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 11: Retake: Dogs live in a dominance hierarchy.

We have now seen that this is a rather evil human projection. Now we come to the question of what
dogs actually do, if they don’t engage in dominance all the day long. If dogs don’t live in stable closed
groups (which they don’t), and if they are constantly having to meet strangers (as they are), and if
the groups are constantly evaporating, changing and re-forming, then how do these groups arrive at
any kind of stable or even workable organisation?

The answer is, in a nutshell, that dogs live in what we call an ‘autopoietic, complex, self-organising
system, which will tend to move away from chaos and towards any one of many available stable
states within its state space.’ Now this sounds complicated and technical and hard to grasp, because
it is full of jargon. But as with most things, it is not so complicated at all if only you remove the jargon.
Which we will now do.

A system is a collection of parts, but it is not any old collection of loose parts. A stamp collection is
not a system. To form a system, the parts have to be somehow connected to each other. Because
they are connected, they constitute a whole that is distinguishable from the surroundings. But tying a
bunch of tin cans together still doesn’t make them into a system. A system has parts that move in
relation to each other, in order to perform some function or reach some goal. A coffee machine is an
example of a system, whose parts move in a coordinated way and in relation to each other, to
perform the function of producing a cup of coffee. A car is a system. The parts are set in motion and
work together when the function of the car has to be fulfilled — getting some load from point A to
point B. However, neither of these machines is complex or self-organising. They are not complex
because there is only a single arrangement of parts to choose from. If a spark plug falls out or you
put water in the petrol tank instead of the radiator, then the whole thing stops working. It’s no use
trying out putting the coffee filter under the pot for a change. There is also only one equilibrium to
choose from: a certain mixture of petrol and oxygen (or coffee and water), the right octane (or
voltage), the timing of the sparks exactly right, various gaps just exactly so wide and belts just so
tight. These systems are not self-organising. They are put together in a factory by some power
outside themselves, according to a design that someone else thought up. If their balance gets lost,
these systems are not able to restore the lost equilibrium themselves. Some outside power has to
take them apart and put them back together again, restoring them exactly to the state they were in
when they came from the factory.

A self-organising system is one that is capable of creating some kind of order inside the system
without outside help. The parts move on their own and they can be arranged in various ways. They
move around with respect to each other until the system arrives at some kind of equilibrium. When
the parts move, they don’t move randomly. They follow certain rules. These rules are internal to the
parts themselves, something in their own nature that limits their movements and behaviour. One
example of a self-organising system (hereafter: SOS) is a bunch of atoms in a bell jar. The atoms are
connected to each other by the fact that they share a physical space in which they continuously
collide with each other and exchange energy. Their system is distinguishable from the outside world
— they aren’t colliding with any atoms out there just now. The goal of this system is to spread the
available energy around evenly. The atoms will move around, obeying the laws of thermodynamics,
until this even division is reached. At this point, the system has arrived at a stable state. There are
many arrangements of atoms that will work. It doesn’t matter if a particular one is over here or over
there. If you heat the bell jar, the atoms will begin to move again until the energy is again evenly
spread around. They do this without external help, moving around according to their own internal
rules, colliding and rearranging themselves until a new equilibrium (this is, a stable state) is reached.
A second example of an SOS, one that starts to look a little more like dogs, is a room full of people at
a party. The collection of parts (i.e. people) in the room constitutes a small social system, for as long
as the party lasts. It is bounded by the walls of the room, and distinguishable from the outside world
full of non-invited people. Inside the room, each person is a part in the system. These living parts of
the system move around, following certain internal rules, until everyone in the system is in a
comfortable position. This works a little differently than a bell jar full of atoms that have no feelings. In
an SOS that consists of living beings, one of the factors that affect the search for balance is each
living creature’s feeling of well-being. This makes our party a complex system: equilibrium is being
sought on more than one level at once. Each system part (each party-goer) attempts to find an inner
balance of feeling good, while at the same time not disturbing the balance at the level of the party as
a whole.

The goal of this social system (our party) is to provide maximum enjoyment for a maximum number of
guests at the same time. The system is not in equilibrium until everyone has a drink, a good place to
sit, and a conversation partner they like. At this point, the inner balance of all guests is stable, while
the social system itself is in balance as far as the goal it is meant to achieve. All the parts will remain
where they are as long as this balance is maintained.

This lasts only so long, until someone’s drink is empty, or until conversation partners get bored with
each other. At this point, there is a dip in the individual well-being of a number of system parts, which
also means a dip in the larger system’s fulfilment of its own goal. Some system parts may start to
move around, looking to repair the dip — refilling a drink or shifting conversation partners. But it
doesn’t have to be a dip that causes change. It can also happen that some new and interesting guest
arrives. Some of the party-goers will see a chance here to increase their internal state of well-being
yet more, compared how it is with the person they are talking to. They may shift positions so as to go
talk to this new, interesting guest. Here, it’s not a dip triggering change. Instead, it’s the chance of yet
more fun that gets some parts moving. They can gain this increased enjoyment without causing the
whole system to crash, and in fact, their own improved fun level will move the larger system even
closer to its goal of maximum fun for maximum guests. Some of the parts in our SOS will, thus, start
moving around, taking up new positions in relation to each other, until their dips are restored to the
previous level, or until their fun is even more maximised — upon which the system has found a new
equilibrium on all levels. There are many various arrangements of party-goers that will serve the
function of maximal fun — there is more than one equilibrium to choose from, both on the level of the
individual and on the level of the whole.

The movement of parts is not, however, arbitrary. It is governed by internal part variables (since
people enjoy different things), by external factors (like which chairs and drinks there are to choose
from), and by certain rules. All of our participants follow certain rules as they seek new balances.
These rules are, in this case, the rules of politeness at parties. For example, the evening must
progress without embarrassing scenes or heated arguments. You don’t throw someone off his chair
by brute force, there are certain subjects you do not bring up, and you do not conspicuously join the
conversation group that includes the man who just found out yesterday that you are having an affair
with his wife. These are rules that limit the behaviour and movements of the system parts as they
continually seek equilibrium on the individual and the social levels.

The rules are internal to the parts, imparted to them and made into part of who they are during their
production (i.e. during their upbringing by other human beings). The party-goers follow these rules
voluntarily. If everyone behaved in an egotistical manner, seeking only to maximise their own internal
well-being position (e.g. when the lover did give in to the temptation to show off to the husband, or if
someone was just tipped off her chair onto the floor), the whole system (the party) might deteriorate
into a non-fun free for all. No one wants this to happen. People who break these rules risk getting
thrown out in order to maintain system stability, because after all, the whole point of the system is to
maximise fun for as many guests as possible, and not just for one selfish boor. So we know that too
much selfishness will make things unpleasant not only for everyone else, but also for ourselves. We
ourselves gain by participating in keeping the system stable (i.e. civil) and are willing to make smaller
sacrifices in order to get this gain.

As we maximise our positions according to our own internal states, juggling variables only we can
know about (tired legs, thirst, boredom), while yet allowing the rules to limit our behaviour, the system
as a whole organises and reorganises itself without interference from any central, organising
authority. In fact, we absolutely want the system to self-organise by our making our own choices and
following our own internal rules as we move around in the party’s social landscape. We want the
party to reshuffle itself again and again into a comfortable equilibrium for all system parts, by those
parts being free to move and rearrange themselves as inner states (thirst, boredom) and outer
circumstances (a new guest) change. It is extremely irritating to us if our hostess insists that we talk
at length to her unmarried son or daughter, or if she tries to make us sit in a certain spot, drink her
favourite drink, or eat more than we want to.

Now to get back to dogs. Every time multiple dogs — and that means even just two — share a
physical space, they immediately constitute an SOS, which will immediately start to move away from
chaos by seeking an equilibrium. The dogs’ SOS is very similar to our party. It too is a complex
system that looks for delicate equilibriums on more than one level simultaneously, taking many
invisible variables into account, and with many different equilibriums to choose from as it self-
organises. When a dog sees a stranger, his inner equilibrium might go off balance — his adrenaline
level might rise, his feeling of safety might suffer a dip, or his curiosity might be aroused because he
expects an increase in his well-being. These are internal variables that depend on his experiences in
the past with strangers. Either way, he wants to restore some kind of internal balance. At the same
time, he will want to know that the larger, social balance — the peace in the group — is still safe. The
domestic canine SOS has the same goal as our party: maximal well-being and safety for all the parts
(in this case dogs) who are sharing the physical space at that particular moment. Just like our party,
each part will execute a search to maximise its own inner well-being and stabilise its own part state,
while at the same time maximising (or at least preserving) the stability, peace and fun of the larger
social landscape the dogs occupy together. And, just like our party, they do this without reference to
any central, organising authority.

So when dogs meet each other, they immediately start looking for the return of both the internal and
external equilibriums that have been disturbed by the sight of each other. But if they don’t know each
other, there may be some danger involved. After all, a dog always carries his weapons with him, and
you don’t always know if the other guy is going to follow the social rules, or whether he is going to
understand your signals and react normally to them. So the first thing dogs have to do is check out
whether the other dog is going to use his weapons, and whether he understands and uses the
common language. (More about these signals in Myth 12.) After some exchange of signals, it
becomes sufficiently clear that there is a common language and that neither dog is going to get
violent right away. Both dogs can now at least predict the other’s behaviour in the domains of
language and aggression. This is the crucial minimum of predictability that has to be established
before the interaction can progress safely to the next stage.

It can be that this next stage is simply moving off to follow their humans. The next time these dogs
meet they will still know about each other and the meeting will be less tense. It can also be that the
dogs stick around to play with each other. In this case, the next stage of exploration starts: learning
about each other’s personal preferences and boundaries. As the dogs play on a field, they discover
various things about each other. The first dog is very anxious the keep the stick his owner just threw
and wants the second dog to stay several feet away from it. The second dog likes contact games
rather than a ball or a stick. They can’t talk to each other, so the dogs have to find this out by trial
and error. The first dog growls when the second one so much as looks at the stick. The second dog
can conclude, ‘Okay, that’s important to him and he wants me to keep some distance.’ The first dog
sees the second one stop or move away, and then he knows, ‘All right, he understood my signal, and
he values peace in our relation enough to let me keep my stick.’ The second dog makes all kinds of
‘come chase me’ gestures, which show the first dog that this is the kind of game he wants. Secure
enough now about his stick, the first dog might leave it for a moment to indeed play a round of chase
along the border of the field. If the second dog bumps the first one during this game, he might get a
snarl. This tells him that the first dog is not comfortable with such close contact. He might drop his
tail, fold his ears back, move away a little — he’s saying, ‘Okay, I got your message, and I didn’t
mean any ill.’ Or he bumped into a third dog during the chase, and these signals are saying, ‘Oops,
didn’t see you, sorry.’ These dogs are not being dominant and submissive. They are simply
exchanging information about their respective inner states so that they will become or remain
predictable to each other. Predictability about each other’s likes, dislikes and personal boundaries
allows them to find or maintain equilibrium in their relations with each other. When all the dogs in the
physical space have found some equilibrium, then the larger social system has also arrived at one of
its possible balances. The dogs play cheerfully, sharing space, taking each other’s preferences and
boundaries into account, dashing past each other at exactly the right distance each dog needs, no

These relations generally have to be established one on one. Because dogs learn about each other
by exchanging signals, they have to look at each other to learn. It is looking at the other that causes
your feelings specifically about him to arise and change your inner state, which you then signal. It is
by looking specifically at you that the other dog sees the signs of your internal state. So a dog can
only concentrate on one relationship at a time. This is one of the reasons a dog will freeze up and
stand totally still when he is being smelled by a whole group of other dogs. By freezing up, he is
giving a non-violence signal, but is saying nothing more. He keeps his mouth shut for the moment, as
it were, because you can only have complicated conversations one-on-one. If he is very socially
secure, the dog might just flip onto his back for the whole curious crowd (‘I just know everyone will be
charmed by the sight of my belly’). This is a safe signal to send out to a collective, one that can’t
offend anyone or lead to difficult conversations. If he does this, the whole group gets the important
message, some predictability about the new dog in one go (‘He knows our language and has no
violent intentions’). The preservation of the general safety in this dog’s presence is immediately clear
to all.

What we usually see happen is that the more self-assured dogs sniff the frozen newcomer for a sec,
then just walk away. Often, one dog will stay near the newcomer. This is because he still doesn’t feel
sure enough about the newcomer to share the space with him. His inner state is still out of balance
(maybe he’s had bad experiences in the past, and his adrenaline level is still a little high due to this
new dog showing up). He is still looking to restore his inner equilibrium, and wants more information.
To get more specific information, the dogs will have to look straight at each other, and this is just not
possible in a group. But now the others are gone, and our insecure dog stands there growling. I call
this growl a threat gesture because the growl means the dog perceives a threat to his safety or well-
being. With this threat gesture, he is basically telling the new dog that he feels unsure of himself, and
is asking for reassurance so his inner state can settle down. If the new dog gives a calming signal, for
example turning his ears outward and lowering his tail just a dot, he is saying, carefully, ‘You don’t
need to worry, I’m no threat to your safety or well-being.’ The first dog’s adrenaline might drop a little,
and so does his tail, while he stops growling (‘Okay, I feel a little less worried now’). When the second
dog sees that the newcomer feels less tense and thus less likely to lash out defensively, the second
dog can safely take the non-threat signals a little further. He folds his ears all the way back, drops his
tail completely, and starts to move a little. The first dog feels yet more reassured, and gives signals
to express this. The second dog sees the decrease in tension and feels safe breaking eye contact to
smell the other dog’s lips or backside, or even to make a little play jump. This signalling of decreasing
tension goes back and forth, until both dogs have restored their inner equilibrium. To put it
differently, the dogs each begin to trust each other, which enables them to relax and share a physical
space. Don’t worry — ‘trust’ is not anthropomorphism here. Even among humans, trust is nothing
more than the feeling that the other is sufficiently predictable that your internal state is not disturbed
by fear of danger in his presence.

After this, in play, or in walking further together, the dogs explore each other’s personal boundaries.
Just like our party-goers, each dog has an internal state of well-being that he wants to preserve. This
well-being can be affected by many variables, depending on the dog’s history. A dog’s behaviour and
choices in seeking maintenance of well-being have nothing to do with some personality trait that is
written in stone (e.g. ‘dominant’ or ‘submissive’), but are the result of the dog’s experience in the
past. The choices are also influenced by his internal state from moment to moment (tired or not,
hungry or not, full of adrenaline or not). Some dogs have learned that a tennis ball is the most
wonderful play opportunity they will ever get, so they are fierce about keeping the tennis ball. Other
dogs don’t see any meaning in the tennis ball and will give it up willingly to another dog. A dog’s
personal zone is larger or smaller, depending on his experience in the past with intimate contact. The
dog on a diet is obsessed with the bread someone strewed around for the birds. The castrated dog
doesn’t much care about the female in heat who just showed up. And so there are many different well-
being positions in life, which are all highly personal, and which each dog will try to preserve. The
outside observer can’t always see these variables, but this is no reason to pretend they aren’t there.
That we can’t see them doesn’t matter, as long as we know, watching the dogs, that they are trying to
preserve a certain internal balance, exchanging one thing against another according to their own
insights (not ours!) about what serves them best at that moment.

As they are balancing their internal equilibrium, one of the things dogs keep an eye on is the
equilibrium in the larger, social system they share with the others. If this system becomes unstable, it
is, just like our party, unpleasant — and perhaps dangerous — for all present. When two dogs have
an argument, it’s unpleasant for both of them — adrenaline levels shoot up, they have to expend a
bunch of energy, and it always feels kind of scary because you never know absolutely for sure what
the other guy will do. So social stability is one of the variables that affect dogs’ inner well-being, and
they are very good at keeping an eye on it.

This is why dogs are so sensitive to social space. Again, they learn as they go. Two dogs are racing
around the field, playing tag. One of them runs very closely past a third dog, who is lying there
chewing on his tennis ball. This third dog jumps up and does some protest barking and air snapping,
then returns to her ball. The running dog looks to us like he didn’t even notice this, but in fact he
picks up on this social-space information on the move and without batting an eye. If we keep
watching, we see that the next time he passes, he does this at a greater distance from the chewing
dog. Even in wild play, dogs pick up on what’s going on in the larger picture and change their
behaviour to accommodate and keep the system stable by not perturbing the other dog too much.
This is also why dogs are willing, to a varying extent (depending on their personal histories), to make
trades or give things up to each other in order to restore a threatened or lost social balance. Two
dogs who have just met both run after a ball someone throws. As they approach the ball, one of them
starts to growl. The other dog can’t know what kind of history is behind this, but he knows the growl is
a sign the other feels worried about the outcome and that the relationship could now become
unstable — a conflict might arise. So he slows down and lets the first dog get the ball. After all, he
has plenty of tennis balls at home, and to him the ball is an excuse to play the running game. The
growling dog notices this. The next time they go for the ball together, he doesn’t growl, but he gets
the ball again just the same. Later, the second dog’s owner is giving him a treat. This dog is on a diet
and is always hungry, so this time he growls when the first dog approaches. ‘You can have the ball,
but you sure can’t have my food.’ The first dog moves off a little and watches from a greater
distance. The hungry dog notices this. The next time treats are handed out, he may still keep an eye
on the other dog, but he might not feel he has to growl. He’s seen that the other is willing to keep a
little more distance around food. (It just so happens that in this other dog’s home, tennis balls are
scarce, but food isn’t.) The two are each learning what is and isn’t important to each other’s internal
well-being equilibrium. They take this into account in their interactions, and thus keep the social
system stable.

This is not a dominance hierarchy, but a system of mutual trade-offs. One dog is willing to trade a
little playing space for peace on the field. Another dog will give up a ball, another food, receiving the
resource ‘peace’ in return. This is a complex SOS, which seeks equilibrium on multiple levels at once.
The dogs are not trying to ‘dominate’ each other, but are seeking compromises, to bring all levels of
the system into acceptable equilibriums at the same time. Dogs do not try to selfishly maximise their
own well-being anymore than our party-goers did (see also Myths 14, 15, and 16). And you can’t tell
what’s truly going on just by watching the visible physical resources. In the first place, as we have
already seen, social stability is one of the factors that affect dogs’ inner well-being. Arguments (social
instability) decrease everyone’s well-being by making all feel less safe. In the second place, and this
is something scientists seem to have forgotten, dogs greatly enjoy each other’s company. The very
presence of the other adds to a dog’s personal well-being. So when a dog ‘sacrifices’ something (e.g.
the tennis ball), this isn’t really a sacrifice. The dog is making a choice, an exchange, between two
things he values. In such a case, we can only conclude that the dog apparently values the avoidance
of a conflict, or preservation of the good relations with the other dog, more than he values the thing
he gave up.

So the behaviour we have been taught to call ‘dominant’ is in fact merely an exchange of information,
upon which the dogs then make choices. It is a search for a mutually satisfying balance between two
dogs. It is not up to us to determine that one dog has ‘won’ and the other has ‘lost.’ In doing so, we
fail to take their own variables into account (which are the only ones that matter!). In fact, the dog
that gives up a thing thinks he is making a satisfying, and in his own eyes winning choice, given his
own valuation of all the available options and taking all the multiple equilibriums into account that he
wants to preserve. Assigning more value to a thing that is taken by force is a truly typical human
projection! This projection has led scientists to miss another reality. If we watch un-blinded by labels
and projections, then we see that dogs most often get hold of an object by the handy use of charm,
calming signals, and distraction tactics. There’s not a dog in the world who then values the object
less because he got it this way. And it is another human projection to call these tactics ‘submissive’,
when in fact they are simply an expression of greater social skill. It is, generally, the socially unskilled
dog or the distressed dog, who reverts to force to take a thing, and it reveals much about us (and
nothing about dogs) that we would consider such a dog ‘superior’ or assign leadership qualities to

With our picture in place of dogs exploring each other’s boundaries and making compromises to
reach inner and outer equilibriums simultaneously, we can now describe the rules the dogs follow as
they do this. During my fourteen-year study of dogs, I was able to discover these rules and test them
exhaustively. These are dogs’ own rules, not ones thought up by a human — although humans
greatly improve their relationships with dogs if we obey these rules (which we don’t always do). In any
case, every socialised dog carries these rules inside himself, just as our well-brought-up party-goers
have internalised the ones they learned growing up. Dog rules are, however, different from human
rules, and there are not so many of them. Here they are:

1) We will not use aggression in social interactions, but will limit ourselves to signals and
avoid damaging each other.
This is the main rule dogs depend upon. It is extremely traumatic for
a dog when another dog does not honour this rule and attacks for real. (And don’t try to tell us that
humans have this rule too, or we will know you never watch the evening news.)

2) We will respect each other’s personal zone and not enter it without permission. This rule
is important, but it is less important that Rule Number One. It isn’t so much traumatic as somewhat
threatening when a dog disobeys this rule. When this happens, you may see some snarling and
snapping, or maybe even a short, ritual ‘fight’ (which isn’t really a fight — see Myths 12, 13, 33 and
34). This is a rule we do share with dogs, though we disobey it more often. (The dog who disobeys
this rule is just as pathological as the human who engages in sexual harassment on the work floor.)

3) We will be considerate of each other’s personal preferences once we have learned
How far this consideration goes is, as we have seen, dependent on each dog’s internal state
at a particular moment, balanced against the wish to maintain both relationships and social peace.
(See Myths 14, 15 and 16 if you think your dog doesn’t obey this rule.)

With these three simple and elegant rules, internally carried by each part of the domestic canine
social system, the dog system is able to achieve one of the many possible equilibriums with amazing
flexibility and speed. Each dog ends up with the things he values most at that moment while social
peace is preserved, and the dog who consistently does not obey the rules get
s thrown out of the
system (which chasing away can be a collective enterprise). We cannot determine some kind of
hierarchy among the dogs in this balance (unless we are willing to project), because we cannot know
how the dogs are valuing the things they add and subtract from their position in the whole. All we can
do is observe that each dog has reached a position he is happy with. This position is not reached by
brute force, but by voluntarily seeking compromises. It doesn’t interest a dog in the least whether
some other dog has ‘more’. In fact, dogs don’t even have the brain structures that would enable them
to think the concept ‘more’ or ‘less’, conceiving of and comparing sizes or quantities. This kind of
math is quite beyond them. All a dog knows is that he has his own personal ‘enough’ (more on this
later, in Myth 14). Therefore, this dog SOS works excellently well. A dog group can absorb practically
unlimited numbers of dogs quickly and flexibly, as long as everyone follows the three simple rules.
At the beginning, I said that dogs live in a complex, autopoietic, self-organising system. Now we
understand ‘complex’ and ‘self-organising’. But what does ‘autopoietic’ mean? It means, quite simply,
that the system is capable of producing and repairing its own parts. You don’t have to take an
autopoietic system to the garage, or buy new parts for it. It is self-perpetuating and self-maintaining.
Autopoiesis occurs when a system consists of living creatures. A dog bears pups without external
help, and dogs all around the world raise pups — if humans don’t interfere — into functioning system
parts who know and voluntarily follow the rules. As we have seen in Myth 6, the ability to take part in
the social system is learned, not inherited. Dogs do this part production quite well all by themselves.

A dog must interact with other dogs while he’s a pup so as to learn the rules, otherwise he may end
up having trouble participating in social interactions. An adult dog who didn’t play enough with others
in his youth may need finishing (as a part) if he is to function in a social system. Another dog may
have a traumatic and damaging experience, and end up needing ‘repair’ to be able to function again
in the dog social system. We may need help repairing our dogs, but dogs are quite capable of
repairing such a part themselves without outside help. They will help the traumatised dog get over his
fear, providing him with reassuring social experiences. It’s actually quite touching to watch how
socially skilled dogs react to fear in another dog — we could learn a lot from them. The socially
clumsy (or incomplete) dog gets snapped at and snarled at, until he tempers his clumsy behaviour
and starts to act more politely. The other dogs aren’t ‘dominating’ him, but are providing this
incomplete part with some learning experiences he missed out on, and he is learning as he goes. As
long as the hooligan refrains from using aggression (i.e. delivering one or more uninhibited bites,
thus inflicting damage on other system parts), he will be able to learn from other dogs how to take
part in the system.

Thus there are two production processes, which make sure the system is producing and repairing its
own parts. One of them is the biological process of bearing and raising offspring. The second
production process is learning. Learning is crucial both to the production of socially functioning
offspring and to the repair of parts that don’t function optimally for some reason.
So learning is an important production process in the dog SOS. Learning takes care of the
production of functioning system parts and repair of damaged or incomplete parts. Their ability to
learn enables dogs to take the deviant signals into account that they encounter, for example, from a
dog whose tail the humans have cut off or bred to be permanently curled up on his back. Their
learning ability, their readiness to seek compromise, and their three simple rules enable dogs to
absorb members of other species into their social system. A dog can learn how to interpret the
signals, and thus predict the behaviour, of a parrot, a cat, a human, if only we allow him to go
through the right learning experiences. He is then able to use these signals across the species-
boundaries, to seek equilibrium and construct an SOS with all kinds of non-dog species. It’s actually
miraculous — or maybe not, given the context the dog evolved in.

Dogs live in a flexible and complex self-organising system which is capable of seeking and finding
equilibriums on multiple levels at once (all the dogs in equilibrium while the social system also finds a
balance). The system produces and repairs its own parts. There are three simple rules that
determine the system’s movements by the individual parts independently and voluntarily following
those rules, without some central authority guiding things. The system functions to find the maximum
available safety and well-being of all the present participants. There is no hierarchy. There is only a
whole range of possible balances, both for each individual participant and for the system as a whole.
Each equilibrium is arrived at as the dogs seek compromises, weighing various choices, and seeking
a balance between their own well-being and the stability of the social landscape (which is also an
element in their well-being). A dog who can’t compromise can’t take part. His behaviour destabilizes
the social system, making it unsafe or uncomfortable for other participants. Dogs aren’t preoccupied
with power, but rather with building mutual predictability and trust, so the system can balance in one
of the many acceptable equilibriums it has to choose from. These ‘acceptable equilibriums’ are
situations in which each dog present has a well-being position he is satisfied with. Giving up a ball or
a bone to preserve the relationship and the social peace does not mean the dog has ‘lost.’ It means
that he has made a trade-off, shifting from the well-being position that included the ball to a position
that included something else he decided was more important.

The ability to follow Rule Number One, no aggression (i.e. no uninhibited bites and no attempting to
inflict real damage on others), is essential, however. Aggression makes a dog unable to function as a
part of any dog social system. He will always be attempting to sabotage the entire system. His
presence makes the social system unsafe for all the other participants. He can’t be repaired,
because this is too dangerous — he will be trying to destroy other system parts rather than to learn
from them. The dog does not exist who is willing to risk his internal equilibrium to such an extent that
he may cease to exist as a living system himself! (See re: exceptions to this in Myths 38–40.) Dogs
who do engage in aggression, or who will risk their existence as a living system in order to fight, are
not products of nature. They are a result of human tampering with dogs. Repair is impossible, and
the owner has the responsibility to keep the dog away from other dogs.

Fact: The domestic dog’s social system is, thus, much more complex — but also much more elegant
and intelligent — than a mere ‘dominance hierarchy.’ This ‘dominance hierarchy’ model is clumsy and
anthropomorphic, and does not do justice to dogs.

Semyonova, A, The social organisation of the domestic dog; a longitudinal study of domestic canine
behaviour and the ontogeny of domestic canine social systems, Carriage House Publishing, The
Hague, The Netherlands, 2003.

On to myths about puppies
Nonlinear Dogs
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