Perceived Dominance

Many dog owners I meet at consultations ask me about certain behaviours they see in their dogs and whether this is because their dog is trying to be dominant. There are still a large number of dog training classes using dominance theory training. We don’t always use our own gut instinct when training and handling our much loved dogs and feel we should be ‘telling the dog off in a firm tone’ or physically forcing the dog to do what we asked.

Dogs who are taught through fear based training might just do as they are asked (sometimes) but are not happy when doing so, just look at their body language! In the long term, fear based training can result in no end of problems because dogs  are unable to display their true feelings for fear of the consequences.

A good trainer will not bully or threaten your dog and not break your dog’s spirit. A confident, pushy, out of control or ‘naughty’ dog is not dominant, it is more than likely  just lacking relevant positive experiences and training. It often appears that a once boisterous and fun loving puppy, has suddenly matured into a strong, disobedient dog who seems to have a mind of his own….  Very true, but it is often lack of training and early positive experiences as well as the genetic make up of the dog causing this as opposed to dominance.

What we often think of as dominance is usually a dog feeling the need to guard a particular resource, be it a bone, the sofa, or access to its owner. The need to do this is usually caused by what has happened in the past and the dog often uses aggression since he feels threatened.  The ‘fuse potential’ of the individual dog for aggression will contribute to its aggressive behaviour. Some dogs will feel the need to growl or snap more readily than others, just like some people will get angry in certain situations quicker than others. It is also true that some breeds of dogs are born with inherited tendencies that might (if not controlled), make aggressive behaviour more likely. But this is not to say that certain breeds should be stereotyped as more likely to be aggressive, it is always a combination of genetic and environmental factors that make up a dog’s behaviour.

A Labrador bred from nervous parents which is not socialised well as a puppy and has a few bad experiences is far more likely to bite than a Rottweiller that has been bred from well balanced parents and has learnt good social skills as a puppy.

Growling

When a dog feels threatened and growls at you, it is extremely unlikely that he is trying to be dominant. He is tying to tell you to back off,  he will be afraid and unsure of your next move. There are sometimes dogs who growl to get you to back off because they are so used to getting their own way. For example, a dog can get frustrated when asked to get off the sofa if they have always been able to rest there in the past. The dog has had unclear leadership and should not be blamed for his behaviour. It is similar to a spoilt child, you cannot really blame the child for his tantrums if he has always had his own way. It is the lack of training and guidelines that has caused the problem not the dog or child trying to dominate.

Dogs and Wolves

Although similar to wolves, direct comparisons between dogs and wolves should not be made. Yes the dog has evolved from the wolf and might still exhibit a few wolf like behaviours such as digging, marking and walking around in circles before laying down but the dog is now a completely different species.  Just the same as we no longer look and behave like apes (far from it!) although we did evolve from them. There is little call for dominance between natural populations of wolves since they work together as a group or family. The offspring will leave the pack between 9 months and 3 years of age alleviating any social tension.

If you have read the ‘Alpha wolf theory’, it is not what it seems, this was a  study carried out on captive wolves and not on natural wild populations. It is now widely accepted by behaviourists as not being that relevant to dogs.

Dogs do need a human leader so that they can fit happily into our lives but we do not need to achieve this by acting like an alpha wolf. Dogs need clear consistent rules so that they don’t have everything they want on demand, this will teach them patience and manners but this can be achieved in simpler and less stressful ways.

 

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