There are few concepts that dog owners talk about more than "dominance". Every behavior in the book gets attributed to this trait: nipping, leash pulling, humping, body checks during play, and on and on. The minute a behavior disturbs or frightens someone, the dominance devil rears his ugly head.
Let's start with the assumption that we all want what we want, including dogs. So if Fluffy sees that Fido has a cute squeaky toy that he's loathe to share , she's going to challenge him, bark at him, flirt with him, distract him and/or simply grab the toy. If she opts for the more aggressive tactics (like challenging with a stiff body, a hard glare and a growl; or grabbing the toy) she will likely be labeled dominant (argh...). People seem to labor under the misconception that some dogs are hardwired to try to take charge in every situation. I swear, some of our clients think their dogs lie awake at night reviewing their game plan for daily dominance.
It's an easy answer and it helps people to sound knowledgeable. Unfortunately, more often than not, it's the wrong answer. If every undesirable behavior could be reduced to dominance, training your pup not to indulge in same would involve simply overpowering her in each naughty instance. In case anyone is wondering, that doesn't work. The dog may learn to submit (maybe) but only when you're in her face. And she won't learn to obey. Try using power tactics when your dog sees a squirrel and takes off! You'll be lucky if she even notices you.
Most of your pup's behavior is driven by either instinct or conditioning.
Instinct includes fear responses of fight and flight; hunting, (which frequently manifests itself as nipping at or mouthing other animals, including your cat); playing; seeking company (either people or other dogs); and guarding resources, like food. There is a hunting instinct called "predatory drift" whereby a perfectly nice dog will automatically attack (and often try to kill) a smaller animal, especially if the smaller guy moves suddenly, or scoots. These behaviors aren't driven by a desire for status. They're traits carried on from ancestors, or traits that humans have selectively bred for in order to enable the dog to perform a given task successfully. Some breeds of hunting dogs are bred to disable prey quickly and efficiently. Some herding breeds are genetically programmed to nip at other animals on the run to get them going in a certain direction. But very little of your dog's behavior is driven by her need to fancy herself the leader of the pack. Dogs don't have the capacity for that sort of self congratulation. However, they may indeed try to rule the roost if you let them do whatever they want and/or give in to tantrums on their part. I have clients who think it's cute that their dog whines and barks when anyone takes "his spot" on the couch. Not cute. One day a child may visit you and take that seat; his mom will not be delighted when your mastiff barks menacingly.
Behaviors that come from conditioning are those that have gotten your dog what she wants. For example, she may have learned that shoving her muzzle into your hand will get you to stroke her. Sometimes we mean to condition our pups (like when you give a treat if a dog obeys a command) and sometimes we don't even know we're doing it. For instance, if your pup pulls on his leash and you continue to allow him to move forward (what he wants) he's going to pull you every time you snap on his leash. If, on the other hand, he is pulled back by your side and made to stand or sit for a moment every time he pulls, he will learn to do what you want, which is to move forward at a pace that leaves some slack in the leash. That is, IF you're consistent about praising him lavishly (and or treating) every time he moves forward at the pace that YOU set. BTW, with high energy dogs and puppies, it's a good idea to trot or run with your leashed dog at your side at first, so he doesn't have to contain too much frustration!
That said, there is such a thing as social hierarchy, whether we're talking about dog packs, families and their pets, or large corporations. The reason is obvious: social hierarchy is a structure that helps get the group focused on the task at hand, whether it's people making widgets or dogs sharing food without killing one another. In the social hierarchy of dogs, it's not the lead dog or "alpha" that's likely to exhibit aggression. On the contrary, it's the middle ranking dogs that challenge, contest and try to punish. Dogs will follow a leader that doesn't have to exhibit aggression because she is confident in her strength and can get others to obey with a look. Think of those nature films about wild dogs where the alpha will change an underling's behavior simply by staring at him. It is extremely rare that alpha dogs in the wild use force to asset their authority.
So, if your dog growls at any other dog that comes near you, it's likely because she's a feisty middle ranker. If you have a truly dominant dog, he'll be able to get other dogs to back away from you simply by staring. His look will say, "Did you just approach my person without asking?" And, the middle ranker will usually respond by either going away, or asking to approach in a submissive manner, like crouching down and inching slowly toward your alpha dog, always staying lower than him.
Now the REAL question is not whether your dog is dominant or not. It's WHO INFLUENCES WHOSE BEHAVIOR?!! Do you throw your dog's toy because he's barking at you? Yup, he's got you trained. No complaints when he won't do what you want!!
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