dominance correctly and efficiently describe and explain patterns of social relationships? If we believe it does, we can apply the concept of dominance. However, if we don’t, dominance shouldn’t be applied. To answer this query, we need to look more directly at the criteria for dominance relationships, which will be the subject of ‘Dominance: Part II’.


Altmann, S. (1981). ‘Dominance relationships: The Chesire cat’s grin?’. The Behavioural and Brain Sciences, Vol. 4, pp. 430-431. 

Bernstein, I. S. (1981). ‘Dominance: The baby and the bathwater’. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 4, pp. 419-430.

Schjelderup-Ebbe, T. (1922). BeitrSge zur Sozialpsychologie des Haushuhns. Zeitschrift fur Psychologic, Vol. 88, pp. 225-252.