Is my dog dominant?

   Many of my clients ask me on a daily basis, if their dog is “dominant”.  In most cases the clients see their dog’s misbehavior as dominance, when in fact; they are acting purely on instinct or learned behavior (from humans).

   Lets look at the definition of dominance: “The right to give orders; having authority”.

  Many people think their aggressive dog is “dominant”. Stop and think about it.  A true dominant member of a dog pack is always calm and confident. They do not need to use force to keep the others in line.  They are aloof and they control the resources, that’s it.

   The dog striving for the dominant role is where we see aggression. This is usually the younger stronger dog in the pack challenging for rank.  All dogs reach a stage where they will test their strength and rank in a pack. The true test of dominance is usually not seen until 15 months; this is when they hit sexual maturity (neutered or not). They are stronger and would like the right to run the pack.  Some pups will test earlier depending on their experiences as a puppy.  Pups that stay with mom until 12-16 weeks usually learn quickly that mom is in charge. She will not forcefully bite and shake them as a correction but rather give a quick corrective bite and move on. Simply because she is confident in her role as the dominant member.

    A dog that strives for dominance is a strong dog with a persistent personality. This is not an awful thing if it is managed and controlled properly.  By this, I do not mean making the dog fear you, nor do I suggest being physical with your dog.  My definition (of manage and control) is to have rules and boundaries that your dog must follow on a daily basis and remaining calm and confident in your status. This is accomplished by starting foundation training and proper pack mentality with your dog.  Too many people forget dogs are pack animals and instinctually follow a pack order and rule. Without a strong pack leader, you can’t have a strong pack and this is where anxiety and aggression starts to rear its ugly head.  A dog’s first priority is to survive; they cannot do this with out a strong pack leader. So they will try to gain that role, which is where people get confused about dominance. 

   Just about all the clients who contact me regarding aggression issues start off by telling me they have established the “alpha” position. This is a very loose term people have developed over the years.  Let me start by telling you, if your dog shows aggression to anyone or anything, you are not seen as a confident leader of your pack. ONLY a respected leader shows aggression and says when it is ok to show aggression.  An “alpha” does not need to challenge their pack members on a daily basis (staring them down), nor do they need to use aggression to keep their status (alpha rolling your dog or spanking them). A true alpha merely needs to use body language and attitude to have the pack listen. An alpha is always calm and confident, not angry and demanding. There is no need for an alpha to fight, they are already confident in their position.

   Most clients with more then one dog often get confused as to which is the “alpha” of the pack.  Countless consults have started for one dog in particular and upon asking questions and observing behaviors, the dog they think is the alpha because of aggression is truly not the alpha at all.

   Here are a few misconceptions humans have about their dogs:

  1. My dog sleeps in bed with me because he loves me. Growling at my spouse or sleeping between us just shows how much he loves me.
  2. My dog paws at me, leans on me, or jumps on me because he loves to be affectionate.
  3. My dog is protecting me when he growls at family members who get too close to me.
  4. When my dog growls over food or toys, he is just being a dog and it is his stuff
  5. My dog just loves to go for walks so much that he has to be the first one out!
  6. Rushing down the stairs is just a game to him.
  7. He just doesn’t like other dogs, not everyone likes all people.
  8. My dog isn’t very bright.  It takes 3-4 times before he will down or sit on command, if he even does.
  9. He only growls at “certain” people.  I think he senses something about them.
  10. He only sits on the back of the couch to be closer to me or he thinks he is a cat.

   I have heard all of these in my 20 years of working with aggression cases. Every one of the above incidents clearly describes a dog striving for the dominant role.  We have humanized our dogs so much that we actually make excuses for aggression and bad manners.  It is our nature to want to coddle and over-love our pets; but to your dog it is yet another sign that you are not a strong leader. 

   Now let me describe the same 10 things in dog language:

  1. The leader of the pack gets the best sleeping area (which includes height) and there are only 2 leaders (generally male & female).
  2. Dogs display dominance by body checking other dogs. He who gets that space owns that space.  Pawing at an owner is demanding attention, not asking.  Jumping on an owner pushes them from their space, again “my spot”.
  3. Dogs claim their “territory” or mates by warding off other pack members.
  4. Dogs show resource guarding when they are confident in their leader status. “I own this.  I tell you when you can have it.”
  5. I have an old saying, “whoever is in the lead, is the leader”. Dogs rush out the door first, so they can control the environment that you are entering.
  6. Again, “whoever is in the lead” is the leader.  Pack members must follow their leader.  Rushing down the stairs first is another way of doing showing leadership.
  7. Dog-dog aggression is the most common sign of striving for dominance.  Strange dogs are never allowed into a pack.  This will add to the challenge of leadership.
  8. Not listening to commands is not a lack of intelligence, but a sign of challenging your authority (if they were taught the command properly).
  9. Only the leader is allowed to show or direct aggression.  Those “certain” people may carry themselves confidently. This is not allowed.  It is a challenge.
  10. Dogs will seek “higher” ground to display their leadership.  A dog striving for leadership will seek higher ground to display control of that area.

   Now, there are many other signs as well but I think you get the picture.  If you have a dog that is trying to gain rank, I strongly suggest some foundation training along with obedience.  Foundation training will get you started in re-establishing yourself as the leader and laying down some rules and boundaries. Obedience comes after your dog knows you are in control. 

 Why obedience if your dog now sees you as the leader?  You cannot expect your dog to know what sit, stay, down, come, and leave it means without properly being taught these commands. Dogs are not born with the knowledge of how to perform these commands.  It would be unfair to get angry at your dog if they don’t “down” when you never taught them what it means.

Be calm, fair, and confident. Your dog will be calm, happy, and obedient.

 Tara, Brandie & the “pack”

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14 Responses to Is my dog dominant?

  1. lauren says:

    I ran into this because I can’t decide it my dog is dominant or not, i think most of her stubbornness her breed (we don’t really know the mix but she’s definitely a lot of chow chow), or if it’s her shady past that makes her seem tough.

    She’s very skittish and she doesn’t know sit, and mostly runs away from strangers. At the vet’s office, however, she turns into some kind of spawn of satan mad as hell dog that acts like her life is in danger when getting her nails clipped. Scariest dog display I have ever seen. My vet thinks it’s because she’s a chow and they know how to get what they want, but I have a feeling that she’s really scared to death.

    She had a lot of neglect early in life and I think it’s a mechanism of those experiences. Are there seriously like, dog psychologists? I want to meet one.

    • tarastermer says:

      Hi Lauren
      Yes their are “dog psychologists” but you must be very careful in who you hire. Chows and chow mixes are a special case and they should have experience working with them. Chows hate to be restrained, most of the chows that come to me do better with less restraint, but again this takes patience and experience to perform it without getting hurt. I usually refrain from saying it is a breed thing, because any dog can act the same way. Most dogs are horrible about thier paws being touched because they learn their fighting stops humans from doing what they don’t like. Our normal reaction is to get frustrated, angry or add more restraint with touch. This would never work on any breed. If someone tried to wrestle you down and do something you didn’t like I am sure you too would fight back. It is normal defense drive that dogs go into, some run some fight back.
      The best thing to do is to find an experienced behaviorist and work on touch desensitization program. Chows are usually very reserved when it comes to strangers, most will grumble a little and walk away, some will full out charge to get strangers to back off, the fearful ones go into flight drive. I would recommend you find a local behaviorist and work with these issues before they get too out of control. :)

  2. Jason Vitala says:

    Ran across this article while trying to determine the opiions of my dog sleeping with me. When it’s time for bed, I tell him to get in his bed, whivh hedoes. But sometimes during the night, he hops into bed with me and sleeps right up against me, or as close to the center near th bottom of the bed. Sometimes I kick him him out and other times I let him stay. Its actually annoying because it causes me to sleep in a different position than I’m accustomed to. I feel that he’s a very dominate, confident dog. He never shows aggresion towards people or dogs. he will bark and become attentive at certain dogs, but once, when allowed, he gets to the other dogs all he wants to do is play. However, if the other dog doesnt submit to him, he will get a bit upset, but not violently aggresive. He knows I’m the pack leader, but it seems he constantly challenges it. he obeys me when I enter a door and i go first while he waits, he sits patiently while I prepare his food and doesnt eat until i OK it. But, if I opened the gate and allowed him to go outside, he would go do whatever he felt like doing and would pay me know mind. If I get close to him, he runs away just out of reach as if its a game or his way of saying nope, I’m in contorl, not you. As stated in your list of 10 above, he gives the impression that he’s slow or stupid. He’s not attentive when you talk to him. He’s a Bull-Terrier/Pyranees mix. When I tell him to do something he shouldnt do, he shows signs of submission, but immediately goes right back to doing what i told him to do, as if he’s challenging me. (70% of the time. sometimes he does what I say without question). Whats something additional or different that i can do with such a defiant. stubborn dog? Thanx

    • tarastermer says:

      Hi Jason
      Thank you for reading my post!
      You had made a comment that your dog sees you as the pack leader but challenges it. If your dog sees you as pack leader it will not challenge that position, it may challenge others in your pack (humans or animals) but not you. You sound like you have some very good boundaries going, food control & door control but there is other areas that may need fine tuning; like the outside world.
      Many people have control in the house but when the dog gets out, all bets are off. This tells me that there is a lack of respect to you as the leader. Your dog needs to understand YOU control his daily routine. You have to be consistant and follow through on your commands (the bed issue). If you can not keep your dog out of your bed get a crate! A true leader does not waver in thier rules, if you say no bed then no bed. You can not say “well ok this time” and not confuse your dog, or give him mixed signals as to who runs the pack.
      The leader always gets the best sleeping spot, and would never “move” for a pack member.
      When we take a dog in it stays in the crate 24/7 with only time out ON LEASH for feeding, exercise, and potty breaks. This may take 2-4 weeks for the dog to understand you control his daily actions, but we also do not hesitate in our commands. There is no question what we want; respect, and obedience. Many dogs are labeled dominant due to breed but the unfortunate truth is that our inconsistancy makes them this way. I would recommend getting a crate and while you are home with him leave him on leash. If he goes outside you walk him, on leash. Right now the yard is his, not yours. You need to establish leadership outside as well by controlling his actions there. Off leash is an earned privilege, that should not be rushed. Letting a dog off leash that 70% of the time respects you, will strengthen their desire to gain the leadership. Afterall, as you said, you can’t catch him so with each failed attempt you get more frustrated and he gets more leader points.
      I would also recommend finding a trainer/behaviorist to help you regain control and start an obedience program, teach him the commands and use them. Too many owners get angry at their dog for not listening, but have never “formally” taught the commands they give. If you have taught them formally, and it is a solid command without distractions, then amp it up and practice with distractions (outside) on leash.

  3. Tammy says:

    I have a female mutt dog slightly smaller than a lab (not sure of her mix). She is an outside dog and shares our large yard with 2 small goats. For the past 3 weeks she has been allowed access to them since I have not seen aggression and they seemed to enjoy each other’s company and I thought would be good protection. About a week and a half ago I brought home our 2nd goat…she is 7 to 8 weeks old and up until today the dog has been totally fine with her. However twice today I have caught her displaying odd or disturbing behavior toward the new goat. First I heard some barking and goat wailing…went running and found my dog pinning the goat down and nipping on her. She didn’t break skin or anything…just goobered all over her but totally freaked both me and the goat out. Then later again the same thing….pushing the goat down on her side with her front paws and trying to hold her there while the goat is screaming. If she was able to get up she’d knock her down again and paw on her side and grab at her back with her teeth..again not breaking skin…just scaring the tar out of her. I have seperated them now but wondered if this seems more like a show of dominance rather than aggression since she didn’t actually “hurt” her? I’m assuming if she meant to do harm the goat would have been torn up. I was really hoping they’d be able to be together for both protection & socializing but am re-thinking that option.

    • tarastermer says:

      It sounds like she is trying to assert her dominance to a younger pack member. It is important to have her understand that you are in in control of the entire pack and not her. I would suggest keeping her on leash while around the goats and controlling her actions. If you are using her for herding, I would contact a herding trainer to get some great tips about how to teach her to get along peacefully with your goats.
      It sounds like she has great bite inhibition if she is not breaking skin, but we have seen dogs with great bite inhibition lose it with the more “wins” they have under their belt. As I said earlier, you must control her actions and you can do this with her on a leash.

  4. Chelsea says:


    We have a four month old corgi puppy (male) who was obviously the king of his litter. We chose him (too) young, at two weeks, so didn’t really see his personality traits developed. We got him at 8 weeks old. He is definitely headstrong, but we work with him everyday. He gets at least 2 hours of walking exercise a day, and often goes to work with my boyfriend in the woods, walking. He is great around us, and at home. He has no food dominance, and has mastered a lot of commands. He never gets to leave first on a walk or to get into the car. He sleeps in his crate and is not allowed on furniture, though our house has plenty of dog beds and toys for him.

    here’s the issue: he wants to be the dominant one when he’s around other dogs. He is constantly jumping on top of them (even much larger dogs, like labs) and yesterday it got so bad with a boxer that he was full on growling, showing teeth and gnashing at him. We don’t know what to do. We are trying to be the best dog parents that we can be, but just want a well-socialized, nice, dog.

    • tarastermer says:

      At 4 months old, your puppy is just learning how to play with other dogs. It is very rare to see dominance younger then 6-7 months. They are basically learning what is allowed and what is not.
      I would recommend having controlled play, and controlled greetings with other dogs. Keep him on leash and do not allow him to “rush” up to other dogs. Have him sit first and then you need to tell him when it is ok to greet. If he jumps on them, growls or bites at their faces, say “enough” pull him back and make him relax for a minute. When he relaxes allow him to go and play again. You will have to keep at this as he is just learning.
      If you have continued problems with this, I would get him in to see a trainer who is experienced in turning off play. :)
      Good luck!
      Tara & the “pack”

  5. wendy says:

    hi i have a staffy he is 17 months old ,i have had him 8 months now, he has been nueteured and we have been to basic dog training club but after all this time i still cant get him to walk on the lead, he horrendously pulls i have had so many different collars and harness’es even the dog illusion collar from the dog whisper did not help. The only collar/lead that is brilliant is the genco but this is rubbing behind his ear and causing sore’s i have tried the techniques taught at the dog club (stopping every time he pulls/walking in a differnt direction) to no avail my muscle in my arm is damaged through his pulling i am still working with these techniques as i know they can take time and espeacilly with staffies. can anyone help with any other suggestion as i am getting to the stage of not wanting to take him out anymore

    • tarastermer says:

      You said that you have been stopping and walking in a different direction. One thing I try to tell my clients, and I am not sure if you do this, but do not talk to your dog unless he is in the right place. We as humans are so vocal that a dog never has to look back to see where we are. We chatter so much that they know you are there. Try staying quiet, do not “warn” him if you abruptly turn in a different direction, and in order for this to be effective you should go at least 10 paces in the opposite direction. Also try turning left into him, not into his mid body but try to align your body with his neck area. I would highly recommend asking a trainer to teach you how to properly use a slip collar. Do not attempt to use one without a lesson. I use slip collars on large dogs and I do not use them for the “choke” effect, but rather the sound of the “snap” it makes. The snap sound is a very effective attention getter, but again you must learn how to use it properly first.

  6. Sonya Thomas says:

    Hi Tara, I read through the ten actions and my dog fits almost all of them. I have a 2 year old male jack russel/fox terrier, in the house is my boy friend , both my parents and I, he is the only animal in the house. He is over all a pretty well manered dog in and out of the house, but when it comes to me telling him no or punishing him(sending him to his bed) he growls and snarls and has occasionally snaped at me. If i get to close to my boy friend he growls at me and gives me an evil stare. He sleeps in bed with us (whitch I do not approve of) but with my bf and as many times as I put him down he alwasy sneaks back up and my bf will not turn him away. What should I do ? I feel that if I keep loosing the fight in the house I will loose all control inside and out.
    please help me :)

    • tarastermer says:

      First get him out of the bed LOL I would highly recommend using a crate at night so he does not sneak up on the bed. It really sounds like he has no respect for you, sit down and talk with the BF and tell him you need to get control before his corrections lead to possibly biting someone outside your pack. Unfortunately the dogs pay the ultimate price for that, it is worth having some strict rules. Hire a behaviorist to come and talk to both of you, to make a plan of action for him. It will be better for all of you this way. :) Good luck!

  7. Bryan says:

    I have a English Bulldog and she is around 10 years old. We also have a Neapolitan Mastiff which she is about 3 years old. The bulldog will growl at the mastiff for no reason, then she will stand in front of the mastiff and growl and stare as to pick a fight. The mastiff has always just got up and walked away. Recently they have got into two fights. The first one the bulldog started biting the mastiff and she jumped on the bulldog, held her down with her paws and bit her ear and made it bleed. This last time was about 4 months later we were out and returned home and the bulldogs was bleeding badly from her ear and a few bite marks on the top of her head. The mastiff seems to get very shaken up when this happens and now we fear she will kill the bulldog. What should we do? Is the mastiff evil and now that she tasted blood will she bite people? The mastiff has always been the biggest baby and sweet. She always wants to sit with us and just be with the family at all times. If you give her a treat she uses her lips to get it from your hand as if she wants to make sure she doesn’t bite. Now my wife thinks she is a vicious dog and may attack our children. Will she attack now that she has bitten the bulldog and tasted blood?

    • tarastermer says:

      Hey Bryan
      Dogs are not evil. It sounds like you have two dogs challenging for rank in your house. I would highly recommend hiring a behaviorist to come help you get order back in your pack. It is a myth that once a dog “tastes blood” they will kill. The problem is every sucessfull attack builds confidence in a dog; this makes them see others as no challenge to their rank.
      I am very strict when it comes to dogs and children, I strongly believe dogs should be conditioned to move away from crawling or running children, as ANY dog will correct a child as they would a puppy that is being rude. They don’t have to be child aggressive to do so. Last year I saw 47 child biters, these dogs used a corrective bite just like they would on a puppy-for hugging, face to face interactions and resource guarding. The danger here would be if your children were left unattended or around them when they had a fight over rank. Your children would most likely be injured due to the size of the dogs involved in the fight.
      Again I would highly recommend hiring a behaviorist to help you restore order :)

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