Dominance and the Pet Dog

Dominance in the pet dog has become a common topic of discussion in just about every training session I conduct. Nervous and fearful owners confide in me “My dog is dominant” and then they timidly ask: “How do I dominate my dog?”. The more confident few even ask: “How do I teach my dog that my child is dominant?”.

Over the years I have heard just about every behavior you can think of attributed to dominance. From unruly behavior like jumping up on people or eating poop, to mounting, dominance is thought to be the root of all bad behavior. Just Google dominance in dogs and you will find a treasure trove of misguided information on the subject. I found one site that listed 28 behaviors that were attributed to dominance. The most disturbing reference I saw was on a popular TV dog training program. The trainer was working with a dog who obsessively chased a laser light. His explanation? The dog was trying to dominate the light!

Unfortunately, these ‘explanations’ are offered to the general public by animal professionals who should know better. Most of this I believe, is that the use of the word dominance, although misconstrued, has been in use for so long, people take it as fact. They have not taken the time to fully research canine behavior and as a result continue to perpetuate false and potentially harmful information.

Dominance is a broad term that has many vague definitions, as you will find out if you research it. Biologists, Ethologists and Animal Behaviorists however, refer to dominance as a competitive series of encounters, that use force, intimidation or aggression to gain access to a priority resource (food, space, opposite sex). Through these series of encounters, the individual who triumphs most frequently can be considered dominant at that time. However, that role can change quickly depending on the fitness level or motivation of the individuals involved. It is not a constant state. In reality, the outcomes will vary greatly over time.

It is important to point out that dominance is not a personality trait. It is instead, the attribute of a relationship. When someone is told that their dog is dominant, an adversarial relationship is immediately formed. In response the owner attempts to control the dog with physical force or intimidation.

Equally important is that aggression does not equal dominance. Although dominance aggression, where the dog challenges his owners over resources, does exist, it is in fact, extremely rare. Most behavior cases have nothing at all to do with dominance and the dogs that are frequently labeled as dominant, are reacting out of fear. Dogs that are afraid will act defensive in an attempt to try and scare a potential threat away. It is not hard to recognize that major problems will arise when a fearful animal is treated like a dominant one. Using forceful methods to make him ‘submit’ will only make fear-based behaviors worse. This is the saddest fact and the one that troubles me most.

Dogs that are unruly, misbehave or are unmanageable are not trying to dominate their owners by attempting to control a situation, they are simply untrained. You needn’t walk out of the door before your dog to prove that you are ‘dominant’. However, teaching your dog to wait at the door until released will make life more pleasant for both of you, not to mention safer. Many of the behaviors that are commonly attributed to ‘dominance’ are normal dog behaviors that have been inadvertently reinforced by well-meaning humans.

The issue is of such importance that The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior issued a position statement on the use of dominance theory for behavior modification of animals. They emphasize that Veterinarians specializing in behavior should not use dominance theory as a general guide for behavior modification. Additionally, they recommend that Veterinarians “refer clients only to trainers and behavior consultants who understand the principles of learning theory and who focus on reinforcing desirable behaviors and removing the reinforcement for undesirable behaviors.”

The truth, for all the dog owners who want to ask about dominance, is that you don’t have to dominate your dog. Dogs don’t know what humans think is acceptable behavior. Only through training can dogs learn what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable. Dogs do need consistent and clear rules, mental stimulation and physical exercise to be able to learn well and adapt to a human world. All this is accomplished by being an effective teacher for your dog. Teachers can choose to use force and intimidation or motivation and reward. By using positive reinforcement methods, you will avoid the pitfalls of force-based techniques and build a bond that will last a lifetime with your dog.