Dominance in domestic dogs: A response to Schilder et al. (2014)

John W S Bradshaw*, Emily-Jayne Blackwell, Rachel A Casey

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)
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We here respond to the claim by Schilder and colleagues (Schilder, M. B. H., Vinke, C. M., van der Borg, J. A. M., 2014. Dominance in domestic dogs revisited: Useful habit and useful construct? J. Vet. Behav.: Clin. App. Res. 9, 184-191) that dominance is a useful construct in the interpretation of companion dog behavior. We first make the distinction between the well-established use of the dominance framework in the ethology of wild species, and its more contentious use in the domestic dog as a character trait and as a descriptor of motivation. By evaluating recent studies of canine "personality" (individual differences in behavior that are consistent across time and context), we conclude that there is no evidence that dominance is a character trait of individual dogs, but rather that it is a property of relationships, that can arise due to asymmetries in any one of at least 3 distinct personality traits. We question whether concepts derived from wolf behavior have much utility in interpreting the behavior of domestic dogs because recent studies of groups of free-ranging dogs confirm that the dog has lost 3 traits key to the social organization of the gray wolf, namely coordinated group hunting, reproductive suppression, and provisioning of cubs by nonreproducing relatives. We further question whether studies of free-ranging dogs, which routinely compete for physical resources, provide an appropriate framework for interpreting the behavior of companion dogs, which generally do not. We then reinterpret Schenkel's "active submission" posture as primarily affiliative and an indicator of the dependence of younger, inexperienced dogs on the older members of their social group. By reviewing the key literature on the cognitive abilities of domestic dogs and other social Carnivora, we demonstrate that the primate-based "Utrecht School" model of dominance makes assumptions that are invalid for domestic dogs, because the overwhelming balance of evidence indicates that relationships among social Carnivora are based on noncognitive mechanisms. We conclude by examining the implications of Schilder and colleagues' model for the management of relationships between dogs and their owners.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)102-108
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2015


  • Animal personality
  • Comparative cognition
  • Dog-human relationship
  • Domestic dog
  • Dominance

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