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all articles by Lisa Lafferty unless otherwise noted.  Some previously published on K9Station (defunct) under author's previous name Lisa Giroux

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Dominance:  Mythbusted

by Lisa Lafferty

...Dominance is a word often said, and more often misunderstood.  Is he being manipulative, or is he acting that way for some other reason?  And how does it affect what we do in our training programs?  It sounds like a bunch of technical science-talk, but in reality, it is a really simple issue that has been turned into a very confusing and murky mess of labels like "aggressive" and "dominant" and "submissive" which really have nothing to do with how to help or handle a dog problem.  This article is all about teaching you, the owner, how to concretely understand your dog's personality, motivations and behavior...

Let's start with some definitions so that we are on the same wavelength when we are talking about these issues.

  • Dominant:  Exercising influence or control.

  • Submissive:  Ready to conform to the authority or will of others; meekly obedient.

  • Aggressive:  Ready or likely to attack or confront.

There is a problem in relation to the widespread use of the word "dominant" in dog training circles.  In many cases, people describe aggression as dominance, or describe many other behaviors (getting on the bed, or being pushy around food, and so on and so forth) as dominance.  If you were to gather 100 dog trainers in a room, give them each a piece of paper and ask each person to write down what "dominant" means, allowing no discussion, I guarantee that there would be at least 50 different definitions given out of the 100 trainers. Add to this the perception of their clients, non-dog trainers, and you can see the confusion that could possibly result! 

Most of the time, the word dominance is used as a synonym for the word aggression.  This is completely wrong.

For this reason I cannot stand the use of the word in modern dog training and as a matter of fact, I rarely find any use for considering the trait of "dominance" when figuring out how to help a client or a client's dog.  However, this issue does need to be discussed, because it definitely is a behavioral trait that is misunderstood on many levels by several different types of trainers.

Dogs, Humans and Dominance:

Humans must influence / control their dogs.  Dogs live with us and are our responsibility. 

Some dogs are type "A" personalities.  They see what they want and try to get it.  They are pro-active about making things happen to their benefit and they persevere.  However, it is rare to see a dog with extreme dominant tendencies that have occurred as a result of genetically inherited traits. 

It is *common* to see dogs that have inadequate guidance from their humans and have been permitted to learn that they can get what they want through pushy behavior or ignoring direction.  These dogs are not normally type "A" personalities because of inherited tendencies.  They simply have learned that they have to try hard or push through stuff (you) to overcome the roadblocks in their way to the things they want.

In other words (going back to the definition here) dogs easily learn to influence or control their environment if guidance is not given by humans.

If you have a dog that is constantly pushing your buttons, challenging your authority, or otherwise attempting to get THROUGH you rather than accept your direction, it is usually because the dog is under-educated.  It is also extremely simple to fix, whether the dog is a true type "A" or not.

Think about what things you control in the dog's life.  It has been my experience that most pet dog owners control very little in regards to the dog.  They allow the dog free access to nearly everything he wants nearly 100% of the time.  The problem occurs when the ratio of control to total freedom is off.  In order to have a pet that consistently accepts direction comfortably and consistently, you need to practice control much of the time so that the dog gets into the habit of accepting your direction and control.

If you are having problems, read the article "Listening for Life" to find out how to turn your life around with your dog.

Dogs, Other Dogs, and Dominance:

Dogs have an instinctual programming to seek their place in the pecking order of dog society.  No dog is ever equal.  Dogs usually don't care what place they occupy as long as it is clear where they stand.

Conflicts between dogs occur for various reasons, and dominance or social climbing is usually the last thing that should be considered when trying to figure out why a dog is displaying aggressive behavior. 

The most common reason for what most people consider "too much aggression" is just plain old normal doggy language.  Behavior such as snarling, growling, humping, standing on tiptoes, piloerection (hair standing up), direct eye contact, lip-lifting, snapping, and even having a stand-up-on-hind-legs-spat are all normal dog communication and do not necessarily mean that you have a problem.  Dogs don't have a verbal language.  They can't say "please refrain from sniffing my butt now, you've been back there long enough." 

Some aggression between dogs is necessary for communication.  This type of aggression is usually ritualistic, and dogs do not harm each other. It's all a big show. The vast majority of pet dog owners misunderstand normal dog/dog communication and become alarmed at even the smallest little show of teeth or growl.  This type of interaction is usually aimed at creating a peaceful environment by establishing "pecking order" and rules within the group of dogs.  Conflicts can be prolonged if dogs are not allowed to sort this pecking order out.  Humans often prolong the conflicts by interfering each time, thus preventing resolution.

For example:  In a household with an older dog, Feller, a new puppy comes on the scene--let's call him Upstart.  Feller is six years old, well-socialized, a very good dog for his family.  Upstart comes in at 8 weeks old.  Everything is smooth sailing until Upstart turns 8 months old or so.  At that time, Feller starts growling and snarling and snapping at Upstart.  The owners, alarmed, discipline Feller for being "dominant" or "aggressive."  But what is really going on is that Upstart is growing to be an adult.  He is past the puppy age, where dogs are usually tolerant of puppyish behavior.  Upstart still tries to act like a puppy with Feller, jumping on his head, soliciting play in a bratty way, and Feller recognizes that it's time for Upstart to grow up and act his age.  So, when Upstart does stuff to Feller, Feller disciplines the young dog--tells him off, so to speak, when Upstart commits a doggy faux pas.  The owners then get onto Feller for doing it, while Upstart is watching, and Upstart gets the idea that he can push Feller's buttons even more.  Feller gets more and more anxious about not being able to sort out a peaceful resolution to the problem and begins to react with bigger and harder discipline to Upstart.  This is the absolute opposite of peace in the doggy household!  It would be better to support Feller with "Upstart, get back you fool, don't you pester him anymore, he's telling you to back off!"  In this way you reinforce Feller's position as older dog/authoritative dog.

In the above situation, many trainers would say that Feller is trying to be dominant.  This is not the case.  Upstart is the one testing the boundaries of the relationship and Feller is simply telling Upstart what the rules are.  Do not take normal discipline and rule-setting between dogs as a problem unless you see real fights that last longer than 10 seconds and result in broken skin on either dog.

The second most common reason for "too much aggression" is lack of confidence in dog/dog social interactions.  A dog that is slightly afraid or unsure will tend to use "the best defense is a good offense" technique, showing aggression in order to end the interaction before it really begins.  This type of dog needs remedial socialization.  The cause of this type of aggression usually stems from sheer lack of experience with other dogs.  This is also the type of aggression that is most often mistaken for "dominance."

Very rarely, dogs are born with strong genetic tendencies to want to be Top Dog all the time and in every group.  These are the true type "A" personalities.  They usually go around confidently whipping every butt in the group until all the other dogs bow to this dog's influence and control.  I like to call them "control freaks."  They often interfere with other dog's play and make them separate, or if they see a dog having too much fun running around or playing they go over and make the other dog "calm down."  Problems can occur easily with these types of dogs if they are not well-socialized and under good control of a human.  A poorly socialized or fearful type "A" is likely to harm other dogs through lack of bite inhibition and lack of the impulse control that is brought about by good training and control from the owner.

    The Dog Trainer "Camps"

There are two huge camps when it comes to dog trainers; the "you gotta be Alpha" crowd, and the "Dominance Doesn't Exist" crowd.  The vast majority of dog trainers belong to one or the other. I am in a third camp, and to be honest, I feel like I have my one little tent pitched all alone right in the middle.  I think there is a lack of logic from both groups.  I think the issue can be explained in a very simple way that can provide a great deal of help to dog owners.

Camp "You Gotta Be Alpha" -- These are the folks who believe that most behavior in dogs that occurs in relation to humans is related to the dog attempting to climb up the social ladder within their human "pack."  These types of trainers usually use choke collars and are quick to advise things such as never letting the dog have his head higher than yours, never allowing a dog to go out the door in front of you, and are usually quick to prescribe corrective techniques such as physical intimidation, leash corrections, scruff shakes and/or alpha rolling.  These types of trainers will often say "he's a really dominant dog" or "he's being dominant with you."  They will probably advise you right away that the most important part of your relationship with your dog is that you are the Alpha.  "The Dog Whisperer" (Cesar whats-his-name of cable TV fame) is pretty much the current commanding officer of this camp.  I won't include a link to him here because I disagree with how he gets things done.  The one thing I agree with him on?  Don't treat your dog like a kid.  Anyway!  This camp has been around for a long, long time and the methods that have been passed down for nearly a century stemmed from the training of German Shepherd police and war dogs by policemen and military personnel.  Many of these long-standing training techniques continue to be used not because of their efficiency, but rather because that's the tradition.

"You Gotta Be Alpha" Rebuttal

Is it really logical that a dog (an animal with the brain the size of a walnut) thinks to himself "I gotta act a certain way so that I can be Alpha around here?"  Is it reasonable to assume that such an animal will automatically think that he can communicate across the species barrier and that every action should be tailored to be "alpha" dog toward a different species?  Many dogs have relationships with other animals.  If the dog goes out the barn door in front of the horse, does that mean the dog is "dominating" the horse?  If the dog lies down on the couch while the cat is lying down on the floor, does that mean he is "dominant" over the cat? 

Some of the stuff that dominance-theory folks attribute to "dog being dominant" is just ridiculous.  Dogs are smart enough to understand that cross-species communication is difficult.  They will try to use doggy language of course, but they quickly figure out that their language usually doesn't mean much to other species.

I should also mention here that the Alpha theory is based on flawed captive wolf studies done eons ago on a population of like 12 wolves.  Non-peer reviewed studies done in the 1940s, that have since been discredited.  But way back when, dog trainers seized on the info, adopted it into their dog training programs, and well, it's tradition, so...even though we know better, it's the mantra and everyone has preached it since days of old and people would look pretty foolish if they had to admit that their entire way of thinking was based on flawed science, so might as well keep on truckin', huh.

Camp "Dominance Doesn't Exist" -- These folks are usually clicker trainers, advocate NO use of verbal or physical intimidation, and believe that unwanted behaviors occur from a lack of training rather than "dominance."  They encourage the study of natural dog behaviors and the use of human body language that helps the dog understand what is wanted.  They tend to automatically attribute expressions of aggression to fear.  They insist that dogs never try to "social climb" with humans.  These trainers hardly ever use choke collars or forceful methods (and if they do, they don't admit it, because their "camp" would get upset with them).  This camp uses scientifically proven behavioral concepts for training specific behaviors.  The Association of Pet Dog Trainers is a big section of this camp, and work very hard to educate the general public about the newest information available in dog training.  They also work very hard to dispel the various myths and traditions that the "You Gotta Be Alpha" camp promote.

"Dominance Doesn't Exist" Rebuttal

Dogs do try to have control of their environment.  They want what they want when they want it!  They do this in many ways, using doggy language. Trainers from this camp will tell you things like "see, he's telling you he is scared" and point out how the dog is turning his head away or licking his lips in reaction to you. 

Then when you ask him why your dog is growling when you try to sit next to him on the couch, they tell you it has nothing to do with "dominance."  The reality is, though, that the growling dog is communicating through use of ritualized aggression (a normal part of doggy language).  He is trying to throw his weight around with his aggression and cause you to give way.

The bottom line is that if the dog does not clearly understand that you are in control, he will try to control you and everything else in his environment using doggy language. That includes using language that he would normally use with another dog.  It's the only language he has.  And if you respond to it, he will keep using it.  It IS dominance, sometimes.  Yes, sometimes it's fear.  But there are times when it's out-and-out classic dog speaking dog to a human--dominance.

     The Real Deal

Most clients that approach dog trainers for advice are having problems.  People usually don't spend money or call strangers unless they are struggling.  People like this usually have not put much thoughtful training into their dogs.  They often have achieved housetraining and maybe a sit (when the treat is visible and there are no distractions) and that's usually it.

The biggest mistake that pet owners make is not regularly exercising enough control over the dog in daily life.  Dogs need practice to be able to comfortably accept direction.  You must give them this practice every day in some way so that they understand in a black-and-white way the rules and regulations and *who is in control.*  If you do not provide this daily education, they will have difficulty responding properly when you need them to respond.  The simplest way to integrate regular control into your dog's lifestyle is to utilize the Listening for Life program.  *You do not have to be harsh or physical with your dog in order to implement control.*  He will still get everything he wants...but now he will perceive that the things that he wants, and his access to them, are under your control. 

Another problem that makes "who is in control" unclear is when humans send the dog signals that they do not intend to send.  Humans and dogs have different languages, but there are some common "words."  Unfortunately, these "words" do not mean the same things in the two different languages!

Human body language is geared toward acceptable social behavior toward other humans, and humans mostly tend to treat their dogs as a surrogate child.  This is expressed in many ways, as humans try to show their love and integrate the dog into the household as if it were a tiny human.  Unfortunately, the social behaviors that humans show toward dogs are often greatly misinterpreted by the dog and actually allow him to think that the he, the dog, is in control of things.  This can cause deep and long-lasting problems in the human/dog relationship and may eventually cost the dog his life.

Here are some examples of little things that can accidentally make the dog believe that he might be able to control or influence things.  Remember when I said earlier that dogs need to have things in black-and-white?  The following items make the dog think there are grey areas, and encourage him to continue to try to control things.

Human Action/Perception

Dog's Perception

Owner allows dog to be physically all over them whenever the dog wants to be.  Dog is regularly allowed to stand on, jump on, grab, run into, or get in the human's personal space at his own whim.  Humans usually like interacting with the dog in this way.  It's like a small child approaching for a big hug.

No high-ranking dog worth his salt would ever allow unrestricted physical access.  He would expect respect of his body space, and allow this kind of contact only by invitation.  Therefore the dog is the higher-ranking individual and can expect that the human will cede to his control/influence in other areas of life.

Scooting over to make room when the dog wants on the bed or couch--human respects and loves the dog and feels they are being "polite" or "sweet" to the dog.

Human conceding to influence of dog--dog has control

Allowing free access to resources most of the time (food, toys, resting areas, doorway entries and exits, etc).  Human wants dog to be happy and gives him everything he might want.

Dog has control of nearly every object or food item and is very much aware that the human is not controlling these resources. This is why the Feeding Routine is so very important as a building block for a good relationship!

Uncontrolled territorial/defensive barking at doors or on edges of property.  Human feels the dog is "protecting his property and us"

Dog gets the impression that the house, car, and humans are "his" and that reinforces his belief that he can control them.  After all, you control what's yours, right?  Territorial barking is wonderful, a great asset in my opinion, but you MUST BE ABLE TO CONTROL IT.  In other words, the dog needs to willingly stop when you ask!

Sucky greetings when human arrives home with human using high voice and getting down on floor with dog.  Human is just happy to see the dog and is greeting them in the way they would greet a child.

Dog perceives that a lower pack member is returning and performing the normal lower-ranking greeting behavior.  Lower-ranking animals can be influenced or controlled.

Allowing dog to rush out doors without paying attention to the human first.  Between humans, this is a polite gesture.

Dog perceives that human is responding to his wish to get outside as fast as possible, and thinks that he has control over the door situation.  This fosters the dog's understanding that he needs to push through you and around you to get what he wants.  Not at all conducive to a good relationship.

Owner allows dog to control games with toys by not insisting that the dog bring the ball all the way back or allowing a dog to tug without responding to owner's "drop it"

Dog perceives that the toy and game are in his control.  Games are a two-way street.  You should always be the initiator and the closer, on games like this.

Owner allows dog to stop/start games such as wrestling/horsing around.  Allows dog play play-bite at will and doesn't care if it's hard to get the dog to stop.

Dogs jaw-wrestle and play-bite with other dogs all the time.  It's always the higher-ranking dog that stops or starts the game (has control).

Owner allows dog to dictate when he gets up, when he goes outside, and when he gets petted.  If owner wants dog to do these things, owner “bribes” or “begs” dog.  Human is just trying to be polite in the same way he would with another person.

It is obvious to the dog that he is in control of everything.  Lower-ranking dogs "beg" or "bribes" the higher-ranking, controlling dog.  Therefore, the dog perceives he is in control.

The examples above are but a drop in the bucket to show how many small actions by humans can add up to a dog thinking he is the dominant member of the household.  When you think about the larger picture, and add in the spouse, children and all humans that come through the house and react to the dog in these ways, you can see why it would be easy for a dog to think that he is a dominant animal in the dog/human society. 

If he truly thinks that, owners of such a dog will see many (if not all) of the following behaviors. 

  1. No self-inhibition or “manners” around humans.

  2. Unwillingness to listen.  When forced to listen, extreme discomfort, possibly anxiety.  Possibly aggression if manhandled.  The harder a dog struggles against forced submission, the more they think they are dominant in most cases *unless the dog is extremely shy, under-socialized and fearful, in which case dominance is probably not the reason for the struggle*.  In some cases, though, even extremely fearful and shy dogs can think they are the dominant member, and working to alleviate this misunderstanding will help their anxiety a great deal.

  3. Growling or non-compliance when asked to give up a resource such as sleeping spot, toy, bone

  4. Jealousy (guarding human against other dogs or humans).  Often seen as a dog that tries to get in the middle of a spousal kiss or hug, or the driving away of other dogs from "his" human.

  5. General non-reaction to humans, goes along with the “not listening.”  Dog expects humans to react to HIM.

  6. Attention-seeking behavior such as pawing or leaning for petting, whining or barking for attention, jumping up on laps at anytime, presenting toys to humans to initiate play, etc.

  7. Anxiety and territorial behavior around the house, car and owner.  If the dog thinks he is dominant, it means that not only does he reap the benefits of dominance (free access to everything he wants) but it also carries a BIG responsibility.  Dominant dogs are in charge of taking care of their pack.  Taking care of a human pack is a big, big job for an animal that has a brain the size of a walnut.  Just as high-level jobs in human society come with benefits and stresses, so does a high-ranking dog’s job.  Thinking he is dominant can mean he’s got a job that is really hard for him to handle, and can produce extreme levels of stress.

All of the above complaints can be quickly and easily fixed simply through implementing the Listening for Life, "Nothing in Life is Free" program.  Nothing in Life is Free shows the dog, in black-and-white, who is in control.  The dog can still have everything he enjoys...but he must perceive that the human is in control.

We cannot ignore the fact that if the dog thinks he's in charge, he will act as though he is...in dog language, of course! 

A Life or Death Matter

When I initially present the Listening for Life program to dog owners who are having problems, they often react negatively.  They see it in terms of how it would feel if *they,* the humans, were to be put on the program.  They often feel that it is somehow "not nice" or even cruel to implement the program!  However, what they fail to realize is that humans (except for people like Paris Hilton, of course) are already on Nothing in Life is Free.  It's a simple fact of life.  Yet we teach our dogs that everything is free, and then when we ask them to do something for us, they feel stressed and have a hard time complying!  Same as if Paris Hilton were suddenly required to work at Mcdonald's!

However, consider the alternative to practicing control over your dog.  Dogs that behave badly often end up re-homed or put to sleep.  Dogs are under our control and we are the reason they live or die.  We must adequately care for them so they can live alongside us in harmony.  The ultimate cruelty for a human to impose on a dog is to inadequately manage his nature, and then kill him when he cannot fit into society.  Proper husbandry and management are the kindest things pet owners can give to their beloved pet.

Some of the same people that refuse to exercise control over their pet because they think it's "cruel" have no problems putting the dog down a year later because they can't stand him anymore.  Where's the logic in that?

Control your dog.  Guide him through his relationships and lifestyle.  Realize that without control from humans, a dog's life is in very real danger.


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Lisa & Kerry Lafferty  /  ozarklisa@gmail.com  /    Mountain Home, Arkansas