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Extract from Aunty Kaye’s Doggy Dictionary of Training and Behaviour

The concept of “dominance” is a controversial one. It has gone from being a central concept in training and behaviour, to being very out of fashion, to the point where many people now deny its existence or usefulness.

In everyday language terms, a dominant person, animal or thing is one that prevails over others, having more influence, power or access to resources than others.

Among social animals there are patterns of behaviour and relationships within the group which show some animals prevailing over others, sometimes in the context of more or less stable roles and sometimes as an an outcome of specific interactions.

There is some ambiguity in the way the word “dominance” is used. On the one hand, it implies that a dominant animal has achieved the status of being the leader of a group, prevailing over others by virtue of this status. On the other hand, a dog that displays certain traits, such as confidence or assertiveness, is described as “dominant” in character. A third way the word is used is as a description of a specific interaction – in other words, regardless of the dog’s general character or status, he or she might behave in a dominant or submissive way when meeting a new dog.

When puppies and young dogs are described as dominant, it is used as a character trait. Perhaps “confident” would be more appropriate, because a puppy or young dog would not have attained dominant status in the sense of becoming leader of the pack, which is an extended family of mature adults and older offspring as well as puppies. Puppies can vary according to how confident or lacking in confidence they are, and to some extent this is a character trait. It is not totally fixed, because confidence increases as a result of socialisation, familiarity and having good experiences. It also changes as the puppy matures. It is normal for a puppy to behave in a submissive way to an older dog, and to become more assertive with age. A young dog will have a repertoire of dominant and submissive behaviours, displaying whichever is appropriate given the age and character of the other dog. Dogs will also change their behaviour as they get to know each other – for example, they might give each other exaggerated signs of dominance and submission when they first meet, and having got the formalities out of the way, then go on to play in a more relaxed way, the submissive dog taking more liberties and the dominant one condescending to roll over.

Traditional dog training methods are based on the concept that the owner or trainer becomes the dominant animal or pack leader. In some cases, this was to be achieved through traditional obedience training.

Some trainers advocate the need to dominate the dog by physical means. Many physical dominance techniques have been described, but there is now a rising tide of opinion saying that they are dangerous, ineffective and unnecessary.

According to William E. Campbell – there is a huge difference between a person asserting dominance especially by confrontation and force, and establishing leadership by social means. Many behaviour problems arise either because the owner has failed to establish leadership, perhaps by being too permissive, or because they are too punitive, or both – exerting little control and then inconsistently resorting to punishment.

English trainer, the late John Fisher said don’t achieve dominance by training – establish leadership first, then train by positive reinforcement.

Dominant behaviour by dogs towards their owners, especially dominance aggression, can be seen as the failure by the owner to establish leadership, inadvertently promoting the dog to a high ranking status, and then inconsistently having a confrontation when this leads to conflict. It’s as if the dog is saying “all this time, you’ve put me in a position of control, now suddenly for no reason you want to grab me and make me do something.”

Whether or not you believe in dominance, there are some behaviours which I have experienced which at the very least reveal a lack of control by the dog’s owner. These are examples of behaviour regarded as dominant:

  • “pat me, don’t pat me” – an attitude whereby the dog solicits attentions and then bites when he has had enough
  • greeting a person with intimidation, for example one dog put his knuckles on my lap, chin jutting forward, face thrust into mine
  • not letting owner cross the room at night
  • jumping up on back of couch, standing on the person’s shoulders
  • attacking someone for going first
  • growling at someone going near the couch or trying to sit on it (let alone remove the dog)
  • not letting someone into the bedroom or onto the bed
  • attacking a member of the group who takes the initiative, for example by going ahead of the group, or getting up first when others are sitting down

Dominance and submission

Expressions of dominance and submission can be seen in the body language of dogs.

Milani (author of The Body Language and Emotion of Dogs) lists a number of examples of how dogs communicate by means of body language. Displays of dominance and submission between dogs are used to communicate and maintain (or change) relationships within the group. Similar body language is used by the dog when interacting with people.

Dominance displays include:

  • placing the chin on shoulders of another dog
  • growling or snarling when the other dog whines or attempts to move
  • placing the front paws on the other’s back
  • circling and sniffing the other dog
  • holding the ears erect
  • holding the tail erect
  • looking directly at the other dog
  • deliberately marking territory with urine

Submissive displays are listed as:

  • tail lowered or curled under the body
  • ears flattened against the head
  • gaze averted
  • rolling over
  • “nervous” licking and swallowing
  • cringing or trembling
  • seemingly involuntary urination

These are commonly agreed to by many behaviour experts. While many people have observed these behaviours, they do not always agree on how to interpret them.

Dominance aggression

In theory, dominance aggression is aggression that occurs as a result of the dog defending or asserting his or her dominant status. Generally speaking, this occurs within the dog’s own pack. However, it is not entirely clear what “the pack” is for the domestic pet dog. The conventional wisdom is that the owner or the human family takes on the function of “pack leader”. Take this with a grain of salt because we don’t entirely duplicate a wild dog pack, and in any case, dogs have been domesticated, so who knows what they were “in the wild” and to what extent they have changed. However, they remain very social, and “things happen” when they get together.

A pack can be a long-term group or a temporary one. A dog is a dog but two dogs are a pack, and will egg each other on in activities such as running, barking and chasing. The population of our parks and walking tracks is very fluid. In some areas, regulars get together with their dogs, who get to know each other. But there are many examples of dogs coming together in small groups and splitting up again. It’s not surprising that there is some friction and jockeying for position.

A group of dogs that meets regularly, for example in a weekly training class, will tend to forget their differences and make an outsider feel unwelcome, until the new dog is integrated into the group. This is social behaviour, but it is not dominance aggression.

Dominance is more likely to be seen when a one dog asserts him or herself over another one within the group. However, dominance is not straightforward. Some dogs will assert themselves about some issues but not others. For example, some dogs will show aggression to keep possession of a toy, but be very submissive in response to physical handling or grooming.

Having said that, I can’t leave it at that. As I said above, the concept of “dominance” is a controversial one.

Sometimes classic examples of dominance aggression may be better viewed as situations in which the owner has given the dog many privileges and allowed the dog to control many aspects of life, then, inconsistently, the owner has had a confrontation with the dog. The dogs asserts the control that he or she has always exercised, or reacts aggressively in response to a threat from the owner. Grabbing the dog by the collar to drag it off the couch, force the dog to go outside, or to punish the dog are examples.


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