Dominance is hotly debated topic in the animal training world, and it’s one that I encounter daily in my consulting practices with both dog owners and parrot owners alike. But does it hold any merit? Behavior science says no.
A common misconception regarding companion parrots is that parrots possess an innate desire or personality trait that drives them to try to dominate their owners, and that their owners must establish and strongly enforce a higher rank over their parrots to maintain control. This idea seems to have a life of it’s own, despite not having any basis or backing in behavioral science.
Religion, education, the military, and corporate organizations all have one thing in common: they instill a sense of linear social hierarchies in us. From them, we learn to give commands to those “below” us, take orders from those “above” us, and constantly vie for a higher position. This life experience makes us prone to something known as “observer expectancy bias”, which means that we see (or think we see) in other species that which we expect, and this accounts for relentless idea that dominance is what causes a parrot to refuse to step up off of it’s cage.
The concept has been applied to any and every scenario in which a parrot might not do as asked, and that is especially true if the parrot displays any sort of aggression or fear response. “Height dominance”, “floor dominance”, “cage dominance”, “shoulder dominance”, and other concepts all revolve around the idea that it is an inherent trait in all parrots that causes them to have behavior problems like these ones.
What does science say?
Even scientists can’t decide on one definition of the word “dominance.” Though the technical definition usually involves any given animal’s access to valued resources like food, shelter, and mating rights, science does agree that there is no real way to measure, quantify, or define social dominance. Barnett (1981) states the following in Modern Etology:
“Dominance should be distinguished from an animal’s superiority resulting from its being in its ow territory. Dominance should also be distinguished from being a leader.” (p. 633).
Another aspect not typically considered is that several other factors – including prior learning experiences, motivation, and contexts – and these are the main basis for all behavior.
There is no evidence that suggests that wild flocks of parrots of any species have any social hierarchies, and if any evidence does appear, there is no reason to believe that the same concepts concerning wild parrots would have any impact on the parrot-human relationship.
A self-fulfilling prophecy.
When people have certain expectations for behavior, they act differently and tend to get exactly what they expect, and since “dominance” is generally considered to be a character or personality trait – something inherently present in the bird – the concept is shifted into something much more ominous: the bird is labeled as a “bad bird”, and since dominance is inherently present, the bird is inherently bad. This results in a very convenient excuse for getting rid of the bird instead of taking responsibility for our part in the bird’s behavior (we do, after all, control every aspect of a bird’s life by definition.)
The concept of dominance also gives owners an excuse (and in some cases, a reason) to use forceful techniques to “counter dominate” their bird, and absolves owners from searching for causes for and solutions to behavior problems since the act of labeling any given problem gives us a false sense of closure by giving the problem a name.
In short, there is no place for dominance in animal training. The concept is at best a flawed one since we are not parrots and parrots are not humans. If any such social hierarchies exist in wild parrots, they surely would not apply to companion parrots who live a very different life from their wild counterparts. Parrots do not have hands or fingers, and don’t use towels, cage covers, “vet grabs”, or hitting to punish one another. Wild parrots can fly away from a conflict, whereas captive parrots usually cannot, and so learn to use their beak to gain a little control over their situation.
So if it’s not dominance, what is it?
In the next post, we’ll discuss the “ABCs” of behavior, and what’s really going on when your bird won’t step up off the top of her cage. Stay tuned!