With Gabrielle Carter

March 11 / 57

Dr Gabrielle Carter, with Indy
Dr Gabrielle Carter, with Indy

After 20 years as a veterinarian and practice owner in general small animal practice, Gabrielle Carter successfully completed a three year residency program and Masters degree in Veterinary Behaviour at Purdue University in Indiana, USA. Recently she qualified as a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviourists, and currently works with owners who have pets with behaviour problems.  She consults on a wide range of problems, from storms phobias, aggression, compulsive disorders and separation anxiety in dogs, to urine spraying, house soiling and aggression in cats, as well as consulting on the occasional bird with feather picking, or the head-shy horse. She now offers these services through the University of Melbourne Veterinary Clinic. 

Is your dog dominant?

Dominance theory was the predominant paradigm we used to understand and explain our relationship with dogs. However, as a theory it is now regarded as out-dated and inaccurate, and in fact, I would go so far as to suggest that applying this theory may have caused a significant number of behavioural problems in our dogs.

The concept that dogs form social hierarchies, and will fight for the ‘top dog’ position arose because it was thought that dog behaviour could be explained in terms of wolf behaviour - wolves being the distant ancestor of the dog.  In particular, behaviours like aggression were often explained in terms of ‘dominance aggression’. However, in recent times animal behaviourists and other scientists have found a few problems with using dominance theory to explain dog behaviour.

The main problem is that wolf researchers are no longer talking about ‘alpha’ wolves, or using dominance theory to describe the social structure of wild wolf packs. Instead they have documented that wild wolves live in family groups.  The parents nurture, protect and foster the development of the pups, and the young look to their parents for support and guidance. Older siblings may remain with the family for a while, but usually between 1-3 years of age they find a mate, establish their own territory and raise a family of their own. There is no fighting for the top dog position and dominance hierarchies are neither characteristic of dogs nor wolves. 

You may well ask how we got it so wrong. Back in the 1960s David Mech wrote a book which became the bible of wolf behaviour.  In it, he talked about wolves living in dominance hierarchies. His writing was based on wolf research, however there was a small problem with the research design. Wolves had been collected from a range of different sources – zoos, shelters, refuges etc and put together in a confined space where they couldn’t disperse….and they formed dominance hierarchies. The problem with this was when most animals are put into a confined space, especially if there are limited resources like food, water and mates,  they tend to form dominance hierarchies. Think about humans in prisons or refugee camps.  Like people however, the preferred social structure of the wolf is the family unit. Being a truly great researcher, David Mech has spoken out in the last decade or so, explaining why we should no longer be using dominance theory to explain wolf or dog behaviour. 

Other problems arise when we consider whether dogs really are like wolves, and if it is reasonable to assume that the domestic dog will really behave like a wolf.  Centuries of selective breeding have changed not only the physical but behavioural characteristics of the domestic dog. There is a reason why we don’t keep wolves in our homes and it has a lot to do with behaviour. I suggest that dogs are not wolves, and that their behaviour differs in many ways.

So dominance theory is ‘out’ when it comes to explaining how dogs and people should best live together, and other models are now taking centre stage.

Dr. Gabrielle Carter
Veterinary Behaviourist

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