“My dog is trying to be dominant.”
“See? He’s trying to dominate me.”
“She just thinks she the Alpha dog (a dominance term) in this house.”
Surprisingly, the people who use this phrase frequently aren’t referring to any standard, accepted behaviour or behaviours in dogs that we define as dominant. It has just become a catch-all term for unwanted behaviours.
The trouble with the whole “dominant” conversation is that it assigns a motivation to the dog. We don’t know what their motivations are. We don’t have an ability to know with any certainty what dogs are thinking when they do things. Too often this speculation comes layered with a healthy portion of the human preconceptions and bias. We act on what we think the dog is doing and we could be very wrong.
I don’t think that word means what you think it means
One of the biggest problems with the whole “dominant” discussion is that there is not really a clear, common meaning that is widely accepted and used. Some people use it to mean some sort of hierarchy; a pecking order where there are those who are in charge and their subordinates in some sort of ranking structure (the whole “Pack Leader” thing). Others use the term to describe aggressive behaviours such as growling, refusing to get off furniture, or guarding resources like food or toys. Still others use it to describe any behaviours the dog exhibits in order to avoid complying with a cue or command.
If we are using a word like “dominant” that has so many meanings to so many different people, how can we use it in any meaningful way? Chances are we can’t. Not without defining what we mean every time we use the word. That’s going to make solutions to our dog problems a little complicated.
How can you know if your dog is “dominant”? Well, chances are they aren’t and you are just using the wrong word for what you mean.
Who is in charge here!
One of the most common uses of the term “dominant” refers to who is in charge, the dog or the human. In my opinion, it also happens to be the most ridiculous and incorrect uses. The assumption in this usage is that the dog wants to be “in charge” or the “leader” of the household. Think for a minute about all of the dogs you have met or have owned. Has any one of them ever made any effort to dictate what you eat for dinner? How about which pillows you sleep on? What books you read? Where you choose to eat your meals? The fact is, unless it directly involves them and their needs, most dogs couldn’t give a hoot about what you are doing with your life.
This is where it is important to understand the evolutionary path of dogs. While they might have once been wolves, our modern dogs evolved as scavengers. Their primary skills are directed toward finding easy, reliable access to food, shelter, and safety. These are not the cunning pack hunters that their ancestors were. That scavenger nature goes a long way to explaining why our dogs don’t get any reward out of controlling things just for the sake of having power or control. There just isn’t anything in it for them. Dogs seek to control stuff for they want for themselves. Period.
A reasonable alternative
In his book “Dog Sense”, author and behaviourist John Bradshaw offers a compelling alternative to the outdated and often misused term “dominance.” Bradshaw refers to this model as “Resource Holding Potential (RHP).” In the RHP framework, the dog isn’t seeking to dominate or establish any kind of imagined rank in some hypothetical social hierarchy. Instead, the dog has identified a resource she wants and then assesses her chances at getting and holding on to that resource.
It could be that they want to chew on a particular bone. It could be that they are afraid that their food bowl will be taken away prematurely. It might even be that the prefer the companionship of their human. In any of these cases, a dog may display what is commonly called “dominant” behaviours. But the goal is not to show anyone who is “boss”, they just want that resource. The fact that they may be using an aggressive or pushy approach is likely due to the fact that they have thought about their options and think that those behaviours are most likely to get them what they want.
Bradshaw’s RHP framework makes sense in another important way. Many dog owners who talk about their “dominant” dog in a multi-dog household will also tell you about times when their “Alpha” dog lets another dog have their favorite toy or didn’t rush to be first out the door. Social hierarchies are by definition absolute; the top dog is the top dog always and others will always defer to them. But the reality with our dogs is much more flexible than that.
What’s going on here?
From the dog’s perspective, there are several things to take into account when deciding whether or not to defend or acquire a resource. Is it a rare resource? How badly do I need it? Can I win it given the competition? How badly do my competitors want it? Is the energy I need to expend to get and hold it worth the effort? There are lots of questions. And the answer to most of them is “it depends.” It’s just not a hard and fast decision every time.
There are times when a food motivated dog isn’t that hungry. There are times when the ball obsessed dog is just to tired to care about the ball. And there are times when the older dog just can’t be bothered to take the toy away from the young upstart. If this “dominance” thing were really about maintaining some sort of status position, you would think the top dog would always be motivated to fight for their spot in the hierarchy. If not for this particular resource, then for the ones that they might want exclusive access to further down the road.
A matter of convenience
When it comes right down to it, this whole “dominance” thing is just convenient. It’s convenient for us humans because it is a neat little catch-all term that let’s us explain things in simple, easy to understand human terms. If we are not really correct in how we characterize our dogs and punish them unnecessarily for things they aren’t doing, well, it’s really about our own convenience after all. Isn’t it?
For dogs, the convenience comes in a very different package. They don’t really care what we call their actions. What they care about is getting what they want. And as author and dog trainer Jean Donaldson says so well in her book The Culture Clash, “Dogs do what works.” Don’t want to be bothered while eating? Growl. The humans back off. Don’t want that toy taken away? Air snap. That seems to back them off quite nicely. Don’t want to get off of that nice comfy couch when you are asked to? Pretend you didn’t hear it and continue lying there. If it works, it’s worth doing again.
The first thing to do if you think your dog is “dominant” is to stop, sit down, have a cup of tea, and THINK! If you are honest, your dog isn’t trying to wrestle control of the family budget away from you. He’s not after your job or your status in society. Your dog just wants stuff.
And you know what? Your dog should have his stuff. But there needs to be a mutually agreeable system for getting the stuff its OK to have. Many of us call that “dog training.” It’s pretty simple to do. If you want to lie on the couch, you have to get off when I ask you. If you want to get fed, you have to tolerate me being around you and even picking up the bowl from time to time (but I promise you will get enough to eat and not be bothered much). If you want toys to play with, you have to give them to me (with the occasional trade for a different toy or food treat) when I ask for it. It’s an easy system.
But it is a system and systems need to be taught. Your dog isn’t going to figure this out on his own. It takes a bit of time and some effort but it works. Letting go of the idea that your dog is “dominant” is just the first step but it is a necessary one. As long as you continue to blame your dog for being “dominant”, you are avoiding one simple fact.
You are just making excuses for not properly training and working with your dog.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
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