The Dominant Dog – Dealing with Dominance in Dogs

What is a dominant dog?

Some people attribute all problem behaviors to “dominance“, while others do not want to use the “dominant dog” label at all. The truth, as always, is somewhere in-between.

It is useful to recognize dominant behaviors in our dog, so that we can better manage him, keep him safe, and set him up for success. Refusing to use the word dominance, or denying its existence in dogs, is unhelpful.

Any pack animal including humans and dogs, have to deal with dominance issues, because it is part of pack dynamics.

Similarly, trying to explain everything away by using the dominant dog label or excuse, is also unhelpful. To really fix a problem behavior, we want to fully understand it, and correctly identify its source. For example, a dog may show aggression because of dominance. However, dog aggression can also be the result of fear, stress, play, curiosity, boredom, or something else.

Dog Dominance

Dominance is a fluid concept.

Dogs are not dominant all of the time.

For example, many dogs will show greater dominance when they are on home turf, or when their owners are around. Under different circumstances, these same dogs may become less assertive, or may even become submissive.

Observe our dog carefully, and identify when he is more likely to show dominance, and why.

Dominance is a relative concept.

My Shiba Inu, for example, is more dominant than most dogs I have owned. He challenges me more frequently, and is constantly testing his boundaries. He has a dominant body posture, and he will not back down when challenged by other dogs.

My Siberian Husky, is a more submissive dog. She usually stops whatever she is doing, when I tell her to. She very quickly backs down, and uses submissive body language, when confronted by other dogs.

However, this does not mean that my Husky will always back down, or never show any dominance behavior. She simply prefers to avoid conflict, and has learned that she usually gets more, by seeking a peaceful resolution. I make sure to encourage this behavior, by rewarding calmness and conflict avoidance very well.

What is a Dominant Dog?

  1. A dominant dog will likely respond with aggression when he is frustrated, or when he feels threatened. He may also redirect that aggression onto us, if we try to physically engage him.
  2. A dominant dog is more forceful when it comes to fulfilling his own needs and goals. He is not afraid to challenge those around him, and to continually test his boundaries. My Shiba Inu is always testing to see if particular rules, such as the no getting on furniture rule, still hold true.
  3. A dominant dog is more likely to fight, and less likely to submit or run away. My Shiba Inu likes playing with other dogs, but he generally does not get along with dogs who try to dominate him. If challenged, he will not back down, and this can result in a dog fight.

Dealing with a Dominant Dog

1. A dominant dog needs a calm and assertive pack leader.

Being angry and shouting at our dog, will only worsen his behavior. Fear and uncertainty will increase his level of stress, and cause him to behave in a more erratic fashion.

The best way to deal with a dominant dog is to remain calm, and firmly remove him from the environment or object, that is causing him to act out.

2. Contrary to common belief, physical force or physical corrections is NOT a good way to deal with dominant dogs.

If not perfectly executed (with perfect timing, force, and technique), a physical correction may further frustrate our dog, and cause him to get more aggressive.

Instead, stay calm, keep physical interactions to a minimum, and quickly leave the stressful situation. In addition, using physical force against a dog, may end up teaching him the wrong lesson; in particular, use violence against violence.

True alpha dogs lead by controlling the pack’s resources. We can control our dog’s resources by following the NILIF (Nothing in Life is Free) program, and using reward obedience training.

3. A dominant dog should be carefully managed and supervised.

We want to step in and stop any aggressive behaviors, before our dog escalates and loses control. Prevention is key when dealing with a dominant dog. It stops him from practicing aggressive behaviors, and it enforces the important lesson that we are calm, and in charge.

4. A dominant dog should have more rules.

To become a good pack leader, it is important to develop a set of house rules and some structure, for our dog to follow. Always be consistent with enforcing all of those rules.

My Shiba Inu’s most important house rules include –

5. A dominant dog should have frequent obedience training sessions.

Schedule at least two or more short (10 – 15 minutes) obedience training sessions with our dog, every day. It is a good idea to keep up with obedience exercises, throughout a dog’s life. This keeps him mentally sharp, and makes it clear that we are in charge.

6. Use proper equipment to control a dominant dog.

When dealing with aggression, safety should always be a primary concern.

Use whatever equipment is necessary, to keep all the people around our dominant dog safe. A drag lead may also be useful because it gives us good control of our dog, without having to lay hands on him or his collar, and without resorting to chasing games.

If our dog has a bite history, it may be necessary to use a muzzle. I like the basket muzzle because it does not overly constrain a dog’s mouth, and is more comfortable. A basket muzzle will still allow a dog to eat and pant.

Be careful not to aggravate our dog’s aggressive behavior by overly constraining him, and causing barrier frustration. When in doubt, consult a professional trainer.

7. Always set our dominant dog up for success.

Try to minimize the number of dominant displays. Identify objects (e.g. other dogs, cats) and environmental conditions (e.g. loud noise) that trigger dominant behaviors, and avoid those triggers.

Then, gradually desensitize our dog to those events, in a controlled fashion.

Many dog behavioral issues, including resource guarding, biting people, dog-to-dog aggression, sensitivity to handling, growling at humans, and general disobedience, are often attributed to “the dominant dog“.

However, each of these problems are unique, and complex. They are usually the result of many factors, one of which may be dominance. In fact, many behavioral issues are the result of stress and fear, and have nothing whatsoever to do with dominance.

When dealing with dog behavioral issues, it is best to keep an open mind.

Observe our dog and his environment carefully. Identify the triggers for his aggressive behavior, and try to understand why he is responding in this way. If his aggression is extreme (e.g. he is breaking skin, and/or causing puncture wounds), hire a professional trainer to help us carefully trouble-shoot the problems.

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  1. Sandra says

    I have a 3 yr old mixed dog called Mika; staffy, rottweiler, lab and dog de bordeux. We got her as a puppy to keep our pointer company. Unfortunately, he died 3 months after being diagnosed with cancer when Mika was 2. When she came into season, our vet told us not to worry about keeping them seperate as he was on very strong chemo. Some how, his will to leave a legacy was strong and managed to get her pregnant. 6 months on, after having kept 2 of her puppies, she has developed a protective nature when meeting a new dog. She forces it to submit. No biting. We have been very suprised as she was very docile before. There are no triggers. We have a lot of dogs that we walk with and she is used to large groups of dogs playing around her. When she attacks, the other dog is not really doing anything, no aggression or even paying attention. She is normally off the lead when we’re in the park. Once she has a reaction, I pull her away and make her heel. Another thing I should mention is that she is extremely ball orientated. We’ve all been trying to notice a patternbut can not find one. I’m not really sure what I should do and would greatly appreciate any advice you could offer. Thank you!

    • shibashake says

      What do you mean by attack? Does she charge and push the other dog down? What happens when the other dog does not want to submit? Is the other dog close-by or far away? Has she attacked any of the dogs from her group, or only new dogs at the park? Is there a particular type of dog that she attacks? Larger dog, dogs of a certain breed, high energy dogs, younger dogs, etc.? Has she done any damage to other dogs? How many dogs are in the walking group? Are her puppies in the group? How is her recall? Does she stay with the walking group?

      My Shiba Inu was pretty reactive to other dogs. He gets over-excited and wants to meet every dog he sees at the park. This can be dangerous for him, because not all dogs want to meet new dogs, and some dogs may get aggressive when another dog comes into their space uninvited. I keep Sephy on-leash when we go walking, at the park, neighborhood, etc.

      At the same time, I do dog-to-dog desensitization exercises, to raise his reactivity threshold and to help him be more relaxed around other dogs. We do desensitization training in a structured environment, with trainer chosen dogs, and under the direction of a trainer.

      More on how we did dog-to-dog desensitization exercises with Sephy.

      I always try to set Sephy up for success, and not expose him to situations where he may go reactive. The more positive or neutral experiences that he has with other dogs, the more trust he builds, and the more relaxed he becomes. Similarly, reactive experiences and behaviors will erode that trust, build negative associations with other dogs, and worsen his behavior.

      We go walking on quiet, less popular trails, during off-hours, so that there are very few new dogs around. I carefully manage his environment, so that I do not expose him to more than he can handle.

      A good trainer can help with desensitization and also in identifying the triggers that cause reactive behavior in a dog.

  2. Tasha says

    So I have a mastiff mix. I got her from the shelter when she was just about year and, by my best guess, had recently weaned a litter of puppies. She did great in the face to face with my boxer and we brought her home. She did great when she met our friend’s dog, whom we now live with, the two of them still get a little heated every now and then, but they are both around the same age and have very dominant personalities. I used to be able to take my mastiff to petsmart and walk her around other dogs with no problem, ever since we moved she has become a terror when other dogs are around during our walks. She is on a gentle leader so she flings herself around essentially by her nose and screams like she’s being hurt and will not respond to any of my verbal cues, frankly it’s probably horrific to witness. She almost caused a fight with a large male shepherd I was attempting to introduce her too and he’s a very well balanced, mature dog. It’s been such a rapid change I have no clue what triggered it or where to begin to stop it. She has made improvements as far as walking past dogs barking in houses, but this behavior is unacceptable.

    • shibashake says

      Moving to a new environment can be very stressful for a dog. Suddenly everything is different, there is great uncertainty, which leads to anxiety and fear.

      When we moved, I set up a fixed routine for my Shiba right away, that is as close as possible to his previous routine. I also establish the same consistent set of house rules. Routine and consistency helps to create certainty. I also give him good outlets for his stressful energy. He likes exploring, so we go walking on quiet trails, during off-hours, when there are not very many people or dogs about. Usually it is just us, so it is fun and relaxing for him.

      As for meeting other dogs, I make sure to always take things slowly and go at a pace that Sephy is comfortable with. Most of the time, we don’t even meet the dogs, but just ignore and create neutral experiences.

      The more positive and calm experiences that Sephy has, the more confidence he gains, and the more positive associations he forms with other dogs. Similarly, negative or reactive events will undermine that confidence, significantly set back retraining, and worsen his behavior.

      Therefore, I always try to set Sephy up for success by managing his environment, creating neutral experiences, and not exposing him to situations he is not yet ready to handle. We did a lot of dog-to-dog desensitization exercises when he was young, and that was very helpful. We did the exercises in a controlled environment, with trainer chosen dogs, and under the direction of a trainer. We started from a very far distance and only moved closer when Sephy was ready for it. The important thing is to make the sessions short, positive, calm, and very rewarding.

      More on how I deal with dog-to-dog reactivity during walks.
      More on dog socialization.

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