Dominancia – dar sentido a lo que no lo tiene!

Traducido por Natalia Cuadrado y Isabel Ferrer (from the original in English Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense).

El tema de la dominancia se nos ha ido de las manos. Solo hay una cosa más absurda e inútil que molestarse en demostrar que la dominancia existe, y es el intento de demostrar que la dominancia no existe. Yo voy a cometer el primero de estos actos inútiles.

 

Dog Language by Roger Abrantes

Las posibles combinaciones de comportamentos agresivos, temerosos, dominates y sumisos en los caninos sociales (de “Dog Langauge” de Roger Abrantes, ilustración protegida por copyright de Alice Rasmussen).

 

Dominancia, en el lenguaje corriente, significa «poder e influencia sobre otros». Quiere decir supremacía, superioridad, predominancia, dominio, poder, autoridad, mando, control. Tiene tantos significados y connotaciones que es difícil saber cómo utilizar la  palabra en tanto término científico preciso aplicado a las ciencias del comportamiento. Además, los científicos que la utilizan (así como los que la repudian) no se han esforzado demasiado por definirla de una manera exacta, lo que ha contribuido a la actual confusión, discusiones sin sentido, desacuerdos y afirmaciones absurdas.

Es mi intención poner remedio a esto, primero demostrando que la dominancia sí existe, y después estableciendo que hace referencia a un mismo tipo de comportamiento, independientemente de la especie en cuestión. A continuación, daré una definición precisa, pragmática y verificable del término, que será compatible con la teoría de la evolución y nuestros conocimientos sobre la biología. Finalmente, expondré que, si bien es cierto que una buena  relación (beneficiosa y estable) no se fundamenta en continuas demostraciones  de dominancia/sumisión por parte de los mismos individuos ante los mismos individuos, eso tampoco implica que la dominancia no exista en perros (y en cualquier otra especie). Negar la existencia de la dominancia en perros se ha convertido en una argumentación muy difundida para afirmar que no debemos construir una relación con nuestros perros basada en la dominancia.

Es absurdo sostener que la dominancia no existe cuando tenemos tantas palabras que describen todo lo relacionado con ella. Si no existiera, no tendríamos siquiera una palabra que hiciera referencia a ella. El hecho de que el término exista quiere decir que la hemos visto a nuestro alrededor. Podemos afirmar que la hemos observado  y que el término (1)  hace referencia únicamente a determinadas relaciones humanas, o que (2) se refiere a determinadas relaciones tanto entre humanos como entre otras especies animales. La segunda opción parece más atractiva, considerando el hecho de que es muy improbable que una condición en particular solo se dé en una única especie. Eso entraría en conflicto con todo lo que sabemos acerca del parentesco entre las especies y su evolución.

Sin embargo, no es descabellado sostener que el término no es aplicable para describir el comportamiento de determinadas especies. Al contrario, dos especies que han evolucionado desde un antepasado común hace billones de años han desarrollado características propias y difieren del antepasado común y entre ellas. De igual modo, especies muy cercanas, que se separaron hace sólo unos miles de años de un antepasado común, pueden presentar  características similares o iguales entre ellas y respecto al antepasado común.  Algunas especies comparten muchos atributos en común relativos al fenotipo, el genotipo y/o la conducta; otras comparten menos, y otras ninguno. Todo depende de su antepasado común y de su adaptación al entorno.

Los seres humanos y los chimpancés (Homo sapiens y Pan troglodytes) se han separado de su antepasado común hace seis millones de años, de manera que podemos esperar que existan más diferencias entre ellos que entre los perros y los lobos (Canis lupus y Canis lupus familiaris), que se separaron de su antepasado común hace sólo unos 15-20 mil años (y de ninguna manera hace más de 100.000 años). Hay más diferencias en el ADN del hombre y el chimpancé que en el del perro y el lobo (que son prácticamente idénticos salvo por unas pocas mutaciones). Los hombres no pueden reproducirse con chimpancés, mientras que los lobos y los perros pueden tener descendencia fértil. Los hombres y los chimpancés son dos especies completamente diferentes. Los lobos y los perros son dos subespecies de la misma especie.

Teniendo en cuenta estos hechos, podemos esperar que los lobos y los perros compartan un gran número de similitudes, cosa que así es, no solo físicas sino también conductuales. Cualquier lego en la materia lo afirmaría. Sus similitudes a uno u otro nivel son lo que les permite cruzarse entre sí, producir descendencia fértil y comunicarse. Nadie ha cuestionado que los lobos y los perros presentan un amplio repertorio de comportamientos de comunicación en común, y con toda la razón, ya que múltiples estudios confirman que son capaces de comunicarse perfectamente. Sus expresiones faciales y posturas corporales son muy parecidas (exceptuando ciertas razas de perros), con pequeñas diferencias que son menores entre sí que las diferencias culturales que podemos encontrar entre poblaciones de seres humanos geográficamente alejadas.

 

Wolf Pack

En una manada estable, los lobos suelen presentar una conducta dominante y sumisa y rara vez una conducta temerosa y agresiva.

 

Si los lobos y los perros pueden comunicarse, podemos concluir que los elementos básicos y determinantes de su lenguaje deben ser los mismos. Esto quiere decir que aunque han evolucionado en ambientes aparentemente diferentes, mantienen los elementos más anclados de sus características genotípicas. Esto puede ser por tres motivos: (1) los genotipos compartidos son vitales para el organismo, (2) los entornos en que viven al fin y al cabo no son tan diferentes, (3) la evolución necesita más tiempo y condiciones más selectivas  (debido a que actúa sobre los fenotipos) antes de que los genotipos cambien de manera radical. La primera razón significa que hay más maneras de no sobrevivir que de sobrevivir, o en otras palabras, que la evolución necesita tiempo para desarrollar formas de vida diferentes y viables; la segunda razón significa que aunque los lobos y los perros (mascotas) viven actualmente en entornos muy diferentes, el fenómeno es todavía reciente. Solo hace unos cien años que los perros están plenamente humanizados. Hasta entonces, eran nuestros compañeros, nuestros animales domésticos, pero todavía tenían un elevado grado de libertad y los factores selectivos exitosos eran básicamente los mismos de siempre. No eran todavía mascotas y la cría no estaba totalmente (o casi totalmente) controlada por la selección humana. La tercera razón  significa que quizás un día (de aquí a un millón de años o más), tendremos dos especies totalmente diferentes, perros y lobos. Para entonces, no podrán cruzarse, no producirán descendencia fértil y presentarán características completamente diferentes. Habrán cambiado el nombre, a quizá llamarse Canis civicus o Canis homunculus. ¡Sin embargo, todavía no hemos llegado a eso!

Según las últimas tendencias, el «comportamiento dominante» no existe en el perro, lo que plantea algunos problemas serios. Hay dos maneras de defender esta idea. Una es desechar el concepto «comportamiento dominante» por completo, lo que es absurdo, por las razones que hemos visto antes: el término existe, sabemos más o menos lo que significa y podemos utilizarlo en una conversación con cierto sentido. Por lo tanto, debe referirse a un tipo de comportamiento que hemos observado. Otra argumentación es afirmar que los lobos y los perros son completamente diferentes y, por lo tanto, incluso aunque podamos aplicar el término para explicar el comportamiento del lobo, no podemos utilizarlo para describir el comportamiento del perro. Si fueran completamente diferentes, la argumentación sería válida, pero no lo son, como ya hemos visto. Por el contrario, son muy parecidos.

Una tercera alternativa es construir una teoría totalmente nueva para explicar cómo dos especies tan cercanas como el lobo y el perro (de hecho, subespecies) pueden haber desarrollado en un periodo de tiempo tan breve (miles de años) tantas características radicalmente distintas en un aspecto, pero no en otros. Esto nos llevaría a llevar a cabo una extensa revisión de todos nuestros conocimientos biológicos, lo que tendría implicaciones que van más allá de los lobos y los perros, y ésa es una alternativa que considero poco realista.

 

English: Saarloos Wolfdog male Polski: Samiec ...

Híbrido de perro-lobo (Imagen via Wikipedia).

 

Una aproximación mucho más atractiva, en mi opinión, es analizar los conceptos que utilizamos y definirlos bien. Así podremos emplearlos con más sentido cuando abordemos las diferentes especies, sin incurrir en incompatibilidades con el mundo científico.

Tener una definición apropiada de «comportamiento dominante» es importante, porque el comportamiento que implica es vital para la supervivencia del individuo, como veremos.

Me parece que es un enfoque pobre desechar la existencia de hechos que  están detrás de un término sólo porque el término está mal definido, por no decir que es políticamente incorrecto (lo que significa que no se ajusta a nuestros objetivos inmediatos). El comportamiento dominante existe, simplemente está mal definido (cuando se define). Muchas discusiones relacionadas con este tema no tienen sentido porque ninguna de las partes sabe exactamente de qué habla la otra. Sin embargo, no es necesario tirarlo todo por la borda. Por lo tanto, propongo definiciones precisas tanto del comportamiento dominante como del resto de términos que necesitamos para entenderlo: qué es, qué no es, cómo ha evolucionado y cómo funciona.

El comportamiento dominante es un comportamiento cuantitativo y cuantificable manifestado por un individuo con el objetivo de conseguir o conservar el acceso temporal a un recurso en particular, en una situación en concreto, ante un oponente concreto, sin que ninguna de las partes resulte herida. Si cualquiera de las partes resulta herida, se trata de un comportamiento agresivo, no dominante. Sus características cuantitativas varían desde un ligero aplomo hasta una clara afirmación de la autoridad.

El comportamiento dominante es contextual, individual y está relacionado con los recursos. Un individuo que manifiesta un comportamiento dominante en una situación específica no necesariamente lo va a mostrar en otra ocasión ante otro individuo, o ante el mismo individuo en una situación distinta.

Los recursos son lo que los organismos perciben como necesidades vitales; por ejemplo, la comida, una pareja reproductiva, o parte del territorio. La percepción de lo que un animal puede considerar un recurso depende de la especie y el individuo.

La agresividad (el comportamiento agresivo) es el comportamiento encaminado a eliminar la competencia, mientras que la dominancia, o la agresividad social, es un comportamiento dirigido a eliminar la competencia de un compañero.

Los compañeros son dos o más animales que conviven estrechamente y dependen el uno del otro para su supervivencia. Los extraños son dos o más animales que no conviven estrechamente y no dependen el uno del otro para sobrevivir.

El comportamiento dominante es especialmente importante para animales sociales que necesitan cohabitar y cooperar para sobrevivir. Por lo tanto, se desarrolló una estrategia social con la función de tratar la competencia entre compañeros con unas desventajas mínimas.

Los animales manifiestan comportamientos dominantes con varias señales: visuales, auditivas, olfativas y/o táctiles.

Mientras que el miedo (una conducta temerosa) es un comportamiento dirigido a eliminar una amenaza inminente, el comportamiento de sumisión, o el miedo social, es un comportamiento orientado a eliminar una amenaza social de un compañero; es decir, la pérdida temporal de un recurso sin que nadie se haga daño.

Una amenaza es todo aquello que puede herir, provocar dolor o lesiones, o disminuir las posibilidades de un individuo de sobrevivir. Una amenaza social es cualquier cosa que pueda producir la pérdida temporal de un recurso y que provoque un comportamiento de sumisión o una huida sin que el individuo sumiso termine lesionado.

Los animales manifiestan el comportamiento de sumisión mediante diferentes señales: visuales, auditivas, olfativas y/o táctiles.

Un comportamiento dominante o sumiso persistente de los mismos individuos puede dar lugar o no a una jerarquía temporal con determinadas configuraciones según la especie, la organización social y las circunstancias del entorno. En los grupos estables que ocupan un territorio definido, las jerarquías temporales se desarrollan más fácilmente. En los grupos inestables, en condiciones del entorno cambiantes, o en territorios no definidos o no establecidos, las jerarquías no se desarrollan. Las jerarquías, o más bien las estrategias implicadas, son Estrategias Estables Evolutivas  (EEE), que son siempre ligeramente inestables, que oscilan constantemente alrededor de un valor óptimo según el número de individuos de cada grupo y las estrategias individuales que cada uno adopta en un momento determinado, Las jerarquías no son necesariamente lineales, aunque en grupos pequeños y con el tiempo, las jerarquías no lineales parecen tender a ser más lineales.

Algunos individuos tienden a mostrar comportamientos dominantes y otros a mostrar comportamientos sumisos. Eso puede depender de su configuración genética, su aprendizaje a una edad temprana, su historial, etc. Eso no significa que lo determine un solo factor, sino que se trata de una compleja mezcla. Llamémoslo tendencia natural, lo que no quiere decir que no sea modificable. Es un hecho que algunos individuos son más autoritarios que otros, mientras que otros son más condescendientes, por muchas razones. No estamos diciendo que esto sea bueno o malo, simplemente exponemos un hecho; que sea bueno o malo —no en un sentido moral— más bien significa que es más o menos ventajoso según el contexto. En los encuentros cara a cara, en condiciones de igualdad, hay más probabilidades de que los individuos adopten la estrategia con la que se encuentran más cómodos, manteniendo por lo tanto su historial de básicamente dominantes o básicamente sumisos.

Cuando están en un grupo de mayor tamaño, tendrán la misma tendencia de desempeñar los roles con los que se sienten más cómodos. Esto puede cambiar, sin embargo, debido a la estructura formada accidentalmente del grupo. Imagina un grupo con varios individuos con una mayor tendencia a tener comportamientos sumisos que dominantes, y con sólo unos pocos individuos con la tendencia opuesta. En una situación así, un individuo por naturaleza sumiso tendrá más posibilidades de acceder a un recurso y tener éxito mostrando un comportamiento más dominante. El éxito genera éxito, y poco a poco, este individuo, que en otras condiciones sería predominantemente sumiso, se encuentra con que es principalmente dominante. Si la situación permite al individuo cambiar su estrategia preferente, los demás también tendrán las mismas oportunidades. El número de individuos dominantes aumentará, pero el número de individuos dominantes que puede sostener un grupo no es ilimitado, porque en un momento dado será más ventajoso asumir el papel de sumiso, según los costes y los beneficios.

Por lo tanto, el número de individuos dominantes y sumisos no sólo depende de la tendencia natural del individuo, sino también de la configuración de los grupos y sus características. Si compensa tener un papel dominante o sumiso  en el fondo es algo que depende de los costes y beneficios y del número de individuos que adoptan una estrategia en particular.

Entender las relaciones entre comportamientos dominantes y sumisos como una EEE (Estrategia Estable Evolutiva) abre perspectivas de lo más emocionantes, que pueden ayudar a explicar los comportamientos adoptados por un individuo determinado en un momento dado. Un individuo sumiso aprenderá a desempeñar el papel de sumiso ante otros individuos más dominantes y el de dominante ante otros más sumisos. Eso significa que ningún individuo es en principio siempre dominante o siempre sumiso; todo depende del contrario y, por supuesto, del valor de los beneficios potenciales y los costes estimados.

Por consiguiente, las jerarquías (cuando existen) siempre serán ligeramente inestables según las estrategias adoptadas por los individuos que forman el grupo. Las jerarquías no son necesariamente lineales y sólo se dan en pequeños grupos o subgrupos.

En opinión de este autor, el error que hemos cometido hasta ahora es considerar la dominancia y la sumisión como algo más o menos estático. No hemos tenido en cuenta que estas características, como los fenotipos y todos los demás rasgos, están constantemente bajo el escrutinio y la presión de la selección natural. Son adaptativas, muy variables y altamente cuantitativas y cuantificables.

Como tal, la dominancia y la sumisión son rasgos dinámicos que dependen de diversas variables, visión que es compatible con el desarrollo del comportamiento a un nivel individual, las funciones genéticas, la influencia del aprendizaje y, cómo no, la teoría de la evolución.

La dominancia y la sumisión son mecanismos maravillosos desde un punto de vista evolutivo. Es lo que permite a los animales (sociales) vivir juntos, sobrevivir hasta que se hayan reproducido y transmitir sus genes (dominantes y sumisos) a la siguiente generación. Sin estos mecanismos, no tendríamos animales sociales como los seres humanos, los chimpancés, los lobos y los perros, entre muchos otros.

Si un animal resolviera todos los conflictos intergrupales con comportamientos agresivos y temerosos, estaría agotado cuando se viera obligado a buscar la comida, una pareja reproductiva, un lugar seguro para descansar o cuidar de su progenie (y todo ello disminuiría las oportunidades de sobrevivir tanto de él como de sus genes). Por consiguiente, se originó y desarrolló la estrategia del compañero y el extraño. Es imposible luchar contra todos todo el tiempo, de manera que con los compañeros se utilizan mecanismos que consumen poca energía en las confrontaciones.

Los comportamientos dominantes y sumisos controlan asimismo la densidad de población, ya que dependen del reconocimiento individual.  El número de reconocimientos individuales que es capaz de realizar un animal debe tener un límite. Si este limite es muy alto, el reconocimiento se vuelve ineficiente, inactivando la estrategia compañero/extraño; en ese caso, las expresiones de miedo/agresividad sustituirán a los comportamientos de sumisión/dominancia.

La estrategia de sumisión es sabia. En lugar de enzarzarse en vano en una lucha desesperada, puede resultar mucho más provechoso esperar. Recurriendo a un comportamiento pacifico y sumiso, los subordinados a menudo pueden seguir los pasos de los dominantes y aprovechar oportunidades que les dan acceso a recursos vitales. Mostrando sumisión, gozan además de las ventajas de pertenecer a un grupo, en especial la defensa ante los rivales.

Las jerarquías funcionan porque el subordinado normalmente se aparta, mostrando un típico comportamiento apaciguador, sin signos aparentes de miedo. Por lo tanto, el dominante puede sencillamente desplazar al sumiso cuando está comiendo o cuando desea un espacio. Las jerarquías en la naturaleza a menudo son muy sutiles, difíciles de descubrir por el observador. El motivo de esta sutileza es la razón de ser de la propia dominancia-sumisión: el animal subordinado suele evitar los encontronazos y al dominante tampoco le entusiasman las escaramuzas.

Pelear implica cierto riesgo y puede dar lugar a graves lesiones, o incluso a la muerte. La evolución, por consiguiente, tiende a favorecer y desarrollar mecanismos que limitan la intensidad de los comportamientos agresivos. Muchas especies tienen claras señales que expresan la aceptación de la derrota, lo que pone fin a las peleas antes de que se produzcan lesiones.

Aprender a reconocer las señales-estímulos es la tarea más importante para las crías nada más nacer. Les salva la vida. La lección más importante que aprende un joven social después de aprender las señales–estímulos fundamentales para mantenerse con vida es la capacidad de transigir. Mantiene la salud de la vida social del grupo. La selección natural lo ha demostrado, favoreciendo a los individuos que han desarrollado comportamientos que les permiten permanecer juntos. Otros animales, los depredadores solitarios, no necesitan estos rasgos sociales. Estos organismos encuentran otras maneras de mantener su metabolismo y reproducción.

Aprender a ser social significa aprender a transigir. Los animales sociales pasan mucho tiempo juntos y los conflictos son inevitables. Tiene su lógica que desarrollen mecanismos con los que responder a las hostilidades. Limitar el comportamiento de agresividad y miedo mediante la inhibición y la ritualización sólo es parcialmente seguro. Cuanto más social es el animal, más obligatorios son los mecanismos eficaces. La agresión inhibida sigue siendo una agresión; es como jugar con fuego un día de viento. Resulta eficaz para animales menos sociales o menos agresivos, pero los animales muy sociales y más agresivos necesitan otros mecanismos.

A largo plazo, seria muy peligroso y agotador estar constantemente recurriendo a la agresión y el miedo para resolver problemas triviales. Los animales presentan síntomas de estrés patológico después de un tiempo en que se sienten constantemente amenazados o necesitan atacar constantemente a otros. Esto significa que los depredadores sociales necesitan otros mecanismos aparte de la agresividad y el miedo para resolver animosidades sociales. Tengo la teoría de que los animales sociales, a través de la ontogenia de la agresión y el miedo, desarrollan otros dos comportamientos sociales igual de importantes. Mientras que una agresión significa: «lárgate, muérete, no vuelvas a molestarme», una agresión social significa: «lárgate, pero no demasiado lejos, ni demasiado tiempo». Igualmente, el miedo social dice: «No te molestaré si no me haces daño», mientras que el miedo existencial no permite transigir en nada: «o tú o yo».

La diferencia significativa entre los dos tipos de comportamientos agresivos parece ser la función. La agresión se emplea para tratar con los extraños, y la agresión social se emplea para tratar con los compañeros. En cambio, el miedo y el miedo social son tanto para el trato con los extraños como para el trato con los compañeros. Éstas son diferencias cualitativas que justifican la creación de nuevos términos; de allí que se hable de dominancia y sumisión.

¿Qué significado tiene esto en nuestra manera de entender a nuestros perros y nuestra relación con ellos?

Significa que todos nosotros mostramos comportamientos dominantes (seguridad en uno mismo, afirmación de la autoridad, firmeza, contundencia) y sumisos (inseguridad, aceptación, concesión, capitulación), según diversos factores, por ejemplo: estado de ánimo, posición social, recursos, salud, el oponente en cuestión, y eso se da tanto entre los seres humanos como entre los perros (y los lobos, por supuesto). Esto no tiene nada de malo, excepto cuando presentamos un comportamiento dominante en situaciones en que sería más ventajoso presentar un comportamiento sumiso, y viceversa. A veces podemos ser más dominantes o sumisos, y otras veces menos. Se trata de comportamientos muy cuantitativos y cuantificables, con muchas variantes. No hay una única estrategia correcta. Todo dependerá de la flexibilidad y la estrategia adoptada por los demás.

Por supuesto, nosotros no construimos las relaciones estables y beneficiosas a largo plazo basándolas en los comportamientos dominantes o sumisos. Éstos son comportamientos necesarios para resolver los inevitables conflictos sociales. Construimos las relaciones basándolas en la necesidad de compañía –tanto nosotros como los perros (y los lobos, por supuesto)– para resolver problemas comunes relacionados con la supervivencia y preferentemente con un nivel aceptable de confort. No construimos las relaciones basándolas en las jerarquías, pero éstas existen y desempeñan un papel importante en determinadas circunstancias –tanto para los seres humanos como para los perros (y para los lobos, por supuesto)-, a veces más, a veces menos, a veces nada.

Construimos nuestra (buena) relación particular con nuestros perros basándola en el compañerismo. Los necesitamos porque nos dan una sensación de logro que no parece que consigamos en otra parte. Ellos nos necesitan porque el mundo esta superpoblado, los recursos son limitados y como dueños les proporcionamos comida, protección, cuidados, un lugar seguro y compañía (son animales sociales). ¡Es muy duro ser un perrito y estar solo en este mundo tan grande! A veces, en esta relación, una de las partes recurre a un comportamiento dominante o sumiso y eso no tiene nada de malo siempre y cuando las dos partes no exhiban el mismo comportamiento a la vez. Si ambos muestran comportamiento dominante o sumiso, tienen un problema: habrá un conflicto que se resolverá la mayor parte de las veces sin lesiones (eso es lo maravilloso de la dominancia y la sumisión), o uno de los dos tendrá que dejarse de tonterías e imponer su buen juicio.

Una buena relación con nuestros perros no requiere ningún mecanismo en particular ni misterioso. Ocurre básicamente lo mismo con todas las buenas relaciones, teniendo en cuenta las características especificas de la especie y los individuos implicados. No necesitamos nuevos términos. No necesitamos nuevas teorías para explicarlo. No somos, al fin y al cabo, tan especiales, y tampoco lo son nuestros perros. Estamos todos construidos a partir del mismo concepto y con los mismos ingredientes básicos. Sólo necesitamos buenas definiciones y un enfoque menos emocional y más racional. Utiliza tu corazón para disfrutar de tu perro (y de tu vida) y tu razón para explicarlo (si lo necesitas), y no al revés. Si no te gustan mis definiciones, crea otras que sean mejores (con más ventajas y menos desventajas), pero no malgastes tu tiempo (ni el de nadie) con discusiones sin sentido y reacciones viscerales. La vida es preciosa y cada momento malgastado es un bocado menos del pastel que has devorado sin siquiera darte cuenta.

Así es como yo lo veo y me parece hermoso: ¡que disfrutes de tu pastel!

R—

 

Related articles

References

  • Abrantes, R. 1997. The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner.
  • Creel, S., and Creel, N. M. 1996. Rank and reproduction in cooperatively breeding African wild dogs: behavioral and endocrine correlates. Behav. Ecol. 8:298-306.
  • Darwin, C. 1872. The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. John Murray (the original edition).
  • Estes, R. D., and Goddard, J. 1967. Prey selection and hunting behavior of the African wild dog. J. Wildl. Manage. 31:52-70.
  • Eaton, B. 2011. Dominance in Dogs—Fact or Fiction? Dogwise Publishing.
  • Fentress, J. C., Ryon, J., McLeod, P. J., and Havkin, G. Z. 1987. A multi- dimensional approach to agonistic behavior in wolves. In Man and wolf: advances, issues, and problems in captive wolf research. Edited by H. Frank. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, Boston.
  • Fox, M. W. 1971. Socio-ecological implications of individual differences in wolf litters: a developmental and evolutionary perspective. Behaviour, 41:298-313.
  • Fox, M. 1972. Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids. Harper and Row.
  • Lockwood, R. 1979. Dominance in wolves–useful construct or bad habit. In Symposium on the Behavior and Ecology of Wolves. Edited by E. Klinghammer.
  • Lopez, Barry H. (1978). Of Wolves and Men. J. M. Dent and Sons Limited.
  • Mech, L. D. 1970. The wolf: the ecology and behavior of an endangered species. Doubleday Publishing Co., New York.
  • Mech, L. David (1981). The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mech, L. D. 1988. The arctic wolf: living with the pack. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, Minn.
  • Mech, L. D., Adams, L. G., Meier, T. J., Burch, J. W., and Dale, B. W. 1998. The wolves of Denali. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  • Mech, L. David. 2000. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center,
  • Mech. L. D. and Boitani, L. 2003. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press.
  • Packard, J. M., Mech, L. D., and Ream, R. R. 1992. Weaning in an arctic wolf pack: behavioral mechanisms. Can. J. Zool. 70:1269-1275.
  • O’Heare, J. 2003. Dominance Theory and Dogs. DogPsych Publishing.
  • Rothman, R. J., and Mech, L. D. 1979. Scent-marking in lone wolves and newly formed pairs. Anim. Behav. 27:750-760.
  • Schenkel, R. 1947. Expression studies of wolves. Behaviour, 1:81-129. 
  • Scott, J. P. and Fuller, J. L. 1998. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press.
  • Van Hooff, J.A.R.A.M., and Wensing, J.A.B. 1987. Dominance and its behavioral measures in a captive wolf pack. In Man and wolf: advances, issues, and problems in captive wolf research. Edited by H. Frank. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, Boston.
  • Wilson, E. O. 1975. Sociobiology. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Zimen, E. 1975. Social dynamics of the wolf pack. In The wild canids: their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution. Edited by M. W. Fox. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York. pp. 336-368.
  • Zimen, E. 1976. On the regulation of pack size in wolves. Z. Tierpsychol. 40:300-341.
  • Zimen, Erik (1981). The Wolf: His Place in the Natural World. Souvenir Press.
  • Zimen, E. 1982. A wolf pack sociogram. In Wolves of the world. Edited by F. H. Harrington, and P. C. Paquet. Noyes Publishers, Park Ridge, NJ.

Gracias a Simon Gadbois (merci), Tilde Detz (tak), Victor Ros (gracias), Sue McCabe (go raibh math agate) y Parichart Abrantes (ขอบคุณครับ) por sus sugerencias para mejorar este artículo. Los fallos que puedan quedar son cosa mía, no suya.

Impreso en castellano la primera vez en Border Collie Magazine.

Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense

Roger Abrantes and Wolf

A relationship is a natural thing! (Photo by Monty Sloan)


Stable and profitable relationships
are not built in the long run by means of a series of dominant and submissive displays. Instead, these behaviors are necessary for resolving inevitable social conflict. Both humans and dogs (and wolves, of course) build relationships on the need for partnership in overcoming common problems related to surviving and, preferably, achieving an acceptable level of comfort. Relationships are not built on hierarchies, but they do exist and they do play an important role in certain circumstances—for humans as well as dogs (and wolves of course)—sometimes more, sometimes less and sometimes not at all.

Illustration showing the possible combinations of aggressive, fearful, dominant and submissive behavior in social canines (From "Dog Language" by Roger Abrantes, illustration by Alice Rasmussen). Copyrighted illustration.

Illustration showing the possible combinations of aggressive, fearful, dominant and submissive behavior in social canines (From “Dog Language” by Roger Abrantes, illustration by Alice Rasmussen). Copyrighted illustration.

 

In everyday language,dominance means “power and influence over others.” It means supremacy, superiority, ascendancy, preeminence, predominance, mastery, power, authority, rule, command and control. The word has so many meanings and connotations that we cannot simply pick a dictionary definition and employ it as a scientific term in the behavioral sciences. Terms need to be accurately defined in order to avoid misunderstandings, meaningless discussions and nonsensical claims. Unfortunately, the scientists who use this term (as well as those who repudiate it) have not managed to define it satisfactorily, thus contributing to the current confusion about the nature and function of dominant behavior.

I intend to remedy this by:

(1) demonstrating that dominance is an observable characteristic of behavior;

(2) establishing that it refers to one and the same class of behaviors independent of species;

(3) presenting a precise, pragmatic and verifiable definition of the term, which is compatible with evolutionary theory and our body of biological knowledge;

(4) arguing that, even though it is true that a good (in terms of being profitable and stable) relationship does not rely on continuous displays of dominance/submission from the same individuals toward the same other individuals, this does not imply that dogs cannot show dominant behavior.

Denying that dominant behavior exists in dogs has become a popular argument to defend the claim that we must not use ‘dominance’ to build a relationship with our dog.

Indeed, the discussion on dominance has run away with us; and there is only one thing more absurd and futile than attempting to prove that dominant behavior exists and that is attempting to prove that dominant behavior does not exist. In the following, I shall commit the first of these futile acts.

Wolf Pack

In a stable pack, wolves mostly display dominant and submissive behavior and seldom aggressive and fearful behavior.

 

It is absurd to argue that dominance (as an attribute, a property) does not exist when there are so many words for it, depending on context and nuance. If it didn’t exist, neither would these terms. The numerous synonyms and connotations suggest, not only that the term is hard to define, but also that a property of behavior has been observed whose features are sufficiently dissimilar to other properties to make it worth classifying and naming. Whether or not the name or names given are appropriate or well defined is another story, and has no influence whatsoever on the behavior in question. We can argue that this attribute (dominance) has been observed and that (1) it only refers to particular human relations, or that (2) it refers to particular relations among humans as well as some other animal species. The second option seems more appealing, considering that it is highly improbable that a particular condition would only exist in a single species. This would go against all we know about the relatedness and evolution of species.

However, there is nothing implausible about stating that the term does not apply to describe the behavior of a particular species. On the contrary, two species that diverged from a common ancestor billions of years ago have evolved and developed characteristics of their own and now differ, both from the common ancestor and from one another. By the same token, closely related species, which diverged from a single common ancestor a few thousand years ago, will show various characteristics, similar or equal to the common ancestor and to one another. Some species share many common attributes in terms of phenotype, genotype and behavior, others less, some none at all. It all depends on their common ancestry and their adaptation to the environment.

English: Saarloos Wolfdog male Polski: Samiec ...

Wolf-dog hybrid (Image via Wikipedia).

Humans and chimpanzees (Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes) diverged from a common ancestor about 6 million years ago, so we can expect them to have fewer common attributes than wolves and dogs (Canis lupus lupus and Canis lupus familiaris) which  only diverged from a common ancestor  about 15 to20 thousand years ago according to recent studies (and by no means, more than 100 thousand years ago). The DNA of humans and chimpanzees differs to a greater degree than that of wolves and dogs (which is almost identical except for a few mutations). Humans cannot interbreed with chimpanzees; wolves and dogs can interbreed with each other and produce fertile offspring. Humans and chimpanzees are two completely distinct species. Wolves and dogs are two sub-species of the same species.

These facts considered, we could expect wolves and dogs to show a great number of similarities, which indeed they do, not only physically but also behaviorally—and any laymen will attest to that. Their similarities on certain levels are what makes it possible for them to mate, produce fertile offspring, and communicate. Nobody questions that wolves and dogs have a very large, common repertoire of communication behaviors; and rightly so, for multiple observations have confirmed that they do communicate perfectly well. Their facial expressions and bodily postures are remarkably similar (except for a few dog breeds) with only a few small differences, these being smaller than cultural differences between humans from some geographically separated settlements.

If wolves and dogs can communicate, it follows that the basic and crucial elements of their languages must be the same. This means that even though they evolved in apparently distinct environments, they retained the most anchored elements of their genotypic characteristics. This could be for the following reasons: (1) the common genotypes are vital to the organism, (2) the environments were not so crucially distinct after all, (3) evolution needs more time and more selective conditions (since it operates on phenotypes) for the genotypes to begin to differ radically.

Point (1) above means that there are more ways of not being alive than being alive, or, in other words, that evolution needs time to come up with different, viable life forms. Point (2) means that even though wolves and (pet) dogs now live in completely different environments, the phenomenon is still too recent. It is only in the last century that dogs became so overly domesticated. Until then, they were our companions. They were domestic animals that still maintained a high degree of freedom and depended (mostly) on the same successful selective factors as always. They were still not pets and breeding was not totally (or almost totally) controlled by human selection. Point (3) means that we might one day (in a million years or so) have two completely distinct species: wolves and dogs. By that time, they will not mate, will not produce fertile offspring and will perhaps show some completely different characteristics; and we may change the dog’s name to Canis civicus, or Canis homunculus. However, we are not there yet!

Recent trends claim that “dominant behavior” does not exist in dogs, which poses some serious problems. There are two ways to argue in favor of such thinking. One is to dismiss “dominant behavior” outright, which is absurd as, for the aforementioned reasons, the term does exist, we know roughly what it means and we use it in conversation. It must, therefore, refer to a class of behaviors that we have observed. Another argument is to claim that wolves and dogs are completely different and therefore, even though we can apply the term to explain wolf behavior, we cannot use it to describe dog behavior. If they were completely different, the argument would be valid, but they are not, as we have seen. On the contrary, they are very similar.

A third alternative is to propose a brand new theory to explain how two such closely related species, as the wolf and the dog (actually sub-species), can have developed in such a short period (thousands of years) with so many radically different characteristics in one aspect, but not in others. This would amount to a massive revision of our entire body of biological knowledge, with implications far beyond wolves and dogs—an alternative I find unrealistic.

A far more appealing approach, it seems to me, is to analyze the concepts we use and define them properly. This would allow us to use them meaningfully when dealing with different species without running into incompatibilities with the entire body of science.

An accurate definition of “dominant behavior” is important because the behavior it encompasses is crucial to the survival of a certain type of individuals, as we shall see.

To dismiss the existence of facts underlying a term, just because that term is ill-defined, not to mention politically incorrect (which means that it doesn’t suit our immediate goals) seems to me to be a poor approach. Dominant behavior exists, but it is badly defined (when defined at all). Most discussions involving dominant behavior are meaningless because none of the parties know what exactly the other is talking about. However, we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water! Therefore, I suggest precise definitions of dominant behavior and the terms we need to understand: what it is, what it is not, how it evolved and how it functions.

Dominant behavior is a quantitative and quantifiable behavior displayed by an individual with the function of gaining or maintaining temporary access to a particular resource on a particular occasion, versus a particular opponent, without either party incurring injury. If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant. Its quantitative characteristics range from slightly self-confident to overtly assertive.

Dominant behavior is situational, individual and resource related. One individual displaying dominant behavior in one specific situation does not necessarily show it on another occasion toward another individual, or toward the same individual in another situation.

Resources are what an organism considers to be life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner, or a patch of territory. The perception of what an animal may consider a resource is species as well as individual related.

Aggressiveness (aggressive behavior) is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition while dominance, or social-aggressiveness, is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition from a mate.

Mates are two or more animals that live closely together and depend on one another for survival. Aliens are two or more animals that do not live closely together and do not depend on one another for survival.

Dominant behavior is particularly important for social animals that need to cohabit and cooperate to survive. Therefore, a particular social strategy evolved with the function of dealing with competition among mates, whilst conferring greatest benefit at the least cost.

Animals show dominant behavior with various signals: visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.

While fearfulness (fearful behavior) is behavior directed toward the elimination of an incoming threat, submissive, or social-fearfulness, is behavior directed toward the elimination of a social-threat from a mate, i.e. losing temporary access to a resource without incurring injury.

threat is a stimulus that most often precedes a behavior that may harm, inflict pain or injury, or decrease an individual’s chance of survival. A social-threat is a threat (a threatening behavior) from another individual or group of individuals that may cause submissive behavior or flight resulting in the temporary loss of a resource, but not injury.

Animals show submissive behavior by means of various signals: visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.

Persistent dominant or submissive behavior from the same individuals toward the same other individuals may or may not result in a temporary hierarchy of a certain configuration, depending on species, social organization and environmental circumstances. In stable groups confined to a defined territory, temporary hierarchies will develop more readily. In unstable groups under changing environmental conditions or, in undefined or non-established territories, hierarchies will not develop. Hierarchies, or rather the strategies involved, are Evolutionarily Stable Strategies (ESS), which are always slightly unstable, swinging forth and back around an optimal value, depending on the number of individuals in the group and the strategy each individual adopts at any given time. Hierarchies are not necessarily linear, although in small groups and over time, non-linear hierarchies seem to have a tendency to become more linear.

Some individuals have a stronger tendency to show dominant behavior and others to show submissive behavior. This may depend on their genetic makeupearly learningexperience, etc. There is no one single factor to determine this, rather a complex mixture. Let us call this a natural tendency; this is not to say it is not modifiable. It is a fact that some individuals can be more assertive than others, while others can be less so. Neither is ‘good’ or bad’ in a moral sense, simply more or less advantageous, depending on context. In one-to-one encounters, all things being equal, individuals are more likely to adopt the strategy they feel most comfortable with, hence maintaining their history of mostly displaying dominant behavior or mostly displaying submissive behavior.

When in a larger group, they will have the same tendency to play the roles they feel most comfortable with. However, this may change due to the accidental makeup of the group. Imagine a group with a large proportion of individuals that are prone to showing submissive rather than dominant behavior, and with only a few members showing the opposite tendency. In this scenario, an individual with a tendency to mostly show submissive behavior would have more chance of gaining access to resources by showing more dominant behavior and being successful. Success breeds success and, progressively, this individual with a tendency to display submissive behavior finds itself more frequently opting for a dominant strategy. If the scenario gives rise to an individual changing its preferred strategy, then others will also have the same opportunities. The number of individuals showing dominant behavior will increase, but only to a certain point, as the group cannot sustain too large a number of individuals adopting a dominant strategy. In order to avoid the risk of injury, it will eventually be more advantageous to adopt a submissive strategy, depending on benefits and costs.

Therefore, the number of dominant and submissive individuals in a group (which means individuals adopting one or other strategy as their preference) depends, not only on the natural tendency of the individuals, but also on the proportions of behavioral strategies within the group. Whether it pays off to play a dominant or a submissive role is ultimately a function of benefits and costs and the number of individuals that adopt one particular strategy.

Understanding the relationship between dominant and submissive behavior as an ESS (Evolutionarily Stable Strategy) opens up exciting perspectives and could help us to explain the behavior adopted by any given individual, at any given time. An individual will learn to display submissive behavior toward the more dominantly acting ones, and display dominant behavior toward the more submissively acting. This means that no individual always behaves dominantly or submissively as a principle, instead it all depends on the opponent and, of course, the value of the potential benefits and estimated costs.

As a corollary, hierarchies (when they exist) will always be slightly unstable depending on the strategies adopted by the individuals in the group; and they won’t be linear except in small groups or sub-groups.

In the opinion of this author, the mistake we have committed hitherto has been to regard dominance and submission as more or less static. We haven’t taken into account that these behavioral characteristics, like phenotypes and all other traits, are constantly under the scrutiny and pressure of natural selection. They are adaptive, highly variable, and highly quantitative and quantifiable.

As such, dominance and submission are dynamic features depending on different variables, a view which is compatible with the development of behavior at individual level, genetic functions, the influence of learning and, not least, evolutionary theory.

Dominance and submission are beautiful mechanisms from an evolutionary point of view. They enable (social) animals to live together and survive until they reproduce and pass their (dominant and submissive behavior) genes to the next generation. Without these mechanisms, we wouldn’t have social animals such as humans, chimpanzees, wolves and dogs to name just a few.

If an animal resolves all inter-group conflicts with aggressive and fearful behavior, it will be exhausted when subsequently compelled to go and find food, a mating partner or a safe place to rest or take care of its progeny (all of which decrease the chances of its own survival and that of its genes). Thus, the alien and mate strategy originated and evolved. It is impossible to fight everybody all of the time, so a mate is confronted using energy-saving procedures.

Submissive and dominant behavior also control population density, since they rely on individual recognition. The number of individuals an animal is capable of recognizing must have a limit. If this number exceeds a certain level, it makes recognition inefficient and impedes the alien/mate strategy; fearful/aggressive displays then replace submissive/dominant behavior.

The strategy of submission is sound. Instead of vainly engaging in a desperate fight, waiting may prove more rewarding. By employing pacifying and submissive behavior, subordinates are often able to shadow dominantly behaving animals and profit from opportunities to gain access to vital resources. By showing submissive behavior, they retain membership of the group, which also confers several advantages—particularly defense against rivals.

Hierarchies work because a subordinate will often move away, showing typical pacifying behavior, without any obvious signs of fear. Thus, the higher ranking animal may simply displace a lower ranking when feeding or at a desirable site. Hierarchies in nature are often very subtle, being difficult for an observer to decipher. The reason for this subtlety is the raison d’être of the dominance-submission strategy itself: the lower ranking animal (adopting the submissive strategy) generally avoids encounters and the higher ranking (adopting the dominance strategy) is not too keen on running into skirmishes either.

Fighting involves a certain amount of risk and can lead to serious injury, or even death. Evolution, therefore, shows a tendency towards favoring and developing mechanisms, which restrain the intensity of aggressive behavior. Most species have clear signals that show acceptance of defeat and end combat before injury occurs.

Sign-stimuli are the stimuli that produce an instinctive behavior sequence. To recognize sign-stimuli is life saving for the infant immediately after birth. Compromise is the most relevant lesson a social youngster may learn after the fundamental life saving sign-stimuli. It maintains the fitness of a group. Natural selection has proved this, favoring the individuals that develop behavior that enables them to stay together—when they need to stay together for better survival. Other animals, e.g. the solitary predators, do not need such social traits. These organisms found other ways of dealing with the maintenance of their metabolism and reproduction.

Learning to be social means learning to compromise. Social animals spend vast amounts of time together and conflicts are inevitable. It is crucial for them to develop mechanisms to deal with hostilities. Limiting aggressive and fearful behavior by means of inhibition and ritualization is only partially safe. The more social the animal is, the more efficient its mechanisms for avoiding injury need to be. Inhibited aggression is still aggression; it is playing with fire on a windy day. It works well for less social or less potentially aggressive animals, but highly social and potentially aggressive animals need other mechanisms.

In the long run, it would be too dangerous and too exhausting to constantly resort to aggression and fear to solve banal problems. Animals begin to show signs of pathological stress when under constant threat or when constantly needing to attack others. This suggests that social predators need mechanisms other than aggressiveness and fear to solve social animosities. It is my suggestion that social animals, through the ontogeny of aggressiveness and fear, developed two other equally important social behaviors. If the meaning of aggression is “go away, drop dead, never bother me again,” the meaning of social-aggression is “go away, but not too far, or for too long.” Equally, social-fear says “I won’t bother you if you don’t hurt me,” while existential-fear does not allow any compromise—“It’s either you or me.”

The significant difference between the two types of aggressive behavior seems to be the function. Aggressiveness deals with the alien and social-aggressiveness with the mate. Conversely, fear and social-fear deal with alien and mate. These are qualitative differences that justify the creation of new terms, hence dominance and submission.

What does this mean for our understanding of our dogs and our relationship with them?

This means that we all show dominant (self-confident, assertive, firm, forceful) behavior as well as submissive (insecure, accepting, consenting, yielding) behavior depending on many factors, e.g. state of mind, social position, resources, health status, opponent—humans as well as dogs (and wolves of course). There’s nothing wrong with it, except when we show dominant behavior where it would be more advantageous to show submissive behavior and vice versa. Sometimes we may act more dominantly or submissively and other times, less so. These are highly quantitative and quantifiable behaviors, with many variables. There is not one single, correct strategy. It all depends on flexibility and the strategy adopted by others.

Stable and profitable relationships are not built in the long run by means of a series of dominant and submissive displays. Instead, these behaviors are necessary for resolving inevitable social conflict. Both humans and dogs (and wolves, of course) build relationships on the need for partnership in overcoming common problems related to surviving and, preferably, achieving an acceptable level of comfort. Relationships are not built on hierarchies, but they do exist and they do play an important role in certain circumstances—for humans as well as dogs (and wolves of course)—sometimes more, sometimes less and sometimes not at all.

We build our particular (good) relationship with our dogs on partnership. We need them because they give us a sense of accomplishment that we don’t seem to get anywhere else. They need us because the world is overpopulated, resources are limited and an owner provides food, protection, healthcare, a safe place and companionship (they are social animals). It’s too hard to be a little dog all alone out there in the big world! Sometimes, in this relationship, one of the parties recurs to dominant or submissive behavior and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they do not both show the same behavior at the same time. If both recur to the same behavior, they have a problem: they either run into a conflict that they will usually solve without injury (the beauty of the mechanisms of dominance and submission), or one of them will have to get his act together and find the bearings for both.

A good relationship with our dogs does not involve any mysterious mechanisms. It’s basically the same as with all good relationships, whilst taking into account the particular characteristics of the species and individuals involved. We don’t need any new terms. We don’t need any new theories to explain it. We aren’t, after all, that special, nor are our dogs. We are all built from the same concept and with the same basic ingredients. All we need are good definitions and a less emotional, more rational approach. Use your heart to enjoy your dog (and life), and your reason to explain it (if you need to), not the other way around. If you don’t like my definitions, feel free to come up with others which are better (with more advantages and less disadvantages), but don’t waste your time (or anyone else’s) on meaningless discussions and knee-jerk reactions. Life is precious and every moment wasted is one less bite of a cake that you’ve devoured without even realizing it.

That’s how I see it and it looks beautiful to me—enjoy your cake!

R-

Related articles

References

  • Abrantes, R. 1997. The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner.
  • Creel, S., and Creel, N. M. 1996. Rank and reproduction in cooperatively breeding African wild dogs: behavioral and endocrine correlates. Behav. Ecol. 8:298-306.
  • Darwin, C. 1872. The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. John Murray (the original edition).
  • Estes, R. D., and Goddard, J. 1967. Prey selection and hunting behavior of the African wild dog. J. Wildl. Manage. 31:52-70.
  • Eaton, B. 2011. Dominance in Dogs—Fact or Fiction? Dogwise Publishing.
  • Fentress, J. C., Ryon, J., McLeod, P. J., and Havkin, G. Z. 1987. A multi- dimensional approach to agonistic behavior in wolves. In Man and wolf: advances, issues, and problems in captive wolf research. Edited by H. Frank. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, Boston.
  • Fox, M. W. 1971. Socio-ecological implications of individual differences in wolf litters: a developmental and evolutionary perspective. Behaviour, 41:298-313.
  • Fox, M. 1972. Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids. Harper and Row.
  • Lockwood, R. 1979. Dominance in wolves–useful construct or bad habit. In Symposium on the Behavior and Ecology of Wolves. Edited by E. Klinghammer.
  • Lopez, Barry H. (1978). Of Wolves and Men. J. M. Dent and Sons Limited.
  • Mech, L. D. 1970. The wolf: the ecology and behavior of an endangered species. Doubleday Publishing Co., New York.
  • Mech, L. David (1981). The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mech, L. D. 1988. The arctic wolf: living with the pack. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, Minn.
  • Mech, L. D., Adams, L. G., Meier, T. J., Burch, J. W., and Dale, B. W. 1998. The wolves of Denali. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  • Mech, L. David. 2000. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center,
  • Mech. L. D. and Boitani, L. 2003. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press.
  • Packard, J. M., Mech, L. D., and Ream, R. R. 1992. Weaning in an arctic wolf pack: behavioral mechanisms. Can. J. Zool. 70:1269-1275.
  • O’Heare, J. 2003. Dominance Theory and Dogs. DogPsych Publishing.
  • Rothman, R. J., and Mech, L. D. 1979. Scent-marking in lone wolves and newly formed pairs. Anim. Behav. 27:750-760.
  • Schenkel, R. 1947. Expression studies of wolves. Behaviour, 1:81-129. 
  • Scott, J. P. and Fuller, J. L. 1998. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press.
  • Van Hooff, J.A.R.A.M., and Wensing, J.A.B. 1987. Dominance and its behavioral measures in a captive wolf pack. In Man and wolf: advances, issues, and problems in captive wolf research. Edited by H. Frank. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, Boston.
  • Wilson, E. O. 1975. Sociobiology. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Zimen, E. 1975. Social dynamics of the wolf pack. In The wild canids: their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution. Edited by M. W. Fox. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York. pp. 336-368.
  • Zimen, E. 1976. On the regulation of pack size in wolves. Z. Tierpsychol. 40:300-341.
  • Zimen, Erik (1981). The Wolf: His Place in the Natural World. Souvenir Press.
  • Zimen, E. 1982. A wolf pack sociogram. In Wolves of the world. Edited by F. H. Harrington, and P. C. Paquet. Noyes Publishers, Park Ridge, NJ.
Thanks to Simon Gadbois (merci), Tilde Detz (tak), Victor Ros (gracias), Sue McCabe (go raibh math agate), Parichart Abrantes (ขอบคุณครับ) and Anna Holloway (thank you) for their suggestions to improve this article. The remaining flaws are mine, not theirs.

The Wolf Within—The Truth About Why We Fear the Wolf

Wolf (dier) (soort is nog gewenst)

We never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us (Image via Wikipedia).

Our love-hate relationship with the wolf, the animal that shares 15 thousand years of common ancestry with man’s best friend, the dog, suggests a deep conflict, one that is well hidden and maybe closer to each of us than we dare to admit. Are we hiding a skeleton in the closet? Why do we take great pains to understand and be good to our dogs whilst we hunt the wolf mercilessly?

Back in time, there were no wolves or dogs, only Canis lupus perantiquus (my name), the common ancestor of Canis lupus lupus, Canis lupus familiars, and 37 other subspecies. Humans, by then Homo sapiens sapiens, developed, not surprisingly, a particularly healthy relationship with this Canis lupus perantiquus. Both shared common interests and humans were still just one of many species. The relationship was mutually beneficial and resulted in some humans favoring certain perantiquus and certain perantiquus finding human company particularly rewarding.

Natural selection favored the fittest and, as usual, species changed over the years. These changes can be so extensive that some species turn into new ones; others only into new subspecies. The Canis lupus perantiquus changed under selective pressure from humans and their environment and became Canis lupus familiaris. In a sense, we created this subspecies and all its variations to serve and protect us.

Some species react strongly to stimuli they have not experienced for thousands of years, the scent of a predator, for example. These alarming and life saving key stimuli remain in the species’ gene pool, a kind of genetic memory. It is very unlikely that our fear of wolves stems from this kind of genetic memory; if we were that afraid of the wolf, we would never have gotten as close to it as we did. Perhaps we were afraid of the wolf in primitive times, but thousands of years of living in close proximity and cooperating would have changed that, as the least fearful members of both species would have benefited from the other. In those days, we can presume that the wolves that were least afraid of humans and capable of cooperating had better chances of survival and propagation (and ultimately turned into dogs); and conversely, the humans that were least afraid of wolves and were better at cooperating were more successful hunters, therefore survived and propagated (and ultimately turned into dog owners). Our fear of the wolf makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective, but perhaps it does from a psychological one. After all, we seem to fear what most resembles us—the enemy within!

Our fear and hatred of the wolf began long after the domestication, when humans took the first steps to distance themselves from nature, to enslave and exploit it—it happened when we invented agriculture. In the beginning, there was no war, only small-scale feuds provoked by the occasional domestic animal being taken by a wolf. The large-scale extermination of the wolf is not due to a single factor, but to an intermingled combination of factors that include mythology, religious zeal, environmental changes economic incentives, and a deep psychological scar, as we shall see.

Mythology, such as Grimm’s fairytales and Aesop’s fables, evoke the wolf as evil, untrustworthy, conniving and cowardly, a greedy thief that will go to great lengths to devour a poor, little lamb, child or old person. Tales of werewolves also exacerbated our fear and hatred of the wolf.

Religious convictions support our hatred of the wolf. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.'” (Genesis 1:26-29). European farmers and American settlers were devout Christians and they didn’t need a clearer incentive to declare war on all that crept upon the Earth. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-29)—and the wolf became the ultimate target and symbol of their mission.

There is a clear association between the wolf and the wild, the wilderness and the untamed. As Burbank puts it, “The New World wilderness, where the Pilgrims found themselves, was a sinister adversary, home of tribal savages who practiced evil. The Puritans regarded the wilderness itself as a howling beast, a wolf inspired by the Devil. In their desolation, they sojourned and their journey reminded them that believers wandered in a world of sin, a spiritual wilderness replete with Godless enemies and insane beasts that wanted only to consume the righteous.” (Burbank 1990:80)

Farming and the keeping of domestic animals in enclosures combined with the decimation of the wolf’s natural prey, forced the wolf to get closer to human settlements and to feed upon the occasional livestock. Today, most wolves avoid livestock when they have enough wild prey, but the wolves of the 1800s faced extreme food shortages and preyed upon cattle and sheep. This wasn’t a problem for rich farmers and even the smaller family farms could have survived the subsequent economic loss, nevertheless, governments attempted to solve the supposed problem by creating bounties in return for the head of a wolf. Besides shooting them, wolf hunters used traps, poison, denning (excavating a den and killing the cubs) and biological warfare (infecting captive wolves with sarcoptic mange and releasing them into the wild)—and so wolfing became a lucrative business.

Mythology, religious zeal and economy go a long way towards explaining the hatred but don’t explain everything. One thing is to control competition (it happens all the time in nature), another is to embark on radical extermination and what’s more, find pleasure in the practice of torture (such as setting wolves on fire, skinning them alive, hanging them, etc.). Such barbarism suggests the real reason for our hatred is well hidden and maybe closer to our hearts than we care to believe, or dare to face.

As with all organisms, human evolution happens quietly and slowly unless some sudden, drastic environmental change prompts the selection of unusual traits. The human brain was the sudden, single, dramatic cause that prompted a huge leap in the evolution of the species—and it was not an external cause, it came indeed from deep within us. The human brain enabled man to devise farming, then science and technology, and ultimately an anthropocentric religion. Farming enabled us to multiply far beyond the average rate up until that time and to colonize the entire world. Advancements in science and technology gave us the tools to subdue all life on the planet. Religious convictions provided us with motive and momentum beyond all rationality.

There is a high price to pay when evolution equals revolution. The (relatively) quick adoption of dualism and a mechanistic view of the world forced us to part with holism and animism, and left us with deep scars. In order to obey God, conquer the world and subdue all that crept upon our planet, we had to sever our connection with the natural, unruly, uncivilized world. To live up to the moral laws of Christianity, we had to go against our nature, denying who we were and where we came from. We had to cover our tracks. All that reminded us of our holistic past had to be oppressed, suppressed, forgotten. The wilderness in general and the wolf in particular reminded us of our true nature, the very same nature we despised. It became them and us, they were symbols of the unruly, the untamed and we, the purveyors of God’s wishes and civilized order. They symbolized what we were, not what we wanted to be. We had to subdue our own wild side, a legacy from our ancestors from many millions of years ago, which had proved highly efficient for survival, yet was despised and denied by the Holy Church. We were imprinted with religious zeal, which elicited the need to stifle the symbolic wild wolf inside each one of us; and we denied our origins, a strategy that was always only going to work on a short-term basis. A conflict of identity was inevitable; the werewolf perhaps represents our struggle to switch from an organic to a mechanistic worldview.

While the dog represents what we aspire to be, the wolf stands for what we refuse to acknowledge as part of us. The dog represents control, reminds us of our power, and is testimony to our ability to tame the wild. The wolf is our guilty conscience, it reminds us of our humble origins, represents the freedom we gave up, the togetherness we abandoned.

Through his fables, Aesop contributed to the creation of many myths that were detrimental to the wolf by depicting it with all the characteristics we despise most. Unknowingly, hence most ironically, in one uncharacteristic fable, he epitomizes our age-old conflict. In “The Dog and the Wolf,” the dog invites the starving wolf to live with him and his master, but when the wolf discovers it involves being chained, the wolf replies “Then good-bye to you Master Dog. Better starve free than be a fat slave.”

We became fat slaves by our own choice; and the wolf poignantly reminds us that there was a time when we had other options—herein the dog (wolf) lies buried*.

“Looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy was in us,” says Private Chris Taylor in Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon from 1986. Echoing Taylor, I’d say: we never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us. As long as we will remain in denial of our inheritance, the scar won’t heal and the enemy will remain well entrenched within us—and so will we keep fighting the wolf.

Keep howling!

R—


* “That’s where the dog lies buried,” means “that’s what lies behind.” This idiomatic expression exists in many languages, e.g. “da liegt der Hund begraben” (German), “siinä on koira haudattuna,” (Finish), “där är en hund begraven” (Swedish), but not in English. Most interestingly, the Swedish expression “att ana ugglor i mossen” (to suspect owls in the bog) meaning almost the same, comes from the Danish expression “der er ugler i mosen.” Originally it wasn’t “ugler,” but “ulver” (wolves), which makes more sense since an owl in the bog is nothing special. Since the two words in some spoken Danish dialects are difficult to distinguish from one another, it was translated incorrectly into Swedish, and the expression re-introduced in Denmark with owls substituting wolves. The expression and its history was too good for me not to use it in the context of this article. I hope the native English speakers will regard it as an enrichment of the language, rather than a nuisance.

Wolves in France—The Hunt Is On

A wolf (canis lupus)

The wolf risks extermination in France (Image via Wikipedia).

It seems we are on the verge of declaring a new war against the wolf in France. If so, we could exterminate them in the region once and for all. Antoine Agasse writes on July 28, 2011, on physorg.com, the article “Ravenous  wolves  colonise France,  terrorise  shepherds.”

He writes, “Regional authorities estimate the French wolf population at between 170 and 200 this year, up from 140 to 170 last year. The government says wolves killed 1,329 animals, mostly sheep, in France this year up to July 22.” (203 days)

This means the wolves killed almost exactly one sheep per wolf a month (if all 1329 were sheep). Estimating the average weight of a sheep at 150 pounds (68 Kg), each wolf should be eating about 4.9 pounds (2.23 Kg) per day.

Gray wolves, Canis lupus lupus, can survive on about 2.5 pounds (1.1 Kg) of food per wolf per day, but they need about 7 pounds (3,2 Kg) per wolf per day to reproduce successfully. Adult wolves can survive for days and even weeks without food if they have to.

This implies that, either the French wolves are not (cannot) be ravenous as the article claims (“Ravenous  wolves  colonise  France,  terrorise  shepherds”), each wolf consuming 4.9 pounds (2.23 Kg) sheep meat per day (plus high probably also supplementing their sheep diet with other food sources,) or the estimated number of wolves and killed sheep is wrong.

“One such pack of fearless wolves swooped on a flock in broad daylight under the noses of two shepherds and five sheep dogs (…)”

Wolves don’t do that unless they are sick, e.g. rabid, which has not been reported. My guess is that either (1) they didn’t, or (2) they were not wolves, but maybe hybrids or even feral or stray dogs (as earlier confirmed on other locations. e.g. on the Abruzzi mountains in Italy).

“Police in the Alps told AFP they had authorised one such hit last weekend after a wolf devoured 10 sheep and sent a further 62 in panic plunging to their deaths in a ravine. Thirty went missing in the overnight attack.”

10 sheep equals about 1500 pounds (680 Kg) of meat. The most a large gray wolf can eat at one time is about 22.5  pounds (10.2 Kg). An animal that devours 10 sheep and is still hungry to send 62 away in panic (plus 30 missing) is not a wolf, but maybe a fiction-wolf!

“The state has already paid out 364,000 euros (530,000 dollars) to farmers and shepherds such as Vignon this year to compensate them for their mauled sheep.”

364,000 EUR for 1329 sheep gives a price of 273.90 EUR per sheep (if all the 1326 animals killed by wolves were sheep). Not a bad price at all and better than to sell sheep on the market where a good purebred will fetch no more than 200 EUR.

“The head of the regional council, Jean-Louis Bianco, insisted however: “The wolf is no longer an endangered species.”

The wolves were extinct in France until recently. 200 wolves in France with an annual growth rate of 30 (15%) is no guaranty that they won’t be extinct soon again. This population growth has had a narrow genetic base, similar to the Scandinavian wolves, which  are more closely related to one another than full siblings. In Sweden the wolf population has grown in the last five years at a rate of about 19% and the Swedish government wants to keep them under 210 individuals.

He continues, “The shepherds and their flocks are the endangered species.”

Maybe by the EU subsidies, certainly not by the wolf!

Keep smiling and howling.

R-