Dominance is a descriptive term for the relationship between pairs of individuals. Among ethologists, dominance has been defined as ‘‘an attribute of the pattern of repeated, atagonistic interactions between two individuals, characterized by a consistent outcome in favor of the same dyad member and a default yielding response of its opponent rather than escalation. The status of the consistent winner is dominant and that of the loser subordinate.’’ Another definition is that a dominant animal has priority of access to resources. Dominance is a relative attribute, not absolute; there is no reason to assume that a high-ranking individual in one group would also become high ranking if moved to another. Nor is there any good evidence that ‘‘dominance’’ is a lifelong character trait. Competitive behavior characterized by confident (e.g. growl, inhibited bite, stand over, stare at, chase, bark at) and submissive (e.g. crouch, avoid, displacement lick/yawn, run away) patterns exchanged.
Domestic dogs appear to pay little attention to relative size, despite the large weight differences between the largest and smallest individuals; for example, size was not a predictor of the outcome of encounters between dogs meeting while being exercised by their owners nor was size correlated with neutered male dogs. Therefore, many dogs do not appear to pay much attention to the actual fighting ability of their opponent, presumably allowing differences in motivation (how much the dog values the resource) and perceived motivation (what the behavior of the other dog signifies about the likelihood that it will escalate) to play a much greater role.
Two dogs that are contesting possession of a highly valued resource for the first time, if one is in a state of emotional arousal, in pain; if reactivity is influenced by recent endocrine changes, or motivational states such as hunger, then the outcome of the interaction may be different than if none of these factors were present. Equally, the threshold at which aggression is shown may be influenced by a range of medical factors, or, in some cases, precipitated entirely by pathological disorders. Hence, the contextual and physiological factors present when 2 dogs first encounter each other may profoundly influence the long-term nature of the relationship between those dogs. The complexity of the factors involved in this type of learning means that dogs may develop different ‘‘expectations’’ about the likely response of another individual for each resource in a range of different situations. Puppies learn early not to challenge an older dog and this respect stays with them into adulthood. When adult animals meet for the first time, they have no expectations of the behavior of the other: they will both, therefore, be initially anxious and vigilant in this encounter (characterized by the tense body posture and sudden movements typically seen when 2 dogs first meet), until they start to be able to predict the responses of the other individual. The outcome of these early adult–adult interactions will be influenced by the specific factors present at the time of the initial encounters. As well as contextual and physiological factors, the previous experiences of each member of the dyad of other dogs will also influence their behavior.
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