Dominance - What it is and What it Isn't


As a dog trainer, I hear the same things repeated over and over again.  Things like, “I know I need to be dominant over my dog,” “she’s the alpha,” “she’s very dominant, “or “she’s the submissive one.”  It seems a great misunderstanding of dog behavior and relationships has taken over and seems to have a life of its own.  The term “dominant” as referring to a dog, took hold first in the 1940s with very limited information and again in the 1970s when a man by the name of Dr. David Mech of the US Dept. of the Interior, described “Alpha” and “Beta” wolves (  Also in the 1970s, The Monks of New Skete popularized the term “dominance” in their book, How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend.  And now, in the present year, the term “dominance” continues to be a popular term that is promulgated by Cesar Milan on his T.V. show, The Dog Whisperer.   Both Dr. Mech and the Monks have disavowed their original theories about “dominance.”  As with anything in life, as time passes, we learn more truth about things.  There have been a lot of truths about dog behavior that have been discovered since the dark ages of dog training.

The true definition of “dominance” is a description of status within a stable canine social hierarchy.  A dominant animal controls the resources such as food, sleeping spaces and breeding rights.  A dominant animal may relinquish its privileges at any time without giving up its dominant status.  It is a quality of a relationship, not a personality type. Depending on the situation, one dog may be dominant around food, but not in other areas that resources are available.  “When the term dominance refers to status it assumes a long-standing and consistent relationship between individuals – one of whom “wins” in ritualized aggressive displays, while the other regularly, and voluntarily submits.” (By Barbara Handelman, M.Ed, CDBC)  Most people are under the impression that because wolves form packs and have status hierarchies, that dogs also follow this pattern.  But, because people live with dogs, the scenario changes significantly.  We don’t really want our dogs to battle it out in the kitchen until one claims its position in the hierarchy, do we?  When owners refer to their dogs as dominant, it says to me that they are allowing their dogs to make the house rules.  If the owner claims the dominant rank in the house, then all dogs become, well, dogs.  Not submissive, just dogs, but on equal turf.  This is similar to a parent/child or employee/employer relationship.  It’s important to recognize that wolves are not dogs and dogs are not wolves.  Dogs have been genetically engineered to live side by side with people.  Dogs will gladly accept human leadership.

Lots of dominance displays arise when an owner brings home a new dog and neglects to demonstrate proper leadership.  When dogs are given privileges freely, they can get the wrong idea. They don’t view free treats and sleeping next to you in bed as love.  They view this as very weak leadership and an open invitation to demand things.  Spoiling a dog can lead to big behavior problems.  “Domestic dogs, in general, no longer depend on submissive displays for their own survival to the extent that their canine cousins do.  Dogs rely more on humans to intervene to prevent or interrupt agonistic encounters, and after fights, to heal their wounds.  Such wounds occurring in a wild population would most likely lead to death of the injured individuals (Goodwin et al., 1996, p. 302.)”

Now on to the infamous, “Alpha Roll.”  It just plain scares me when I see an owner apply this form of “discipline” to a dog.  It’s dangerous folks, and you are not at all conveying the message you think you are.  In a wolf pack, a dominant wolf would perform ritualized aggressive displays until the other would voluntarily give submissive displays in return. If the other wolf does not concede, a fight may result. Notice the word, voluntarily. One wolf does not force another into a submissive position and neither should a human do this to a dog.  If an owner does, in fact, have a dog that is performing dominant behaviors, forcing the dog onto its side is like setting a ticking time bomb.  This is a dangerous move because it is an act of aggression on the part of the owner and eventually, the dog may see fit to put an end to this unnatural ritualized behavior with a bite to the owner’s face.   Applying force to discipline a dog encourages fear related behaviors and aggressive behaviors, as well as creating a perfect opportunity for someone to get really hurt.  I always say, we’re smarter than dogs.  We shouldn’t have to use physical force to get positive behaviors from our dogs.

So what do we do if our dog displays “dominant” behavior? I hope you aren’t still wondering what that means? Let’s clarify…he’s being bossy or attempting to control you, another dog or some resource.  We can prevent and treat dog behavior problems like people, not dogs or wolves.  In my humble opinion, we’d be foolish to even think we could dominate a dog with force.  Ever notice the large teeth on a dog? Now think of your teeth? Who would win if a fight erupted?  We need to become true leaders to our dogs.  We need to provide discipline, guidance, responsible ownership, and consistent direction to our dogs.  When the humans in the house behave appropriately and give the dog clear boundaries and rules and provide the dog with all its necessary resources in life, problem behaviors are rare.  Your dog wants you to be in charge. It is your house, right?  Ever see children who lack guidance? It’s the same for dogs. The bad behavior comes from a lack of human leadership. I will end with the best definition of leadership I’ve ever read, “Leadership is established when the owner can set clear limits for the dogs’ behavior and effectively communicate the rules by always rewarding the correct behaviors, as they occur while preventing or immediately removing the rewards for undesirable behaviors, before they are accidentally reinforced. The owners must reward desired behaviors frequently enough that they become habits. When owners can meet these criteria, their dogs will consider them to be predictable, dependable, and trustworthy.” (Yin, 2007, p. 417.) In other words, the dog is trained well!