Is your dog dominating you?
By Doris Dressler
One day last week at Big Canoe Animal Rescue, Bruiser was released from his kennel for his morning walk. He ran into the front office, exuberantly jumped on a volunteer and proceeded to get rather intimate with her leg. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent.)
After freeing the volunteer’s leg, the comment was made that Bruiser was being dominant.
My dog often runs inside after a rousing game of driveway tennis ball and gets intimate with his bed. Does this mean he is dominating his bed?
There is really a much simpler explanation for my dog’s—and Bruiser’s—behavior. My dog was overly excited after playing ball; the simple explanation is he celebrated by doing something that felt good!
Bruiser just had been released from his kennel and was excited about his walk. Visitors frequently pet Bruiser when he jumps up on them, thus rewarding the behavior and getting Bruiser even more excited. This wasn’t dominance; it was a lack of consistent training and impulse control.
What is dominance?
Dominance has been used to explain just about every inappropriate dog behavior, but the way the term is used by many dog owners is incorrect.
The Association of Professional Dog Trainers website (apdt.com) defines dominance as a “social relationship between two or more individuals. It is not a character trait. Despite what many people believe, dogs do not spend their time seeking to establish control over humans.”
Many of our ideas about dominance are the result of years of study of wolves in captivity. Early studies suggested that dominance struggles (specifically alpha rolls, where an animal was physically rolled onto his side or back and held there until he stopped resisting and submitted) were natural in wolf packs. The common train-of-thought was that since dogs are descended from wolves, this applied to dogs as well.
Wolf expert L. David Mech observed that wolves in the wild are comprised of families, whereas captive wolf packs include unrelated wolves brought together in artificial groups. While early studies suggested fights and dominance struggles were common in wolf packs, these packs were comprised of unrelated wolves that were thrown together unnaturally.
Subsequent studies have shown natural social groups of wolves—families—live in harmony. Social structure works because appeasement behaviors (for example, a dog rolling over on his back) are offered by subordinate members, not forced. Successful leaders were observed calmly controlling and distributing desired resources.
The “no free lunch” program advocated by today’s positive trainers follows a similar protocol that encourages dog owners to act as benevolent leaders. Owners ask their dogs to perform some cue (usually a sit) before doing something the dog desires. Dogs learn their leaders control the resources and when they listen, they get access to these resources.
Common dominance myths
Most inappropriate behaviors blamed on the dog being dominant really are training issues.
- Dogs jump up on humans to show their dominance.
- Dogs usually jump up because they have been reinforced inadvertently for doing so. The dog jumps up; the person pets the dog. The solution is to turn your back when the dog jumps up and only acknowledge the dog when all four paws are on the floor.
- Dogs pull on leash to show they are in charge of the walk.
- Going for a walk is the high point of the day for most dogs. Dogs pull because they are excited. Most dogs also pull because they haven’t been taught to walk any other way. If you don’t want your dog to pull, take the time to teach your dog to walk nicely on lead or consider using a tool such as a head halter or no-pull harness.
- Dogs jump up on the furniture to be at a higher level than their owner.
Dogs get on the furniture because it’s comfortable, not to show they are dominant. If you don’t want your dog on the furniture, teach your dog the “off” cue and teach your dog to lie in his own comfortable dog bed.
And the beagle in the photo? Perhaps this puppy was too young to be given run of the house and should have been crated when his owners left. Perhaps the dog was not exercised before the owner left him alone, and he decided to exercise himself. Or perhaps the dog has not been taught how to stay home alone and was stressed by being left behind.
More information about this topic can be found at apdt.com/petowners/articles/docs/DominanceMyths.pdf.