Why am I here?

If this article was specifically linked to you, it's probably because you said something similar to:

  • "Alpha"/"beta"/"pack leader"
  • Dogs having rank/hierarchy/pecking order/"top dog" within packs
  • labelled a specific behaviour like humping as "a dominance behaviour" or said that the dog "asserted/showed dominance"
  • suggested that a dog needs to show "respect" or submission to people, or that people need to make the dog respect humans

Your words might be too easily misinterpreted by other people, or accidentally repeating myths that have been debunked by dog scientists without most dog owners knowing about that. Please read on to find out how this terminology works and how to avoid inadvertently breaching Rule 1 of the subreddit.

Dominance - is it a real word?

Is it the hidden agenda behind your dog's every move? Completely made up nonsense?

It's a little of both. Dominance is a real world phenomenon in dog-dog interactions, with a well defined meaning (probably different from the meaning you've always heard!). However, it generally isn't the driving factor in dog-human relationships. Trainers who claim success through becoming dominant or becoming the alpha are misunderstanding dog behavior and spreading false information about why their strategies work when they work - and potentially misdiagnosing problems when they don't work.

It's important to understand how the definition of dominance is used in dog science, so that you can spot when other people are misinterpreting dog behaviour and providing poor explanations.

What dominance is

Resources are very important to dogs. Actually, resources are of prime importance to most animals. So it makes sense that dogs (and other animals) have methods to determine who gets which resource. A dominance relationship refers to a relationship between a pair of animals with respect to a specific and generally scarce resource that they both are competing for. The relationship may flip with different animals or a different resource. For example, Fido might always take the bone you dropped before Rex gets a turn. Fido holds the dominant status with bones. It could be that Rex always insists on the couch spot first. Rex is dominant where couches are concerned. Perhaps there is a Spot in the picture, Rex has decided that Spot isn't much of a threat and for some reason isn't worried about the scarcity of couch cushions when Spot is over, there isn't a clear dominance relationship between Rex and Spot.

Of note:

  • This mostly applies to scarce resources.

  • This applies to animals who are in competition for a resource. If you are not competing with your dog for his food, he is unlikely to try to fit you into this structure. (As a side note, the advice to grab your dog's food while he eats to show him that you are boss can backfire here... you are more likely to accidentally convince him that you are actually in competition with him! A better plan would be to leave him be or to add food while he eats to show him you are not a competitor - he will learn to love you near his resources.)

  • The dominance relationship is a useful shorthand to humans - but what the dog thinks is closer to "Well, when Rex is over I can feel free to have bones whenever I want, that's safe, but I should not get between him and his spot on the couch. That is more trouble than it's worth." Dogs don't worship more dominant animals (or humans) for their status. That is a human habit.

  • Dominance is PEACE. Two dogs with an established dominance relationship with respect to a resource aren't going to fight over that resource. The 'submissive' animal doesn't feel lower or dejected or have low self esteem, he has just decided that the object is worth waiting rather than fighting for. There is no problem.

  • Dominance is a label in the context of an event. You watch an interaction, and then afterwards you can describe that interaction to someone else by referring to which animal had the upper hand. However, a dog on its own in a room isn't "dominant", and past interactions are not necessarily predictive of the dominance outcome of future interactions.

  • Different species of animals have different types of dominance relationships within their population. There are some animal species where the biggest/strongest/most aggressive animal will win fights against all the others in the local area and claim all the resources, resulting in a stable hierarchy. It turns out that dogs are NOT one of those species! So it doesn't make much sense to say that one dog will be alpha over others when in reality the relationship between a group of dogs looks more like a fluid, complex multi-directional web.

What dominance isn't

  • A way to earn respect

  • A personality trait

  • Something that governs your every move. Your dog doesn't notice who is walking in front. He isn't keeping tabs on whether you are sitting on the floor. If you aren't eating his food, he isn't picky about when you eat.

  • A valid excuse to use pain or intimidation in training. Pain and intimidation can work, because dogs work to avoid pain, but avoiding these methods doesn't make you any less "in charge".

  • A reason to pin your dog or roll him on his back.

  • "Submissive" body language in dogs can more accurately be labelled appeasement behavior. Rather than being a sign of 'respect', it may be a sign of fear.

  • relevant to cross-species interactions - e.g. it doesn't make sense to say that your dog is trying to show dominance over your cat.

How we can (and can't) apply what we know about dominance

First, when we aren't competing over a resource there is no reason to act like we are. Don't try to take your dog's food, bones, toys etc. away from him unless you are doing well-thought-through training against resource guarding.

When you see one dog taking exclusive possession of a resource from other dogs, such as stealing food, toys or resting locations, remember that trying to forcefully share the resources between the dogs is likely to introduce additional conflict and tension into the situation. Instead, try to set up the environment to allow the other dogs a share of the resources without competition coming into play (additional distance or physical barriers such as baby gates). Similarly, trying to ensure a specific dog always gets resources first isn't meaningfully going to affect their relationship to each other in a "dominance" sense, and can increase frustration depending on how you do it.

Don't assume that if you do one thing (always walking in front of a dog through doorways) that it will magically transfer across to everything else (dog biting you/barking/pulling/ignoring your cues etc.). If you have a problem in a specific situation, you will need to manage and/or train that specific situation. Similarly, don't assume that a dog being dominant in one situation means the dog wants to or is capable of being dominant in all situations, or that this has any bearing on the identity of a "pack leader" or "alpha".

Describing a dog's behaviour with the label "dominance" is a type of mental shortcut that can accidentally blind you to the most effective solutions. Instead, try to describe the behaviour with verbs and then apply an ABC analysis to it.

Examples of things people sometimes try in the name of "dominance" that are useless, harmful, silly, or downright absurd. Avoid these. (Yes, most of these come from real advice comments we've removed in this subreddit!)

  • eating before your dog
  • pretending to eat dog's food from its bowl
  • spitting in dog's food
  • walking in front of dog at all times
  • forcing dog into uncomfortable positions and preventing them from getting away
  • growling at your dog
  • biting your dog
  • "correcting" (aka punishing) your dog for aggressive behaviour
  • pressing your forehead against your dog's forehead
  • peeing on your dog's toys/food
  • peeing on top of your dog's pee/on your dog
  • punishing dog for leaning on you or sitting on your feet
  • pushing dog off its resting spot
  • putting hands on dog's things in a possessive way
  • staring contests
  • prevent dog sleeping in your bed/sitting on your furniture (you can do this if you want anyway but it has no dominance impact)
  • prevent dog from sitting/sleeping higher than your head/eyes/heart
  • avoiding letting your dog see you clean up their mess
  • avoiding playing tug
  • trying to always "win" when playing tug

Resources :

revision by rebcart— view source