Dominance in Dogs as Rated by Owners Corresponds to Ethologically Valid Markers of Dominance

Enikő Kubinyi and Lisa J. Wallis 2019

Key Points:

  • Authors provide an excellent overview of recent studies on dominance and hierarchy in free-ranging as well as pet dogs.
  • Behaviors associated with perceived dominance are in agreement with those previously identified as markers of dominance
  • When asked to rate their pairs of dogs on 21 behaviors, as well as to indicate which dog, they thought was more dominant, owners consistently rated the more dominant dog as:
    • Getting priority access to resources
    • Leading or defending the group
    • Winning more fights
    • Over-marking the others' urination
    • Accepting more muzzle licks
    • Being smarter and older


Dominance is well defined in ethology, debated in psychology, and is often unclear among the dog owning public and in the press. However, to date, no study has examined how owners perceive dominance in dogs, and what different behaviours and personality types are used to describe dominant and subordinate individuals. A questionnaire study was launched to investigate the external validity of owner-derived estimates of dominance in dog dyads sharing the same household (N = 1,151). According to the owners, dogs rated as dominant (87%) have priority access to resources (resting place, food, and rewards), undertake certain tasks (defend and lead the group, bark more), display dominance (win fights, lick the other’s mouth less, and mark over the other’s urine), share certain personality traits (smarter, more aggressive and impulsive), and are older than their partner dog (all p<0.0001). An age-related hypothesis has been suggested to explain dominance in dogs; but we found that dog age did not explain the occurrence of dominance related behaviours over the owners’ estimate of dominance status. Results suggest that owner-derived reports of dominance ranks of dogs living in multi-dog households correspond to ethologically valid behavioural markers of dominance. Size and physical condition were unrelated to the perceived dominance. Surprisingly, in mixed-sex dyads, females were more frequently rated as dominant than males, which might correspond to a higher proportion of neutered females in this subgroup. For future studies that wish to allocate dominance status using owner report, we offer a novel survey.

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