Home > Dog Behavior > Dominance and Dogs: It’s not what you think it is

Dominance and Dogs: It’s not what you think it is

February 17, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Call it serendipity or coincidence (or something else), but in the past week I have seen quite a few stories, blog posts and e-mails about dominance in dogs. I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, but it seemed like a good opportunity to post on the topic.

This past summer, I had the good fortune to attend a workshop on this very topic and I thought I would share just a few of the highlights. The presenter is a well-known veterinarian in Minnesota. His name is Dr. Christopher Pachel, and he not only happens to be a vet, but he also happens to have a background in animal behavior. The information he provided in the workshop was not only informative, but also extremely helpful. I would recommend attending a session if you ever get the chance.

Here are just a few highlights of what I learned:

1. Truly dominant dogs are rarely aggressive. Other dogs recognize their dominance and respect them.

2. Dogs are likely to do what works – So if you have a dog that barks at you every time he wants a treat, and you give him a treat each time, then you have taught him that barking works to get a treat. If you suddenly change the rules or your expectations around how he gets a treat, the dog is likely to continue trying to use what has worked in the past. When the old behavior does not get him what he wants, a dog may express frustration in several ways, like jumping on you or grabbing for the treat. This does not mean he is trying to “dominate” you. Think of it this way: If Sarah (a 2 year old toddler), has been allowed to pick out a candy bar at the grocery store every time she whines, then she has come to expect that whining will get her a candy bar at the store. If mom or dad suddenly says “no” to the candy bar when Sarah whines, what is likely to happen? A tantrum? It is the same for dogs.

3. There is no correlation between eating order and “dominance aggression”. In other words, letting your dog eat before you does not necessarily mean that he or she is likely to be dominant aggressive.

4. Dogs are not wolves. There are some commonalities between dogs and wolves, but one should never assume a dog is expressing dominance like a wolf would be in a wolf pack. Dogs are domesticated animals and thus think and act differently.

5. Dominance is not a personality trait. You did not adopt a dog that is dominant all the time and in every situation. Maybe your dog is more dominant when it comes to retrieving a ball, but is less dominant when eating next to your other dog. It is situation-specific.

6. Using aggression to fight aggression = aggression. In other words, using corrective actions that include things like: pinning a dog on his back, kicking the dog, forcing him to release a toy, staring her down and grabbing him by the scruff of the neck, actually can increase the likelihood of an aggressive response from a dog. Meanwhile, using things like food rewards, food for trade and asking him or her to sit for everything are corrective actions that are the least likely to increase aggression and actually may decrease it. (By the way, this info came from a study done at the University of Pennsylvania.)

We often use the term “dominance” or “dominant dog” pretty loosly when trying to describe dog behavior, but it is not as easy to define as we may think. Just look at the actual definition for dominance: a) the fact or state of being dominant: as a: dominant position especially in a social hierarchy. Notice that it does not define it as aggression, or an expression of aggression. Dominance is a much more complicated concept in the dog world than we think it is and it cannot and should not be applied in general terms when describing a dog.

I recommend checking out the following links to further educate yourself on this topic or to seek help from a local dog trainer and animal behaviorist. After all, don’t we owe it to our dogs to try to better understand them?

Additional articles on pet behavior
Veterinarian Behaviorists Question Dominance Theory in Dogs
Dog Trainer and Behavior Consultant located in the Twin Cities


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  1. June 16, 2009 at 4:59 AM

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