Part 1: Myths about origin and nature
From the book: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs
Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova -- All Rights Reserved
Myth 10: Dogs live in a dominance hierarchy, with the Alpha
dog at the top as the absolute leader.
One of the things we hear most about dogs is that dominance is extremely important in organising
their groups. The story goes that their interactions are all about gaining and maintaining status. The
dog with the higher rank dominates the dog with the lower rank, who submits. Dogs are always trying
to climb up the ladder, because they know higher ranks bring bigger advantages in life. This whole
story is, yet again, based on tales about how wolves organise their packs. This is the one myth about
dogs that virtually everyone seems to know — not only beginning dog owners, but even people who
have never had a dog and wouldn’t want one. I rarely meet people who don’t believe in this myth.
Therefore, it will probably surprise you to hear that we now know (thanks to Dr L. David Mech) that
even wolves do not live in a dominance hierarchy. To live in a dominance hierarchy, and to base
your behaviour towards others on who has which rank, you have to be able to do quite a bit of
abstract thinking. You’d have to have a map of the social structure in your head, in which you are
comparing various ranks with each other and assigning these ranks to yourself and others. Neither
the wolf nor the dog has the large frontal lobes in the brain that would enable them to think in such
abstract terms. A dominance hierarchy also requires a stable group that is organised in a rigid
structure. Dogs do not live in stable groups. They live semi-solitary lives, which are enriched by
fleeting friendships. As we will see in Myth 11, the groups dogs do form are not at all rigidly
organised. The structure of dog groups is, rather, highly flexible, which is the whole reason they are
so good at absorbing infinite numbers of strangers. And the final strange thing about this myth is that
no one has ever yet been able to find a real dominance hierarchy within a group of dogs, no matter
how hard they looked or what kind of statistics they applied. The whole idea is utter nonsense.
So what is going on? How could science make such a blunder, and how did this myth end up being
so firmly rooted in our minds?
If we want to understand this, we have to go back a little further in history and look at ourselves. It is
common knowledge among historians that humans have always projected the structure of their own
societies onto the animal kingdom. The ancient Egyptians, for example, lived in a society governed
by a royal family, whose members were demigods. Divinity, and links to divinity, were very important
in organising Egyptian society. Many Egyptian gods were portrayed as animals, and this was
projected back onto the animals in the mundane world, assigning various divine characteristics to
various animals. In the Middle Ages, when our societies were organised into nobility versus
impoverished, vulgar peons, people also divided the animal kingdom into noble versus common
animals. The noble animals were believed to have the same qualities as human nobility. They were
beautiful, graceful, clean, courageous, wise, chaste, loyal, chivalrous, and so on. The common
animals were like human commoners. They were seen as ugly, clumsy, cowardly, cunning,
promiscuous, sneaky and so on. The lower animals were ruled by, and they respected, the noble
animals. The human nobility had exclusive rights to the owning and hunting of noble animals, while
the human peons had to limit themselves to peon animals. This distinction between noble and
common animals still exists among hunters to this day, where the hunting of noble animals still enjoys
more status than, say, rat-catching.
Although we now like to think of ourselves as more rational and less superstitious, the fact is that our
projections onto animals did not stop when the modern age arrived. With the rise of industrialism, we
reorganised our own societies to operate on the basis of competition rather than birth. We still find it
interesting to have a title of nobility, but you aren’t really Someone unless you are capable of
competing on the basis of personal prowess and skills for a place on our social ladder. Social status
is not based on magic or on accidental parentage, but on our personal ability to dominate in open
competition with other human beings. A trust fund does help, of course, but this is only because it
gives us a head start and an edge in our competitive enterprises. We are willing to look up to
someone like Donald Trump, who began with thirty million and made more of it by competing
ruthlessly with his peers; but there is no creature more despised than the trust fund child who
devotes his life to spending Daddy’s money and hoping we will be in awe of him merely for having it.
In our society, someone must lose in order for someone else to win, and we adore the winner. We
believe that he is naturally superior to the loser in some way.
How very accidental that, just as we were rearranging our societies according to this model, someone
just so happened to discover that the animal kingdom works according to the principle of competition,
too! How very accidental that this insight came at the end of the nineteenth century, just in time to
reassure us that the rather unpleasant world we were creating was the only possible outcome of
natural laws! See, see, even animals are constantly engaged in ruthless competition, in which only
the strong and dominant survive. We are now beginning to understand that this was a projection (see
Myth 14), but we do still live in a competitive market society, and this makes it difficult for most of us
to let go of the old ideas.
But, besides the question of whether competition as such is a natural law, there is another problem.
Though our market society is, indeed, obsessed with winners and losers, it is not organised in a strict
and rigid dominance hierarchy. In fact, the more our societies are based on open competition, the
less of a dominance hierarchy we have. We have human rights and civil rights and freedom of
speech, and we don’t simply have to do what rich people tell us to do. If Donald Trump shows up at
your door, you can tell him to go jump in a lake, and there’s nothing he can do about it.
So where did this idea of a strict dominance hierarchy among animals come from? In fact, this
particular idea is a much more narrow projection than the general projection of competitive
organisation. The dominance hierarchy is an anthropomorphism (the projection of human qualities
into a thing or an animal) that has its roots in a very specific time and place in our history. It is also
one of the most tragic things for animals that ‘science’ has ever produced, because the idea of a
dominance hierarchy is commonly used to justify all kinds of strange and cruel practices towards
dogs. It is the justification for seeing rebellion in everything a dog does, and for cruelly crushing that
rebellion. It’s okay to beat him, kick him, shock him, strangle him, because all of this will teach him his
rank. Then once he knows his rank, he will automatically obey and do everything we want him to do.
The cruelty this idea has generated will no longer surprise you once you have absorbed the
following: the idea of a strict dominance hierarchy among dogs was introduced into science by a Nazi
(yes, you read that right, a Nazi): Konrad Lorenz.
Most people don’t know that the entire science of animal psychology got its start in Hitler’s Germany.
This happened in Berlin on 10th January, 1936, when the German Society for Animal Psychology
was founded under the auspices of, and sponsorship by, the Nazi government. Konrad Lorenz was
co-editor and an important contributor, writing many articles for the Society’s journal, Zeitschrift für
Tierpsychologie. Unlike some others who stood at the roots of animal psychology as a science,
Lorenz never had problems with the Nazi authorities. On the contrary, he joined the party as soon as
he could (1938), and the Nazis liked him so much that he was appointed professor of psychology at
the University of Königsberg in 1940. The admiration was mutual. Lorenz worked at the Race Policy
Bureau. In 1942, he participated in examining 877 people of mixed Polish–German descent, selecting
who would and who wouldn’t go to a concentration camp to be murdered. He believed firmly in
superior and inferior races and consistently expressed great contempt for the latter. He believed in a
strict, hierarchical society, in which an absolute authority ruled to whom all owed obedience. And, just
as humans had always done before them, the Nazis — including Lorenz — projected their ideas
about human society onto the animal kingdom. This is illustrated by the Nazi Cult of the Wolf.
It just so happens that the Cult of the Wolf played a very important part in Nazi ideology. The wolf was
held up as an example, to show that the Nazis were merely trying to reorganise society according to
noble, natural laws. Projecting, and without bothering to read any science or to gain any real
knowledge, the Nazis (and Lorenz) depicted the wolf as a noble, wild, hardened, ruthless animal who
possessed all kinds of wonderful Nazi characteristics. The wolf lived, just like the Nazi, in a closed and
elite group. He was, just like the Nazi, absolutely loyal to this group, ready to unquestioningly sacrifice
his life for the sake of the group if the need arose. The group’s structure was just as hierarchical and
rigid as the structure of the Nazi Party. Each wolf had a rank he strictly adhered to, submissive to
those above him, ruthless to those beneath him. Most important perhaps, the wolves were led by a
sort of Führer: the Alpha Leader. The Alpha Leader was a strong, always male wolf, whom all the
other wolves worshipped and obeyed at all times, and who was fiercely desired by all the female
wolves (yes, even the Nazis had sexual fantasies). And now come all the other things we are told
about dogs. The Alpha Wolf receives deference in all things. He is always the first to eat and the first
to go through a door. He is always up front in any kind of procession, and he always gets to sit or lie
higher than the other wolves. The other wolves hurry out of his way when he is coming through. They
are constantly giving off submissive signals in his presence. The Alpha Wolf can bite anyone he likes
without getting bitten back. He is so utterly sure of his authority that he can, when in the mood,
behave mercifully towards his inferiors — for which these inferiors are then infinitely grateful and
worship him all the more. The similarity to Adolph Hitler can hardly escape us.
In general, it is taboo among scientists to personally attack the author of a theory, but this taboo
does not (and cannot) apply when the author ignores all evidence to project his purely personal
prejudices onto the thing he is studying. Such behaviour leaves us no choice but to address the
personal background that led to such prejudices.
Lorenz specialised in studying birds. His ideas about wolves had their sole source in the Nazi Cult of
the Wolf, not in science. His ideas about dogs were shaped by — as he later put it — the false gods
he’d adopted as a young man. He informally observed his own dogs in his living room while he took
part in Nazi activities. He first published Man Meets Dog, which was based on these observations, in
1949. There were as yet no published studies of the domestic dog, thus nothing to contradict Lorenz
as he daydreamed just four years back to his Nazi Cult of the Wolf. He watched dogs who had been
raised only by himself or given to him by his Nazi friends, and who only left the estate he lived on in
his company. Lorenz’s dogs were all Chow mixes and Norwegian elkhounds. He in fact had no idea
about how dogs other than his own behaved, or how his own would have behaved if they had been
properly socialised. But that didn’t matter. Lorenz limited himself to popular publications about dogs
— an arena in which everyone is free to present their own opinions as fact. It was an arena that
permitted Lorenz to ignore Schenkel, who was at the time the great authority on wolves, and who
strongly protested some of Lorenz’s ideas about dominance and submission among them. It was an
arena in which Lorenz has been caught in more than one blatant lie, but also an arena where lying
has no consequences. Here, Lorenz had total freedom to continue (consciously or unconsciously, it
doesn’t matter) spreading the Nazi view of nature — and he used this freedom persistently until the
day he died. The idea about dogs living in a dominance hierarchy very like the Nazi Party, and that
dogs spend the whole day thinking about power, is nothing more than Konrad Lorenz’s fictional
legacy to us.
In a sense, Lorenz admits this in his book Man Meets Dog. He writes, ‘In humans, the bonding with
ideals only happens once: beware the man who, in an impressionable period of his life, gives his
heart to false gods.’ Indeed, after the war, Lorenz adamantly refused to repudiate his Nazi ideas. He
was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973, as co-founder of the ‘science’ of animal psychology. The prize
made him powerful in the scientific world, a power he used to suppress contradiction of his theories
as long as he lived. Confronted with this, our brave scientists chose to then just ignore Lorenz’s past.
(See Myth 99 for explanation of this cover-up.) It was only after his death in 1989 that most of Lorenz’
s theories were finally abandoned as invalid. The main one that still survives is his theory about dogs
and dominance, and it’s time to get rid of this one, too. How many of us truly want to treat our dogs
as if we’re a Nazi dictator?
Fact: The idea of dogs in a dominance hierarchy with an absolute Alpha leader at the top has its
origins in Nazi ideology rather than in the real behaviour of dogs. This may be a shocking and rather
uncomfortable thing for all of us to acknowledge, but this fiction about dogs has caused so much
suffering that it is high time to call it for what it is and to dump it. The quicker we do this, the less
shame on us.
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On to myth 11