Social Dominance and Nothing In Life Is Free – How Useful Are They for Working with Behavior Problems in Pets?

CAABChat with Dr. Melissa Shyan-Norwalt, CAAB.  

Perhaps no idea related to dog behavior has created more confusion and debate than social dominance.

Some people argue it has lost its usefulness for understanding dog behavior.

Others argue that it is a real and helpful concept when applied to dogs.

Yet others say that “science has disproven it.”

All this has led one animal behaviorist to conclude that people will never agree about dominance in dogs. (Westgarth, 2016 J. Veterinary Behavior)

So where did all this misunderstanding come from, and what, if anything, can we agree on? Most importantly, what can we conclude from the debate about how we should view our dogs and their behavior, and how best to train them and deal with their behavior problems?
Join us for discussion of the history and current status of the dominance concept with Dr. Melissa Shyan-Norwalt, an animal behaviorist with wide experience studying a variety of species and who as a CAAB, has helped people with problem pets for many years. We’ll draw on examples of social behavior in elephants and monkeys and case examples of dog behavior problems. We won’t settle the debate, but perhaps we can clear up some of the confusion and present some ideas that most people can agree with.

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Here are the references discussed in the CAABChat with links to them online.

Bradshaw, J.W.S., Blackwell ,E.J. & Casey, R.A. 2009. Dominance in domestic dogs – useful construct or bad habit? Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 4, 135-144.

Schilder, M.B.H., Vinke, C.M. & van der Borg, J.A.M. 2014. Dominance in domestic dogs revisited: Useful habit and useful construct? Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 9, 184-191.

Westgarth, C. 2016. Why nobody will ever agree about dominance in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 11, 99-101.

Bradshaw, J.W.S., Blackwell ,E.J. & Casey, R.A. 2016. Dominance in domestic dogs—A response to Schilder et al. (2014). Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 11, 102-108.

Sdao, K. 2012. Plenty in Life Is Free – Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace. Wennache, WA: Dogwise Publishing. Available at and