Monday, November 21, 2011

The Costs of Dominance

Mike (left ) and Duffy at the Clifton fountain

Dear George,

One can learn a lot from watching dogs interact with one another. Our sheepdogs, Mike and Duffy, have such different personalities, and that plays out in their every encounter. I used to think that all social behavior was learned, but, because of the dogs, I’m much more struck by the role of genetics. Katja bought Mike and Duffy when they were eight weeks old, and it seems to me that they’re pretty much the same way that they were in infancy. As puppies, Duffy was the alpha dog from the very start, pushing Mikey around with his aggressive behaviors. Mike has always been more gentle and laid back. Here are some of the concrete ways that the dogs differ in adulthood:

Duffy listens to a sound in the forest

What Duffy does more of:

Goes out the door first; comes back in first

Goes up and down the stairs first

Leads the way on the street

Pulls harder on the leash

Starts eating more quickly; finishes eating first

Pees first; poops first

Plays with (and thinks he owns) all the toys in the house

Chases and retrieves the thrown ball

Starts the barking at dogs passing outside the window

Acts more aggressively toward dogs on the street

Is wary of other dogs, avoidant, hyper-vigilant

Is more cautious toward strangers

Occasionally attacks Mike (over food, toys, excitement, etc.)

Is terrified of skateboards and firecrackers

Mike takes a rest break

What Mike does more of:

Submits to Duffy (usually)

Goes up to people on the street

Approaches other dogs

Plays more with their sister Sophie when Sophie visits

Licks little children on the face

Likes to wiggle through people’s legs

Lies on his back with his four paws in the air

Licks humans’ toes

Is calmer and more mellow in public

Various social psychologists have suggested that there are two major dimensions of human social relationships, (a) dominance-submission and (b) affection-hostility. These seem to apply to dogs too. Duffy clearly occupies the dominant position in our household’s two-dog pack; Mike, the submissive position. This is evident in just about everything. Toys are a salient example. Duffy considers just about all the toys in the house as his own, and Mike puts himself at risk of attack if he so much as approaches a toy on the floor. Duffy spends hours playing with his rubber kong, pushing it under a cabinet or a pile of clothes to present himself with a challenge. Mike lies passively and watches his brother play. Just recently Duffy has allowed Mike to have one toy of his own, a hard white ball with purple bumps in it. Mike takes it into the bed out of Duffy’s view, grasps it between his paws, and licks it with enthusiasm and apparent gratitude for his good fortune.

Duffy (left) and Mike at Mt. Storm park

On the affection dimension, Mike is unquestionably the friendlier of the two dogs. While both dogs act positively toward Katja and myself, Mike shows more friendly behaviors toward other human beings and other dogs, and consequently he receives more friendly responses in return. Duffy, by comparison, is wary of contact and more aloof. I think it’s likely that Duffy sees new contacts as a contest for domination and consequently finds them dangerous. So when strangers come up to pet the dogs, Mike readily moves toward them, while Duffy tends to move away and stand behind me. Usually I tell people that Mike is my friendly dog, Duffy is my shy dog, and it’s better to pet Mike than Duffy.

Duffy (left) and Mike on Ludlow Avenue

In these ways, then, the dogs live in two quite different worlds, both with their own sets of rewards and costs. Duffy enjoys various benefits of high status, e.g., ownership of valued objects, first priority in just about everything, exerting control and getting his way. But, at the same time, the world is a dangerous place for Duffy, since he has to establish his position through physical aggression and is consequently more likely to be the recipient of aggression. Particularly in the outside world, where adversaries are unknown and dominance relationships are yet to be established, Duffy is continually on guard and anxious. Because the world seems so hazardous, Duffy experiences a lot more tension. He’s probably a candidate to get an ulcer.

Duffy (foreground) and Mike on the creekbed at Mt. Airy Forest

It might seem, at first glance, that Mike loses out. He doesn’t get to play with the toys, he doesn’t get to retrieve the thrown ball, and he has to wait for his second turn at the water fountain. Basically, he has to submit to Duffy’s superiority in most areas of their daily lives. Mike, however, does receive a lot more social rewards. Because he’s prone to submission, he doesn’t elicit competition or hostility from others, and consequently he approaches other people and dogs (and is approached by them) with a more relaxed, unthreatening air. Thus, dominance proves to be a two-edged sword. In effect, Duffy gets the physical rewards, Mike gets the social rewards. Duffy also incurs a lot more overt costs by virtue of being leader of the pack. It would be nice if it were possible to be both dominant and to give and receive a lot of affection. But apparently the world doesn’t operate that way. I think that both Mike and Duffy enjoy pretty good lives. But they are markedly different.



G-mail Comments

-Vicki L (11-26): Hi D, Given your current theory, how would you compare the costs/benefits of your and Steven's

differing personality styles? Eager to hear. Hope you had a wonderful trip to N.O. and a festive Thanksgiving. Love, Vicki

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