Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hierarchies and Stress

I am much more interested in dogs than primates, but primates are great for researching hierarchies. The more I studied the works of scientists like DeWaal, Sapolsky and Tiger/Fox, the more I am convinced that hierarchical rules are such a primate thing. We humans have quite an obsession with it. I mean, we even invented gods so that the top honchos have someone to heed to.
That the hierarchical social system is the natural one for dogs is the foundation of the alpha-dominance ideology. Its proponents state that our companion dogs are by nature status seeking predators, out to topple us and others, and thereby must be kept in check with corrections, pinning, alpha roles and mock knuckle bites. Even if that were the case, which I question and I’ll pick that topic up again in a future post, here is some food for thought.

Robert Sapolsky is a Harvard graduate, Stanford University professor, author and world-renowned neuroendocrinologist who specializes in stress.
An easy way to determine stress levels is to measure glucocorticoid hormone output in urine, and that was part of what Sapolski did during his research over several decades and a number of baboon colonies. Baboons are very strictly hierarchical.
What he found was that stress hormones are much higher in lower ranking members than in alpha males. Baboon alpha males can be nasty buggers, poke and correct their underlings for small infractions, are the controllers and stress the controllees with all that physical micromanaging. Not only that. Sapolski also noticed that all that control does not lead to a better-behaved baboon, but one who aggressively passes those corrections on, down the ranking line, until it hits the lowliest monkey.
Then, with one of the colonies, something equally gruesome and interesting happened. About half of the members died when they accidentally came in contact with contaminated meat. None of the alpha males survived, probably because they observed the me-alpha-eat-first rule and pigged out. Suddenly the baboon colony was without from-the-top-down bosses – and, wouldn’t you know, the aggression level dropped, whilst affiliative social behaviors rose. The whole colony thrived. Each member had some control, contributed, and worked cooperatively with the others, and with that the stress levels dropped as well.
The colony stayed that way; without alpha males. Its members still are, some 20 years later, non-aggressive and friendly with one another. That was the real surprise for the scientists, because till then they believed that social ranking was genetically hardwired in baboons, ingrained in the species’ biogrammar.
Yet, the fact that the baboon colony not only survived, but thrived in a non-autocratic society, implies that hierarchies are a cultural phenomenon, not a biological one - for primates.
What about dogs? I believe that it is more our obsession with dominant hierarchies than a dog’s inherent need for it that feeds the alpha ideology. There are other aspects as well, for example the question if dogs are pack animals, that hint that way. But as I said, I’ll discuss that in another post.

In any case, many dogs I meet professionally redirect aggression, act erratically and reactively, are hyper, compulsive, irritable and edgy. When I tell a client that his pooch is stressed, I often get a surprised look. I must say that most believe me once I explain it, but some don’t. And methinks that it would be great if our veterinarians could check the glucocorticoid levels with a routine checkup, and especially if the dog’s person complains of problem behaviors. Measured by a scientist would carry much more weight than the words of a trainer, or behavior consultant. And then the owner could take action and find ways to decrease stress, not add to it by applying various dominance training methods.


  1. Very interesting post Silvia. It's amazing what stress and the lack of it can do. I have often wondered that if dominant hierarchy is inherent to all dogs then why do some breeds get along so well together and not display much dominance behaviour? Cavaliers for instance are known for this. Could it be that when you're laying around the royal courts in comfort and there is no shortage of resources then there is not much stress or need to compete, dominate and/or bully others? So the culture surrounding the breed helps to determine it's behaviour?

    I would think that the apha dominance way of training would be stressfull for all parties as it seems like it would require a lot of energy/stress to maintian your position, as well as a lot of stress for those being dominated. I like your positive approach of providing lots of "good things." Just thinking about it feels so much more comfortable in the body and it's much less stressful to's like exhaling. Thanks YOU!

  2. Indeed, Marjorie, plenty of resources equals little need for competition. Could that be a genetic predisposition? And interesting thought.

    It appears, in baboons, that the alpha males have little stress. Possible because there hierarchies are so controlled that submission is habitual at one point. But, there are also coalitions between weaker members to boot out the bully at the top, so wonder if that would raise stress? Likely.
    We know that type A humans are often very stressed and candidates for heart attacks. As a whole though, it appears that chronic sicknesses of all kind are more prevalent in the lower educates and lower income classes.
    With wolves and dogs there are more aspects - like inherent cooperation and competition.