Behavior Problems

Dominant Dogs

Debunking the Dominance Myth

One of the most misunderstood topics in dog training is the subject of dominance.

Dominance is often cited by owners as the cause for many common dog behavior problems. Owners sometimes say things about their dogs such as "he's very dominant" or "he's trying to be Alpha." Occasionally a dog's undesirable behavior is related to dominance, but more often the underlying cause is simply lack of proper training. For example, a dog who pulls on the leash might be trying to lead the walk, or he might simply be pulling ahead because his natural pace is faster than his owner's natural pace and he has never been trained to walk politely by his owner's side.

We're not saying that there's no such thing as dominance in dogs, but it is important to separate fact from fiction. The word "dominance," when applied to dog behavior, basically refers to a desire to control resources. Resources can include food, attention, treats, toys and even simple things like access to the back yard. A confident dog who seeks to control resources can rightly be called "dominant" but that trait in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing to have in a dog, as long as the dog is not permitted to control important resources. For example, dogs should never be permitted to demand food, play, treats, toys or attention. If you own a dominant dog, obedience training is a must.

Dominant dogs are confident dogs. Maybe that's why many professional dog trainers, when choosing a puppy for their own families, will try to select a more dominant puppy from the litter. Dominant dogs, when raised properly, are outgoing, confident, and eager to experience life. Given a choice between owning a dominant dog or a fearful dog, most professional dog trainers will choose the dominant dog every time. They know that it is very difficult to rehabilitate a timid, fearful dog. A fearful dog has trouble stepping out into the world and enjoying life. In contrast, a confident, fearless dog is adventuresome and eager to try new things.

Owning a truly dominant dog however, carries with it the responsibility of teaching the dog that the owner, not the dog, controls access to all the "good things in life" that a dog wants and needs. The old saying "nothing in life is free" must be learned by dogs in order for them to become polite, well-mannered pets.

Dominant dogs tend to behave rudely until they are properly trained. Our in-home dog training program focuses on teaching all of the basic obedience commands to the dog, and it also includes lots of advice for owners on how they can send the right messages of positive leadership to their dogs. Leadership is achieved by good training and by controlling resources – not by pain or punishment.

Another common misconception is that all aggressive dogs are dominant. Some people confuse the term "dominant dog" with "aggressive dog." Not all dominant dogs are aggressive, nor are all aggressive dogs dominant. However there is such a thing as "dominance aggression." This is aggression in a dog (e.g. growling, snapping and biting) that is related to the dog's dominant personality. Dominance aggression is only one form of aggression among dozens that exist, and it is certainly not the primary form of aggression. Canine Dimensions has excellent training protocols for dealing with all forms of dog aggression, including dominance aggression.

So remember:

  • Dominance is not the cause of every dog behavior problem.
  • Dominant doesn't mean aggressive. Dominant dogs are not always aggressive dogs, and aggressive dogs are not always dominant.
  • There is much disagreement among experts as to the exact definition of dominance in dogs, but a good basic definition is: a dominant dog is a confident dog that seeks to control resources.

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