Dominant Paradigm

Recently, I attended a talk by Dr. E. Kathryn Meyer, VMD, arranged and hosted by Your Dog’s Friend here in Maryland. Dr. Meyer is a veterinarian and specialist in Behavioral Medicine, and presented an excellent two-hour workshop, “Dominance in Dog Training: An Outdated and Dangerous Approach”.
Many widely-accepted ideas about dogs and dominance evolved from a study done several decades ago, in which captive, unrelated adult wolves worked out a strict hierarchy to manage sharing space and resources.

A typical wild wolf pack does not consists of a loose association of unrelated adults like a dog pack, wild or domestic, but a family unit, a pair of wolves, their cubs from last year and their cubs from this year.

Dogs do not live wild in their family units. They form loose associations around resource-rich areas, and maintain fluid relationships, much like roommates.

But let’s say for the purpose of discussion that wolf “language” (Wolf) is comprehensible to dogs, that if we behave as a wolf would, the dog will understand what we mean.

Maybe your average toy doodlepug really does still understand enough Wolf despite never having seen or lived like a wolf, and bearing little or no physical resemblance to one.

But our Wolf may not be so good, either.

I don’t think that word means what you think it means…

Let’s say your dog has a bone and growls when you approach. You’ve heard this is “dominant” behavior and you need to show the dog that you are boss. You’ve heard Wolf for “I’m the boss” is to grab the dog by the scruff of the neck and shake.

A wolf cub might very well growl when the alpha male (otherwise known as his dad) walks by. Alpha walks away (probably thinking something like “isn’t that cute”), likely not that interested in his little bone anyway. Generally, he would not choose the ‘grab and shake’ which actually means “I’m going to kill and eat you now”.

“I’m going to kill and eat you now” may tell the dog you’re crazy; but you wanted to say “I’m the boss”. Much like people, a dog can live with a crazy boss. But she probably won’t do her best work.

What’s more, even if you know the right way to say “I’m the boss”, you may be prompted to do so in response to behavior you were told was “dominant”, when in fact it means something else. Dr. Meyer reminded us that “dominance” describes relationship behavior. For that reason, one cannot describe a dog as behaving in a “dominant” way toward strangers or unfamiliar dogs, where no relationship yet exists. One might describe a dog as “assertive”, “aggressive” or “arrogant”, but that’s not the same thing. So if the behavior you were thinking was dominant was aggression toward other dogs, for example, and the dog is really saying “I’m afraid”, yanking a choke collar, yelling, and generally acting mean could be more than counter-productive; it could be dangerous.

Some behaviors often mistaken for “dominance”


Might mean:

You might try:

  • walking in front of you
  • rushing the door
  • leash-pulling
  • the dog is faster than you
  • really has to pee
  • you’re going somewhere cooler than here
  • training
  • practice
  • “no-pull” harness
  • growling over toys, food or space
  • dog’s got something good s/he wants to keep
  • train the dog to trade for something better
  • approach repeatedly and add food/treats
  • doesn’t obey commands
  • dogs live in the moment; current activity is better
  • doesn’t understand command
  • doesn’t know why s/he should listen to you
  • practice
  • patience
  • mounting
  • too much excitement
  • distraction
  • calming activity: lying down, crate, something to chew
  • exercise
  • aggression toward other dogs
  • fear
  • insecurity
  • resource guarding
  • social exposure
  • positive associations (eg, treat when strangers approach)
  • practice
  • uninvited tug of war
  • hand-grabbing
  • refusal to ‘drop it’
  • it’s fun
  • you have something the dog wants
  • doesn’t know what to do instead
  • good tug toys
  • teach ‘leave it’ or ‘drop it’
  • teach them to do it right and stop when it’s over
  • sleeping on the bed
  • the bed is comfortable
  • make a decision and stick to it
  • begging
  • you have food that smells good
  • give them some
  • give different command (eg, go to ‘dinner place’)
  • trim his nails
  • demanding attention
  • the dog is bored and restless
  • doggie day care
  • more exercise
  • puzzle toys