Affiliative Relationships in Dogs: A Shift from Dominance

Animal behavior, particularly in domestic dogs, has long been an area of interest for both scientists and dog owners alike. Historically, the interpretation of dog behavior was heavily influenced by the concept of dominance hierarchies, where interactions between individuals were often explained through the lens of “dominance” and “submission”. However, modern understanding of dog behavior is shifting towards a more nuanced view, focusing on affiliative relationships and contextual influences rather than rigid dominance hierarchies.

Understanding Resource Holding Potential (RHP)

The Resource Holding Potential (RHP) model has been used in animal behavior studies to predict the outcomes of disputes based on each individual’s perceived ability to win a contest, often determined by physical characteristics such as size and strength. The model also incorporates the Resource Value (RV), a measure of how much an individual values the contested resource. According to the RHP model, an individual with a higher RHP would usually emerge as the winner in a contest. However, if the contested resource holds high value (high RV) for a lesser RHP individual, it might still attempt to compete for the resource.

This nuanced understanding can explain why a normally submissive individual in a group may sometimes gain access to a resource that it values highly. It may not be worth the potential costs (risk of injury, energy expenditure, unwanted attention) for the usually more dominant member to escalate the dispute. Thus, the model suggests that dominance relationships can be flexible and context-dependent, as the outcomes depend on the value each individual assigns to the resource.

The Uniqueness of Domestic Dogs

While the RHP model can provide valuable insights into animal behavior, domestic dogs often behave in ways that seem to contradict these predictions. They do not always follow the “rules” of size or apparent fighting ability when interacting with each other. This can be attributed to several factors unique to domestic dogs:

Domestication and Human Influence: Over thousands of years, humans have selectively bred dogs, leading to a broad range of breeds with varying physical characteristics and temperaments. Many behaviors that would be advantageous in the wild, like physical competition for resources, have been diminished in domestic dogs.

Socialization and Training: Dogs are highly influenced by their early experiences and training. Dogs that have been appropriately socialized and trained often use non-aggressive methods to assert themselves, irrespective of their size or strength.

Complex Communication: Dogs communicate using an array of signals, including body postures, facial expressions, and vocalizations, which can be subtle and not immediately apparent to humans. A smaller dog may effectively assert itself using these signals.

Individual Personality: Dogs, like humans, have individual personalities. Some dogs might be more assertive or confident, regardless of their size or strength, while others may be more timid or submissive.

Focusing on Affiliative Relationships

Given the complexity and variability of dog behavior, it may be more appropriate to focus on affiliative relationships rather than “dominance”, especially when considering dog-human interactions and intra-species relationships. Affiliative behaviors, which promote social bonding and cooperative relationships, include actions such as licking, nuzzling, playing, and other friendly or cooperative behaviors.

Building on this, contemporary dog training methods emphasize creating a positive, cooperative relationship between dogs and owners based on mutual trust and respect, using positive reinforcement techniques. Affiliative behaviors in dog-dog interactions also play a crucial role in maintaining social cohesion and reducing conflict within a group.

Ultimately, understanding the social dynamics and relationships between dogs or between dogs and humans requires not just a focus on potential conflict and competition, but also on cooperation, communication, and mutual benefit. As research continues to reveal more about the fascinating world of dog behavior, the shift towards recognizing the importance of affiliative relationships, past experiences, and contextual influences enriches our understanding of our companions.

Further Reading

  1. Books:
    • “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know” by Alexandra Horowitz
    • “Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition” by Ádám Miklósi
    • “The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs” by Patricia McConnell
    • “The Culture Clash: A Revolutionary New Way to Understanding the Relationship Between Humans and Domestic Dogs” by Jean Donaldson
    • “Dominance in Dogs: Fact or Fiction?” by Barry Eaton
  2. Articles:
    • “Social learning in animals: the roots of culture” by Cecilia Heyes in “Nature Reviews Neuroscience” (2003)
    • “Dominance in domestic dogs—useful construct or bad habit?” by John W. S. Bradshaw, Emily J. Blackwell, and Rachel A. Casey in “Journal of Veterinary Behavior” (2009)
    • “Defining the Social Structure of a Web-Based Wikipedia Project Community” by Ulrike Pfeil, Panayiotis Zaphiris, and Chee Siang Ang in “International Journal of Web-Based Communities” (2006)
    • “Dominance in relation to age, sex, and competitive contexts in a group of free-ranging domestic dogs” by Bonanni, R., Cafazzo, S., Valsecchi, P., & Natoli, E. in “Behavioral Ecology” (2010)
    • “Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioural effects” by Matthijs B.H. Schilder, Joanne A.M. van der Borg in “Applied Animal Behaviour Science” (2004)
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Tony Bierman, "Affiliative Relationships in Dogs: A Shift from Dominance," OBTESA, Accessed June 18, 2024,