Dominance in Domestic Dogs: A Quantitative Analysis of Its Behavioural Measures

Joanne A M van der Borg, Matthijs B H Schilder, Claudia M Vinke, Han de Vries

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


A dominance hierarchy is an important feature of the social organisation of group living animals. Although formal and/or agonistic dominance has been found in captive wolves and free-ranging dogs, applicability of the dominance concept in domestic dogs is highly debated, and quantitative data are scarce. Therefore, we investigated 7 body postures and 24 behaviours in a group of domestic dogs for their suitability as formal status indicators. The results showed that high posture, displayed in most dyadic relationships, and muzzle bite, displayed exclusively by the highest ranking dogs, qualified best as formal dominance indicators. The best formal submission indicator was body tail wag, covering most relationships, and two low postures, covering two-thirds of the relationships. In addition, both mouth lick, as included in Schenkel's active submission, and pass under head qualified as formal submission indicators but were shown almost exclusively towards the highest ranking dogs. Furthermore, a status assessment based on changes in posture displays, i.e., lowering of posture (LoP) into half-low, low, low-on-back or on-back, was the best status indicator for most relationships as it showed good coverage (91% of the dyads), a nearly linear hierarchy (h' = 0.94, p<0.003) and strong unidirectionality (DCI = 0.97). The associated steepness of 0.79 (p<0.0001) indicated a tolerant dominance style for this dog group. No significant correlations of rank with age or weight were found. Strong co-variation between LoP, high posture, and body tail wag justified the use of dominance as an intervening variable. Our results are in line with previous findings for captive wolves and free-ranging dogs, for formal dominance with strong linearity based on submission but not aggression. They indicate that the ethogram for dogs is best redefined by distinguishing body postures from behavioural activities. A good insight into dominance hierarchies and its indicators will be helpful in properly interpreting dog-dog relationships and diagnosing problem behaviour in dogs.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0133978
Pages (from-to)1-18
JournalPLoS One
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 27 Aug 2015


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