By Dr. Anne McBride
Excerpt from the annual magazinne Rabbits USA, 2008 issue, with permission from its publisher, Lumina Media. To purchase the current Rabbits USA annual, click here.
Dominance is often used to explain aggressive behavior. People frequently describe a dog or rabbit as a dominant individual, suggesting that dominance is an integral part of its personality. This basic misunderstanding can increase a rabbit’s aggression if the owner believes they need to show their pet who is the boss.
Dominance is not a personality trait. Rabbits, people and dogs are not born dominant, though they may have characteristics that enable them to acquire a high ranking or dominant status in their social group.
Dominance is a description of the relationship between two animals, one with higher ranking, the dominant animal, and one with lower ranking, the subordinate. For example, I consider myself to be dominant over my dog, rabbit and goddaughter. I also consider myself to be subordinate to my mother and my boss at work. Does this mean I am a dominant or a subordinate animal? Actually I am both, depending on the relationship under discussion.
A rabbit or other animals are not born with status but acquire it when others in the group recognize that animal’s greater qualities and give way to it. Dominance status is given by others, so relationships can change depending on an animal’s physical and mental health, and the environment in which it finds itself.
Being the dominant animal in any relationship has benefits, but is not necessarily a permanent position. Dominance status grants priority access to the good things in life, namely resources, such as food, a mate and the best places to live.
The definition of a dominant rabbit or other animal is the one that can consistently gain access to a resource, without having to fight, when competing with an individual. The subordinate individual in the relationship is the animal that consistently allows the other animal access to the resource, without fighting.
The whole point about dominant and subordinate relationships (known as hierarchy) is to reduce aggression within the group.
Anne McBride BSc., Ph.D., Cert.Cons., FRSA, has been a practicing pet behaviorist since 1986 and a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (UK) since 1990.