What Dominance Is:
My dog wants to lead on walks: he’s dominant. My dog growls when I approach her bone: she’s dominant. My dog growls at other dogs: he’s dominant. Dogs that hump other dogs or toys are dominant. Which of those statements is true? You may be surprised to learn that dominance has little bearing in any of those situations, especially when it comes to deciding what to do about it. For example, one could argue that a dog guarding a bone is displaying dominance, but the worst thing you can do is try to be more dominant than your dog in that situation. That’s because for humans, dominance implies the use of force and aggression to assert one’s will in various situations. For the rest of the animal kingdom, dominant individuals usually maintain their position without resorting to aggression or force. They are accepted as the one in charge and this actually decreases the amount of conflict in a group.
You wouldn’t be the only one. Dominance is one of the most misunderstood topics when it comes to dog behavior and training. So misunderstood in fact that the scientist who first spoke of “Alpha wolves” and the dominance hierarchy has made public statements retracting and correcting the theory he developed. Unfortunately, Dominance Theory is still woven into most people’s interpretations of dog behavior and I hear behaviors inappropriately attributed to it multiple times a week when working with people and their dogs.
Why It Matters
The problem with diagnosing a dog as ‘dominant’ is that it’s almost always a misdiagnosis, and – most importantly – results in the wrong treatment for the dog. Behaviors people commonly diagnose as ‘dominant’ can be related to stress, fear, insecurity, excitement, not knowing the preferred behavior, or lack of motivation.
Taking the example above, if a dog growls at you when you try to take its bone, you might react differently depending on what camp you’re in regarding dominance. If you choose to see this interaction as a dominance struggle, you might decide to lash out verbally or physically to “show the dog who’s boss.” Possible outcomes for your dog if you react this way include: fear, stress, confusion, aggression, anxiety, decreased trust of you and/or others, sublimation of the behavior, amplification of the behavior, or various combinations of those outcomes. In this situation, even if the dog stops growling when you try to take his bone, it’s highly unlikely he will feel better about you doing so. Conversely, if you choose to see this interaction as one in which the dog is trying to tell you to leave it and its bone alone (almost certainly rooted in the dog’s belief that you might try to take the bone away), you could decide to help the dog overcome its concern about its bone. Maybe you start tossing treats when you approach so that the dog begins thinking of you as a source of good things instead of someone who might remove his prized possession. Possible outcomes for your dog if you react this way include: decreased concern over you approaching him and his bone, lower stress, greater trust in you in general, less growling when you approach, and growing pudgy from eating more treats (possible, but comical in light of the potential outcomes of the other dominance-minded method of “treatment”).
A More Helpful Viewpoint
Consider the other behaviors mentioned at the beginning of this article, which are just a few that I’ve heard people attribute to dominance. Let’s look at how we can view them without attributing them to dominance. When a dog leads on walks it can be rooted in excess energy, excitement, anxiety, and/or lack of understanding of what behavior is preferred. If your dog growls at other dogs, it’s probably asking for space or lacks confidence around other dogs. If your dog is a humper, it could be excited, stressed, or playing. Either way, labeling behaviors as dominant results in more harm than good and obscures the more important underlying issue that needs to be treated.
Long story short, dogs are not trying to take over our households. There is probably a fairly simple explanation for your dog’s behavior and always a kind approach to changing that behavior should the need arise. If you need help figuring it out, feel free to reach out to us.
Written by Judy Borsheim, MS, VSPDT