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
Let's start with some definitions so that we are on the
same wavelength when we are talking about these issues.
Exercising influence or control.
Ready to conform to the
authority or will of others; meekly obedient.
Aggressive: Ready or likely to attack
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.
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
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
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."
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
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"
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
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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
self-inhibition or “manners” around humans.
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.
non-compliance when asked to give up a resource such as sleeping
spot, toy, bone
(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.
non-reaction to humans, goes along with the “not listening.”
Dog expects humans to react to HIM.
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.
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
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.
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
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.