Demystifying Dominance in Dogs

Dominant Husky

There are a lot of contrasting theories out there in the dog training world about the issue of dominance in dogs. Some experts barely want to acknowledge the existence of this issue while others would have you believe that dogs are out there mounting a coup to take over the human race in a carefully orchestrated plan to achieve world domination.

Sadly the concept of “alpha pack leader” has become infused with everything from half truths to total nonsense and rubbish. The truth and reality of dominance has all but been lost in the sea of pseudo science gibberish that can be found all over the internet these days.

In this article I hope to bring some balance to this issue by discussing the difference between natural dominance and owner created dominance. I also discuss how to recognize dominant behaviours being exhibited by your dog. In the second part of this series I will discuss how to keep from creating dominance in your dog and how to manage dominant behaviours in your naturally dominant dog.

Natural Dominance In Dogs

For those people who think that natural dominance does not exist in dogs, clearly they have never spent time just sitting and observing a litter of puppies. You can pick out a dominant dog by its naturally controlling and dominating behaviours by as early as three weeks old.

Eminent Behaviourist, Ian Dunbar states that

“The puppy becomes progressively more aware of his environment, such that by the end of the third week, litter mates begin to establish the important social relationships, which are the harbingers of the social hierarchy of adult dogs.”

It is during this time that we can begin to see the natural temperament of the dog emerge. Some dogs are going to be more quiet and reserved while some dogs are going to be naturally outgoing and confident.

The naturally dominant dogs are the ones that are going to be more “drivey” than most of their siblings. These puppies are more in your face, are more strong willed, and more determined to live by their own rules and standards than their siblings.

They will be the ones taking the toys away from the other puppies. They will be the ones to shove their way up to the front of the group to eat first from the food bowl and issue a warning growl to anyone who comes to close them while they eat. They will be the ones who complain and protest loudly when they are asked to conform their behaviour. They will also be the ones who, unless told otherwise, will assume that their self imposed social ranking entitles them to own all the resources because that is what natural dominance is all about … owning and controlling all the resources.

And this is wherein the problem lies. The problem is not so much that the dog is naturally dominant, the more serious issue occurs when owners do not actively manage the dominant behaviour in these dogs and then the behaviours begin to spiral out of control.

Dominance Versus Aggression

Talk to most owners of dogs of naturally dominant dogs and they will tell you that they think that they have an aggressive dog. This however is not usually the case. Most people have a dog that has dominance issues and occasionally people have a dominant dog that also has some form of aggression issues. Both issues result in problem dog behaviours but how you need to approach each of these problems is very different. Therefore having a clear understanding of the differences between dominance and aggression is the first step to being able to successfully manage the problem.

Dominance can be defined as any kind of relationship between two interacting individuals where aggression, force, and submission determines who has access or who gets possession of a resource. Dr. Sophia Yin points out that the focus for a dominant dog is not about being aggressive, it is about controlling their environment and the resources contained in the environment.

Aggressiveness is defined as a social interaction that has its focus on inflicting harm or some type of damage to the other being. The reasoning for the attack can be varied and it does not necessarily have to revolve around controlling a resource. More often than not, the focus or reason for the aggressive act is rooted in fear.

Naturally dominant dogs are the exact opposites of fearful dogs. These dogs feel that they have the natural confidence and the social ranking to make them the dominant energy in the group. Truly dominant dogs do not feel the need to fight to own or keep something. They just walk in and assume command and control of the environment. While sharing your home with this kind of dog can be challenging and frustrating, at first, these dogs are not usually a danger to bite or attack. If the behaviours are allowed to evolve without intervention then physical attacks may eventually happen.

Naturally dominant dogs, when their owners give them proper leadership and guidance, are not the dogs that will be launching the vicious physical attacks.

The dogs that are likely to be a danger to launch an aggressive attack are those dogs that have been created to be dominant by their owner’s overly indulgent actions and their lack of leadership. These dogs are not naturally confident dogs and they will aggressively fight to own and to keep their resources. These dogs fear losing their artificially inflated social ranking and the resources that come with the title of “ranking official”.

The keys to living with, and successfully managing, dominance issues is to understand the differences between natural dominance and artificially created dominance issues and in practicing strong leadership principles to prevent further behavioural issues.

Nature Versus Nurture

One need only to watch a group of sibling puppies interacting with each other to see demonstrated that the natural temperament of a dog is not only affected by its genes, but also by its environment. Natural differences between temperaments of litter mates can be noticed very early in life and since environment can only exert a limited force on the natural temperament of a living organism, this means that a positive environment, while helpful in influencing a dog, will not completely change the behaviours of the dominant dog. For these naturally dominant dogs, the desire to control will always be present and will always need sustained management by the owners.

Management of these behaviours does not and should not include physical punishment, terrorization, or brutalizing a dog. Management only means setting limitations on the dog’s natural behaviours so they are not being reinforced. Behaviours that are reinforced through action, or the lack of intervention on the part of the human, will remain.

That means that unless you convey to your dog in a meaningful way and he understands that;

A. You do not want him doing a behaviour, and

B. Show him what you do want him to do instead of the behaviour, he will continue practicing the behaviours.

Behaviours Often Exhibited By Dominant Dogs

The behaviours of a dominant dog can be challenging to live with. These dogs want to control their environment and everyone in it and for the most part, they resist being told what to do. Left unchecked these behaviours can eventually become completely out of control to the point of becoming dangerous to family members and to other animals in the house.

Some commonly seen dominant behaviours are:

  • Physicality – These dogs do not respect the rules about your intimate space. They will grab things out of your hands. These dogs will intentionally stand on you or place their body over you to demonstrate their ranking. They will run into you or muzzle punch you on purpose when they play. These dogs will push their way into people’s faces. They jump up on people. These dominant dogs will use their bodies to push you out of their way or to control your movements. They will often push past you in doorways, while going up or down stairs, or try and physically crowd you off of furniture. These dogs will often paw at you to demand petting or to be played with.
  • Nipping, biting, or constant mouthing of humans (and other animals) in an effort to control or correct them.
  • Bark, growl, or whine at you in an effort to be demanding or controlling.
  • Look at you with a hard stare when they are asked comply to a cue.
  • Resource guard of food, toys, sleeping place, or people.
  • Refusal to give way to humans (will not get off couch, beds, or move from doorways and hallways).
  • Barge up onto couches, beds, or people’s laps.
  • Refusal to comply with any given commands or deliberately does a different activity. These dogs will be very resistant to attempts to train them and will balk and complain in protest at being told what to do.
  • Purposefully urinating or defecating on your possessions or on your bed.
  • Mounting humans.

How Did Things Become So Out Of Balance?

There are most likely two issues that are influencing your dog. On one hand you are dealing with a naturally dominant dog. There is really not too much that you can do about the genetics that your dog came into the world with. Some dog temperaments are naturally soft and laid back while some dog temperaments are naturally pushy and dominant. While you can manage their behaviours, you really cannot change the nature of your dog.

The second issue is usually the deciding factor when it comes to out of control dominating done by dogs. If you live with a naturally dominant dog, it becomes vitally important that you actively manage their behaviours.

If you fail to stop the dog when he exhibits a dominant behaviour, you send the message to your dog that he is free to keep doing what he is doing AND that he is perfectly within his rights of social ranking to be dominant. Unless you stop and redirect your dog from any and all dominant behaviours, your lack of action is reinforcing the behaviours and his perceived ranking of being the dominant force in your household.

Dominant dogs do many of the behaviours they do, not to spite or usurp power from the human beings, but because they see it as a natural “job perk”. If they THINK they are the dominant figure in the group and no one challenges their authority, then clearly, they MUST truly be at the top of the social hierarchy.

Allowing a naturally dominant dog to think and believe that he has the right and the ability to direct all activities in the household is like putting a pyromaniac in charge of the matches. With no one to challenge this dog’s authority he now has complete say in what happens in the household. Not only is this domineering behaviour frustrating to deal with, it also can evolve into a very dangerous situation.

From the dominant dog’s perspective, it is his job to control everything in his environment and he will do whatever he feels he must do to get compliance from others. If that means launching attacks and biting, then he will do just that. Humans and other animals will eventually be in constant danger of being bitten and attacked as the dominant dog wields his power and control over his environment and the resources contained in it.

In the next article I discuss how to successfully intervene with naturally dominant dog behaviours and I also discuss how to keep from creating a dominant dog. Any dog can be inadvertently turned into a dominant dog by their owner’s actions. Make sure you stop by our page to read part two of this series.

As always we welcome your questions, comments, and stories regarding this topic. When we share our stories and our wisdom we may be helping someone who is currently struggling with their Snow Dog.

Helping ALL Snow Dogs … one owner at a time.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Fantastic article, thank you! I’ve worked hard to maintain leadership & order, & control my dog’s behavior. She’s not a very dominant dog, but the lack of leadership by SOME members of the family has given her too much free rein to assert herself with loud, low pitch demand barking and jumping on people. If everyone in the household isn’t consistent in controlling undesirable behavior it won’t be effective. I work hard to control her barking and jumping, but my husband often just lets her get away with it which I think confuses her.
    Cathy, Isis & Phoebe,
    http://www.dogsluvusandweluvthem.blogspot.com

    • Cathy, sadly the mixed message that a dog receives about behaviour expectations makes it SOOOOO much harder to train your dog. I feel your pain. 🙁

  2. Erin, in part two of this article I will be covering what things you can do to work with dominant dog behaviours so you will have to make sure that you read this part of the article too.. The reality is that you will most likely be required to do a combination of things to deal with your dog’s behaviours. Yes, a naturally dominant dog will always be inclined to want to be dominant so you will always be required to correct the behaviour. But just because a dog is inclined to be dominant does not mean that this behaviour cannot be curbed. Most generalized obedience classes will not address the needs of a very dominant dog. If your dog truly knows what behaviour is expected of him when he greets another dog, and he chooses to behave in an aggressive and dominating fashion, then this indicates that in addition to being dominant he does not respect your authority. It sounds like you may need to also work on finding other ways on creating a stronger relationship bond with your dog as well as implementing more stringent rules for your dog’s behaviours when interacting with other dogs. The longer he gets to practice these behaviours, the harder it will be to convince him to behave in another way. The dominant dog gets a pay off from practicing domination so it becomes a self reinforcing activity. If you take away the freedom of being able to chase other dogs and being able to barge up to them by having him leashed, then you are better able to manage the situation. Make him earn his off leash privileges with good behaviour. Non-compliance should result in his freedom to be taken away. This gets boring pretty fast for them and it helps to drive the message home. BUT, this only works when the dog truly does understand what is being asked of him ( sufficient and appropriate training has been given) otherwise he can only know what he knows to do.

    • Thank you! I wouldn’t consider him a VERY dominant dog, just very good at picking out the insecure dogs. In all reality he probably does this behavior with 1/4 of the dogs he meets outside the home. And when were in a home environment he doesn’t have issues with dominance whatsoever. He doesn’t resource guard (at home or at the park). He has always worked (by doing tricks) for his food and treats, I really do not coddle him and I am not hesitant to correct him when hes doing things inappropriate. When I see a new dog coming into the park who seems insecure I grab his collar and leash him up. I have time to do this because he usually gets down in a stalk mode and tries to wait til the dog gets right up next to him to pop up and bombard them. To his surprise when he pops up he is on a leash and can’t go far. I allow the new dog to approach and acknowledge him first. I have used a shock/vibration collar on him in the past and he responds very well to vibrate. I like this method because I can quickly correct him and get his attention even if he is 30 ft away. I read the second article and was curious if umbilical training would be ideal for my dog. I call him ‘my hemorrhoid’ because he is generally always up my butt anyway haha. If I leave an area he is quick to follow. He gets stress colitis when separated from me for any lengthy period of time so would this exacerbate the diarrhea issue? Also in the comments above you had mentioned the dominant behavior such as chasing is self rewarding. He himself loves being chased and often I find he’s being chased and enjoying it then another dog gets into the chase and he’ll begin to chase in return and the other dog becomes intimidated and that’s when the bully behavior sets in (rolling the other dog while chasing if he catches them). Besides leashing him when he preforms unwanted behaviors and using a vibrate correction what other correctional techniques would you suggest to help lessen the self gratifying reward? How do I get him to understand what is truly being asked of him? I feel like he knows because when I correct him, he responds well but then goes right back to doing it when a new dog comes in? My correctional technique consists of a vibrate (if hes wearing the e-collar) or a firm NO, then i call him to come. When he gets to me i make him sit and give him a treat, to reinforce the come and sit. If he tries to flee after the other dog again after hes released thats when he goes on a leash as well. I feel like with him after hes corrected he understands he cannot bully that particular dog but when the next insecure dog comes around its the same process. He’s neutered and 1.5 years old. He has about 20+ dog friends that he gets along great with (some he grew up with, some he just met this summer but they have similar play styles). I have yet to find another husky he has problems with, it tends to me medium (about 25-35lb) skittish dogs that he has issues with. He is 65lbs and very tall and lanky leaving him wolf-looking (no, hes not a wolf-dog and I dont personally think he looks it but other non-husky owners do) so most owners are afraid of him the second they look at him. I will have to look into finding a trainer who works with dominant dogs. I told our trainer he had bully tendencies but he’s never actually seem him interact with an insecure dog off leash. There are very few options near me for trainers who actually work on behavior mod instead of just obedience. The trainer I’ve used with him previously trains the K9 dogs for our local police. He excelled in his classes and does obedience very well (even passed off leash training, impressive for a husky!) but Im understanding more and more his issues aren’t going to fixed solely through obedience. Seems this is going to be a lifelong process of correction and reinforcement until he gets the hint…

  3. My husky can be a bully at the dog park and for those who know him he is referred to as King of The Park. Once he knows a dog he is no longer a bully and actually plays nicely with the majority of dogs he’s familiar with. My problem is I find when new dogs enter the park he has to bombard them and assert himself (placing his head over top of them, mouthing their necks, but never mounts them). This asserting behavior is worse with insecure dogs, confident ones he meets and greets in a completely acceptable manner. He is especially dominating with adolescent dogs, but with puppies under 3 months he is great. If they’re insecure and run from him he takes chase and will nip at their butts. As an owner I know that’s his personality and other dogs owners who understand him love him as well. He has been to multiple obedience classes, has a good recall and I can generally call him away from a dog if he is getting out of hand with his bully behavior. Do you have an article on any behavior modifications or training techniques I can use to get him to stop this behavior in general instead of always having to correct it? Me and all the newcomers to the dog park would appreciate it 🙂

  4. Samantha, it just so happens that I have two articles written about just that topic. What you should understand is when a dog jealously guards a person, what they are doing is called resource guarding. What that means is that they view you as a possession and sadly that means that your dog most likely does not view you as a someone who has strong leadership skills. In these two articles I first discuss why this behaviour happens and in the second article I discuss what you, as the owner, can do to fix this behaviour. Here are the links to the two articles https://www.snowdog.guru/the-jealous-over-protective-and-possessive-husky/ and https://www.snowdog.guru/fixing-jealous-over-protective-and-possessive-behaviour/

  5. My dog is possessive over me. Is there an article that will help me understand her behavior better and how to deal with it.

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