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How do dogs show dominance to humans?

What is the RSPCA’s view on dominance dog training?

In recent years there has been resurgence in popularity of dog training methods that espouse “dominance” models of dog behaviour. Dominance models suggest that wolves live in hierarchical packs with the alpha wolf at the top and that dogs evolved from wolves and also live in hierarchical packs and see us (humans) as part of their pack. Dominance theory assumes that most unwanted behaviour such as aggression is due to the dog trying to be ‘dominant’ or wanting to be the alpha dog in the pack. Therefore, dominance theory suggests, that the way to solve many behavioural problems such as aggression is to establish dominance as pack leader over the dog.

However, many of these assumptions are erroneous and are often harmful to dogs and the human-animal bond. A lot of initial research about wolf behaviour was conducted by studying captive wolves. This is because wild wolves tend to avoid humans and were difficult to study. It was these studies that generated the idea of ‘packs’ with the alpha male and female breeding pair at the top of the hierarchical structure. However in this false environment wolves could not disperse and escape from confrontation with other wolves, so relationships developed that are not necessarily reflected in more natural wolf groups. More recent studies of natural wolf groups show that they tend to live in families. The group usually consists of Mum and Dad, the current litter, and possible juveniles from one or two previous litters. Dominance contests in such packs are rare and the breeding pair is able to maintain group harmony without aggression.

Most scientists accept that dogs evolved from wolves or they had a common ancestor. However dogs are not wolves. They are different anatomically, physiologically and socially. The biggest difference between wolves and dogs is their ecological niche. Wolves, as a rule avoid humans whereas dogs have evolved to live near humans.

It is now widely recognised by animal behavioural specialists that dogs that use aggression towards humans or other dogs are not trying to be ‘dominant’. Rather, the aggression is usually the result of social confusion, frustration, fear, anxiety or learning. Dogs may use aggression as a means to control situations in which they feel frustrated, fearful or anxious. Some dogs are unable to navigate certain social and interactive demands placed upon them without showing aggression or reactivity. With repeated exposure to such situations dogs can learn that aggression ‘works’ and are more likely to use aggression to control similar situations in the future. If your dog is showing aggression, we suggest that you seek help from a veterinary behavioural specialist.

The ‘dominance’ model for dog behaviour poses serious dog welfare problems. Dominance models may use aversive training techniques such as “alpha rolls”, staring the dog down or other confrontational methods and punishment which can cause fear, pain and distress to dogs. In addition, these methods generally do not address the underlying cause of the unwanted behaviour which is why they are often unsuccessful. In fact, dominance training methods are not scientifically proven to be effective.

Aversive methods may also increase the dog’s underlying fear and anxiety which can actually make the unwanted behaviour much worse. Aversive methods can also reduce the quality of the relationship between the owner and the dog and they can place the owner at serious risk of physical injury.

When trying to change behaviour, try to think about the behaviours you would like your dog to perform and reward only for the responses that lead to those outcomes. This might include sitting rather than jumping on guests or chewing on a toy rather than your favourite pair of shoes. This approach revolves around positive reinforcement- i.e. rewarding behaviour that we like. Rewards can be food, toys or verbal praise. Basically, anything your dog will ‘work’ for.

Conversely, we also need to ensure that rewards for unwanted behaviour are removed. So, keep those shoes out of reach and try wherever possible to avoid any situations or triggers for unwanted behaviours.

The RSPCA’s position is that dogs should be trained using programs that are designed to facilitate the development and maintenance of acceptable behaviours using natural instincts and positive reinforcement. Aversion therapy and physical punishment procedures must not be used in training programs because of the potential for cruelty. Please see AVA Reward-based training for more information.

Men Act Like Dogs to Determine Dominance

A male dog will whine and beg in deference to a stronger dog, but will lower its voice into a guttural growl if it thinks it has a fighting chance.

Men unconsciously do a similar thing, scientists say.

A new study finds that the lower the pitch of a man’s voice, the more physically dominant other men think he is. And men lower their voice pitch when addressing a man they believe to be less dominant than themselves, but raise it when speaking to someone they think is more dominant.

The findings, detailed in the July issue of the journal of Evolution and Human Behavior, could help explain why vocal pitch in men and women are so different.

Big and low

Vocal pitch, determined by the main frequencies in a voice, is about half as high in men as in women. This difference has traditionally been explained as a product of sexual selection, in which women favored men with lower-pitched voices.

One reason women might prefer men who speak in low voices is that vocal pitch is partly related to physical size. Taller men tend to have lower voices because they have longer vocal tracts and vocal folds, the main determinants of pitch.

Vocal anatomy is also thought to signal a man’s level of testosterone, a hormone linked to physical aggressiveness and prowess.

Studies have shown that women favor men with low, masculine voices during periods in their menstrual cycle when they’re likely to get pregnant, and also that they prefer men with lower voices for short-term sexual flings.

How the study was done

In the new study, 111 male university students took part in what they thought was a competition against another guy for a date with an attractive female student. The participants were asked to rate social and physical dominance of themselves and a competitor.

All the male participants faced the same competitor, whose voice was recorded but who was not actually present during the experiment.

To get a baseline reading of their voices, participants were first asked to read a passage aloud. They then had to respond to the competitor after listening to him give reasons why he thought other men respected or admired him.

Men who rated themselves as more physically dominant than the competitor used a lower vocal pitch when responding to him, whereas men who rated themselves as less physically dominant tended to raise it.

The costs of faking

Like whining in dogs, a man’s raising of pitch to a physically dominant man is probably an unconscious way of showing deference, said study leader David Puts of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

Men could fake it and lower their pitch to appear more dominant than they really are, but if someone calls their bluff in a real-world situation, the consequences could be severe.

«If you advertise dominance and can’t back it up, the attacks may be worse than if you had avoided the fight to begin with,» Puts told LiveScience.

An experiment with sparrows done in the 1980’s provides a case in point. Male sparrows have black patches on their chests that advertise their status to other males. The more dominant and older a male sparrow is, the bigger and darker his patch is. Researchers painted dark patches on the chests of male sparrows that weren’t very dominant before. The ruse worked for a while, but eventually the posers were challenged to fight.

«When they were, it was pretty bad for them because they couldn’t back up the dominance that they had been claiming,» Puts said.

Experiments in which wimpy female wasps were painted to mimic dominant wasps showed similar results: phonies got harassed more often and for longer periods when they got into fights.

Puts and his team think lower vocal pitch signals physical dominance more than it does social dominance, which in modern humans is typically achieved through skillful leadership and persuasion, not strength.

«Social dominance has to do with things like intelligence and social skills, which aren’t necessarily related to body size or testosterone,» Puts explained. «Ancestrally, if pitch was related to dominance, it was first related to physical dominance before anything else.»

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