Dominant Dogs

Dominance has become a dirty word in the dog training world – so much so that it’s often referred to as “the D word” by professional trainers when speaking to one another, as if even the mention of it will cause others to gasp in horror and back slowly away. Many normal canine behaviors are thought by the public and by mis- or uninformed canine professionals to be caused by dominance. Certain television celebrities have attributed everything from appeasement gestures such as licking to obsessive light chasing to normal dog behaviors such as excitement on leash or at doorways to dominance. But what does this phrase really mean, and how can we best apply the concept to our interactions with dogs?

Who's dominant here? Neither dog!  Photo by Eileen McFall.

Who’s dominant here? Neither dog!
Photo by Eileen McFall.

Scientifically, “dominance” refers to the outcome of a behavioral interaction between two individuals. The dominant individual is the one who gains priority access to the resource (food, location, female in estrus, etc.) that he or she wants. It is not a personality trait.

This is an important point. Referring to a dog as “dominant” is like saying someone has an “in love” personality. A dog may be dominant over another dog in a specific interaction (such as when they both want the same bone), but may be submissive in the same interaction with a different individual (perhaps with you or with an older dog). You may be in love with a specific person, but hate another. The important point in either case is the context and the individuals involved. While some individuals may be more likely to fall in love easily or to gain access to reinforcers more frequently, each situation needs to be viewed as a distinct event. Social relationships are too complex to make such broad generalizations.

This makes more sense if we think of a human example. Take your family, for instance. When you were younger, your mother or father was probably dominant in most interactions. They (hopefully!) had higher status than you, and could therefore decide how resources (food, attention, sleeping spaces, etc.) were distributed amongst you and the other family members living in the household. But while your father may have had fairly high status in your family group, he may not have held the same status in other interactions, such as at work or in his poker group. In those situations, he may have been submissive in the majority of interactions, with his boss or the host of the poker club getting to decide how resources were allocated. Just because your father was generally dominant in his interactions with you didn’t mean that he had a dominant personality any more than it meant you had a submissive personality as a 5-year-old.

In a group of dogs the hierarchy is likely to shift, just as it does with people. You may generally defer to your boss, but if she comes to dinner at your home she’s likely to defer to you in many social interactions, such as where she sits as the dinner table and what she eats. Dogs are the same way. A dog may generally be the dominant animal when he or she wants something, but that doesn’t mean that this will be true in every single situation.

Dominance as it’s described by most laypeople refers to a set hierarchy, and the more quickly we can drop this notion the better our interactions with our dogs will become. While status is definitely important to dogs, the myth that dogs form rigid social hierarchies is blatantly false. Just like people, dogs tend to have more fluid hierarchies that shift depending on context.

Equally important to understand is how status is achieved. The point of a dominance hierarchy in any species is to avoid conflict. Imagine if you and your boss had to slug it out each time you sat down at a meeting together in order to determine who got to sit behind the big desk. Physical aggression takes a lot of energy and can be dangerous. Whether it’s two dogs biting each other over ownership of a bone or two geese pecking each other over a prime nesting site, actual physical confrontations have a very real risk of injury or death… and no one wants that.

“Dominance” as an excuse to use aggressive behaviors towards our companion dogs, then, is a very inappropriate undertaking, not mention a blatant misunderstanding of the science. When dogs have a conflict, they follow a very ritualized series of signals designed to minimize or avoid physical altercations. These may include staring, stillness, whale eyes, lip lifts, tail wags, and more before the dog even begins to growl, much less to come in physical contact with his or her opponent.

Using dominance as an excuse to touch your dog in any way, including jabs with the hand, kicks, jerking on a collar, forcing your dog onto his or her back, or remotely making contact through an electronic collar is absolutely inappropriate. Status in a stable group (whether human, dog, or elephant) is not about who can be the most aggressive or cause the most damage, but rather about who has the most confidence and experience and can therefore be best trusted.

If you have concerns about your dog’s status, the take-home message here is simple: physical aggression is not the answer. Over the next month, we’ll discuss some of the most common misconceptions about dominance hierarchies, including alpha rollovers and how you can be a great leader to your dog. In the meantime, I’m curious to hear what you think. Have you been using dominance theory incorrectly with your dog? How do you make sure that your dog looks to you as a leader? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

20 responses to “Dominant Dogs

  1. This s well written, especially for the lay person. You spell it out in a clear, succinct way.

  2. Brilliant article. I will be sharing.

    I’ve had my two dogs for two and a bit years, they are the first dogs I’ve owned but I have grown up around dogs and even did some training with a couple.
    When I got them I read quite a bit and thought this dominance theory was great. I watched dog whisperer loads and thought that it was awesome.

    It wasn’t until I was out walking one day that it really hit home what I was doing. Kevin my male has anxiety issues, is afraid of men, cries if left alone etc. On this particular day he barked at a jogger and proceeded to chase him. The man approached and shouted at me which in turn made my boy worse. At the time I was busy shouting at him trying to get him to stop. I told him off and managed to get him under control.

    The first words I used when I arrived home were “I’ve wrecked him.” then proceeded to burst in to tears.
    It was a case of buy a muzzle and try as best I could. Thankfully someone messaged me on Facebook with an article to read about ‘dominance’. I’ve been finding as much information and as many books as I can with the more update information in it, how a dogs mind works, anxiety based things and of course positive reinforcement.

    Over the past year we joined training classes using positive reinforcement and I can not believe how well he has come on. Men are still scary but he no longer chases joggers or bikes. I don’t have to raise my voice to him and he is the perfect gentleman. At times, like all people, I occasionally get exasperated and the voice is raised. At which point he falls to the floor on his back and I realise what I’ve just done.
    I don’t need to use any form of ‘dominance’ or punishment to show I’m their leader. Praise has worked so much better. Yes it means they don’t get it 100% of the time, but that’s kind of the point… I’m asking and not telling. 99% of the time they will do what I’ve asked and they get told how brilliant they are or given a treat. If they do it wrong… Oh well lets try again.

    If I could go back and re do it I would, but I can’t. But if by sharing things like this it will help someone to not make the mistake I made then I will do it.

    • Yeah for you! I was also on a wrong path years ago. It feels amazing to work With the animal instead of Against him ! My relationship with my ‘challenge’ dog was horrid. Together we are now competing in Rally Obedience :) We still have some quirks to work out, but the more we learn the better we get.

  3. I am looking forward to learning more as you dive into this. I have a female pittie that I rescued who has always been the “head bit#@” as we refer to her with the resident male JRT. Yet I thought I had observed her NOT being dominent in many situations with other dogs, especially foster dogs. I am realizing that she (like myself) does NOT need to be in charge ALL the time, and am embracing that realization. I once had a trainer use the word “confident” to describe Abbie, so I tend to use that word myself. So glad I found your blog!

  4. Great article – shared through Facebook!

  5. Good post. It is difficult to get the message out through all the bs on tv and even from some “trainers”. Dominance is a fluid situation that involves one dog deciding that something is not worth fighting over (a bone, a spot on the couch, etc.) and deferring to the other. A dog is not dominant as a trait but may be displaying dominance in a situation, just as you describe very clearly. It depends on what the dog values and the situation is usually more about deference than aggression. The whole “dominance” theory has been debunked and is not even relevant in training if one is educated in dog ethology and operant conditioning. Thank you for an excellent explanation.

  6. Great post, and explains a few things about our two female pups, both exactly the same age – for a long while we thought one was in charge, and yet the other is much braver with other dogs and can stand up for herself when she wants to. It was as if the first had decided she was dominant but had forgotten to tell the other one! After reading this, I think they may have a much more fluid relationship, and certainly not a rigid hierarchy like we first thought.

  7. Midwestern Plant Girl

    Mine share the crown. No issues between my 2 Male border collies.

  8. I really like this post. I have an anxious, fear-aggressive dog, who has been called “dominant”

    I recently read an article that stated nearly all “dominant” dogs are anxious, and do not want to control you (their owner), but their environment, and the sources of their anxiety.

  9. Excellent. I see this within the Pack here and struggle with the D word. Thanks for another clarifying article. Humans want to make life roles rigid; it’s easier for us, but dogs, they go with the flow…

  10. Very-well written, and I’m so glad that these kind of blogs get spread via FB! For many dog-owners, it’s really hard to know whom to listen to, whose methods to trust, because after all, we want to be good dog-owners, we want our dogs to be able to trust us. I encourage everyone to read Anders Hallgren’s books.

  11. Really great Article! After owning 2 Dobermans in the past, I believed I was more than clued up on dogs, and especially “Dominance”, but little did I really know. So after much research, and active learning, I have completely U-turned my training methods, and beliefs on Dominance. This article clearly is talking about the “Cesar Milan” craze, which I have to say I now mostly disagree with, but the 2 aspects i believe he does get right are; the promotion of exercise, and Calm/assertive energy towards dogs, as dogs respond well to this. The firm, fair, consistent, and reward positive behaviour and you’ll be on the right track, having owned 2 dobes, and now an American Staff (both been strong willed breeds), and they do great with this training style!

  12. My method is the same I would use with a child. Firm, Loving, CONSISTENT direction and patience.

  13. Elizabeth Schofield

    Brilliant. Makes so much sense. We have a rescue bullmastiff x. She was great with other dogs initially, then became unpredictable. So upsetting. Have used 3 dog experts,who all said different things. So am always looking to learn more. Look forward to more stuff. Thank you. Xx

  14. This makes sense, but I’m still struggling with some points. I never, ever excuse aggression in my dogs for any reason, let alone dominance. But I use that term as a way to describe one of my dogs’ approach to life in general. I have fostered dogs that are so chill they don’t want to win any contest, they just love to hang out. I am sure that in some scenarios they would compete and “dominate” for a resource, but I would describe them as more submissive. I have one dog who sees just about everything she encounters as a contest to be won, and we work on leadership and boundaries constantly. Never with punishment, but she will try to gain access to food, toys, and people and warn off other dogs at nearly every turn, usually by body blocks, sometimes barking, sometimes just stealing and running. I refer to her as dominant because she likes to be alpha no matter who else is there (foster, visitor, resident). If “dominant” isn’t the right word to use for a dog’s basic approach to life, what do you use?

  15. I like to use the words “influential, respectful, protective, being in control or in charge” when referring to our relationships with our dogs!

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