Dominance in Dogs. 

Following on from our other Holidays 4 Dogs article, ‘How to Become a Pack Leader’ this article will expand on the idea of dogs as dominant in the context of a human household.

It is important to establish yourself as a leader of some description, but only in the context of being able to communicate with your dog.  While the idea of a single pet dog regarding his human family as ‘pack’ members may be somewhat outdated and far fetched, nevertheless, in multi-dog households there is most certainly a particular pack or family dynamic between several dogs – ‘pecking orders’ can often come into play and can be fluid rather than constant; in either case it is equally important to establish ground rules from the beginning.

However, as our previous article points out, exerting control over your dog should in no way imply dominance or aggression; your aim should be to lead him by communicating with him in a language he will understand using science based reinforcement techniques, thus helping him to behave in appropriate ways when living among humans.

It is very important to establish what dominance is when it comes to dog behaviour.  True dominant aggressive dogs are actually very rare and usually dominant type reactions in dogs can usually be attributed to a lack of training and simple unruly behaviour because they have not been taught anything different.

Dominance aggression is also often confused with fear which escalates when an owner treats bad behaviour by using force; for example shouting at the dog to get off the sofa – the dog learns to react defensively in such a situation of conflict and often does do out of fear, not dominance – signs such as cowering, low growls, licking of lips can all be signs of fear.

It is also important to bear in mind that some dogs will be more ‘pushy’ than others and some dogs are more inclined to demand they get their own way more than others.  This very much depends on their breed, their breeding, (genetics) how they have been socialised and trained and their environment.

Becoming a ‘pack leader’, boss, companion, and friend – call it what you will – is really all about communication and early training, which will help avoid possible confrontation and while it is wise not to attribute all undesirable behaviour in dogs to dominance, it is also important not to deny that dominance exists – but that often, it is actually we as owners who are capable of causing dogs to behave in so-called dominant ways – and this risk increases further if we use force or physical punishment in an attempt to counteract such behaviour.

Dogs that fight for resources such as food (or toys) can be regarded as being in a dominant state.  A dog can cleverly communicate to humans what he requires – if an owner leaves the dog alone to sleep on the sofa for fear of being bitten – the dog rapidly learns to use this approach (growling) again and hence becomes ‘dominant’ in that situation. But remember dominance is a relative concept and usually it is the owner who has reinforced this behaviour in the first place by consistently backing down and not guiding the dog in positive ways.

Some dogs may constantly push boundaries and test their surroundings, by barging through doorways, lying in doorways or thoroughfares, pulling on the lead, jumping up etc.  Some of these traits can lead to more dominant type behaviour and may indicate your dog is attempting to exert control over his environment which could escalate if not addressed.

There are many myths about dominance in dogs and it is crucial to remember that social leadership and effective communication should be the fundamental goal of a ‘pack leader’ without trying to be a dog or wrongly assuming that your dog knows you are a dog!  It is also extremely important to remember that dominance, aggression or bad behaviour from the dog is never met with force or aggression from the owner.

A few myths about dominance: 

I must be seen to be eating before my dog otherwise he will try to exert control over meeating before your dog will not convince your dog that you are a dog and neither will he exert control over you if he is allowed to eat first. Remember dogs are opportunists and scavengers. Teach your dog not to beg at the table and teach him to stay out of the kitchen when you are cooking.

I must ignore my dog when I return to the house, otherwise he will think he is more dominant than me – when you last watched a wildlife programme of wolves or packs of dogs did you notice them ignoring other pack members when they returned?; quite the opposite, in fact.  If your dog becomes a nuisance with too much jumping up or barking, teach him to be calm on your return using positive methods.  This is a training issue not a dominance issue. There is nothing wrong with greeting your dog when you come home.

My dog pulls on the lead to get in front of me and be in charge so therefore he must be trying to dominate me – your dog pulls on the lead simply because of his excitement at getting to where he wants to go – does he pull on the lead on the last leg of your walk when you are nearly at the door?  He pulls on the lead because he is excited and because he has not been taught a different behaviour.  Enrol in good dog training classes to help with this and / or use a device such as a head collar.

My dog gets on the sofa/jumps up in his attempt to physically elevate himself above me, therefore he must be dominant – Dogs like to sleep on comfortable things in the same way we do and a dog jumps up usually because this behaviour has been reinforced and because it is fun.  N.B – if your dog tries to growl at you if you try to remove him from the sofa he may be attempting to exert control over the situation but it is also likely that he is fearful of confrontation which in the past has involved aggressive reactions from his owner.  If you wish to allow your dog on the furniture, teach him a particular command to get on and also off and reinforce his compliance for getting off the sofa in positive ways.

If you do not wish your new dog or puppy to get on the furniture, do not allow him to do it in the first place.  If you already have an issue with furniture guarding, do not let him have access to his favourite chairs and put a light house lead on him to trail all the time, so that you can physically remove him if necessary without the worry of getting bitten.  However, do not remove him aggressively, but do so in a nonchalant manner and ALWAYS have titbits ready to instantly reward him for getting off furniture.

If you have several areas of concern which involve aggression towards you or other family members, it is important to get expert help from someone who understands positive behaviour modification and counter conditioning.  Do not at any cost accept a trainer using physical force, alpha rolls, check chains or pinch collars and do not attempt to do this yourself.  By using appropriate methods you will see that a bossy attitude can rapidly improve!

Dominance in dogs is often confused with simple bad behaviour and a lack of training, which is the fault of the owner and not the dog! But there are warning signs you can look out for that might indicate your dog is pushing boundaries which may in turn lead to conflict and some of these are covered in our previous article. However, it is up to you as an owner to decide what those boundaries are and be consistent and fair in your approach to reinforcing them.

Andrea Gordon