If dogs do not hear, behave aggressively towards other dogs, show an exaggerated protective instinct and do not tolerate anyone near their food, this behavior is often explained with dominance, which must be prevented. But what does dominance actually mean in dogs? Are only alpha animals dominant and do I actually have a dominance problem if my dog disobeys?
About life in a wolf pack
Dogs are descended from wolves and, like wolves, dogs naturally live in packs. Just like their ancestors, dogs have recognized that life in a pack is far easier and more energy efficient than the life of a loner. Together they can protect themselves better from danger and hunting in a group is far more promising than hunting alone. Contrary to what was assumed for a long time, there is neither a strict hierarchy in the wolf pack nor in the dog pack, which would have to be maintained through violence and aggressive “power struggles”. On the contrary, wild wolves and dogs live together in a kind of family group, which is usually led by the oldest and most experienced animals in the group, but aggressive fights for the role of the alpha animal, i.e. the leader, usually do not occur within the group .
Leader or subordinate by nature?
Recent studies of wolves and dogs living in the wild show that there is no such thing as a clear alpha animal that gives a clear leader in all situations. Although individual pack members sometimes show dominant behavior, this depends less on their general role in the pack and more on a specific situation. If, for example, a dog in the pack has a bone, it is considered to be the “leader” at that moment, who can determine the “bone” resource. Other pack members do not ask this question, they accept that the other is in charge at this moment and automatically become subordinates. This does not mean that the owner of the bone generally becomes the leader, who always gets his food first. If, for example, a previously defeated animal has got hold of a prey, it is allowed to decide on it alone at this moment and does not have to first leave its prey to the supposed alpha animal. Whether a dog acts in a dominant or submissive manner depends on the respective situation and the time.
Is the Alpha Dog a Myth?
If wild wolves do become aggressive, they usually only show this to wolves that do not belong to their “family” and that pose a certain threat to their pack – be it because they want to dispute their food or their “territory”, for example . Contrary to what was previously assumed, neither wolves nor dogs strive for a position of power in their pack. An alpha dog, which has to prove its high rank again and again through dominance fights within its own pack, is naturally not found in wild dogs.
Where does the fear of a dominant dog come from?
Regardless of these new findings, the theory about the alpha dog, who behaves too dominantly towards his human “pack leader”, persists. If a dog is disobedient to its owner, this is often explained by the dog trying to take on the role of the pack leader. He wants to play the alpha animal and demonstrate his power to his master. If the dog training is unsuccessful and the dog is “dancing on the nose” of its owner, this is often excused with the words that the dog is very dominant. But what does dominance really mean? Do I actually recognize them by a certain disobedience to their people? And, conversely, does the dog have to be submissive in order to obey me?
Does Alpha Dog Training Really Make Sense?
For years, experts and dog trainers agreed that dog training can only be successful if the dog accepts that his master is the “boss of the pack”. In order to strengthen this position of the leader, owners should use various methods that should repeatedly clarify the dog’s inferior position in the family pack. Even today, many are of the opinion that a dog should, for example, always only get its food after its owner has finished eating. In addition, the owner should always go through the door in front of his dog and never let the four-legged friend go first. Sleeping in the master’s bed or taking a seat in his favorite place should be completely taboo. In many dog training books, the so-called Alpha Roll technique was also described, with which owners should hold their disobedient dog in a submissive position on the ground. Unfortunately, these methods were only successful in very few cases. The supposed “dominance problems” such as pulling on the leash, ignoring commands, aggressively defending the food or jumping were mostly not resolved after such alpha dog training. What was that?
A dog is not disobedient because it is dominant
The problem with alpha dog training like this is that it is based on the assumption that dogs naturally want to take over pack leadership and repeatedly try to enforce this desire through dominant behavior. As described above, however, recent scientific studies of wild wolves and dogs have seriously challenged this instinctive quest for the alpha role. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether dogs really understand their human family as a “pack”. Today, many experts are of the opinion that dogs only form a pack with their own species and that our four-legged friends finally know that they and we are not “the same””. Naming the desire for dominance as the cause of disobedience, aggressiveness or stubbornness would not only be wrong, but would also not do justice to the dog’s actual desire. The fact is, a dog is not disobedient because it is dominant, but because it was raised incorrectly or poorly.
What is dominance and how do we recognize it?
Even if it sounds so simple: Dominant behavior is not shown by the fact that the dog pulls on the leash because he simply wants to set the “tone” or that he is aggressive towards strangers because he, as an alpha animal, simply plays the role of protector would come. On the contrary: Dominance rather shows itself in a remarkable presence and inner calm of the dog. Dominant dogs are self-confident dogs who are aware of their sovereignty and who don’t need to growl aggressively or bark loudly to prove themselves to others. In a group of raging dogs, the dominant dog stands rather calmly at the edge – not because he is shy, but because he doesn’t need these “fighting games””. His posture is upright, he moves safely and stably, his head and ears are raised high. A pinched tail or a rounded back, i.e. signs that the dog is afraid or nervous, will rarely be recognized by the dominant dog type.
Correctly interpret problem behavior in dogs
Despite these new findings, the real problems behind the fear of dog dominance have of course not been superfluous. No question about it, a dog that behaves like a “macho” and ignores all rules and orders is a serious danger. But rather than excuse the problem behavior with the false reference to the dominance of the animal, it is important to know the real causes of this behavior. For what reason does my dog not listen to me if not because he instinctively dreams of taking the lead? We would like to explain to you what causes can actually be behind this and how you can get your dog’s problem behavior under control using the following five examples.
“My dog doesn’t listen to my commands.”
If a dog does not listen to “down”, “sit”, “off” or “on foot”, this is not only very exhausting in everyday life for humans and dogs, but also dangerous. Walking a dog that does not walk and that does not come on call can become a real gauntlet. However, the reason a dog disobeys is not because the dog is simply an alpha dog who craves self-determination and freedom. As hard as it sounds: The fault for such disobedience lies in a lack of or wrong upbringing and thus solely in the owner. Regardless of whether you are a self-confident German Shepherd or a nervous terrier: all dogs are capable of learning commands. They are ready to obey their master – provided they trust him and his abilities. This means that you have to be convinced that you, as the owner, have the situation under control at all times and that it is worthwhile for him to listen to you – be it because it is more energy-saving and stress-free for him or because it is even a reward for him jumping around.
Gain your dog’s trust: One of the most common causes of disobedience is that your dog cannot rely on your commands and their consequences – for example, because the commands are unclear, because they are repeated over and over again (without anything happening) or because they are contradicting. Dogs pay close attention to body language – if it does not match your command, it may be a reason for them not to hear. For example, if you say “sit down” but run up and down frantically and nervously yourself, your dog will hardly understand why he should sit down now. Therefore, make sure that your dog can trust the correctness of your commands. Your commands must always be clear and unambiguous, they must suit your posture and should come at the right time. Dogs understand commands as well as praise and blame only if they are directly related to actions. Punishing a dog hours later for doing his business on the carpet is no more useful than explaining to him on the way to the supermarket that he will have to wait for you later when you are there.
“My dog pulls on the leash.”
When a dog pulls on a leash, owners often apologize by saying that the four-legged friend is very dominant and wants to determine the direction himself. In reality, however, no dog tugs on the leash out of dominance, but simply because the person holding the leash allows this tugging. Some dog owners stumble after their playful puppy with amusement and wonder why he still pulls on the leash later as an adult dog. Once your dog has learned that pulling is worthwhile because it takes him in the direction he wants, he will of course try again every time. Being on the lead is not a question of submission or dominance, but simply a question of upbringing. Teach your dog that pulling on the leash does not literally “get him anywhere”. A best practice is to stop immediately if a dog begins to pull on the leash or even take a few steps back. Do not continue on your way until the line is loose again. You need to keep doing this exercise consistently. Letting go of the pulling on the leash from time to time just because you are in a hurry and want to get the walk over with quickly will certainly be more work for you in the long term than if you make sure that your dog learns from the start always to go with your direction.
“My dog is aggressive towards strangers.”
One thing is certain, a dog is not born aggressive. Of course, some dog breeds, such as Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Doberman or Pitbull, naturally have a slightly higher protective instinct and a lower stimulus threshold than, for example, a Golden Retriever or Labrador. But no dog in the world attacks another dog or a person simply on a whim, for example because it enjoys proving its superiority. Aggression is not a problem for “alpha dogs” but rather a problem for dogs who feel insecure and uncomfortable. One of the most common causes of aggressive behavior towards strangers is when your dog senses that his owner is insecure and therefore believes that he must defend and protect you. So if you get nervous when another walker walks towards you in the forest and you are afraid that your dog will start to bark aggressively as soon as you approach him, your dog will certainly sense this and ultimately show this behavior. Attempts to calm your dog down by persuading or petting him will confirm his behavior.
Show your dog that you are in control of the situation: you have to convince your dog that there is no need to defend or protect it. Never show your dog that you are scared or nervous. Be confident and try to ignore your dog’s aggressiveness if the situation allows. Never go into it and only stroke and reward him when he has managed to remain calm towards the stranger.
My dog does not tolerate anyone near his food. “
Dogs are naturally egoists who care about their own good. Defending vital resources, such as food, is therefore not a consequence of dominance, but at most a consequence of an innate “instinct for self-preservation”. While defending the prey in wild wolves or dogs is quite natural and this right is available to all pack members, it can quickly become a problem in coexistence with humans if the dog already starts growling just because its master approaches the food bowl. It is important that the dog learns that there is no reason to defend its food in the presence of its people. A good way to achieve this goal can be to give the dog something to feed (a bone or a treat) in addition to the food bowl. The dog will perceive the presence of the person with his food as something positive. Another, but riskier, option is to take the food bowl away and only give it to the dog after he has quietly waited and patiently accepts your presence.
“My dog argues with other dogs all the time.”
There can be various reasons for being aggressive towards conspecifics. The two most common causes are that your dog thinks he has to defend you against the other dog (see “My dog is aggressive towards strangers.”) Or that he perceives the other dog as a rival, be it in the fight for his food, his favorite spot or your attention. The latter has nothing to do with jealousy, but simply with the fact that a dog is naturally concerned with its own advantage. The point is not to hurt the other, but simply to get the best out of yourself. If two or more dogs live together in a household, such small “battles” for resources sometimes occur. As is so often the case, the real problem is not in the behavior of the dogs, but in the behavior of us humans.
If several dogs live in one household: As the owner of several dogs, you want to treat your animals as fairly as possible. It hurts us when we see that one dog always grabs the treat first or storms through the door first, while the other dog usually has to “give in”. We want to ban this dominant behavior, but it usually only makes it worse. Dogs don’t take it personally when they lose out. They determine the order of precedence in the individual situations and accept when the conspecific is more dominant in many moments. By giving preference to the supposedly weaker dog, i.e. always giving him the treat first and blaming the alpha dog for his selfish behavior, you are disrupting the relationship between your dogs. Rather than promoting peace, you are more likely to encourage confrontation. Even if it is difficult: Show your dogs that you accept their ranking among each other and that it is not necessary to prove it again and again.
The right dog training: consistent, but not dictatorial
As you can see, disobedience, cocky behavior, aggressiveness or rivalry usually have nothing to do with dominance. As a rule, dogs just never learned that their behavior was undesirable. So, as is so often the case, the problem lies with us humans. If a dog behaves “dominantly” in our eyes, in most cases he is simply badly behaved. Dogs are strongly oriented towards their humans and of course they test out which behavior is worthwhile for them and which has consequences. You are not doing this to play the alpha dog role, but simply to find your way around society. Using alpha training methods to make them aware of their role as “subordinates of man” therefore has little chance of success. It is much more important that you become a reliable partner for your dog. Show him that he can trust your judgment and offer him clear guidance in every situation. You do not have to appear as a “strict dictator”, but you have to be confident, self-confident and above all consistent in order to show your dog the right way.