Dog Training—Let Reason Prevail Over Force!

Roger Abrantes and Boxer doing retrieve

“Whether you (or I) follow a particular line of morality is not a necessary consequence of any model of social behavior. Moral stances are solely your (or my) decision” (Picture by Lisa J. Bains).

The dog trainers’ dispute about training methods blazes on unabated, with the erroneous and emotive use of terms such as dominance, punishment and leadership only adding fuel to the fire. There is no rational argumentation between the two main factions, one of which advocates a “naturalistic” approach and the other a “moralistic” stance. The term ‘dominance’ generates particular controversy and is often misinterpreted. We can detect, in the line of arguing about this topic, the same fundamental mistakes committed in many other discussions. By taking the controversy over dominant behavior as my example, I shall attempt to put an end to the feud by proving that neither side is right and by presenting a solution to the problem. Plus ratio quam vis—let reason prevail over force!

I shall demonstrate that the dispute is caused by:

(1) Blurring the boundaries between science and ethics. While ethics and morality deal with normative statements, science deals with factual, descriptive statements. Scientific statements are not morally right or wrong, good or bad.

(2) Unclear definitions. We cannot have a rational discussion without clear definitions of the terms used. Both sides in the dispute use unclear, incomplete definitions or none at all.

(3) Logical fallacies. The opposing sides commit either the ‘naturalistic fallacy,’ ‘the moralistic fallacy,’ or both. We cannot glean normative statements from descriptive premises, nor can we deduce facts from norms. The fact that something is does not imply that it ought to be; conversely, just because something ought to be does not mean that it is.

(4) Social conditioning and emotional load. As a result of inevitable social conditioning and emotional load, some terms develop connotations that can affect whether we like or dislike, accept or reject them, independent of their true meaning.

(5) Unclear grammar. The term dominance (an abstract noun) leads us to believe it is a characteristic of certain individuals, not an attribute of behavior. The correct use of the term in the behavioral sciences is as an adjective to describe a behavior, hence dominant behavior.

Bottom line: We need to define terms clearly and use them consistently; otherwise rational discussion is not possible. We must separate descriptive and normative statements, as we cannot derive what is from what ought to be or vice versa. Therefore, we cannot use the scientific concept of dominant behavior (or any descriptive statement) to validate an ethical principle. Our morality, what we think is right or wrong, is a personal choice; what is, or is not, is independent of our beliefs and wishes (we don’t have a choice).

Solution to the problem: The present dispute focuses on whether we believe it is right or wrong to dominate others (as in, totally control, have mastery over, command). It is a discussion of how to achieve a particular goal, about means and ends. It is a moral dispute, not a scientific quest. If both sides have similar goals in training their dogs, one way of settling the dispute is to prove that one strategy is more efficient than the other. If they are equally efficient, the dispute concerns the acceptability of the means. However, if either side has different goals, it is impossible to compare strategies.

My own solution of the problem: I cannot argue with people who believe it is right to dominate others (including non-human animals) as, even though I can illustrate how dominating others does not lead to harmony, I can’t make anyone choose harmony or define it in a particular way. I cannot argue with people who think it acceptable to hurt others in order to achieve their goals because such means are inadmissible to me. I cannot argue with people who deny or affirm a particular matter of fact as a means of justifying their moral conduct, because my mind rejects invalid, unsound arguments. With time, the rational principles that govern my mind and the moral principles that regulate my conduct may prove to be the fittest. Meanwhile, as a result of genetic pre-programming, social conditioning and evolutionary biology, I do enjoy being kind to other animals, respecting them for what they are and interacting with them on equal terms; I don’t believe it is right to subjugate them to my will, to command them, to change them; and I don’t need a rational justification as to why that’s right for me*.

Roger Abrantes and Bulldog

“I do enjoy being kind to other animals, respecting them for what they are and interacting with them on equal premises; I don’t find it right to subjugate them to my will and dispositions, to command them, to change them; and I don’t need a rational justification for why that’s right for me” (Picture by Lisa J. Bain).


1 Science and ethics are not the same

Science is a collection of coherent, useful and probable predictions. All science is reductionist and visionary in a sense, but that does not mean that all reductionism is equally useful or that all visions are equally valuable or that one far-out idea is as acceptable as any other. Greedy reductionism is bound to fail because it attempts to explain too much with too little, classifying processes too crudely, overlooking relevant detail and missing pertinent evidence. Science sets up rational, reasonable, credible, useful and usable explanations based on empirical evidence, which is not connected per se. Any connections are made via our scientific models, ultimately allowing us to make reliable and educated predictions. A scientist needs to have an imaginative mind in order to think the unthinkable, discover the unknown and formulate initially far-fetched but verifiable hypotheses that may provide new and unique insights; as Kierkegaard writes, “This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.”

There are five legitimate criteria when evaluating a scientific theory or model: (1) evidence, (2) logic, (3) compatibility, (4) progression, and (5) flexibility.

(1)  Evidence: a scientific theory or model must be based on credible and objective evidence. If there is credible evidence against it, we dismiss it. It must be testable and falsifiable.

(2)  Logic: If a theory or model is based on logically invalid arguments or its conclusion are logically unsound, e.g. drawing valid conclusions from false premises, we must also dismiss it.

(3)  Compatibility:  If a theory or model shows crucial incompatibility with the whole body of science, then it is probably incorrect. If it is incompatible with another model, then we have a paradox. Paradoxes are not to be discarded, instead worked on and solved (or not solved as the case may be). Since “Paradoxes do not exist in reality, only in our current models of reality,  […] they point the way to flaws in our current models. They therefore also point the way to further research to improve those models, fix errors, or fill in missing pieces.” In short, “scientists love paradoxes,” in the words of Novella.

(4)  Progression: A scientific theory or model must explain everything that has already been explained by earlier theories, whilst adding new information, or explaining it in simpler terms.

(5)  Flexibility: A theory or model must be able to accept new data and be corrected. If it doesn’t, then it is a dogma, not a scientific theory. A dogma is a belief accepted by a group as incontrovertibly true.

Science provides facts and uncovers important relationships between these facts. Science does not tell us how we should behave or what we ought to do. Science is descriptive, not normative. In other words: we decide what is right or wrong, good or bad, not necessarily depending on what science tells us.

Morality and science are two separate disciplines. I may not like the conclusions and implications of some scientific studies, I may even find their application immoral; yet, my job as a scientist is to report my findings objectively. Reporting facts does not oblige me to adopt any particular moral stance. The way I feel about a fact is not constrained by what science tells me. I may be influenced by it but, ultimately, my moral decision is independent of scientific fact. Science tells me men and women are biologically different in some aspects, but it does not tell me whether or not they should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. Science tells me that evolution is based on the algorithm “the survival of the fittest,” not whether or not I should help those that find it difficult to fit into their environment. Science informs me of the pros and cons of eating animal products, but it does not tell me whether it is right or wrong to be a vegetarian.

Ethologists study behavior on a biological and evolutionary basis, define the terms they use, find causal relationships, construct models for the understanding of behavior and report their findings. Ethologists are not concerned with morality. They simply inform us that the function of x behavior is y. They don’t tell us that because animal x does y, then y is right or wrong, good or bad, or that we ought or ought not do y.

The model I present in “Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense” is a scientific model that complies with all five of the requirements listed above.

(1)  It is based on overwhelming data, i.e. given my definition of ‘dominant behavior,’ one cannot argue that it does not exist.

(2)  The conclusions are logically consistent with the premises.

(3)  It is consistent with our body of knowledge, particularly in the fields of biology and evolutionary theory.

(4)  It explains what has been explained before and in more carefully defined terms.

(5)  It accepts new data, adjustments and corrections (the current version is an updated version of my original from 1986). The model tells us nothing about morality. No single passage suggests that we should classify any particular relationship with our dogs as morally right or wrong. You will have to decide that for yourself. As an ethologist, I’m not concerned with what ought to be, only with what is. Echoing Satoshi Kanazawa, if I conclude something that is not supported by evidence, I commit a logical fallacy, which I must correct, and that’s my problem, but if my conclusion offends your beliefs, then that’s your problem.

Therefore, whether you (or I) follow a particular line of morality is not a consequence of any model of social behavior. Moral stances are solely your (or my) decision. It is not correct to draw normative judgments from descriptive claims. If you do so, you either commit the ‘naturalistic fallacy,’ the ‘moralistic fallacy’ or both, as I shall explain below (see point 3).

2 Unclear definitions

Having just pointed out the rigors of science, I must concede that the scientific community does bear some responsibility for the present dispute in as much as definitions and use of terms have sometimes been sloppy. Some researchers use particular terms (in this case ‘dominance’) without defining them properly and with slightly different implications from paper to paper.

Wikipedia writes: “Dominance (ethology) can be defined as an ‘individual’s preferential access to resources over another’ (Bland 2002). Dominance in the context of biology and anthropology is the state of having high social status relative to one or more other individuals, who react submissively to dominant individuals. This enables the dominant individual to obtain access to resources such as food or access to potential mates, at the expense of the submissive individual, without active aggression. The opposite of dominance is submissiveness. […] In animal societies, dominance is typically variable across time, […] across space […] or across resources. Even with these factors held constant, perfect dominant hierarchies are rarely found in groups of any size” (Rowell 1974 and Lorenz 1963).

It explains a dominance hierarchy as follows: “Individuals with greater hierarchical status tend to displace those ranked lower from access to space, to food and to mating opportunities. […] These hierarchies are not fixed and depend on any number of changing factors, among them are age, gender, body size, intelligence, and aggressiveness.”

Firstly, defining ‘dominance’ instead of ‘dominant behavior’ seems somewhat imprudent for a science that is intrinsically based on observational facts. It suggests we are dealing with an abstract quality when in fact we are referring to observable behavior (see point 5 below). Secondly, it implicitly equates ‘dominance’ with hierarchy (social status), which is misleading because some hierarchies may be supported by conditions other than dominant behavior. The use of the term ‘dominance hierarchy’ creates a false belief. Clearly, the terms dominance and dominant behavior are attributed with varying meanings, a highly unadvisable practice, particularly in stringently scientific matters.

As John Locke wrote in 1690 (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding),  “The multiplication and obstinacy of disputes, which have so laid waste the intellectual world, is owing to nothing more than to this ill use of words. For though it be generally believed that there is great diversity of opinions in the volumes and variety of controversies the world is distracted with; yet the most I can find that the contending learned men of different parties do, in their arguings one with another, is, that they speak different languages. ”This has contributed […] to perplex the signification of words, more than to discover the knowledge and truth of things.”

To remedy this, I propose in “Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense” a set of carefully constructed definitions that are compatible with behavioral science and evolutionary theory, whilst paying special attention to the logical validity and consistency of the arguments. I’m convinced that we would avoid many pointless disputes if all those dealing with the behavioral sciences were to adopt such definitions.

Roughly speaking, there are currently two main schools of thought in dog training. For our present purpose, we shall call them ‘Naturalistic Dog Training’ and ‘Moralistic Dog Training.’ Of course, there are various other stances in between these two extremes, including a significantly large group of bewildered dog owners who do not adhere to any particular ideology, not knowing which way to turn.

Naturalistic Dog Training (aka the old school) claims their training echoes the dog’s natural behavior. They don’t provide a proper definition of dominance, but use it with connotations of ‘leader,’ ‘boss,’ ‘rank,’ implying that dominance is a characteristic of an individual, not of a behavior. In their eyes, some dogs are born dominant, others submissive, but all dogs need to be dominated because their very nature is to dominate or be dominated. They use this belief to justify their training methods that often involve punishment, flooding, coercion, and even shock collars, if deemed necessary, by the more extreme factions. For them, a social hierarchy is based on (assertive) dominance and (calm) submission, the leader being the most dominant. Their willingness to accept the existence of dominant behavior is motivated by their desire to validate their training theories, but their interpretation of the term is far from what ethologists understand by it.

Moralistic Dog Training (aka positive reinforcement training) distances itself from punishment, dominance, and leadership. They don’t define ‘dominance’ properly either, but use it with connotations of ‘punishment,’  ‘aggression,’  ‘coercion,’  ‘imposition.’ They claim dominance does not exist and regard it as a mere construct of philosophers and ethologists aimed at justifying the human tendency to dominate others. Their view is that we should nurture our dogs as if they were part of our family and should not dominate them. Therefore, they also distance themselves from using and condoning the use of terms like ‘alpha,’  ‘leader’ and ‘pack.’ The more extreme factions claim to refrain from using any aversive or signal that might be slightly connected with an aversive (like the word ‘no’) and deny their using of punishers (which, given the consensually accepted scientific definition of punishment, is a logical impossibility). Their refusal to accept the existence of dominant behavior is motivated by their desire to validate their training morality, but their interpretation of the term is again far from what ethologists understand by it.

An ethological definition of ‘dominant behavior’ is (as I suggest in “Dominance—Making Sense of the Nonsense”): “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.”

This is a descriptive statement, a classification of a class of behaviors, so we can distinguish it from other classes of behaviors, based on the observable function of behavior (according to evolutionary theory). It is clearly distinguishable from the statements of both opposing mainstream dog-training groups in that it does not include any normative guidance.

3 Logical fallacies

logical fallacy is unsound reasoning with untrue premises or an illogical conclusion. Logical fallacies are inherent in the logic structure or argumentation strategy and suit irrational desires rather than actual matters of fact.

An argument can be valid or invalid; and valid arguments can be sound or unsound. A deductive argument is valid if, and only if, the conclusion is entailed by the premises (it is a logical consequence of the premises). An argument is sound if, and only if, (1) the argument is valid and (2) all of its premises are true. The pure hypothetical syllogism is only valid if it has the following forms:

If P ⇒ Q and Q ⇒ R, then P ⇒ R

If P ⇒ ~R and ~R ⇒ ~Q, then P ⇒ ~Q

This mixed hypothetical syllogism has two valid forms, affirming the antecedent or “modus ponens” and denying the consequent or “modus tollens”:

If P ⇒ Q and P, then Q (modus ponens)

If P ⇒ Q and ~Q, then ~P (modus tollens)

It has two invalid forms (affirming the consequent and denying the antecedent).

The naturalistic fallacy is the mistake of identifying what is good with a natural property. In this fallacy, something considered natural is usually considered to be good, and something considered unnatural is regarded as bad. The structure of the argument is “P is natural, therefore P is moral” or “P is natural and non-P is unnatural, natural things are moral and unnatural things immoral, therefore P is moral and non-P immoral.” G. E. Moore coined the term naturalistic fallacy in 1903 in “Principia Ethica.” It is related to the ‘is-ought problem,’ also called ‘Hume’s Law’ or ‘Hume’s Guillotine,’ described for the first time by David Hume in 1739 in “A Treatise of Human Nature.” The ‘is-ought fallacy’ consists of deriving an ought conclusion from an is premise. The structure of the argument is “P is, what is ought to be, therefore P ought to be.”

The moralistic fallacy is the reverse of the naturalistic fallacy. It presumes that what ought to be preferable is what is, or what naturally occurs. In other words: what things should be is the way they are. E. C. Moore used the term for the first time in 1957 in “The Moralistic Fallacy.” The structure of the argument is, “P ought to be, therefore P is.”

Roger Abrantes and Shakira

“There is no evidence that dogs attempt to dominate others or that they don’t. On the contrary, all evidence suggests that dogs (as most animals) use different strategies depending on conditions including costs and benefits. Sometimes they display dominant behavior, other times they display submissive behavior, and yet other times they display some other behavior” Picture by (L’Art Au Poil École).

The line of argumentation of Naturalistic Dog Training is: Dogs naturally attempt to dominate others; therefore, we ought to dominate them. We can transcribe this argument in two ways (argument 1a and 1b):

Argument 1a

(A) If the nature of dogs is to attempt to dominate others, then I ought to train dogs according to their nature. (P⇒Q)

(B) It is the nature of dogs to attempt to dominate others. (P)

Therefore: I ought to train dogs by attempting to dominate them. (Q)

Argument 1b

(A) If dogs dominate others, then it’s right to dominate others. (P⇒Q)

(B) If it’s right to dominate others, then I have to do the same to be right. (Q⇒R)

Therefore: If dogs dominate others, then I have to do the same to be right. (P⇒R)

We cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is.’ Arguments 1a and 1b commit the ‘naturalistic fallacy.’ Both arguments seem formally valid, except that they derive a norm from a fact. There is no logical contradiction in stating, “I ought not to train dogs according to their nature.” They are also unsound (the conclusions are not correct) because premises P are not true.

There is no evidence that dogs attempt to dominate others or that they don’t. On the contrary, all evidence suggests that dogs (like most animals) use different strategies depending on conditions, which include costs and benefits. Sometimes they display dominant behavior, other times they display submissive behavior, and other times they display other behavior. Even when particular dogs are more prone to use one strategy rather than another, we are not entitled to conclude that this is the nature of dogs.

Conclusion: whether science proves that dogs display or don’t display dominant behavior has nothing to do with whether or not it is morally right for us to dominate our dogs.

The line of argumentation of Moralistic Dog Training is: We ought not to attempt to dominate our dogs; therefore, dogs do not attempt to dominate us. We can transcribe this argument in two ways (argument 2a and 2b):

Argument 2a

(A) Dominance is bad. (P⇒Q)

(B) Dogs are not bad. (R⇒~Q)

Therefore: Dogs do not dominate. (R⇒~P)

Argument 2b

(A) If [dominance exists], it is

. (P⇒Q)

(B) If it is

, [dogs don’t do it]. (Q⇒R)

Therefore: if [dominance exists], [dogs don’t do it]. (P⇒R)

We cannot derive ‘is’ from ‘ought.’ Arguments 2a and 2b commit the ‘moralistic fallacy.’ Argument 2a is formally invalid even if the premises were true because the conclusion is not entailed in the premises (it is the same as saying red is a color, blood is not a color, so blood is not red). Argument 2b sounds a bit odd (in this form), but it is the only way I have found of formulating a valid argument from the moralistic trainers’ argument. It is formally valid but it is unsound because it commits the moralistic fallacy: in its second line, it derives a fact from a norm. It assumes that nature doesn’t do wrong (or what is good is natural), but there is no contradiction in assuming the opposite.

Conclusion: the fact we believe it is morally wrong to dominate our dogs does not mean that dogs do not display dominant behavior. We are entitled to hold such a view, but it does not change the fact that dogs display dominant behavior.

4 Social conditioning and emotional load

The choice of word by ethologists to coin the behavior in English, i.e. ‘dominant,’ also contributes to the dispute. Curiously enough, the problem does not exist in German where dominant and submissive behaviors are ‘überlegenes verhalten’ and ‘unterlegenes verhalten.’

All words we use have connotations due to accidental social conditioning and emotional load. A scientist knows he** cannot afford his judgment to be clouded by his own accidental social conditioning or emotions. A defined term means that and only that. It’s not good, not bad, not right, not wrong, and the issue of whether he likes it or not does not even enter the equation. As an individual he may have his own personal opinion and moral viewpoint, but he does not allow them to affect his scientific work. As individuals, we all have our own likes and dislikes because we are constantly being conditioned by our environment. Culture, trends, movements, environments, relationships and moods, all bias our attitudes towards particular terms. Nowadays, for reasons I will leave to historians and sociologists to analyze, the words ‘dominance’ and ‘submission’ have negative connotations for many people. When people, all of whom are subject to social conditioning, fail to distinguish between the scientific meaning of the words and their everyday connotations, they repudiate them, which is understandable.

Conclusion: a class of behavior that animals use to solve conflicts without harming one another is what ethologists call dominant and submissive behavior. This behavior, in the way I describe and define, exists (see above). You may not like the terms or indeed the behaviors, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. ‘Red’ is a characteristic of an object that provides particular information to our eyes as a result of the way it reflects or emits light. We can argue (and we do) about the definition of ‘red,’ what is red, what is not, when it becomes orange, but we do not deny that red exists. You may object to the name ‘red’ but objects will continue to reflect or emit light in a particular way that produces what we call red (or whatever we choose to call it). A ‘red flower’ (or a display of ‘dominant behavior’) is not an abstract concept, but a real, detectable thing, whilst the concept of ‘redness’ is an abstract notion, as are the concepts of ‘dominance,’  ‘height,’  ‘weight,’  ‘strength,’ etc…

5 Unclear grammar

Another problem is that we use the word dominance as a noun (an abstract noun in contrast to a concrete noun) when in this case it is (or should be) a ‘disguised adjective.’ Adjectives don’t make sense without nouns (except for adjectival nouns). Dominance is an abstract noun, something that by definition does not exist (otherwise it wouldn’t be abstract), except as an abstract notion of ‘showing dominant behavior’ and as in ‘dominant allele,’  ‘dominant trait,’  ‘dominant ideology,’ ‘dominant eye,’ etc. However, the behavior of alleles, traits, ideologies and eyes, which we call dominant or classify as dominant, exists. For example, the question “Do dogs show dominance towards humans?” uses the abstract noun ‘dominance’ as an adjectival noun instead of the more correct ‘dominant behavior’. This can be confusing for some as it suggests that dominance is an intrinsic quality of the individual, not the behavior. Therefore, I suggest that, in the behavioral sciences, we henceforth drop the adjectival noun and only use the term as an adjective to behavior. This is a very important point and a source of many misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding the character of behavior.

Behavior is dynamic and changeable. An individual displays one behavior at one given moment and another a while later. The popular view maintains the notion of a ‘dominant individual’ as the one that always shows dominant behavior and the ‘submissive individual’ as the one that always shows submissive behavior, which is not true. Dominant and submissive (dominance and submission) are characteristics of behavior, not individuals. Individuals may and do change strategies according to a particular set of conditions, although they may exhibit a preference for one strategy rather than another.

It is the ability to adopt the most beneficial strategy in the prevailing conditions that ultimately sorts the fittest from the less fit—moral strategies included.

Have a great day,



* This is my normative judgment and as such no one can contest it.

** The most correct form would be ‘he/she,’ or ‘he or she,’ but since I find it extremely ugly from a linguistic point of view (my normative judgment) to use this expression repeatedly, I chose to write, ‘he’ though not by any means neglecting the invaluable and indisputable contribution of my female colleagues.


  • Abrantes, R. 1986. The Expression of Emotions in Man And Canid. Waltham Symposium, Cambridge, 14th-15th July 1986.
  • Abrantes, R. 1997. The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior. Wakan-Tanka Publishers (2nd ed.  2005).
  • Abrantes, R. 2011. Dominance—Making Sense Of The Nonsense.
  • Ayer, A. J. 1972. Probability and Evidence. Macmillan, London.
  • Bekoff, M. & Parker, J. 2010. Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. Univ. Of Chicago Press.
  • Bland J. 2002 About Gender: Dominance and Male Behaviour.
  • Copi, I. M. and Cohen, C. 1990. Introduction to Logic (8th ed.). Macmillan.
  • Dennet, D. 1996. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Simon & Schuster.
  • Dennet, D. 2003. Freedom Evolves. Viking Press 2003.
  • Futuyma, D. J. 1979. Evolutionary Biology. Sinauer Assoc.
  • Galef, J. 2010. Hume’s Guillotine.
  • Hewitt, S. E., Macdonald, D. W., & Dugdale, H. L. 2009. Context-dependent linear dominance hierarchies in social groups of European badgers, Meles melesAnimal Behaviour, 77, 161-169.
  • Hume, D. 1739. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1967, edition.
  • Locke, J. 1690. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  • Kanazawa, S. 2008. Two Logical Fallacies That We Must Avoid.
  • Kierkegaard, S. 1844. Philosophiske Smuler eller En Smule Philosophi (Philosophical Fragments). Samlede Værker, Nordisk Forlag, 1936.
  • Lorenz, K. 1963. Das sogenannte Böse. Zur Naturgeschichte der Aggression. Wien, Borotha-Schoeler Verlag, 1969.
  • Moore, E. C. 1957. The Moralistic Fallacy. The Journal of Philosophy 54 (2).
  • Moore, G. E. 1903. Principia Ethica.
  • Novella, S. 2012. The Paradox Paradox.
  • Pinker, S. How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
  • Popper, K. 1963. Conjectures and Refutations.  Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, UK.
  • Popper, K. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford University Press.
  • Rachels, J. 1990. Created From Animals. Oxford University Press.
  • Rowell, T. E. 1974. The Concept of Social Dominance. Behavioral Biology, 11, 131-154.
  • Ruse, M. 1986. Taking Darwin seriously: a naturalistic approach to philosophy. Prometheus Books.

Thanks to Anabela Pinto-Poulton (PhD, Biology), Simon Gadbois (PhD, Biology), Stéphane Frevent (PhD, Philosophy), Victor Ross (Graduate Animal Trainer EIC), Parichart Abrantes (MBA), and Anna Holloway (editor) for their suggestions to improve this article. The remaining flaws are mine, not theirs.

Canine Ethogram—Social and Agonistic Behavior

Behavior is the response of the system or organism to various stimuli, whether internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.

Behavior does not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to control a stimulus. Initially, all behavior is probably just a reflex, a response following a particular anatomical or physiological reaction. Like all phenotypes, it happens by chance and evolves thereafter.

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time, a particularly advantageous behavior spreads throughout the population. The disposition (genotype) to display a behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), although it requires maturation and/or reinforcement for the organism to be able to apply it successfully. Behavior is, thus, the product of a combination of innate dispositions and environmental factors. Some behaviors require little conditioning from the environment for the animal to display it while other behaviors requires more.


Canine Ethogram Social Agonistic Photos

Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior. For the classification of the behavior, please see ethogram below. Behavior is dynamic (not static). All interpretations are therefore only approximate and as pictures allow.


An organism can forget a behavior if it does not have the opportunity to display it for a period of a certain length, or the behavior can be extinguished if it is not reinforced for a period.

Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from maximization of utility and towards maximization of fitness.

Social behavior is behavior involving more than one individual with the primary function of establishing, maintaining, or changing a relationship between individuals, or in a group (society).

Most researchers define social behavior as the behavior shown by members of the same species in a given interaction. This excludes behavior such as predation, which involves members of different species. On the other hand, it seems to allow for the inclusion of everything else such as communication behavior, parental behavior, sexual behavior, and even agonistic behavior.

Sociologists insist that behavior is an activity devoid of social meaning or social context, in contrast to social behavior, which has both. However, this definition does not help us much because all above mentioned behaviors do have a social meaning and a context unless ‘social’ means ‘involving the whole group’ (society) or ‘a number of its members.’ In that case, we should ask how many individuals are needed in an interaction to classify it as social. Are three enough? If so, then sexual behavior is not social behavior when practiced by two individuals, but becomes social when three or more are involved, which is not unusual in some species. We can use the same line of arguing for communication behavior, parental behavior, and agonistic behavior. It involves more than one individual and it affects the group (society), the smallest possible consisting of two individuals.

Agonistic behavior includes all forms of intraspecific behavior related to aggression, fear, threat, fight or flight, or interspecific when competing for resources. It explicitly includes behaviors such as dominant behavior, submissive behavior, flight, pacifying, and conciliation, which are functionally and physiologically interrelated with aggressive behavior, yet fall outside the narrow definition of aggressive behavior. It excludes predatory behavior.

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.

Dominant behavior is particularly important for social animals that need to cohabit and cooperate to survive. Therefore, a social strategy evolved with the function of dealing with competition among mates, which caused the least disadvantages.

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.

Fearful behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of an incoming threat.

Submissive behavior, or social-fear, is behavior directed toward the elimination of a social-threat from a mate, i.e. losing temporary access to a resource without incurring injury.

Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner, or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

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 close together and do not depend on one another for survival.

A threat is everything that may harm, inflict pain or injury, or decrease an individual’s chance of survival. A social-threat is everything that may cause the temporary loss of a resource and may cause submissive behavior or flight, without the submissive individual incurring injury. Animals show submissive behavior by means of various signals, visual, auditory, olfactory and/or tactile.

Canine Ethogram

Pictures illustrating canine social and agonistic behavior. For the classification of the behavior, please see ethogram below. Behavior is dynamic (not static). All interpretations are, therefore, only approximate and as pictures allow.


The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors.

As always, have a great day!


PS—I apologize if by chance I’ve used one of your pictures without giving you due credit. If this is the case, please e-mail me your name and picture info and I’ll rectify that right away.


Pacifying Behavior—Origin, Function and Evolution

Roger Abrantes and Rottweiler

This Rottweiler female shows me friendly behavior licking my face and ear. I show that I accept her friendly behavior by turning my face away from her, closing my eyes and mouth and making champing noises. Mostly, dogs show friendly and pacifying behavior to humans as they do to other dogs (photo by Lisa J. Bain).

Pacifying behavior (Latin pacificare, from pax = peace and facerefacio = to make) is all behavior with the function of decreasing or suppressing an opponent’s aggressive or dominant behavior. There are two ways of classifying pacifying behavior: (1) to include all behaviors with the function of diffusing social conflict, and (2) to restrict it to a particular range within the broader spectrum of conflict decreasing behavior (see diagram below). This author prefers the latter because the broad use of the term in the first option makes it synonymous with conflict decreasing behavior in general, without reference to any particular sub-class of this behavior.

Pacifying behavior is closely related to friendly behavior (including greeting behavior), insecuresubmissive and fearful behavior. In general, the differences between these behavior displays are quantitatively small, but we can classify them separately and qualitatively according to their respective sub-functions. An animal pacifies another by means of a complex sequence of different behaviors as we can see in the diagram below. An animal very seldom shows a single behavior. Also, the same behavior may achieve different functions depending on its intensity and the sum of all behaviors displayed at a given moment.

Pacifying behavior did not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to manipulate an opponent. Initially, it was probably just a reflex. Like all phenotypes, it happened by chance and evolved thereafter.

Pacifying Behavior Canids

Pacifying behavior in dogs: licking own lips, licking and pawing (images by Alanic05 and Colorado Great Pyrenee Rescue Community).

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time pacifying behavior spread throughout the population. Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from maximization of utility and towards maximization of fitness.

Pacifying Behavior Animals

Many species show pacifying displays in their behavior repertoire (photos by J. Frisch, AFP and Aleixa).

The origin of pacifying behavior—Animal A facing aggressive opponent B registers (sensory system) B’s behavior, processes it (neurological system) and responds with a behavior. This behavior (probably an infantile behavior) is then registered by aggressive animal B; some behaviors tend to pacify it (probably eliciting parental behavior) while others do not. The pacified state of B benefits A and reinforces its behavior, i.e. it is likely it will repeat the same behavior in similar circumstances. Most importantly, animals that show appropriate pacifying behavior (such as A) survive conflicts and avoid injury more often than not and subsequently pass their genes onto the next generation.

Pacifying behavior also pacifies the pacifier, which is an important feature of this behavior. By displaying pacifying behavior, an insecure animal attempts to regain some security (homeostasis) by displaying a behavior it knows well and has previously served to reassure it.

Dog and Cat

Cat and dog use the pacifying behavior of their own species to communicate with one another successfully because of the common characteristics of the behavior (photo by Malau).

Some pacifying behavior has its origins in neonatal and infantile behavior and only becomes pacifying behavior through redirection and eventually ritualization. Other forms of pacifying behavior rely on concealing all signs of aggressive behavior. Sexual behavior can also function as pacifying. Young animals of social species learn pacifying behavior at a very early age; it is important that young animals are able to pacify adults when they begin interacting with them. The disposition (genotype) to display the behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype  would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), although it requires reinforcement for the young animal to be able to apply it successfully. In canines, adults (initially the mother at the time of weaning) teach the cubs/pups the intricacies of pacifying behavior, a skill they will need to master in order to prevent or resolve hostilities that could cause serious injuries.

Even though pacifying behavior is more relevant and developed in social species, we also find pacifying displays in the behavior repertoire of less social species. Animals use successfully the pacifying behavior characteristic of their own species with individuals belonging to other species (if possible) because of the common elements of pacifying behavior across species. It is not unusual to see our domestic animals, dogs, cats and horses interacting peacefully and exchanging pacifying signals. Dogs also show friendly, insecure, pacifying or submissive behavior to their owners and other humans with species characteristic displays; licking, nose poking, muzzle nudging, pawing and twisting are common behaviors that dogs offer us.

This diagram shows the placement of pacifying behavior in the spectrum of behavior in canids. The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors. A conflict is any serious disagreement, dispute over a resource, which may lead to one or both parts showing aggressive behavior. Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner, or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

Pacifying Spectrum

The spectrum of pacifying behavior in canids (by R. Abrantes). The colored background illustrates and emphasizes that behavior is a continuum with fading thresholds between the various behaviors. The vertical lines are our artificial borders, a product of definition and convention.

As always, enjoy a peaceful day,



  • Abrantes, R. 1997. The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Abrantes, R. 1997. Dog Language. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner.
  • Darwin, C. 1872. The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. John Murray (the original edition).
  • Fox, M. 1972. Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids. Harper and Row.
  • 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. and Boitani, L. 2003. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press.
  • Scott, J. P. and Fuller, J. L. 1998. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press.
  • 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. 1982. A wolf pack sociogram. In Wolves of the world. Edited by F. H. Harrington, and P. C. Paquet. Noyes Publishers, Park Ridge, NJ.

The Spectrum of Behavior

Behavior Spectrum
The conundrum of the behavioral sciences is that they are not exact sciences in the same sense as physics or mathematics. Behavior is like the spectrum of light: it is as difficult to say when yellow turns into orange as when one behavior turns into another. It is a continuum of quantity, perceptible throughout its duration, describable only when quantity turns into quality.

Friendly, insecure, pacifying, submissive and fearful behaviors are a continuum of quantity, as are content, self-confident, assertive, dominant and aggressive behaviors. The distinction between any two behaviors is a matter of function; the borderline separating one category from the other is a matter of observational skill, contextual parameters and convention; the way we understand it all is a matter of definition.

Our brain likes to tidy up its stored information in small boxes, but once in a while, I like to turn them upside down. It’s good mental exercise.

© Illustration by Roger Abrantes with drawings from Alice Rasmussen.

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!


* “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, 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.