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Dominance: What is Social Tolerance and Why Should I Care?
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Dominance: What is Social Tolerance and Why Should I Care?

Last Friday I introduced a new member to Mickey Stilwell’s adolescent class. The dogs were spread over ½ acre and were walking calmly in random patterns.  All the dogs were high drive working breeds. The new student was asking when the class would start. I smiled, ‘it has.’

What these dogs were learning was to ignore other dogs. They were learning that it is okay a dog is walking directly towards your dog, and makes eye contact.  If another dog is panicking, or over excited, your dog doesn’t need to ‘act out’.

This new student’s dog was walking quietly within 20 minutes. I explained that this class was working on Social Tolerance. Another way to label this is ‘Dog-Dog tolerance’.

It’s well known that domestic dogs form dominance relationships, with many researchers noting that the hierarchies that are formed are linear (for further discussion please see “Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate” and many links therein). In a linear hierarchy, if individual A dominates (>) B, and B > C, then A > C. There are no circular relationships such as C > A. In dogs and other animals, as few as three dogs can form a linear hierarchy, despite claims that it takes six or more individuals to do so. 

Intragroup agonistic interactions in free-ranging dogs are usually characterized by low-intensity aggression, which is consistent with the fact that they are cooperative carnivores. Moreover, our preliminary dog–wolf comparison contradicts the view that domestication has reduced social tolerance in dogs relative to wolves. Future studies should explore the meaning of “unknown relationships” in free-ranging dogs. If egalitarian/unresolved relationships actually exist in free-ranging dog packs, then we should conclude that a linear hierarchy model is just an approximate one (although effective) to describe the social structure of these animals.

Dominance Aggression is Related to Age

Your puppy is not aggressive, because it is socially ‘limited’. It doesn’t have the physical ability to be aggressive. This changes when the dog becomes 18 months, 2 years, or 3 years old. You cannot let a dog ‘ride’ and ‘do its own thing’ for 18 months and then ‘hope’ that the problem can fixed. You have let your dog bully you all its life, act out, and be pushy. Your dog isn’t going to want to change now.

So, as a result of this very detailed analysis, we learn that age-graded linear hierarchies are common — dominance is correlated with age — and potentially injurious fighting among free-ranging dogs is very rare. Related to the lack of fighting, we also now know when dogs growl in serious contests they do so honestly, likely telling others that they mean what they say. During play, this is not the case (for more details please see “Dogs Growl Honestly and Women Understand Better Than Men“). The researchers in the study of growling conclude (link is external), “Our results indicate that dogs may communicate honestly their size and inner state in a serious contest situation, while manipulatively in more uncertain defensive and playful contexts.” 

Dominance Aggression is Related to Communication

If your dog cannot communicate with you then it will not understand its boundaries.  Most dogs with behavior problems have a vocabulary under 10 words.  Social tolerance is linked to communication and understanding. The more cognitive a dog is, the less emotional it is. Or, the more a dog responds without corrections, the less aggressive it is.  

What is Social Tolerance – For Dogs

Social intolerance is an intolerance towards ideas (What the dog wants) or ways different from what makes the dog feel good. It is characterized by avoidance behaviors, refusal to obey or work with its owner, fighting/bullying the owner, or aggression.  

In dogs, it can be related to the dog’s needs. If the dog is fearful it may not tolerate going for a walk. It may lunge and pull.  If the dog is frustrated/stressed because it is locked in the house too much and/or not exercised then it might start chasing the cat.

Teaching a dog social tolerance is teaching it ‘stress coping skills’ so that it can relax and enjoy life in our homes, instead of having to endure, or suffer in our homes. We see many dogs that do not want to go for a walk. The dog fears other dogs. It has never been taught that it doesn’t need to worry about being attacked. So this dog pulls, lunges, barks, and ‘acts out’  The dog has low ‘tolerance’ to its environment.

So, in many ways, ignoring social tolerance in your dog’s early stages (8 – 16 weeks, 6 – 9 months, 12 – 18 months) is the foundation of many behavior and training problems.

How to Improve Your Dog’s Social Tolerance

I’ve addressed this in many socializing articles. But the most important is to treat your puppy in a way that teaches it how to act when the dog is 3 years old. If you want a calm dog, then raise a calm puppy.  Puppies, like children, need to be ‘expected’ to demonstrate polite manners when around others.

HOW do you teach this? It is easy. You start ‘before’ your puppy is displaying bad behaviors. You take the puppy out into the world and around things that it might have a problem with, and you play with it. You don’t force it to engage with scary things. In fact, if your puppy is showing any stress then move farther away, and play with your puppy.  And, keep your puppy in classes for 18 months. It can be any type of class from obedience, rally, or search and rescue, drug detection, or therapy dog programs.

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