Demystifying dominance

Many pet parents attribute the dominating nature of their dog for all their bad manners. Here’s why it is wrong and what should be done towards a well-behaved dog.

The excuse for a disobedient dog…

“He is very dominant.” Of all the words used to describe the goofy dog who was vying for my heart on the adoption floor, these are the ones who stuck with me. “He won’t start any fights but he won’t back down,” he informed me. Well, I can live with that I thought in my adoption afterglow. Over the next couple of years I used dominance to explain many of Buddy’s undesirable traits that appeared as he entered social maturity.

Since those early days in my dog training career, I have heard dominance used to excuse separation anxiety, dog-dog aggression, aggression towards humans, rambunctious play styles and inappropriate greeting rituals. Dominance has become a fixture in dog culture but few understand its true meaning or how to apply it when safely training their four-legged companions.

The scientific way to train a dog…

The easier, scientifically proven way to train a dog without any fallout is to reward behaviours you like and withhold rewards when a dog presents a behaviour you don’t like. When we control access to our dogs’ resources, we control our dogs. Dominance trainers are right when they say not to give everything to your dog for free. They explain that this makes us the alpha. However, the success most people experience with this technique can also be explained by learning theory. Any time a dog is rewarded for an action, they are more likely to repeat it in the future. For example, if you get your dog to sit and wait until you exit a door first (a technique normally prescribed to gain rank), your dog will learn that to get access to the outside, they need to sit until you tell them otherwise. They are not respecting you as dominant, they are earning a powerful reward for sitting and waiting – getting to go outside and explore the world!

Next time someone tells you a dog is behaving a certain way because he is being dominant, see if you can identify what might be rewarding the dog’s behaviour instead of accepting the dominant diagnosis. Consider the bouncy dog who jumps up on everyone despite being pushed down, kneed or grabbed. Is the dog trying to dominate everyone he meets or does he find human touch so rewarding that he doesn’t matter what form he takes? This approach also works for the growling dog in the safety of his pet parent’s arms. Is he trying to dominate approaching strangers or does the growling usually cause people to go away and leave him alone with his favourite people?

When you are watching dogs and trying to figure out what could possibly be encouraging an unwanted behaviour, remember rewards are as varied as the personalities of our four-legged friends. Food, playing, cuddling and praise are obvious rewards but dogs can also be rewarded by their own actions. A barking dog may enjoy alleviating feelings of frustration through their vocalisations or they may like the attention he gets from their human companions.

It is important to provide your dog with a clear understanding of what they are required to do to live peacefully within the rules of our society. Given that approximately 90 percent of aggression in dogs is fear-based, it is critical to provide structure and feedback without using scare tactics. Alpha animals (i.e. the parents) act in a calm, relaxed way, leaving aggression to the insecure and defensive.

The body language…

Dogs give many clear but subtle signals when they are stressed. Once you know what to watch for, it is easy to pick up on the red flags that indicate when a dog is upset. Test your dog’s communication skills the next time a dog training show is on TV. Pay close attention to the dog’s mouth, eyes and ears. Is the dog yawning frequently but doesn’t seem to settle? Does the dog repeatedly lick his lips? Can you see the whites of his eyes? Are the ears pinned back? If you look at the dog’s body, is he tense and moving slowly or staying close to the ground? Is the dog panting heavily without having done any physical exercise? Is the dog sniffing the ground frequently in an attempt to avoid eye contact? Each of these clues will tell you a dog is feeling insecure or even frightened. A frightened dog is a potentially dangerous dog depending on whether he chooses fight or flight to deal with undue stress.

Other not-so-subtle signals that dogs use to communicate with their humans include growling, barking, baring teeth, staring, air snapping and actually biting. When a dog growls or bares his teeth, he is sending out a loud and clear signal that he is not comfortable with what is happening. Trying to stop this form of communication without addressing the root cause and helping your dog feel more comfortable in the presence of the offending stimulus, results in the dog trying to communicate more clearly. A dog who tries to unsuccessfully warn their people with a growl may progress to a snap. If the snap doesn’t get the message across then the dog may resort to making contact with skin.

A happy and obedient dog…

Establish yourself as a leader by controlling access to resources and you will have a dog who works happily and confidently for you. If your dog is doing something you don’t like, take the time to train a new behaviour and use the resources your dog wants or needs to instill new habits. Not only will you have a well-behaved pet, you will have a dog who loves, respects and trusts you.

(Adina MacRae is the co-owner of Sublime Canine Services, a dog training and dog walking business in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She graduated from Dalhousie University where she studied animal learning and behaviour and went on to study with the Companion Animal Sciences Institute. She has been training dogs for 10 years and also invented the Clicker Leash, a product designed to help people use positive reinforcement to train dogs.)

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