A note on the sorely misunderstood concept of 'dominance'.

I'm seeing a disturbing trend these days, usually amongst people with 'easy' breeds of dog, who have decided to no longer "believe in" dominance. (Unfortunately for those households, DOGS still believe in it.)

This framework was figured out and refined through a diligent study of both wolf and dog behaviour. If human civilisation were to be mostly wiped out and have to start anew, those who studied Canis lupus would once again arrive at the same conclusion. Like mathematics, the concept itself is inherently accurate and quite functional. While opponents claim that all such data is irrelevant because the wolves used in their studies were unrelated captive animals rather than wild "family units", that only further proves the point! *Domestic dogs* also live "unnaturally" in groups of unrelated animals...not as a cohesive family unit made up of parents, siblings, and offspring.

Dominance has really gotten a bad rap lately, from people who don't understand what it actually is & how it works. They assign the word to mere violence or bullying, which of course is no way to raise a dog. (They also assume, wrongly, that it means the dog is aggressively trying to be a jerk in every aspect of his life--instead of merely following his natural canine instincts and opportunistic nature.)
Canines absolutely do have a heirarchy, although it is a fluid and somewhat complex one, and the most dominant dog does *not* always demand the things that humans imagine they might want for themselves, if THEY were a dog. ;)
Once established, dominance does not need to be demonstrated overtly, time and time again. (In wild wolves, subordinates are raised into the pack from puppyhood, and rank is often settled with no squabbling at all--the youngsters simply accept the direction of the adults, who protect and provide for them.) Subsequent interactions, when they occur, are usually very subtle--and it's easy for the layman to overlook most of them.
The framework originally labelled as as "dominance" addresses this system of rank and privileges quite well in practice, and is well understood by canines.

Dogs need and want a leader, and that leader should be YOU; if you neglect the job, the dog has no choice but to compensate for it himself. That's too stressful a position for a dog to fill in a man-made, domestic environment. A dog left to be in charge will be prone to a whole range of problem behaviours, from ignoring commands to "correcting" (biting) disobedient or insubordinate humans.
People who think they are being nice to their dog by coddling him and indulging his every whim, are actually creating an anxious, maladjusted animal...and it is frustrating to those who are well versed in canine behaviour, to have to watch these senseless and totally preventable situations occur.

Dominance IS:
-An assertive, confident attitude.
-Leadership. Leaders initiate the interactions; dogs follow.
-Controlling the resources (this one is easy, since you are the one with opposable thumbs).
-Calm consistency.
-A relationship where the dog instinctively turns to you, to meet his wants and needs.
This results in a companion who has confidence in your decisions and respects your wishes. He feels secure about his place in the family, and is not burdened with the weight of leading a "pack".

Dominance IS NOT:
-Hitting the dog.
-Forcibly pinning the dog to the ground regularly, just to "show him who's boss".
-Yelling at the dog.
-Punishment.
-Random acts of terrorism, which will lead to an unstable, fearful, and insecure dog.

On the other hand, many behaviour problems mistakenly attributed to "a dominant dog" may have nothing to do with dominance. Things such as urinating indoors, jumping, pulling, climbing on furniture, or not obeying commands are more likely to result from a lack of training, improper management, or poor communication between dog and owner. A dominant attitude is normally very easy to detect, and while it can certainly contribute to these issues if present, dominance alone is rarely the cause OR the solution.
~Notice that I said, a dominant *attitude*...pointing out dominance confusion in a dog is not giving him a life sentence. It's not something in his blood, that will be "who he is" forever--merely a mindset that needs to be modified. (However, it's not just a MOOD, either! Ignoring dominant shennanigans won't make them go away.)
Attitude is something that is *situational*. A dog who acts dominant in one household may be fine with his new people when rehomed. Like us, dogs interpret their circumstances and respond accordingly. Of course, some dogs--and some breeds, in general--do take to controlling humans more readily, and need more structure and discipline. A No Free Lunch program is usually ideal.

However poorly understood and misrepresented this concept may be these days, it doesn't change the fact that dogs still dominate each other, correct each other, and establish a ranking order that is relevant in their lives. Pretending otherwise just because we, as humans, "wouldn't like it if it were done to us", is NOT in our best interests...and it is not in the best interests of our companions. Dogs are not humans in small furry suits. They are another species, with their own way of looking at the world.

By the way, dogs (and wolves) will also engage in the much-maligned "alpha roll", amongst themselves.




"Look Ma, No Teeth!" Dominance is NOT based on violence.







However, most humans totally misinterpret this interaction and how it is properly used--so as a general rule, this is one bit of mimic-the-dog behaviour that is usually best left alone.

Some good, educational reading on what dominance is really all about:
Link1
Link2
Link3

Science weighs in:
Dr. Marc Bekoff
Roger Abrantes

Comments from wolf expert Dr. David Mech, who is constantly being misquoted about dominance:
"A quick scan of the Kelley article reveals much misinformation attributed to me. This misinterpretation and total misinformation like Kelley's has plagued me for years now. I do not in any way reject the notion of dominance."

From a 2010 paper written by Dr. Mech and H. Dean Cluff ("Prolonged Intensive Dominance Behavior Between Gray Wolves, Canis lupus") : "Dominance is among the most pervasive and important behaviors of wolves in a pack."

Veterinarian Mark Johnson, arguably the most experienced handler of feral dogs in the country, explains the value of the dominance model:
"I discuss and explore dominance in canids because dominance can be a valuable AND COMPASSIONATE tool for capturing and handling feral or fearful dogs, which is the theme of this blog."

Expressing non-violent dominance is a way of working with dogs in a language they understand. This makes you predictable to them, and--especially when working with ferals, undersocialised dogs, or primitive breeds!--having the dog understand where you are coming from, and feel obligated to follow your lead, can make a huge difference in how he responds to you.
(Although he realises that you are not a dog, the mechanisms and body language used to communicate your status to the dog are so closely analogous to his own instinctive mindset that he grasps your intent quite readily.)

Even the Monks of New Skete are commonly portrayed as changing their minds and rejecting the role of dominance outright--when in reality, they did no such thing. This myth came about when a later revision of their famous book "How to be Your Dog's Best Friend" was printed without the recommendation to use the alpha roll...with this side note:
"In the original edition of this book, we recommended a technique we termed "the alpha-wolf rollover"...We no longer recommend this technique and strongly discourage its use to our clients.... The conditions in which it might be used effectively are simply too risky and demanding for the average dog owner; there are other ways of dealing with problem behavior that are much safer and, in the long run, just as effective."
*The monks noticed how some people were misunderstanding the use of the alpha roll, and realised that such a technique may too complicated for the casual pet owner. (It's also very confrontational, and a good way to be bitten if you do it wrong.) However, noting the general public's inability to properly "roll" a dog, and subsequently advising against it, is in NO way proclaiming that 'the model of dominance no longer works'!

A similar tactic has been employed, in claiming that excellent dog trainer Ian Dunbar doesn't acknowledge dominance. However, the very article offered as evidence for this asserts quite the opposite: Dunbar makes it clear that dogs DO maintain a heirarchy, and that it is an important part of their lives. (He also makes the important distinction that it is the *lower ranking dogs who submit*, not the higher ranking dog who punishes! Higher ranking dogs whose status is known and accepted will rarely squabble. For this reason, Dunbar appropriately refers to it as a "subordinance heirarchy". :-)
Likewise, an "alpha roll" is normally OFFERED by the subordinate dog, rather than forced by the top dog...which is why so many humans fail miserably with the technique.)
Dunbar illustrates the value and effectiveness of the dominance heirarchy beautifully with this snippet:
"Fighting and physical dominance rarely come into play during the maintenance of hierarchical harmony. On the contrary, the major function of hierarchical structure is to lessen the amount of fighting. Once established, the hierarchy provides most of the solutions before problems arise. For example, when there are two dogs but only one bone, the ownership of the bone is pre-decided and therefore, there is nothing to fight about."

The amazing paradox here is that the people who resist the dominance model, invariably do so because they "feel better treating dogs as equal partners" than they do being "the Boss". It's not about what works best or what has the most supporting evidence...it's about THEIR OWN FEELINGS. (Often, this is at the cost of the dog's comfort and security.) They begin with the anthropomorphic premise that dominance is "mean" or "bullying", then try hard to find support for this premise...or devise contorted lines of reasoning for it. While this has been wonderfully beneficial to the dog training world (!) in that it has produced all sorts of creative methods of getting dogs to do what you want them to :-) it's also not very logical--rather than draw conclusions from the evidence, anti-dominance apologists start with their "answer" and work backwards.
Personally, I am more concerned with gaining the dog's respect and confidence, than with giving him a big ego--which rarely sits well in dogs and often leads to someone being bitten, or at the very least, a dog who only minds when he feels like it.

Denying dominance is really just fighting a straw man. While the word has developed a negative connotation due to frequent misunderstandings, the concept is as valid as ever...and as long as dogs remain dogs, it's here to stay. The only real choice is in whether or not you elect to take advantage of this inherent framework, and use it for the benefit of the human-dog relationship.