I have written in the past why the model of Dominance or the idea that dogs are pack animals in search of a “pack leader” (the owner) is not only an erroneous construct but really bad news for all dogs. There is so much to say about this construct, but today I want to focus on one important element about the social structure of dogs: The 101 negotiations that take place between them on a daily basis.
First off, let me say that SOCIAL Dominance does exist in any group of animals with a complex social structure. But the problem is that not even the scientific community can agree as to what “dominance” looks like.
So I will define here in this post what I mean by social dominance so at least we can have this as a departure point.
Social dominance is the competition for access to resources within the members of a social group. While my definition might not take into consideration all the aspects of Social dominance this is one definition I can work with.
Now, that this is settled, you might still wonder what the heck I mean by the definition above! I will illustrate with simple, yet salient examples of how two members of the same social group – my two dogs negotiate daily for what they want.
First off: The definition of a resource is anything that an individual considers valuable and wants.
Some of these resources might remain valuable throughout the life of the dog and some might change for a myriad of reasons. Now, even the resources that remain valuable for the span of the dog’s life are less valuable if the animal had just had access to that resource, and the need in obtaining and enjoying the resource has been met.
Of course, most members of a social group find many of the same things of value. Otherwise, they would not have to negotiate, aggress and in some case even die over resources.
Let’s take the example of my dog’s beds. They have beds in these locations:
2, beds in the kitchen
1, bed by the window, in the LR- looking outside the front of the property, we call this the “perch” for obvious reasons
2, beds (one smaller than the other but otherwise identical) in our bedroom
2, crates -“his” and “hers” which are identical except Deuce’s is a bit larger
So the beds are the resource. And now I will illustrate how the resource has different “weight” for Deuce and Rio:
By the window: Rio’s perch, Deuce NEVER gets on that bed
Kitchen beds: No issues, first-come, first-serve, used during the day, and before meals.
Bedroom beds: First-come, first-serve. Rio changes her preference for the either one of the beds on occasion Deuce as a norm prefers the larger bed, but will let Rio take that and has never “demanded” he’ll surrender the bed if she is occupying it first – what a gentleman!
Here is another example with food dispensing toys of any kind except with Kongs:
Food Dispensing Toys:
- VERY important to Deuce! He will manage Rio by giving her the Border collie “stare” and emitting a very high-pitch noise. As a result: Dogs are given their toys in separate rooms
- Rio needs some coaxing because she will move away from the toy if Deuce is around or if prior to her going into another room Deuce expressed his “disgust” with her having her own toy
- VERY important to Deuce but he shares all the time with Rio
- Rio enjoys taking Deuce’s ball away from him on a daily basis. One of the highlights of her existence may I add!
Big Orange ball:
- We have several very structured games with the orange ball. Never a competition.
- Completely cooperative set of games. With Deuce bringing the ball back to the center of the action when Rio cannot fully carry the ball the whole way because her mouth is smaller than Deuce’s.
Big Red ball with a rope attached:
- This is Rio’s ball. She loves playing with it by having someone throw the ball for her which she will bring back, play tug with you before it is thrown again. She often runs with the rope in her mouth bouncing the ball around.
- Deuce has NEVER played with this red ball.
- These are high-value chews such as pig ears or bully sticks that they get daily at night after dinner. Now, don’t ask me why, but this is how the dispersing of the goods comes down:
- I call both dogs by saying: Do you guys want a chewy? They both know what that means and march to the laundry room from where they might be to get their chewy.
If I present the chewy first to Rio because she got there first – which she normally does, she will not take it. Period! I have to first give it to Deuce and then she will very politely take hers. There has never been a fight or even a growl, etc. over the chews. As a matter of fact, they both have their favorite spots where they eat theirs and they do not interrupt each other when doing so.
This example of the chews is a very salient one because it points to the many negotiations that take place between dogs that are lost on us. I have a keen eye for dog behavior and these are my own pups whom I see daily and know well but in spite of this, I see things sometimes that I cannot explain, as I am sure that there are other instances where we are missing lots of the communication between Deuce and Rio.
Illustrated by the four categories of sample resources above – and then within that, sub-categories of the resources, as in the case of the balls the reason why they behave in a certain manner over a resource is really their very well kept secret.
This is just a glimpse of the complexities of dogs’ social structure and the negotiations they encounter in their daily interactions.
Most of the interactions over resources of most dogs are illustrated with one member getting either this resource right now because the other one cares less for that resources in general (Rio’s red ball) or because at that moment the resource is not as valuable to that individual as keeping the peace at home and making sure a friend remains a friend. Perhaps there are many other reasons as to how these interactions are formulated and resolved.
Of course, there are some dogs that have learned that pushing their weight around by bullying another dog, terrorizing him or her pays off in happily getting the resources they want most of the time.
However, the norm between dogs is to use what I have been labeling as “negotiations” more often than sheer force of their mouths, etc.
As such, I think we have so much to learn from dogs in this department LOL…
And this is just the tip of the Social dominance iceberg… more to explore.