Is my dog dominant?
November 18, 2008 14 Comments
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:
- 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.
- My dog paws at me, leans on me, or jumps on me because he loves to be affectionate.
- My dog is protecting me when he growls at family members who get too close to me.
- When my dog growls over food or toys, he is just being a dog and it is his stuff
- My dog just loves to go for walks so much that he has to be the first one out!
- Rushing down the stairs is just a game to him.
- He just doesn’t like other dogs, not everyone likes all people.
- My dog isn’t very bright. It takes 3-4 times before he will down or sit on command, if he even does.
- He only growls at “certain” people. I think he senses something about them.
- 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:
- The leader of the pack gets the best sleeping area (which includes height) and there are only 2 leaders (generally male & female).
- 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”.
- Dogs claim their “territory” or mates by warding off other pack members.
- Dogs show resource guarding when they are confident in their leader status. “I own this. I tell you when you can have it.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Not listening to commands is not a lack of intelligence, but a sign of challenging your authority (if they were taught the command properly).
- 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.
- 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”