Guest: Dr. Clive Wynne

Born in England, Clive Wynne studied at University College London and the University of Edinburgh. He has served on the faculty of the University of Western Australia, and the University of Florida, before arriving at Arizona State University in 2013.

His broad interest is in comparative psychology understood to include the evolution, development and progress of the behavior of individuals and groups of nonhuman animals. The behaviors Wynne is interested in range from simple conditioning to complex cognitions.

His approach is behaviorist in his emphasis on parsimonious explanations, cognitive in his interest in rich behaviors, and ethological in his concern to see behavior as a tool in animals’ adaptation to their environments. The specific focus of ongoing research is the behavior of dogs and their wild relatives. In this domain Wynne’s group studies the ability of pet dogs to react adaptively to the behaviors of the people they live with; the deployment of applied behavior analytic techniques to the treatment of problem behaviors in dogs; the behaviors of shelter dogs that influence their chances of adoption into human homes, as well as the welfare of shelter dogs; improved methods for training sniffer dogs; the development of test banks for studying cognitive aging in pet dogs; humans as social enrichment for captive canids; among others.

In this episode we discuss:

  • What is the ethological definition of dominance?
  • How does dominance show up in behavior?
  • How might dominance be relevant in dog training?
  • Differences in dog-dog vs dog-human relationships.
  • Does dominance require aggression or punishment?

Links mentioned:

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Episode Transcript

Dr. Clive Wynne: [00:00:00] I first heard about it because Barbara Streisand had her dog cloned. She said, “But they had completely different personalities!” And not being a scientist, but being something of a poet, she said, “You can clone the look of a dog, but you can’t clone the soul.”

[Intro music]

Hannah Branigan: Hey there, fellow training nerds! You’re listening to Drinking From The Toilet. If you like to geek out about combining the science of behavior with positive reinforcement philosophy in real life, you’ve come to the right place. And I’m your host, Hannah Branigan: teacher, trainer, podcaster and author of the book, Awesome Obedience and its companion, Awesome Obedience: The Field Guide, which are both available from

Okay, so some period of [00:01:00] time ago – time is a construct – I saw a post on Facebook by Dr. Clive Wynne, in which he said, and I quote, “Denying the existence of dominance in dog/human relationships because of a distaste for Cesar Milan would make as much sense as if astronomers denied the existence of stars out of an antipathy towards astrology.”

I hope I pronounced that correctly.

Now, this felt very controversial. I had questions! So I went out on a limb and I asked if he would be willing to do a podcast episode with me to elaborate. And to my surprise, he said yes. So, if you too have questions, you might stick around for this conversation.

But before we get into that, I’ve gotta send a shout out to some very special folks who are exceptionally awesome for supporting this podcast on Patreon.

So thank you to Mickey M. Amy A, Sonya K, Haley G and Sarah W. I love you. You’re very [00:02:00] special and I’m holding you in my heart. I really appreciate you. Our next live patrons-only q and a is going to be on July 20th at 1:00 PM Eastern. Of course, it is recorded. So members at any level get access to the audio recordings of all our Q&As through a secret podcast stream, separate from this one, and truly committed behavior nerds get access to the live event and the video recording where they can see all of my arm waving and whiteboard diagrams and any training demos that I might do. And they also have access to submit questions either in real time or in advance for me to answer or both – whether or not they’re able to attend live, they can still participate and we can interact that way.

So if you think that’s something that you might enjoy, you might want to check us out. You can support the podcast, you can get your questions answered, you can get access to our super-secret extra podcast episodes by going to [00:03:00] And of course, as always, there’s also gonna be a link to that in the show notes.

All right, so you probably already have some familiarity with Dr. Clive Wynne, but just in case: Dr. Wynne is an ethologist who specializes in the behavior of dogs and their wild relatives. He was originally born in England but now he lives in Arizona, where he is a founding director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. You’ve probably seen articles that he’s published in Psychology Today, the New York Times and he’s even appeared on National Geographic Explorer, PBS and BBC. I even got to see him speak in person at the APDT conference a few years ago. (Again, you know, time [is a construct], et cetera).

This is an excerpt from his website that I wanted to share with you because I kind of love the way that it was framed. It says, “His approach is behaviorist in his emphasis on parsimonious explanations, cognitive in his interest in [00:04:00] rich behaviors, and ethological in his concern to see behavior as a tool in animals’ adaptation to their environment. The specific focus of ongoing research is the behavior of dogs and their wild relatives. In this domain, Wynne’s group studies the ability of pet dogs to react adaptively to the behavior of the people they live with, the deployment of Applied Behavior Analytic techniques to the treatment of problem behaviors in dogs, the behaviors of shelter dogs that influence their chances of adoption into human homes, as well as the welfare of shelter dogs, improved methods for training sniffer dogs, the development of test banks for studying cognitive aging in pet dogs, humans as social enrichment for captive canids, and others.”

He has a new book out that’s titled Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, which is really excellent title and the subject. As someone who is frequently shocked that my dogs put up with me at all, the idea of exploring scientific proof that they actually love [00:05:00] me back is just very appealing. So I’m gonna be checking that one out.

In our conversation, we start off by talking about exactly what Dr. Wynne meant by his statement on Facebook and how – or if – that idea can/should/does affect our training plans. We get into the ethological definition of dominance. I bring up some of my concerns around what tends to happen when we’re in conversations about dominance in pet dog training or animal training in general.

And I dunno! I thought I knew a lot about this subject. It’s certainly not a brand new topic to me in general, but I still really learned a lot. It was a really interesting conversation. I really enjoyed it and I think whether you’re relatively new to dog training or you’ve been here for a little while, you’ve probably also heard a lot of these sorts of conversations in this area. And even with that, I [00:06:00] think you might enjoy this also. So I hope that that’s true.

Hannah Branigan: Okay. So thank you for joining me today and being willing to have a conversation with me.

Dr. Clive Wynne: I’m really looking forward to it. Thank you so much for reaching out. 

Hannah Branigan: So this conversation was inspired by a somewhat controversial post that you made on Facebook recently. Do you mind if I read that?

Dr. Clive Wynne: Of course, go ahead!

Hannah Branigan: Okay. So you wrote, let’s see. “Denying the existence of dominance in dog/human relationships because of a distaste for Cesar Milan would make as much sense as if astronomers denied the existence of stars out of an antipathy towards astrology.” Would you like to elaborate on that?

Dr. Clive Wynne: [laughter] Sure, of course, of course! Well, so the story is this, Hannah. The story is that I taught animal behavior for over a decade at universities before I turned my professional attention towards dogs, right? And [00:07:00] if you teach animal behavior, then you have a textbook. And one of the chapters of the textbooks is the chapter on social behavior. And within the chapter on social behavior, there’s a section on social hierarchies in which the ecological concept of dominance is introduced.

Now, generally speaking, students who sign up for a class on animal behavior are interested in animal behavior and there are lots of parts of the class that they’re really alert and with it. But the section where you talk about social hierarchies and dominance is not one of those sections. It’s a part of the class where it’s very difficult to keep the students awake because it all seems very ho-hum and very obvious.

You know, “dominance hierarchies were first identified in the scientific literature in the 1920s by some I think Finnish or Norwegian guy whose name is impossible for an Englishman to pronounce and he identified it in chickens. The pecking order in chickens.” Well, obviously everybody’s heard of the pecking order in chickens. It doesn’t excite anybody. Okay? [00:08:00]

So I’m teaching this for over a decade. And then I become interested in dog behavior and then I start getting invitations to talk to APDT, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and other really great professional groups of dog trainers and other people with a really intense interest in dog behavior.

And they start telling me things about dominance that are like really, really weird. Like they’re telling me that dogs don’t experience social dominance, that dominance has nothing to do with dog behavior. And I hadn’t given it any thought until I had these interactions, but it’s very, very strange for me.

Because it had never crossed my mind – not being somebody who watches television dog trainers – it had never crossed my mind that there was any controversy about the possibility that dogs experience social dominance in mixed human/dog households. It had always seemed obvious to me. If you’ve studied dominance as an ethological [00:09:00] concept in academic animal behavior, it always seemed pretty obvious that dogs must experience social dominance when they’re in mixed human/dog households.

I mean, anyway, so this is just the history bit, Hannah. This could be a long– I don’t wanna give you a super long monologue. But anyway, that’s the history of it.

And so then, because people are saying these things to me, which are just like not computing in my little head with all the years I’ve been teaching animal behavior, I started looking into it.

And actually it turns out that although there is this intense controversy among dog people, there’s actually almost no studies on this. There’s definitely no formal study on dominance in mixed human/dog households. There are a few studies on dominance in dog/dog groups and then what people tend to point out to me is the evolving [00:10:00] discussion around dominance in wolf social groups where people love quoting a paper by David Mech, which is now over 20 years old, where he was very critical of the idea that wolves in social groups were always fighting for dominance. And that ties into the criticism that he had of the generation of wolf behaviorists before him who had only studied wolves in captivity, where you tend to get a lot of aggressive interactions. Whereas David Mech was the first of a new generation of wolf behaviorists who were studying wolf behavior in the wild, where you don’t get the anything like the same level of aggressive interactions.

Now people who are familiar with the really old quote from David Mech saying that wolves in the wild are not always fighting for dominance are much less familiar with his later statements where he clarified that he didn’t mean that dominance doesn’t exist in wolf groups in the wild. He is only saying that they’re not fighting for it [00:11:00] aggressively. And in any case, none of that really needs to bother us if we are dog people, because although dogs are descending from wolves and although dogs are very closely related to wolves, their social behaviors are very different.

So if we wanna understand dogs, we need to understand dogs.

And the handful of studies that have looked at dog social groups show that dogs actually have more intense social dominance than wolves do. Much more intense. And there’s even one study where wolf pups and dog pups were raised together. This was done in Germany some time ago. And the dog pups, these little poodles, are so assertive that they become dominant over the wolves. There’s no video of it, but the photographs are really funny to look at, these little poodle pups lording it over the larger wolf pups.

And anyway, a moment’s thought shows you that if you know the ethological definition of dominance–

Hannah Branigan: Can you define that? [00:12:00] Like when you’re saying dominance–

Dr. Clive Wynne: Yeah, absolutely. Hannah, you’re right to pull me on that point because it turns out this is why the astronomy/astrology thing popped into my head, because it turns out that one word is being used in very, very different senses in two different realms of human endeavor.

And I stumbled into this because I’m coming from the academic side, the ethology, the strict definition of dominance, which is defined as– So dominance exists in some social species.

Not all species are social. There are solitary species, even among the carnivores. Jackals are solitary. Coyotes are not anything like as social as wolves and dogs. So not all species are social. You have to be a social species.

And then among social species, there are different ways that a social group can organize [00:13:00] themselves. A social group can be egalitarian. That’s perfectly possible. But oftentimes because individuals in a social group differ in their ability to control resources, because of that, you get stratification, you get social high hierarchies.

And then once you acknowledge that there are often – not always, but often – hierarchies in social groups, these are hierarchies in control of resources, where “resources” to a biologist means things that matter to an individual’s biological success. So food and shelter, access to mates, both in the Australian sense of “buddies” and in the biological sense of “sexual partners,” protection of young, anything that enables you to control your life and what matters for your biological [00:14:00] success. If individuals differ in their ability to control those resources, then social hierarchies develop.

And when there are social hierarchies, we say that those who have more control over resources are dominant and those who have less control over resources are subordinate.

Now, that’s the ethological definition.

Nothing in there says that anybody has to be nasty to anybody else, right? So if you have a human family made up solely of human beings, the parents will be dominant over the children, right? The parents say, “We are sleeping here tonight. You are going to bed. Now you are going to eat this.” And the kiddie will say, “But I want more ice cream.” And the parent will say, “No, you’ve had enough ice cream,” right? The parent is controlling resources, but we hope they’re doing this in a loving and gentle way. Nothing about social dominance says anything about aggression. [00:15:00] 

Now, sadly, there are families where social dominance by parents is enforced with violence and threats of violence, but that’s a separate thing.

In most social species, most of the time, dominance is enforced sometimes through threats or signals of violence. You can raise your voice in a way that makes clear that you are the bigger, stronger one and people are better get in line or else. Or your boss– I mean, in this day and age, I think it’s pretty rare for boss to actually beat up their underlings, but they have forms of power. They can subtly make it clear that you won’t be getting a bonus at the end of the year or you won’t be getting a raise. Or maybe, if the company is downsizing, a boss can make it clear that if you don’t do what the boss wants, then you might be one [00:16:00] who hasn’t got a job next week. So that’s not physical violence.

Now that’s the ethological definition of dominance. But it’s clear that in the culture at large, the word “dominance” has many other meanings and that to most people who are not trained in animal behavior at a university, that these other senses of the word dominance are much more current.

And really what’s going on with Cesar Milan is that he’s using alpha and these kinds of terms, but I mean, the guy doesn’t have an education. He’s using intuition, which is a powerful thing. I’m sure he could train dogs better than I ever could. But he’s calling on common senses of what the word dominance means, where dominance is part of a kind of aggressive [00:17:00] masculinity, a physical power masculinity. I mean, not that women can’t buy into this as well, of course, and not that many men refuse to buy into it. But still in all, it’s part of a cultural concept that’s a masculine cultural concept of physical strength and violence. And when we’re talking about dogs, you know, having good biceps and being able to give your dog a nasty jerk on the leash. And that’s a whole different thing. That’s where I’m coming from. 

Hannah Branigan: Okay. That makes sense. So I think that kind of problem comes up a lot between kind of the official scientific definition of any term from any field and then borrowing that– Those things I think can evolve very separately and have no cross-talk.

Dr. Clive Wynne: Yeah, absolutely. This is a problem we have in behavior studies and in psychology that a lot of our [00:18:00] technical terms are everyday language terms and that has pros and cons. It means that people can grasp some level of what you mean without having to be overly instructed.

Other branches of science– My wife is a physicist engineer. Nobody has any intuitions about what a quark is or this kind of thing. And there are pros and cons.

I think as a professor, I’m a professional educator and so I’m not willing to let go of the term dominance. I’m not willing– I’ve had people say to me, “Well, what we should do is, since what you mean is closer to the lay concept of leadership, we won’t call it dominance when it’s dogs, we’ll call it leadership.” And I think it’s completely absurd. We’re gonna rewrite all the textbooks of ethology and say “We have this concept called dominance, except in dogs, where it’s called leadership.”

And then the second funny thing is that in my book, Dog Is Love: Why And How Our Dogs Love Us, [00:19:00] I do talk about what dominance means in ethology and how it’s closer to the everyday concept of leadership. And so the book has been translated into German and I had the German translator call me up because the Germans have their own problems with language, right? They have different issues with language. Each language has its own issues. And in German, the term dominance is okay, it’s the term leadership which is difficult, because it’s Führer, right? Hitler called himself der Führer. That word means leader. And so it means that any mention of leader and leadership has a nasty tinge to modern Germans. And so they were asking me if I had any ideas for any other words they could use instead of leadership.

So I’m determined. I think that what we do is that we recapture the term dominance and we teach people– I mean, people are not gonna make sense of their dogs– I mean professional dog trainers and whatever– They’re not gonna make sense if they don’t understand basic principles [00:20:00] of ethology. 

Hannah Branigan: Okay. So can I dig into the ethological side of it?

When we’re talking about dominance, you said the definition really hinges on hierarchy in terms of access to resources. Is that the same across all resources or is it different if we’re talking about food versus choice of sexual partners versus whatever resources are relevant for the natural history of that organism. 

Dr. Clive Wynne: Absolutely. So if we’re doing the general lecture on social hierarchy and dominance with no reference to any particular species, just talking in general, dominance can differ for different types of resources. Dominance can differ in different contexts. So all of all of that is possible and is true.

But nonetheless, if we [00:21:00] go back to talking about canids in general and dogs in particular, often an individual who is able to control one resource is controlling other resources as well. So you do – not inevitably, but you do tend to find stable dominance hierarchies across resource types and across contexts. Not a hundred percent stable – of course it’s not hundred percent stable – but it tends to hang together for some period of time. Of course, over time, the most dominant individual, the alpha may lose rank. That certainly happens over time. 

Hannah Branigan: Okay. That makes sense, because if I think about it for my species, our social hierarchy, there’s the like larger scale socioeconomic aspects and that does seem to apply. The more money I have – theoretically, I’ve never tried it – but the more access I would have to [00:22:00] all kinds of resources. Right?

But in other terms, like in a professional context, I might be a little higher up than I would be if I were to go somewhere to learn rock climbing or something where I don’t have any idea what I’m doing. I don’t know where things are. And so I would be looking to somebody else to tell me what to do and–

Dr. Clive Wynne: Absolutely. So our species, Hannah, the human species is exceptionally flexible in all sorts of different ways. So most of us have not just experience of being at different points in the social hierarchy in different contexts. So you can be as it were, the boss of your family. If you’re a parent of children, you have high status in your family, and yet you might go to work and find yourself at the bottom of the social totem pole in the work environment. And so it goes as we move between different environments.

It’s [00:23:00] not just that our standing in social hierarchies changes as we move from group to group, but also because humans are so amazingly flexible, the nature of the social hierarchy in different groups that we go to changes all the time. So your workplace for the sake of argument might be very, very stratified. It could be– maybe you are in the army for goodness sake, where each rank answers to the next rank in a very strict totem pole hierarchy. But then in the evening you go to some hobby and in the hobby environment, the social hierarchy may be very, very flat. It may be an egalitarian hobby environment. There’s no boss at the whatever the hobby might be, you know?

So for humans not only does our role in social hierarchies change as we move from group to group– Well, and for one thing, we move from group to group, which most species would not be doing that. Wolves would certainly almost never be moving [00:24:00] from group to group. So for us, we move from group to group with different levels in the hierarchies but also different kinds of hierarchies. Whereas that part is very unlikely to ever apply to any other species. Other species, it seems the nature of the hierarchies of their social groups is fairly fixed for the species. This has all been studied much, much more in monkeys than in carnivores. 

Hannah Branigan: Yeah, when I’ve read about– Like I’ve read… [searching for the name] He wrote Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Robert…?

Dr. Clive Wynne: Sapolsky!

Hannah Branigan: Yes, yes. He talks about baboons or something a lot in those books. The behaviors are often described in terms of aggression in primates. [00:25:00] But you said that it doesn’t necessarily have to be.

Dr. Clive Wynne: No. So let’s talk about wolves who have been fairly well studied.

When they were being studied in captivity, you were looking at a bunch of wolves who were thrown together in an enclosure in a zoo or whatever. Some of them might be related, but often they were unrelated. And they would fight it out. They would fight it out to the death if you let them, because that’s a very unnatural thing for wolves to be forced into proximity with a group of individuals who are not their close kin.

Then you get David Mech and others come along and of course you get technological development. So you can put like tracker collars on free living animals and so on. And you follow wolves around and you find out that wolf packs in the wild are just nuclear families. They’re just mom and dad and the offspring from this year and last years offspring and some of the offspring from the year before. And they don’t fight [00:26:00] at all. They’re not fighting for dominance at all. But they do respect the leadership of their parents, just like you find in a human family.

I mean, one of the really interesting things to me, Hannah, about all of this. We know that all of our dogs are descended from wolves. And maybe 20,000 years ago is when they started on that journey, which is no time at all in evolutionary terms. What is 20,000 years? Nothing! And we live with dogs. We don’t live with wolves. A few crazy people live with wolves. It’s not something I encourage. And we live with dogs and we live by and large, very happily, very comfortably, very seamlessly. I mean, there are occasional misunderstandings, but by and large– I mean, there are 80 million dogs in households in the United States! Clearly you don’t need any special skills to be able to live some kind of adequate, comfortable life with a dog. 

And yet, what we know about dogs’ social [00:27:00] structure, when dogs are living on their own, is very different from a human family. Whereas what we know about wolf social structure, when wolves live on their own, they are the ones that have human-like families. It’s really weird that one of the things that changed when certain wolves became dogs is their social structure when they live on their own changed. And yet it changed away from a recognizably human social structure. And yet when the dogs get into our homes, it works so tremendously well. That’s a paradox that people have not really noticed before, I think. 

Hannah Branigan: So when you’re saying like a human social structure, you mean like mom, dad and their 2.6 children.

Dr. Clive Wynne: Yeah. A classic nuclear family situation, which I know is not every possible human social structure. Of course, I know that.

It’s still all very curious that that classic nuclear [00:28:00] family is shared by humans and wolves and not shared with dogs. Dogs on their own don’t live in nuclear families. I’ve caused offense by having discussions about this, by pointing out that when male and female dogs get together to start a family – there’s no video so people didn’t see my scare quotes there, but I’m putting scare quotes around male and female dogs getting together to “start a family” – that there is no pair bonding in dogs. There’s no pair bonding in dogs. All those cute pictures of doggy weddings? If the humans weren’t there, the dogs wouldn’t be doing that. That’s entirely a human projection. Doggy fathers do just that absolute minimum that qualifies a male animal to become a father. And the truth is, doggy mothers also only do pretty much the minimum that a female mammal could [00:29:00] do to become a mother. She carries the young to term, she gives birth to them and then she nurses them. But even then, only for eight weeks. And then at the end of eight weeks, she’s off, she’s done. Which she has to! No moral judgment here. Nobody’s bringing her food to keep her going, so, yeah. 

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. So in these populations of dogs that you’re talking about, we’re talking about feral free-roaming dogs, so they were–

Dr. Clive Wynne: Yeah. Dogs whose behavior is as the dogs choose it to be and not taking the shape that humans impose. 

Hannah Branigan: So they would’ve originally come from a domesticated dog at some point, or–

Dr. Clive Wynne: Well, they are domesticated dogs. So, domestication is a process that takes place– it’s an evolutionary process. Domestication is just a name for a special case of evolution where an animal has evolved to get along with humans, not necessarily to [00:30:00] live inside a human home, but to be able to live in contexts or environments that are dominated by human beings.

So the vast majority of the world’s dogs do not live inside homes as pets. It’s very, very difficult to have any kind of precision on the numbers at all. But probably worldwide there are something like 1 billion dogs – perhaps not quite that many, but let’s say 1 billion because it’s a good round number. And of that 1 billion dogs, maybe 300 million, about 30%, live inside human homes as pets. That means that the majority of them, about 70%, are living outdoors. They’re living outdoors primarily in human dominated environments and primarily surviving by finding bits of food that humans leave lying around.

And you can imagine some kind of third world country where you can [00:31:00] imagine our ancestors have caught a wooly mammoth, there’s a lot of meat on a wooly mammoth. But within a few days there’s no refrigeration. It’s starting to go bad.

Hannah Branigan: Yes. And you can only carry a hundred pounds back to the wagon. 

Dr. Clive Wynne: There you go. So you know, it’s going off. So you can still imagine something like that for dogs. But I mean, the vast majority of dogs are actually in cities. I’m only three and a half hours drive from the Mexico border, if we were to drive over the Mexico border, there were dogs all over the place. These are cities, these are sophisticated people, but there’s trash and the dogs– I’ve seen dogs doing this in Moscow, in Russia, which is a pretty advanced city, but still in all, there’s enough food hanging around.

Anyway, so. There’s no clarity about the terminology. Do we wanna call them feral? Do we wanna call them just free living? I tend to say just free living. Their lives are not being controlled by human beings, but they are domesticated dogs. They can form relationships with people. If [00:32:00] you hang around on the streets of Moscow and have some treats with you, you can have a conversation with these dogs and they can be your friend.

But how they reproduce, that’s up to them. And when dogs are making their own decisions about reproduction, as I say, the fathers– well, both the fathers and the mothers, it’s sufficient to say that each partner does that absolute minimum that is necessary to create the next generation.

Hannah Branigan: So I’m thinking something must have happened, right? Like there has to be something about conditions that make it such that wolves would be more successful by maintaining that family unit, keeping their babies close and raising them and all the things that wolves do that is no longer in play when we transition into dogs. Or something else has come in where it not only doesn’t benefit, maybe it even is a [00:33:00] disadvantage to keep your kids close.

Dr. Clive Wynne: Absolutely. So, What do wolves do for a living? Wolves hunt, kill and eat large live prey. Deer, elk and whatever. Animals that do not want to become a wolf’s dinner and that have evolved over millions of years to be able to fend off attack by wolf. And so if you are a wolf parent, your wolf pup needs to be apprenticed into the family business.

And in fact, there are studies from Poland where east of the iron curtain, wolves were never eradicated, so there’ve always been plenty of wolves in Eastern Europe. And nowadays there are terrific scientists studying the wolves in Poland and what they find is that actually it’s so difficult hunting red deer, hunting roe deer, hunting whatever, that families/packs [00:34:00] specialize in just one species of prey. And then when the young, after a long apprenticeship, after a couple of years of life and they’re ready to go off and get married and start a family of their own, then they will seek out a mate who has grown up in a family hunting the exact same species of prey. Because it’s that difficult that if you are a Red Deer specialist, you wanna marry another Red Deer specialist. That whole Romeo and Juliet thing would be disastrous for wolves because if you came from different tribes, you wouldn’t be able to agree what to hunt and your hunting techniques wouldn’t be totally compatible.

So with wolves, wolves have to keep their young close and have to really apprentice their young into the family trade, whereas dogs, what do dogs eat? Dogs eat human trash. I’ve seen this in– well, I’ve seen it in Moscow. As I said, I’ve seen it in The Bahamas. [00:35:00] Both Moscow and The Bahamas, they’re not third world countries, but they’re not as wealthy as the United States and they don’t have such successful street cleanup as we take for granted in the United States and in Western Europe. And so you find in Nassau in The Bahamas, once you get away from where the cruise ships come in, you find just sort of mounds of trash by the side of the road. And there are dogs snuffling their way through these mounds of trash.

And I remember a box of KFC that a dog was exploring because there was still something left in it. And that box of KFC, it’s not gonna run away. It’s really easy to get at the KFC remnants or the whatever other food remnants are there. They’re really easy to get. You don’t need an apprenticeship from your parents to figure out how to do that.

Furthermore, when you found the little that’s left in one box of KFC, there’s not enough in there to share. When a family of wolves take down a deer, there’s [00:36:00] more than any one wolf could eat, so why not share it? Especially since your pack are your immediate family. Just like we share with our children. But for the dog, there’s not enough to share and so dogs can produce young much more rapidly than wolves. The females come into heat multiple times a year and the males are always sexually active. In wolves, females only come into heat once a year. Most people know that. But males are also only reproductively functional once a year. The remainder of the year, it’s not like if the male could find some female who happened to come into heat at the wrong time of year, he could have some fun with her. No, he’s not functional either. Whereas with dogs, the males can and do get up to whatever they want to with whoever’s available whenever she’s available, which could be pretty much any time of year. There’s some seasonality in some parts of the world where the climate varies greatly from summer to winter, but by and large.

[00:37:00] Anyway, so, absolutely the social structures of dogs differ from those of wolves because their foraging techniques differ greatly. And that is all part and parcel of how dogs have adapted and evolved to succeed in a human dominated environment.

So we humans, one of our telltale signs, “How do you know humans have been there? Because there’s a pile of trash.” That’s a telltale sign of the human species from the very beginning that we leave behind the gristly bits that we can’t eat ourselves. And of course, in modern times, many other things. And dogs are those wolves that adapted, that evolved to maximize what they get from that.

And as part of that, they lose a lot of the motivation that wolves have to all get along peacefully together. So a wolf [00:38:00] pack– Within a pack, you get very, very little aggression. Dog groups– It’s not really fair to talk of “dog packs,” or at least if we’re gonna talk of dog packs, we need to make clear that they’re very different from wolf packs, because dog groups are much more fluid, much, much, much more fluid. They are not families. I mean, not to say that they couldn’t have related individuals among them, but they’re not families in the same way that wolf packs are. And they’re very fluid. They come and go as they please. If there’s some kind of a resource center, like somebody dumps a big carcass, dogs will come together because there’s a resource. From the male perspective, when a female comes into heat, there’s a resource that will draw the males together. But by and large, if the resources are distributed like the trash in the streets of Nassau in The Bahamas, then the dogs will distribute. And they seem just as happy operating separated [00:39:00] from a group as when they operate as part of a group.

Hannah Branigan: That makes sense. Behavior is, among other things, a function of the environment and so when your conditions change, your behavior changes. And one of the things I think is the coolest about behavior is it really allows us to evolve as an individual. Like in a way that genetics takes generations and generations to play out. 

Dr. Clive Wynne: Absolutely. No, I think that’s enormously important to emphasize. Because when we are having a conversation as we just, where we’re talking about evolutionary processes, which are genetic processes, we mustn’t lose sight that the behavior that a particular individual shows in any particular moment– sure their genetic heritage has brought certain possibilities along, but what they’re doing here and now, that’s all about their personal experience, which is enormously important.

In the book, Dog Is Love, I talk about how I [00:40:00] read– You know that you can clone your dog now.

Hannah Branigan: Right, I have heard, if you’re sufficiently– I mean, again, comes back to your personal resources, because I understand it’s extremely expensive.

Dr. Clive Wynne: I’ve forgotten now, but in the book I say how much it cost and I’ve forgotten. It’s some tens of thousands of dollars.

Hannah Branigan: When I looked it up before, it was so not even remotely in my reach that like, it could be a million dollars at that point or 20 million. Right. It wouldn’t matter. 

Dr. Clive Wynne: It’s something only for the very wealthy. But I first heard about it because Barbara Streisand had her dog cloned and somehow people found out on social media or something and were commenting on it. And so she decided to write an essay for the New York Times about it. And I’m not a fan of Barbara Streisand as a singer. It’s not my style. But I have to say I was very impressed by this essay that she wrote. She’s no scientist, but she’s clearly an intelligent person. And what she was commenting on was–

So she had a [00:41:00] dog and she had I think three or four offspring. The cloning usually produces more than one offspring. And in this case, it produced three or four offspring, and she gave two of them away and she kept two of them. And what she wrote about was how the two offspring that she had, despite being genetically identical to the original dog that she’d had and of course to each other, and having been carried in the same mother’s womb and given birth at the same moment, never been separated in their whole lives, she said, “But they had completely different personalities!”

And not being a scientist, but being something of a poet, she said, “You can clone the look of a dog, but you can’t clone the soul.”

And I thought as such a beautiful, beautiful expression!

I wasn’t able to visit with Barbara Streisand, but I was able to find a guy local to me who had had his dog [00:42:00] cloned. And I went and visited with him. He’d had his dog cloned because she was 12 years old and he was worrying about how she wouldn’t have much longer and he was very sad to think he’d lose her. And so he thought, “Well, maybe I can get a perfect replacement by cloning her.” But the funny thing was, I went to visit him when the two cloned offspring that he got with two years old, but the mother dog was still alive. She was 14, a very old lady. So I was visiting with three genetically identical dogs, two of whom were genetically identical and carried in the same mother and given birth at the same moment and never been separated from each other their whole lives long and exactly the same age, and one was 12 years older.

The one who was 12 years older obviously behaved very differently. She was blind, she was clearly fairly deaf. She was an old lady dog. But again, just as Barbara Streisand said, the two twins [00:43:00] were actually completely different in personality. Not just subtly different, but very, very different, which surprised me actually.

But anyway, it’s just a great anecdote, a great way of underlining that genetics, genetic heritage, does that make a difference? Yes, it makes a difference. But still, in all, the actual personality, how an individual behaves in this moment is so much a part of micro details of the environment second by second, minute by minute, that even two individuals who were born from the same mother in more or less the same instant and have never been physically separated, can still end up with very different personalities.

Hannah Branigan: I both feel better that I will probably never be able to afford to clone my dogs while also feeling a little bit sad that if I should discover the rich uncle that I never knew about– Because you always have the fantasy of– Well, one, I don’t [00:44:00] ever want– I have an agreement with my personal dogs that they’re supposed to live to be at least 26. Like I’ve told them this.

Dr. Clive Wynne: And they’re on board with that!

Hannah Branigan: I hope so. But also, I always think, “Well, if finally I could go back, knowing what I know now about how to do better training and start over again with my first dogs that tolerated so much when I was still very, very– I still don’t know what I’m doing, but when I really didn’t know what I was doing at the time–”

So I guess, at least until we know more, I’ll have to put a pin in that and not count too much on cloning as giving me a chance to do over with that same dog. 

Dr. Clive Wynne: So there are a few things that seem like they ought to be a good idea, but are really not a good idea. So like having a pet wolf is not a good idea. And cloning your dog is not a good idea. If you had those kind of resources, it wouldn’t be the best way to invest them even in doing good for [00:45:00] dogs, nevermind doing good for the world at large. 

Hannah Branigan: I agree with that. So one of the concerns I think that I have as a trainer working with folks and maybe coming from the side of those who were a little put off by the statement you made on Facebook about dominance–

Because what I’ve encountered a lot is I think the belief that dominance is a characteristic of the dog. And so like you’ll see people say, “Oh, this dog is very dominant,” or “dominate,” or the word spelling gets fuzzy in some of these conversations, especially on the internet. But my understanding from the zoology classes that I took a long time ago was that it was really a very relative kind of [00:46:00] term.

And so we can get potentially misleading and definitely problematic from a training standpoint if we assign the label of “dominant” to a dog in abstract, like in isolation. Because then once the dog owns that label or is assigned that label, now he’s more likely to be subject to aversive training practices, right? Because we interpret dominance as aggression or aggression based, even if we’re not necessarily using that language. So I’ve seen people, breeders even, describe a litter puppies they’re watching play and this one particular puppy is getting very humpy. They’ll say, “Well, he’s really dominant, so you’re gonna be really firm with him” based on the humping of other puppies and I’ve brought that humpy puppy home and found that, “Oh, he’s kind of challenging [00:47:00] around food and around the beds and sofas and things.” And I’ve also brought the humpy puppy home and found that not to be the case at all.

So is dominant something that they come with? Like if you’re a dominant individual, are you A Dominant Individual like how you have black fur or sable fur? Or is it something that is more changeable? 

Dr. Clive Wynne: Well that’s a great point. I’ve had people want to tell me that dominance is not a personality characteristic, but that’s not really a very helpful thing to say because it’s true that the dominance is a property of social relationships so it’s not correct to refer to it as a quality of an individual. But still in all, dominance in social relationships stems from qualities of individuals, right? So a assertiveness is a quality of an individual which could lead to dominance in social relationships.

So [00:48:00] your example of the puppies in a litter: puppies in a litter are in a social relationship. And it’s a hierarchical one, it’s most likely. I’m not sure I know of any scientific studies, but I think it’s a reasonable supposition that the puppies social relationship includes a hierarchy and that there will be dominant puppies and subordinate puppies in a litter.

How does a puppy get to be dominant? What does it mean for a puppy to be dominant? He or she gets to be dominant because he’s bigger, stronger or just has his brain wired in such a way that he’s willing to snap at others. What does it mean that he has achieved social dominance? It means that he has greater access to resources, which is to say the mother. So in the fight for the teats, a dominant individual will fight harder and will win that battle, which ultimately is a battle of life and death. Right? If we weren’t there to intervene some puppies, indeed, in street dogs in [00:49:00] India, most puppies die in most litters, right? Studies out of Calcutta. So this is real pure biology.

But anyway, we’re not talking about street dogs on the streets of Calcutta. We’re talking about dogs being raised in human households, where human beings are gonna intervene and make sure the runt doesn’t die, make sure that subordinates still get their chance.

And then these puppies are gonna be lifted up, separated, and brought into human homes. Now who controls the resources? Now what does the dog– What are the dog’s opportunities to assert him or herself and to potentially compete for dominance?

Well, the thing is, in a human home, we human beings have such utter and complete control over all of the resources that our dogs want that even the most dominant little puppy in the litter, if he’s not an [00:50:00] idiot, will quickly learn that if you want food, if you want shelter, if you want comfort from things you perceive as threats, the only way you’re gonna get those is through negotiation with the human who has magical, mystical powers over everything that matters to you.

Hannah Branigan: So when we’re measuring dominance, is it measured based on how many bones you get? I’m just gonna use bones as like a unit of resource. Or is it measured by how often you’re displaying a particular category of behaviors? Or is it something else? 

Dr. Clive Wynne: It’s the former. It’s your success in accessing resources. And your ability to control other individuals’ access to resources.

So I am completely and utterly dominant over this dog lying at my feet because there’s nothing she can have [00:51:00] without my giving it to her. That’s her only way of getting anything. She’s a prisoner in this room right now. She could only get out– She couldn’t leave this– She would die in this room if I don’t let her out of it, right?

So Darwin said, do you know this? Darwin said– Actually he was quoting and endorsing somebody else who said that a dog looks on his master as on a God. Which Darwin said in 1872, when it must have been a pretty darn shocking thing to say because it still is kind of shocking today. He has a bit in The Descent of Man where he talks about the possibility that love of God might be an evolved trait and he says, “you know, maybe our dogs look on us as gods.”

And I think that that’s a good way of capturing how we have this utter and complete control over everything that matters in their lives. And that’s how [00:52:00] they look at us. 

Hannah Branigan: So if we’re defining– I’m kind of laughing on these. It’s like my terrier looks at me in a very judgmental way that I don’t think has a religious tone to it.

But back to your actual point. So if we’re measuring dominance based on like actual units of resource acquired, it has to be outcome based. There seems to be like room for learning and skill development within that. So I could totally see–

Like of course it makes a great deal of sense if you are the puppy in the litter that you had a bigger blood supply in the uterus and so you grew a little bit bigger because you had more nutrients at the time and even though things are gonna physically probably even out by the time everybody gets to adulthood, you come out and you’re a little bigger, a little stronger. And so when you’re [00:53:00] experiencing a particular level of hungriness, when you act on that, you’re going to be more successful in the moment of pushing away the other puppies to get to the better mammary.

Whereas you could have another puppy who is even more hungrier –I don’t know – but wasn’t as strong, goes to try to push to get to the better nipple but isn’t successful because he’s not strong enough to use the bulldozer technique, but maybe he uses a different technique and comes over her leg and worms down from a different angle. And so now he has this strategy for achieving his resource. That could look less aggressive than a bulldozer puppy. But either way, whatever strategy they try that works that meets the function, that’s gonna be reinforced and so those skills are gonna develop over [00:54:00] time.

Dr. Clive Wynne: Right. So this is where the two meanings of dominance clash. Because in the ethological definition of dominance, it doesn’t matter how you get to these resources. I mean, think about human environments where very puny people become extremely powerful because of their ingenuity in accessing resources in some ingenious rather than forceful way.

So the intersection of the ethological definition of dominance and the lay meaning of the term dominance, which almost inevitably– as I say, it’s part of this nasty masculinity, the social construct that we have of “you’ve gotta be mean to be strong” and so on and so on.

In ethology, in animal behavior, it doesn’t matter what technique you use to get the resources that you want. All that matters is that you get the resources that you want or need. The ethological term dominance [00:55:00] doesn’t carry with it any implication of aggression or physical force or whatever.

Of course, in many, many species, much of the time, that’s all they have, right? That’s all they have. They don’t have the massive brain that we humans carry around that enables– But so an example like you gave, if one pup can by ingenuity get the nutrition that he needs and outcompete a more vicious but less clever pup, then yeah, the ingenious pup is the dominant one. 

Hannah Branigan: Okay. So we’re kind of back to: the outcome is gonna be a combination of things that can be heritable or heritable to some degree like size, how pointy their muzzle, like, I don’t know, maybe longer muzzles or certain muzzle shape puts them in better advantage for whatever the thing is–

So you mentioned assertiveness before, which we could probably operationalize that in a couple of different [00:56:00] ways, I guess, but like some element of confidence versus fearfulness is usually presumed to have a genetic component to it. Not fully heritable, but pieces of it are. And then you try the thing, you get access to the resource, you get more fluent at the behaviors that make you better at getting access to resources. And those things together are what would determine your position on this hierarchy? 

Dr. Clive Wynne: Right. And so that goes on in in human households with dogs too, where dogs learn techniques to get their humans to give them a bit extra or something more attractive. The puppy dog eyes while you are eating dinner. You can always tell when you visit a home where the dogs have been fed from the table because the dogs always come and pester you at the table. And they [00:57:00] have various strategies and techniques.

Generally speaking, the more openly aggressive techniques are the least successful, because people don’t like it when their dogs growl at them while they’re having dinner. But if the dog just looks mournfully, that can be a more successful strategy in getting food out of humans.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. And we can decide– We can determine which behaviors we choose– I mean, that’s a big part of what I do with my child right? What are the behaviors that I would like to see around meals? And so the first several years of her life, a lot of my effort goes into that. Obviously I’m not gonna withhold food from either a kid or a dog with the express reason of getting specific behaviors, but I’m going to shape some behaviors.

Dr. Clive Wynne: So you and I both, people like us who are educated in this field, with our [00:58:00] dogs and children, we’re trying to self-consciously shape desirable behaviors by methods that we believe are effective and ethical.

And then meanwhile, we also, from time to time, experience what everybody experiences, which is just what the reactions are that come without much thought. And somehow our lives are some interaction with those two things. 

I’m very fortunate my dog came to us perfect. So we’ve never trained her to do– I mean, I say this as a joke, but it’s almost true. It’s almost true how easy she is to deal with. But I mean, we never fed her from the table and so she’s never pestered us at the table.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. But the wanting, like the desiring the resource, that’s not inherently dominant or submissive in nature.

Dr. Clive Wynne: Wow. But I don’t know, Hannah, that we know what our dogs desire [00:59:00] besides what they show overt behavior to try and acquire. And given our total control– I could attempt to convince somebody that my dog is not interested in my dinner. Because over the course of a decade of never, ever, ever being fed from the table, she just doesn’t even try. But I think it might be a mistake to say that she doesn’t harbor some desire for my dinner in preference to her dog kibble.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. Well, I’m wondering– She probably wants– I mean, food’s a very important resource for survival of the individual as well as the population. Oh, it’s so sticky to use words like “wants” or “likes” or “desires” because I don’t know what I like– That’s complicated.

But [01:00:00] where my mind is wandering around trying to make a thought here is someone might describe like, “Oh, the dog is barking at people while they’re eating or nudging them while they’re at the dining room table. And then he is trying to be dominant.” I guess by this definition, he is trying to access that resource. But I’m wondering like: you can want the food– I’ll just use “want” as just a shorthand. You want the food, you want the sex, you want the soft beds, but it’s having the skills to access those – priority access really is what we’re talking about from a social standpoint.

Dr. Clive Wynne: So can we zoom out for a moment. [01:01:00] Because I’m coming to you as the one making the claim that there is a scientific background and a scientific perspective and scientific information that we, meaning the kind of people that listen to a podcast like this who are pretty seriously interested in their dog’s behavior, that we should be bringing into this. And what I’ve said is that dominance hierarchies in social animals, it’s like so boring. You can’t make the students stay awake. It’s so well established that it’s uncontroversial. Then we move to wolves and dogs where there ha where there is controversy.

And I claimed – and this is true – that there are very few, oddly few studies on the social organization of groups of dogs. And I’m not aware of any decent study, not a single one, on the social organization of human/dog mixed social [01:02:00] groups, despite the fact that there are 80 million dogs living like that in the United States and maybe 300 million dogs living like that in the world. And that this matters to people because it brings a great deal of pleasure into their lives and occasionally some truly awful pain into their lives. So there are stakes, there’s something at stake here.

And even though we are living in a beautiful period of ever expanding scientific studies of dog behavior, oddly the social organization of dog/human households is a total blind spot.

So what do we know? There are like three decent studies on dogs living in groups of dogs. And there, they have very, very extreme social hierarchies, astonishingly severe, and I mentioned that. So then they come into human households. And in human households, they live so peacefully with us, by and large. I know that there are– When something bad happens, it [01:03:00] can be very, very bad. But there are only 36 people a year in the United States killed by dogs, which is very, very, very few. 80 million dogs killed 36 people. If the 80 million dogs in the United States were 80 million human beings, they would kill thousands and thousands of people, right? I forget what the number was. I did work out the number, and it’s a much, much bigger number than 36, like thousands and thousands.

So what’s going on when dogs get into human households? Why do we get along so well? I think that’s actually a mystery and I think it’s really weird that it’s a central mystery of modern life with dogs and we are not studying it and we don’t really understand it.

All I can say with some level of scientific certitude [01:04:00] is that the dogs living with dogs have strong social hierarchies, dogs coming to human households and everything is there for them to perceive us as very, very dominant indeed, as like super dominant in the ecological sense because we have this utter and complete control over everything. They can’t even do bathroom operations without coming and asking our permission first to go to the right place to do that. I mean, you might have a doggy door, but by and large your dog has to negotiate even toileting functions, nevermind food. And you know, as for sex… right? I mean we control– 

So that’s why I think that Darwin’s comment about dogs looking on people as if they’re gods has something in it.

Now, I hate to concede anything to Cesar Milan. I absolutely hate to [01:05:00] concede anything to him and I hate to concede anything to this toxic masculinity that lies behind this macho dominance thing. And yet, I think that there are some occasions– Like I’ve almost never watched an episode of the Cesar Milan thing, but I did watch one just so that I knew what I was up against, as it were, and the one I watched was a really old couple with a dog that was forever snapping at them. Now his interpretation and his solution was complete nonsense because his solution was that he comes in with his wonderful biceps and he just beats these dogs around and jerks them around until they’re intimidated and they’re “calm.”

Now, in all probability, once the dogs are back with the elderly couple, the problem will bounce straight back. But I do think that it is possible that under certain conditions with humans of who haven’t got [01:06:00] typical human strength and they’ve somehow got themselves a powerful young dog, that actually there could potentially be competition for dominance in those situations.

Now what does that then mean for a program of remediation? Well, obviously as I’ve already said, Milan’s “bring in the masculinity, bring in the biceps, bring the kicking and the jerking and whatever” is completely stupid, right? It’s clearly the case that only informed operant positive reinforcement is gonna work in that situation.

But I grudgingly concede that if you entirely ignore the possibility that there could be competition for resources in a mixed human dog household, I think one could be missing something.

Hannah Branigan: So I think I’m struggling to or I’m trying to make sure that I’m separating my [01:07:00] baggage around the language. Because when I push that to the side, that makes sense. Like I’m thinking about– In my house, I have two different dogs, a terrier and a border collie, and I love them both. And one of the jokes that I make, which is kind of not really a joke, is that Rugby, my terrier, is very good at getting his needs met. He doesn’t really need me and I’ve spent most of his life trying to convince him that he should need me and that I provide value. And on the other hand, my border collie Figment is very much the opposite. He looks to me all the time.

For all that they’re border collie and border terrier, they’re genetically developed for very different purposes with humans. And should [01:08:00] something happen – alien abduction, the rapture or whatever– I mean, if there’s rapture, nope, I’m not going anywhere, but should I be taken up suddenly? My joke is Rugby would be fine. He’d wait probably a few hours to see if I was gonna come back, but when I didn’t, he’d figure out a way out of the house and he’d go out, go crittering and survive on prey and garbage and whatnot. And Figment would probably die next to the tupperware that his kibble is stored in. 

And so I’ve not had to work that hard– He’s had other challenges, but not in convincing him that I have value for him. So that absolutely informs how I’ve approached each of their training differently and how hard I have to work to manage Rugby’s environment so that he doesn’t automatically help himself to whatever [01:09:00] the resource is. And he’s never really coming at that with any kind of aggressive behavior. He just climbs on things, can open lids of stuff. He is very, very, very smart and very persistent and very– I don’t know if I’m going off track, but he has very diverse tastes, so things that he’s willing to survive on are much, much broader than Fig.

So that makes sense. And what I wasn’t doing a very good job of articulating is around your example of an older couple is great, because I do seem to work with, at times, folks who, like they’ve always had german shepherds and then their 16 year old german shepherd passed and they decide that they’re gonna get a new german shepherd puppy from working lines, but now they’re in their seventies.[01:10:00]  And that’s a fairly common scenario and a problem. But then if we combine that with – again, that kind of cultural interpretation of dominance as requiring aggression, but then effective aggression is either going to have a physical strength component or you’re gonna need to use some kind of tool to make up that difference. But if we go back to, really it’s just about the accessing the resources, it’s not about how you’re accessing the resources, then now we have more room to um, to be clever and–

Dr. Clive Wynne: Absolutely. So terriers are very interesting, Hannah. Terriers are the only breed group who can consistently hunt enough to keep themselves alive. Actual hunting of live prey. Now of course, you’re talking about very small live prey, but terriers are not very big [01:11:00] anyway. And they’re very good at it. The ratters, the rat terriers.

Hannah Branigan: He’s very good at it.

Dr. Clive Wynne: But even though I would think living inside your household, you presumably don’t have that many rats running around the house.

Hannah Branigan: No, but there are, this time of year in particular, we have rabbits in the backyard and also moles. And he loves a mole. 

Dr. Clive Wynne: Well, that’s interesting. If he lived here with me in the desert in Arizona, in a suburb with a much smaller backyard by the sound of it, then he wouldn’t be able to do it. He wouldn’t be able to get enough prey. So I think his confidence in his ability to feed himself would decline. And so he might pay more attention to the human in the household.

The other thing is that if he started hunting scorpions, he might not last that long. That’s the sort of largest prey in our backyard. But there, punishment [01:12:00] is an effective learning tool. Our poor dog got stung by a scorpion once and she’s never gone after one again. But I’m going off track.

So it’s very interesting, but relatively rare for someone in a first world urban environment to have a dog that can actually find his own way to fulfill his needs. So his sense that you are a God may be less than other dogs’ senses.

But yeah, the thing is, I’m not able to offer much of a solution. I don’t know how we find– I think the professionals, people seriously interested in dog behavior need to be aware of the concept of dominance and that yes, it has relevance, but then what do we do with that?

I think we could say to the elderly couple who have gotten themselves a young dog [01:13:00] that is too energetic for them and where some sense the dog may be developing– maybe attempting to jostle for social position is a possibility. I think, well, first of all, we could try and advise people not to get dogs that don’t fit into their lifestyles, but that can be difficult.

And then we can talk about, well, how do we control this dog’s access to resources, which after all, operant conditioning, positive reinforcement is access to resources! It’s every bit as much– You are every bit as dominant over your dog if you are handing treats out of a treat bag as if you were jerking the dog on a prong collar with your powerful biceps. There are feminine ways of being dominant, just as there are unpleasantly masculine ways of being dominant.

Hannah Branigan: That was sort of what I was thinking, just in order to hear what you’re saying. Because again, I think it makes sense and I can hear that better if I’m thinking, “Oh, well this isn’t just about [01:14:00] force. It’s not about you being– it’s about access to resources.” And so then I can separate those two ideas in my mind and right now we can have a common agreement to talk from. 

Dr. Clive Wynne: And so if it were a problem – it doesn’t actually sound like it’s a problem. But if Rugby’s behavior is a problem, then you can exert your dominance over him by controlling his access to the backyard where there’s the supreme pleasure of chasing… what did you say was out there? Rabbits and something else? 

Hannah Branigan: Moles were coming up as the grubs come up and then now we have rabbits. They won’t– Like, there’s a natural selection aspect there, but as the young rabbits are moving around, some will find their way into the yard and they will not find their way out.

Yeah. [01:15:00] And it’s not something at this point– We’ve been working together for quite a while and for the most part, we have an agreement. I am able to get what I need from our relationship and he gets what he needs, so that’s fine. It’s just having had several herding dogs in a row and then a terrier, I had to rethink my assumptions and I had to really look at things from a different perspective and I had to get a better fence installed. 

So I guess I just have one more question that I had written down that is kind of in this area of trying to negotiate that balance between a lot of our concerns working in the field, in the industry with this… Is there a sense or is this something that’s even like measured in any species, not just dogs, in terms of like how [01:16:00] much behavior– how much of an animal’s behavior is socially motivated, is like coming from the function of dominance? I mean, one of the ways that we can get frustrated trying to talk to people who are very much promoting “the dominance model” (I’m gonna use the air quotes there) in training dogs in homes, is that everything– If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

And so now everything that the dog does is dominance. How does that play out? 

Dr. Clive Wynne: Well, so I’m not a dog trainer. As I said, my dog perfect which is good because I wouldn’t know how to fix her.

So my sense is that talk about dominance in dog trainers, in people trying to modify dog behavior, is completely unhelpful. It’s very interesting to me as a scientist. I wanna understand the structure of human/dog social structures, [01:17:00] social groups. But if you’re coming to an elderly couple who’ve got a dog that’s too much for them, then… If they’re coming to you having picked up from television or wherever else some nonsensical BS about dominance, I would just try and gently move their vocabulary away from that and just concentrate on what are the specific behavioral problems and what are the interventions that can effectively control those problems.

And if they keep wanting to talk about dominance, maybe lead them towards a notion of leadership, which is closer ultimately to the ethological concept of dominance than is the Cesar Milan concept of dominance. 

Hannah Branigan: Okay. For sure. And I think that’s very much what we tend to do. And I think– And maybe this is a good place to kind of tie it together, that what I’m understanding [01:18:00] from this conversation is that– I come from a clicker training background, positive reinforcement, yes. But also when I’m approaching behavior, I am looking at – like you just said – the specifics of it. Like what are the ABCs, the antecedent, the behavior, the consequence? What are the stimuli in the environment that are eliciting the behavior and what are the consequences that are maintaining it? And then how can I manipulate the conditions to get behavior that I want and minimize behavior that I would rather not have.

And I think the way that I originally learned was that it’s an either/or. It’s either dominance based training, which has none of that. It’s all about whatever your dog is doing that you don’t like, that’s dominance. And the way that you handle that is with leashes and, and body pressure and varying degrees [01:19:00] of force and maybe electric collars and things like that. Or you are looking at antecedents and reinforcers and behaviors and on a more specific level.

I think what I’m getting from this is that it’s not one or the other. They’re different ways of describing potentially the same thing, like they’re not exclusive.

Dr. Clive Wynne: I think that’s right. And I think in a successful human/dog relationship, the human is dominant. But the human is– I’m dominant over this pup here and I’ve never done anything nasty to her that I can think of. It’s all about showing her the way. She knows I control all the resources and she respects me appropriately without my ever– I don’t have the strength of a Cesar Milan, so I’m not doing anything to her that hurts. It’s all about, and as you say, [01:20:00] antecedents, the behavior, the consequences. There’s the technology that works! And spin whatever story you need to to get people to grasp that.

And if dominance is a conceptual language that’s very familiar to them and that they insist on, well then tell them what I say: that yeah, your dog understands that you are dominant. Your dog thinks of you as almost like a God, depending on their religious background, how they would take that. And so it’s up to you. You control everything. Absolutely everything to an amazing degree. And that is how you will show your dog the way you can live together comfortably for all parties by controlling consequences.

Hannah Branigan: So to take it back to your Facebook post, we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can [01:21:00] acknowledge that dogs do have these social hierarchies. And when we’re training them, it doesn’t necessarily change what we’re already doing.

Dr. Clive Wynne: Exactly. But the thing is I’ve met trainers who want to categorically deny that dogs experience social dominance. And that runs so obviously against everyday experience of our dogs looking up to us and us controlling what our dogs can do and can have, that if you say something that’s so obviously counterfactual, you’re gonna have a hard time convincing people of anything.

Hannah Branigan: Yes. I think that that makes– Now we’ve got there, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, I believe that you know what you’re talking about. I’ve read your writing, I’ve seen you present and speak in person. So I think there probably is something to anything that you’re [01:22:00] saying on your area of expertise. And so I would like to understand it. And I’ve encountered exactly what you’re describing where now I can’t hear any use of that term because of my own baggage and my learning history. And like, okay, well I know you have dogdom’s best interest in your mind, and so do I, and so does anybody listening to this. Nobody is spending this long listening to a dog training podcast that isn’t really passionate about animals and learning and behavior.

And that’s where I would come from. It’s like, “well, I’ve mapped that language with this experience.” And so yeah, my instinct is, “Oh no, he didn’t say that!” because I couldn’t like psychologically bring those– hold those two things together. But now I think I can and that makes [01:23:00] sense.

I think that’s something that– Just like we might look at behavior from a neuroscience level and that can be true from that level of analysis and then using this language, these models, that’s true. And that level. And none of those things are mutually exclusive from looking at it from a more of a behavior analytic perspective that can also be valid.

So it’s not one or the other. You don’t have to pick. 

Dr. Clive Wynne: I mean I’m very much about– There was a generation before me, the generation when I was in college, where behavior analytic attempts to explain behavior and ethological attempts to explain behavior viewed themselves as totally at loggerheads. And I’m very, very much about, “we are not gonna– it’s not sports. You don’t pick a team and remain loyal to your team, whether they win or lose.” It’s about taking the most useful concepts from whatever school of science they come from.

And the funny thing is, that although in the 1950s and 1960s and [01:24:00] the 1970s to a degree, the ethologists and the behavioral analysts were at loggerheads, in fact, from today’s perspective, in the full range of different ways of talking about behavior, they’re actually very, very compatible.

I mean, there’s a sense in which the ethologists were always very, very behaviorist, you know? They resisted mental concepts and even cognitive concepts to a large degree. And so it’s not at all difficult to meld the two together, but it takes a bit of effort and a bit of thought, and they’re still taught as somewhat independent schools.

Hannah Branigan: No, that makes sense. I mean, we’re humans. The world is a continuous place and we’re trying to describe what we see because we’re rather desperate to understand how the world works. So – exactly like you said – what aspects of this are useful for me in application.

Yeah. Awesome. 

Dr. Clive Wynne: Good, good. Well, this was fun. 

Hannah Branigan: [01:25:00] Yeah. This was awesome. Thank you for taking me on this journey. I really enjoyed it.

Dr. Clive Wynne: Oh, well good. Well, I had fun too. So you’re telling me that we have met in person or we’ve been in the same room?

Hannah Branigan: Yes! You presented I think at APDT for sure.

Dr. Clive Wynne: Yeah, I’ve done that a couple of times.

Hannah Branigan: Like at least some years– Time is a construct. But some years ago. And I think at Clicker Expo?

Dr. Clive Wynne: Yeah, I’ve been at Clicker Expo a couple of times. 

Hannah Branigan: Yeah. So I’m usually at one or the other, but I’ve been at Clicker Expo for the last ten years or longer.

Dr. Clive Wynne: Well, next time you must introduce yourself so that we meet in person. That would be really nice.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah, I definitely will.


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