Is your dog “dominant” or willing to submit? Could you be living with a dog determined to take over and control your household? Dog Trainer Eric Brad looks as his own dog to see if the “warning signs” described by so many web sites could mean his dog is a tyrant in the making!
This week as I was surfing the web I ran across one of the many articles on how to determine if your dog is “dominant.” Those of you who regularly read my writings know how I feel about the whole notion of dogs attempting to “dominate” their owners. Those who may be new to my writings on dogs and dog training may want to read my previous articles The Myth of Alpha Dogs or Blunt Force Trauma – Canine Reality to get an idea of where I stand on the issue. So as I read through this particular web page my reaction went from the usual eye-rolling to amusement.
I thought it might be interesting for me to share with you my assessment of my dog, Tiramisu, as I went through the description I found on the web page. What always strikes me as interesting is the “warning” tone these articles present. Here we have, in the dog, an animal specifically bred to be cooperative with humans. Centuries of selective breeding have, presumably, produced the most compatible animal for working in human societies of all types. And yet, somehow, articles like the one I ran across caution me to look out for signs of “dominance” in case my adorable companion should suddenly morph into a diabolically clever wild animal bent on controlling every aspect of my life.
The “Warning” Signs and Stuff
I suppose I should explain that I’m not including the author or address of the website where I got these warning signs. The reason for this is simple. You could just type “dominant dog” in your favorite search engine and you will come up with at least 50 articles that will tell you the same things I found on this particular site. It seems that many dog trainers and dog training professionals are keenly interested in identifying your “dominant” dog for you. I’m guessing that’s because they would be happy to help you with your “dominant” dog before something “bad” happens – for a fee, of course.
So let’s see how my dog stacks up against these “warning signs” of dominance that I encountered:
Protectiveness of possessions (to include toys, food, and even people); snarling and snapping when the dog feels someone or another dog is too close to his things. – The books I’ve read about dogs and behaviour have a term for this. They call it “resource guarding.” It’s how a dog lets a person or other dog know that this thing is “Mine!” and you can’t have it right now. Since dogs are evolved scavengers, it’s no surprise that they would want to horde their resources unless they had easy access to more anytime they wanted. So will my Tira snarl or snap if you try to snatch something away from her? You bet! And she regularly warns our other dog, Rizzo, when he makes a move for something she wants to keep. But here’s the thing. That’s not only natural, it’s the correct response! You would be a little snarky if someone just walked up and took your brownie out of your hand.
But we also train our dogs. Can I take anything away from Tira? Yes. Even food or something she really wants? Yes. We train two very specific commands – “Drop” and “Leave it” for just such occasions. We train both with reinforcement. “Drop” what’s in your mouth and you will either get it back or get rewarded with something better for dropping what you have 80-90% of the time. The same is true for “Leave it”; if you back off of the object when we ask you to, you will likely get a good reward for cooperating.
Tries to stare your down – As I sit here writing this, Tira is looking at me from across the room. She’s lying comfortably on the love seat and looking at me. We make eye contact and she doesn’t necessarily look away to avoid my eyes. Is this a staring contest? Is it a battle of wills? Hardly. You see, Tira has been reinforced hundreds of times for looking at me. It’s a behaviour we deliberately trained. Why? Because I will need her undivided attention from time to time. I could just as easily train her to look away from me when I look at her but that isn’t nearly as useful.
Repeatedly ignores well-known commands/Refuses to move out of the way when you ask – Tira is a pretty well trained dog, I think. She responds reasonably well to cues I give her in most situations. She is, after all, a champion in the sport of Dog Agility. But there are times when situations or environments are more distracting and there are things that are much more interesting to her than I am. So I may have to repeat a cue several times before getting a response, if I even get one at all in high distraction environments. And Belgian Shepherds are notorious for being right where you want to be when you want to be there. It seems I frequently have to ask her to move out of the way. And sometimes she’s looking for something or is into a smell that she’s not willing to leave right away. I’ve taught Tira to “backup” and she knows directional cues if I point in a direction and ask her to “go.” Somehow, we work it out. I ask for the easy stuff when it’s very distracting and I’m willing to get her attention with a tough or a quick “Hey!” if I need to get her attention. Am I being dominated? I doubt it.
Nudges or mouths you insisting to be petted or played with, trying to make you comply to his wants – My Tira has never particularly been an “attention hound” when it comes to physical affection. But Rizzo, our younger dog, can be very insistent about what he wants. He regularly ambushes either my wife or me by shoving a toy into the back of a leg and wrapping a paw around to solicit play. Similarly, he has no problem walking under an outstretched hand or ducking under an arm for some affection. Do we give it to him? Sometimes. Does he always get what he wants? No. Who makes that choice? We, the humans, do. Here’s another “dog secret” for you. All dogs are trying to get what they want all of the time. Most well behaved dogs have learned from experience that nudging, mouthing, or pestering will not get them what they want so they use the things that they have found do work. The very things that we teach them to do in order to get that treat, or be let out, get some physical affection from us. Dogs will nudge and mouth and pester if we show them that it works to get what they want. So how is that my dog’s fault?
Persisting to walk in front of you or go out of a door before you – I don’t think I’ve ever known a time when Tira was not walking out at the very end of her leash when we went for walks. In fact, when she was only 8 months old, she snapped a leather leash trying to see what was in the bushes ahead of us. It’s for that reason that I use a harness instead of a collar on walks (prevents injuries to the throat) and I clip her leash to my waist rather than let her pull at my arm holding the leash. Does she go out the door before I do sometimes? Yes! Know why? Because she wants to GO OUTSIDE! Not because she wants to show me who’s boss around here. But if I pull her in on a short leash and if I ask her, Tira will walk nicely next to me. And she will wait before rushing out of a door, in the house or in the car, if I ask her. There’s that training thing again.
Being stubborn, hard-headed and willful, demanding, pushy, forceful, and greedy – Well, now…on this one they have me stumped. How on earth would I know if my dog is “hard-headed” or “willful”? Aren’t all of those subjective terms? Couldn’t I say Tira was being pushy if she needed to out and I didn’t feel like getting out of bed on a cold morning? Is she being “stubborn” if she refuses to walk near something she finds scary when I know it isn’t dangerous? And frankly, I would have to say all dogs are “greedy” considering they are scavengers and opportunists. But again, that’s my value judgement and nothing at all objective.
Am I In Trouble Here Or What?!?
So if I look at the criteria set out in this and other articles to determine whether my dog is exhibiting “dominant” behaviours I might have to conclude that I might be in trouble here. After all, Tira exhibits many of these “warning signs” on an almost daily basis. But I write this , Tira is lying on the floor across from me. She alternates between dozing and looking out the window at the trees. I’m confident in my belief that she is not secretly constructing clever and elaborate plans for the ultimate take over and running of our household.
There is a theme that runs the many of my articles here at Life As A Human. And that theme is simply that we need a better understanding of the dogs that are such an important part of our lives. Getting that better understanding isn’t that difficult; the information we need is out there. The real challenge is sorting the marketing and the hype from the facts. And as I’ve said in other articles, only the dogs themselves can give us the facts.
In his book “The Gift Of Fear”, security expert Gavin de Becker makes the case that there is an entire industry that has built up around “fear” and selling ways to keep you safe from vaguely described but ominious threats. Selling you on the idea that your dog is a wild animal, like the wolf, and that without professional help you may be in “dire trouble” with your dog is just one more way that people can take your money. Trying to sort out dog behaviours into easily understood analogies of human motives and behaviour doesn’t do justice to either our dogs or our ability to work and live with them successfully.
Maybe it’s time we took these “warning signs of dominance” for what they really are – outdated and amusing attempts to make dog training and management far more heroic than it actually is. I don’t control my dog, I work with her. I don’t command my dog, I cue behaviours. I’m not my dog’s “Pack Leader” because dogs are not pack animals. I am my dogs guardian, a “parent” if you will. And I take that responsibility pretty seriously. In the end, my dogs and I are pretty happy together – up here on the sofa where I let Tira be as pushy as I want her to be.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
Photo credits –
All photos copyright Petra Wingate 2006-2012