Dog dominance has gotten a lot of attention in the last few years due to Cesar Millan.
Cesar Millan places a heavy emphasis on dog dominance and pack leadership in his dog training show, The Dog Whisperer. The Dog Whisperer airs on the National Geographic Channel and is currently the most popular dog training program.
Often, there is much confusion and debate surrounding the concept of dog dominance. Some people cannot stop talking about it, and attribute all the ills of their furry friend on the dreaded d-word. Others, ban the mention of the d-word from their forums, claim that there is no such thing as dog dominance, and continually decry that the so-called dominance theory has been debunked.
Here, I want to consider dog dominance – what is fact, and what is fiction.
- Is dog dominance a myth? Has dominance theory been debunked?
- Does dominance cause most bad dog behaviors?
- How do we deal with a dominant dog?
- Who is right and who is wrong in this dog dominance debate?
Is Dog Dominance a Myth?
Some people claim that dog dominance is a myth that is only perpetuated by television trainers to improve ratings.
What is dominance?
There are two meanings that apply when it comes to dogs.
2. Dominance – the state that exists when one person or group has power over another.
4. Dominance – the power or right to give orders or make decisions.
In a dog pack, for example, the alpha male and female has the power to give orders and make decisions, thus they have dominance over other members of the pack. Dominance however, is not tied to only pack animals.
For example, lions are powerful predators that have dominance over most of the animal kingdom. When they stop at a water hole, all the animals clear out.
We also have dominance over animals, not because we have sharp claws and powerful bodies, but because of our brains. Our dominance comes from building tools and structures, as well as controlling resources and territory, rather than from our physical attributes.
Does dominance exist between dogs? Yes, sometimes.
Does dominance exist between dogs and people? Yes, sometimes.
However, there are multiple ways to achieve dominance. One way to achieve dominance is through threat of punishment or violence. This type of dominance is often referred to as absolutism, despotism, and tyranny.
Another way to achieve dominance is through persuasion and the manipulation of resources. Human institutions today gain supremacy mostly through the control of resources and diplomacy.
In fact, we have laws against using physical punishment and violence to gain power and control over other people, especially those who cannot protect themselves.
Has “dominance theory” been debunked?
Based on the studies that I have read, what has been debunked is the concept that a group of wolves get together, and have Thunderdome style fights with each other to establish physical dominance. At the end, the last one standing is King or Alpha.
This is a myth.
Rather, it has been discovered that most wolf packs are family groups where the alpha male and female are simply the parents of the family. The alpha pair still has dominance over its members (i.e. they are in a position of authority) but that position is *not* gained through physical aggression.
Animal Behavior. high status in a social group, usually acquired as the result of aggression, that involves the tendency to take priority in access to limited resources, as food, mates, or space.
It is this concept of high status through physical aggression, that has been proved to be inaccurate.
Does dominance cause most bad dog behaviors?
Recently, it has become popular to attribute almost all bad dog behaviors to dominance. If a dog walks ahead of us, it is because he is trying to dominate us. If a dog growls when we approach his food or his toy, it is because he thinks he is the boss. If a dog jumps on us, it is because he is trying to show us that he is leader of the pack.
Why did the dog pull to get ahead?
Frequently because he is excited and wants to get to the next bush to smell and mark. Dominance has nothing to do with it.
Why did the dog growl when people approached his food?
Because from experience, the dog has learned that when people come near his belongings, he loses it forever. As a result, he starts to protect his stuff before it gets taken away by force.
Why did the dog jump on a total stranger?
Sometimes, dogs jump because they want to lick us on the face which is an appeasement behavior. At other times, dogs jump because they are excited and want to play.
Dominance can cause bad dog behavior, including aggression. However, most of the time, bad dog behavior is a result of mis-communication between us and our dog. Often, we inadvertently reward our dog for his bad behavior, which encourages him to keep repeating it.
For example, when a dog jumps, our most common reaction is to push back with our hands and arms. From our dog’s point of view, this is a fun wrestling game where he gets a lot of attention. This rewards the dog for jumping, and gets him even more excited.
Does dominance cause most bad dog behaviors? No.
Most bad dog behaviors occur because we respond incorrectly or with inaccurate timing. As a result, our dog learns the wrong lessons and the bad behavior worsens.
For example, if we keep using force to take things away from our dog he will learn to associate people approaching him or his belongings as a negative event. In the future, he may decide to start protecting himself and his stuff with his teeth.
How do we deal with a dominant dog?
When I say a “dominant dog”, I mean a dog that is more likely to show dominant behaviors.
Independent and more primitive dog breeds will generally show more dominant behaviors. The Shiba Inu, for example, is a very independent and primitive dog breed.
My Shiba Inu challenged me a lot when he was young. Even today, he comes up with many new and often humorous behaviors to test his boundaries. A Shiba Inu is also extremely stubborn. If I try to force Sephy to do something, he will dig in and really not do it.
How do we deal with a dominant dog?
- More rules and structure. Providing a consistent routine allows a dominant dog to quickly learn what his pack responsibilities are, which will lead to less stress and frustration.
- Frequent obedience training sessions. Try to make obedience training a part of our dominant dog’s home life. This is easily achieved through the NILIF program. I first ask my dog to do something for me, before I do something for him in return.
- Reward training. Contrary to what some people may say, physical force is a poor way to deal with dominant dogs. A dominant dog will always fight back when faced with a physical threat. The more dominant and stubborn the dog, the more he will fight. In the end, we will need to use a lot of physical force (i.e. pain) to break our dog’s independence and stubbornness. Instead, by using reward training and controlling the dog’s resources, we are teaching our dog that the best way for him to get what he wants, is to do what we want first. This builds a strong bond and keeps our dog’s spirit intact.
- Management and supervision. Do not expose a dominant dog to more than he can handle. A string of failures will not only encourage our dog to practice bad behaviors, but also be demoralizing for everyone involved. It is important to challenge a dog and give him a rich and interesting life. However, do it at a pace that he can handle and enjoy. If we carefully manage our dog and set him up for success, he will be confident, balanced, and ready to meet new challenges.
- Always be calm but firm. Dogs are very good at sensing our emotions. Not only are they good observers, but they can hear and smell changes in our bodies. If we get tense, frustrated, or fearful, our dogs will pick up on those emotions, get stressed, and act out even more. When dealing with bad dog behavior, it is important to remain calm but firm. In this way, our dog will also stay calm and look to us for direction.
Who is right and who is wrong in the dog dominance debate?
There are many heated debates about dog dominance on the internet, and often, we let our own egos get in the way.
When I first got my Shiba Inu, I started with aversive training methods. Once I went down this road, I became resistant to any changes in strategy, even though using dominance and physical force techniques was causing greater aggression, more stress, and a low quality of life for everyone.
Through this experience, I learned that it is dangerous to blame everything on dog dominance. However, it is also counter-productive to deny the existence of dominance in dogs.
Ironically, the same people who want to ban the word dominance, from even being mentioned on certain forums, are themselves using their dominant position in the social group, together with negative and dominant language, to silence anyone that does not 100% toe the party line.
Ultimately, I learned that it does not matter who is right and who is wrong on the internet. It does not matter what my neighbors think about me or my dog parenting skills. What matters most are my dogs, and making the best decisions for them. Once I realized this and put my own ego on the back burner, things got a lot better. I was more open to new techniques, I got as much information as I could, and most important of all, I listened to my dogs and let them tell me what works best.
Sometimes, I am the boss. Sephy must go to the vet for yearly check-ups and that’s that. Sometimes, Sephy is the boss and he gets to pick where we go on our walks. Most of the time, we work together; we give and we take.
Dominance is not in black or white, and our dogs are not our enemies. There is little need to carry on an antagonistic “I win or he wins” relationship with our own dog.
“If you love something let it go free. If it doesn’t come back, you never had it. If it comes back, love it forever.”
My brst friend NaNa’s hs started to attack her sibling or myself from a sleep. She usually just snaps with no growling or warning because she was asleep. I am very scared of whst this means for us all. I am working with a trainer who has had some experience with this kind of thing so we are working slowly and working through her anxiety to. We start out every night in a normal routine and before we get sleep i have to seperate her for my own saftey. I am broken heated and very discouraged. What do i do
donna dempsey says
My 3yr old Large german shepherd, wants to hump all dogs & has now started to show aggressive gowls with teeth showing. I am doing the ‘watch passively & ignore dogs , while passing but if he or they get close, the growls etc become a problem, Will he grow out of this with age ? or will it have to be ‘desensitise routine’ always.
love your page 🙂
Jan Brase says
Love your article! I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head with your understanding that all healthy relationships are based upon give and take. Sometimes it’s ok for our dog to take the lead. Other times it needs to be us.
I agree that the best way to help our dogs understand their place in our “pack” is by controlling resources. This doesn’t harm, frighten or induce aggression in our dogs and is a sort of “natural consequences” approach.
I like the way you emphasize that training and play time should be integrated into your daily routine, that you don’t necessarily have to have a strictly set aside time every day. Much training can take place just while going about our usual day to day activities.
I also love the beautiful images of your lovely dogs. It is clear that they are happy, well, adjusted and beloved friends.
Thank you for this wonderful site.
Thanks for all the valuable and helpful information on this wonderful site!
Please let me know if you have a favorite animal charity that I can donate some money to to ‘reward’ you for your excellent behavior. 🙂
Our dog Molly is a beautiful mix of probably greyhound or whippet and yellow lab. I like to call her a ‘whipador’. Molly is the first mixed breed we’ve had in a long time our last two dogs were labradors we always adopt or rescue usually from the Humane Society or a rescue group. My wife actually found Molly on craigslist.
Molly was a puppy probably not more than 2 to 3 months old when we Got her. The story goes that she was placed in a dumpster at Walmart in a box, taped up, not with holes poked in it, buy an evil person. A very nice person who worked at Walmart heard her cries and rescued her from the dumpster. They owned a dog already and living in apartment so couldn’t keeper and listed her on craigslist and that’s where my wife found her. She was probably about two months old when we got her and now she is about two years.
So, finally the issue: Molly is a wonderful and sweet dog very high energy loves to search for and chase squirrels. The only issue is that sometimes she becomes dominant aggressive around new dogs and or people, not always. She does good generally at play days but but has been put in time out a few times for protecting the water bowl type issues. At the dog park she hangs around us and seems to be sort of protective.
I believe she has some anxiety issues but not separation anxiety she does great at home alone. When we took her on leash to a craft day fair she did great until she spotted another dog and then became somewhat dominant aggressive and I was unable to calm her down.
I could go on anon because I’m talking into my phone and I can talk a lot. Again thank you so much for your website, do you have any feedback comments or suggestions for me?
With my Shiba Inu, I did dog-to-dog desensitization exercises to help him be more calm and relaxed around other dogs.
As for dog parks, they can be a high excitement and high stress environment for many dogs. The ones that we visited were usually very high stimulus, with very little structure and supervision. As a result, Sephy got very reactive whenever he visited, and his behavior with other dogs and also people started to degrade.
Sephy does much better in smaller and more structured play-groups, with a lot of supervision. Therefore, I organized very small play-groups at my house, I would supervise very closely, and I set up very clear play rules, e.g. no stealing, no bullying, no humping. In this way, he has fun but also learns positive play behaviors. I manage the excitement level of all the dogs (by doing frequent play-breaks), so that nobody loses control and everybody has fun.
More on my dog park experiences.
Protecting the water-bowl and other objects sound like resource guarding behavior.
More on why dogs guard resources.
Another example of the well-balanced nature of the articles on this site. “Dominance” properly understood, always seems to me to be kind of a family structure thing. Parents are in charge. Looked at this way, it becomes clear that hierarchy can be associated with love, instead of cruelty.
I prefer to use the word “authoritative”, because many people associate the word “dominance” with aggression. (I think that a word can have different meanings, and that there is nothing wrong with the word “dominance” in itself. As a lover of Latin, I know that its Latin roots are quite cool. Still, it brings up negative associations to many people )
I think a majority of dog behavior problems are associated with lack of exercise. The dog has to get enough exercise, first and foremost. Only after that, can we look at the social hierarchy thing.
Stian Karlsen says
Pleasure to read this article, we need as much of this information out there as possible to combat the still widely adopted punitive ways of treating dogs. It was well balanced and well informed.
Firstly, thanks for running this site/ blog, it has been a vital source of information for us. We are looking to get a shiba puppy. We are just concerned about colouring. We went to see a litter of pups yesterday (at a registered breeder), and the pups she claims are “true reds” are so dark. She said they will lose it and white will replace it, but I just find it hard to imagine. I have done some reading and people are saying that all pups are born with the black muzzle and that it will lighten to white, but these puppies have black everywhere, even over their backs and tummies.
What has your experience been? Do you know if these pups are likely true reds?
Thanks in advance,
With Sephy, his muzzle area definitely got lighter.
Here are some of Sephy’s puppy pictures. There was a lot of black on his muzzle.
Here is Sephy a few months later. His muzzle has gotten a lot lighter. I think his coat also got *a little bit* lighter, but it wasn’t significant; at least not that I remember, or see from the pictures.
Sephy is not a pure red Shiba. His mother is red sesame and his father is a red. I think he takes more after his father though. He does not have much black on his fur.
Here is a thread on the Shiba Forum about red sesame vs. red –
Did you see the puppies’ parents? Are they both red? Is the breeder on this list of registered breeders?