Your dog is not trying to take over the world. Dominance as we apply the term to wolves and dogs is a myth. Let’s look at a few of the more common things you may have heard.  Many well-meaning trainers, rescuers, breeders, veterinarians, groomers, store clerks, etc., still teach them despite behavioral research showing differently. 

The myths are that your dog is dominant if:

He goes through doors first. Reality: Think how excited some dogs get when it is walk time. Alternatively, he sees something he wants to go after. Your dog needs to learn door manners.

He jumps on people. Reality: Dogs jump for different reasons. Many people do things that encourage jumping without realizing it. Dogs may be happy to see us. Teach an alternative behavior.

He pulls on a leash and is trying to lead the walk. Reality: There are so many wonderful things he wants to see and smell. He needs to be taught leash manners and allowed to sniff at times to meet those behavioral needs.

He barks at you. Reality: Barking is communication and may be done for: attention, warning, stress/anxiety, happy, playing, etc. Owners often do things that encourage this behavior.

He growls at you when he is eating/chewing a toy/sleeping on furniture. Reality: Your dog is letting you know he would like to keep what he has and feels uneasy by your presence.  He needs to learn good things will come when we are near what they have.

He chooses your bed/chair/couch instead of his dog bed. Reality: Dogs like our furniture because it is comfortable. Provide nice areas for your dog to rest and teach him these are good places.

He “humps” people or dogs. Reality: Mounting (often called humping) is not dominance.  It can be a sign of stress, wishing to play, etc.  Teaching an alternative behavior can stop this action. If it is stress-induced, then we alleviate that stress.

He refuses to obey your commands. Reality: Your dog may not understand what is expected. Your dog may have a negative association with the training methods used. You may be expecting too much, too fast. 

He steals your food. Reality: Dogs are scavengers. When we drop food or leave it and walk away, in the dog’s mind we are done.  The food is up for grabs. We provide the opportunity and the dog will take it.

Never ever let your dog go down the stairs first. Reality: I want my dogs to go ahead of me at home. It is a safety issue. All it takes is one dog trying to pass for you to be knocked down a flight of stairs. When we are at hotels, I expect my dogs to do a controlled walk down the stairs with me.

The whole dominance in wolves and dogs came from limitedly performed and misinterpreted research. Over the decades, more in-depth research has shown that what was assumed true for wolves and dogs is not. Dogs are trying to figure out how to live with our species — and we are a confusing species. Many of the behaviors labelled “dominant” are simply confusion or fear, or we have inadvertently taught something undesired.  

For more on the dominance myth, I recommend Barry Eaton’s “Dominance: Fact or Fiction.”

Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project and owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.

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