This article, written by me, was originally published in DOG TRAINER magazine.

How many of you have described or perceived your dog as being ‘dominant’. How would you define that? What behaviour is the dog displaying which brings you to that conclusion. This article will hopefully give you a better understanding of where the concept of dominance comes from and the truth about your dog’s behaviour.

A while ago, I went to see a 10 week old Jack Russell puppy, the owner had been advised to contact me by the vet because the dog had growled at her during the consultation and advised her that she need to ‘get on top of the dominant behaviour’ it was displaying. As it turned out the puppy was completely terrified of the car, had been ill on the way to the vet, had a thermometer stuck up its bottom on arrival and then received its vaccinations. As a consequence it briefly became terrified of people, was unwilling to approach the husband when he returned from work that evening and was also terrified of me when I turned up for the assessment and had spent most of the previous 24 hours hiding in its cage. The owners had spent all evening accidentally reinforcing the behaviour, worrying about its dominant streak and were on the point of returning the puppy.

I wonder exactly what the vet had meant when she described the puppy’s behaviour as dominant. The Oxford dictionary defines dominance as “power, influence and having a controlling influence over”. Did she mean that this puppy was trying to have control, power and influence over her whilst in the consultation? Unlikely. However, did she mean that she identified that his response to a stressful situation was not ideal and that gaining some advice on how to counteract this response might be a good idea, well maybe. The problem is that the word ‘dominance’ seems to have become a catch-all phrase to describe any aspect of a dog’s behaviour which is deemed as unacceptable.

Part of the problem seems to come from the continued misuse of these terms and incorrect diagnosis of behaviour by some prominent television personalities. Whilst these programmes have raised the profile of dog training in a way which I see as mostly beneficial, in many of the dog training programmes I have seen recently, the word ‘dominant’ is still used to describe behaviour and ‘pack leadership’ and ‘pack rules’ have been part of the programme of behaviour modification. Of course these programmes show or appear to show successful modification of problem behaviours giving credence to the explanations given and justification to the methods employed.

The idea of dominance comes from the observation of pack hierarchy within wolf packs where there is a clear Alpha female and Alpha male led structure. This model was then applied to the dog within the human family, giving rise to the need for us as owners to apply pack rules and giving an understanding of dog behaviour in terms of its struggle to become pack leader.

The more recent research into this area however has shown that this is a misconception and we are totally misunderstanding our pet dogs and potentially damaging our relationships with them by applying this model to explain their behaviour.

It is true that our domestic dogs are descended from wolves. Thousands of years ago, certain wolves became more tolerant of humans and started scavenging from village dumps. The less fearful wolves became more isolated from the wild population and became more a part of human communities. It was only the wolves whose behaviour characteristics were less fearful and those which did not show predatory or dominant behaviour towards humans which would have been allowed to stay near to the villages by the humans, any other would have been driven away. Over time and through many generations of breeding, selection of particular dogs by the villagers to assist with hunting or to be companions changed these animals from wolves to dogs. It is the very fact that the dogs developed into animals without the wolf characteristics that they were able to become domesticated. So it is clear then that when we apply our pack theories to our domestic dogs, they are just plain wrong.

The old fashioned view of dominance is as follows:

“Learning how to communicate to a dog whereby we show ourselves as proficient guides and pack leaders is therefore important. No forceful dominance is necessary…”

“All fondling, coddling or solicitous behaviour toward the pet must be avoided. This helps the owner assume dominance over the dogs involved”

“When a dog sleeps in your bed, this can lead to dominance issues.”

“No matter if you own a domestic dog or a wolf, dominance is the key to happiness. Obtaining
and maintaining your Alpha position is everything when dealing with a domestic dog, wolf/dog or wolf, unless you want to be ignored, growled/snapped at, picked on, or in extreme situations, even attacked.”

“The article briefly discusses the background to pack hierarchy and how instability in this can result in dominance aggression. This article looks at the positive actions you can take to establish yourself as the packleader and bring harmony to your pack.”

The new beliefs are represented here:

“We don’t have to be Alpha, dominant or pack leader, and neither does our dog. All we need to be is an owner responsible for guiding our dog, shaping and influencing its behaviour through correct socialisation and training so they can live in harmony with us.”

“Over the years the word ‘dominant’ has taken on negative connotations and is quite often used as a cop-out to describe dogs who are merely running riot, lack sufficient training, under socialized (therefore under confident), or extremely fearful”

I would therefore encourage you to view your dog’s behaviour differently.

I think it is fine to have some boundaries for your dog’s behaviour. For example, you might not want the dog to go upstairs or on the furniture as I don’t. However if you do let the dog sit on the sofa with you occasionally, don’t worry it isn’t going suddenly try to ‘take over the pack’. Set the rules and boundaries which are appropriate to your individual situation.

“My dog growled at me, is it being dominant?” Very unlikely. Look at the individual behaviour and consider why it is doing it. Most often it is simply ‘resource guarding’. Dogs will protect things of value to them such as toys, bones, a place to sleep or even a person. Consider how you respond to the behaviour because you may be accidentally reinforcing it. (Please contact me for help to resolve and understand instances which are specific to your situation).

We do need to be able to give our dogs some guidance in the same way as we would to children. They need boundaries to their behaviour so that they fit comfortably into our lives and they need you to be consistent in applying these. For further information on this subject I recommend the following books:

“Dominance: Fact or Fiction” Barry Eaton

“Dominance Theory and Dogs” James O’Heare

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