Understanding Dominance


Dominance or “Being Your Dog’s Pack Leader” is often advised by many dog trainers, dog behaviourists, dog breeders, dog owners & the media that are not up to date with the most scientifically proven information.

The Association of Professional Dog Trainers puts it very well when they wrote;

“Contrary to popular thinking, research studies of wolves in their natural habitat demonstrate that wolves are not dominated by an “Alpha Wolf” that is the most aggressive male, or male-female pairing, of the pack. Rather, they have found that wolf packs are very similar to how human families are organized, and there is little aggression or fights for “dominance.” Wolves, whether it is the parents or the cubs of a pack, depend on each other to survive in the wild; consequently wolves that engage in aggressive behaviours toward each other would inhibit the pack’s ability to survive and flourish. While social hierarchies do exist (just as they do among human families) they are not related to aggression in the way it is commonly portrayed (incorrectly) in popular culture. As Senior Research Scientist L. David Mech recently wrote regarding his many years of study of wolves, we should “once and for all end the outmoded view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack.” (Mech, 2008) In addition to our new understanding of wolf behaviour, study into canine behaviour has found that dogs, while sharing some traits with their wolf cousins, have many more significant differences. As a result, the idea that dog behaviour can be explained through the application of wolf behaviour models is no more relevant than suggesting that chimpanzee behaviour can be used to explain human behaviour.”

Dog’s go through species id at 2 weeks of age, they know they are a dog and will not have a hierarchy with any other species.  So an alpha wolf will not decide one day to try and become alpha of a wild dog pack, as it does not cross species in hierarchy.  Similarly a dog will not decide to become alpha of your cat/rabbit/chicken or YOU, because they are all another animal species.

Our dog’s dominance may come into play with other dogs, usually over resources such as food, toys, sleeping areas, owner’s attention, but these are not achieved through force, but rather from one dog deferring to another peacefully.  If you have a multi dog household you have probably witnessed this yourself and it will be fluid as learning and age take place.  So a dog that views toys as a high resource, may, when a toy is thrown, always get it first and the other dogs now hardly bother chasing the toy, after all what’s the point?  Now that dog is getting older and he/she cannot run as fast, so another dog in the household may now always get that resource.  Many owners think there is a lineage hierarchy, so they will think if they have let’s say three dogs in the house, Dog A is top dog, followed by Dog B then last is Dog C.  But if they looked closely they would find Dog A is higher ranking over food resources& owners attention whilst Dog B is higher ranking over toy resources and Dog C over sleeping areas.  Dogs that use aggression to get what they want are not being dominant; in fact they are more anxious than dominant.

But the important part to take away here is the fact you cannot be the dogs pack leader because you’re not a dog!

When dealing with behaviour or training problems it is so important to find a trainer or behaviourist that is up to date in this theory and use positive reinforcement methods, rewarding the dog for performing the task.  So stopping the unwanted behaviour positively and re-training what we do want and rewarding that.  This is successful and enhances your relationship with your dog.

If you follow advice to become the pack leader, you will impact on the relationship with your dog in an aversive manner.  Such misinformation can cause further problems that can lead to anxiety, fearfulness and aggression.  This can also lead to your dog becoming very depressed as it has no idea what or why your doing this, so it just shuts down.

Some of the following problems are often cited as being “the dog is trying to be dominant over you”.


Dog pulls on lead and through doorways This is not dominance; the dog has not been trained and is usually just excited.
Dog is disobedient Have you trained the commands so your dog fully understands them?
Dog wants to get on furniture or bed Because it’s more comfy, not because it’s being dominant!
Dog jumps up at people trying to assert his rank. Dog has been inadvertently trained to do this as someone is reinforcing it with attention either positively (hello) or negatively (Off!)
Dog toilets in house to assert his dominance in the territory. Not at all, dog that start toileting in house when they never use to may well have a medical problem and a vet should be sought.  Other than that it was due to inconsistency in owners housetraining techniques.

Final Thoughts:

When seeking help from a trainer or behaviourist always ask their beliefs regarding dominance and using physical force and intimidation to train a dog, whether for obedience or for behaviour problems. An educated canine professional should be well-acquainted with the latest scientific understandings of dog behaviour and be willing to openly discuss their training methodologies with you.