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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 –
- No getting on furniture,
- No biting on people,
- No leash biting, and
- No food aggression or resource guarding.
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.