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What Is Dog Dominance Theory?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Dog dominance theory—what is it?

Dog dominance theory—what is it?

What Is Dog Dominance?

In order to understand dog dominance theory, you will have to first learn what dominance really is. This is where you start navigating in murky waters as many so-called "experts" label dogs as dominant without even truly understanding what this term really entails.

You will often hear that dogs who behave in certain ways are acting dominant or trying to achieve dominance. Here are a few examples of circumstances where dogs are often labeled as dominant:

  • If your dog pulls on the leash, he is acting dominant because he wants to lead you.
  • If your dog jumps up at you and licks your face, he is trying to achieve a "higher" status.
  • If your dog humps your leg, rest assured, he is trying to assert dominance.
  • If your dog guards food or toys from you, he is telling you he is the boss.

The fact is, all of the above are labels that often blur the real intentions of the dog. For example, dogs on the leash are simply pulling because they want to explore and meet other dogs, dogs who jump on you and lick your face are really just trying to say hello, guarding food and toys is mostly a trust issue, and humping can have several causes such as frustration, anxiety, and play. More on this can be found on the APDT website in the enlightening article "Dominance myths and dog training realities."

So not only does labeling dogs as dominant blur the real intentions of the dog, but it also causes owners the feeling that they must correct their dogs because they're at stake of being stepped all over by them and becoming victims of "doormat syndrome."

On top of that, the real meaning of the term dominance is misunderstood, and those who label dogs as dominant for acting in certain ways haven't gone in-depth on understanding the real meaning of the term. So what does dominance really mean? Let's take a look at what the real experts in the field have to say.

"Dominant dog" stealing my chair

"Dominant dog" stealing my chair

The Real Definition of Dominance

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) defines dominance as not a personality trait but rather as "a relationship between individual animals that is established to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates." It's important to note that in order for a dominant/submissive relationship to take place, there must be that one individual who consistently submits.

What's the purpose of this relationship? It's to maintain order. In the wild, too much energy would be spent fighting over food, resting spots, and mates. This would turn out to be counter-productive as energy must be conserved for more important things such as searching for food, mating, and basic survival.

A hierarchy helps make things run more smoothly since it helps determine which individuals will get priority of access to resources, especially when limited. This leads to a reduction in conflicts that may lead to aggression. For instance, AVSAB describes how in a group of bulls, fights over mating are minimized because subordinate males avoid conflict by allowing only the dominant bull to mate.

Is your "dominant" dog taking charge of your credit card?

Is your "dominant" dog taking charge of your credit card?

How Did Dominance Theory Relate to Dogs?

One must dig a bit into history and studies in order to determine how the belief that dogs are continuously trying to establish dominance was crafted. A major role was played by the tendency to base dog behavior on the behavior of wolves observed in studies.

Wolves in Captivity

One of the first studies was conducted by Robert Shenkel, who observed a pack of wolves in captivity in 1947 at the Zoological Institute of the University of Basel in Switzerland. His observations brought to the conclusion that the dominant alpha wolf status was established through violent rivalries.

Back then, dog behavior was believed to be closely related to wolf behavior; therefore, it was quickly assumed that dogs who misbehaved did so because they were trying to attain a dominant position. The solution for owners and trainers was to correct such attempts through the use of force, leading to an era of dominance-based training for the purpose of keeping the dog in check.

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Luckily, better, more extensive studies conducted on wolves in a natural setting revealed a totally different perspective. Wolf expert David Mech provided significant contributions by observing a pack of wolves in 1986 on Ellesmere Island, Canada. These wolves in a natural setting behaved in a totally different way compared to Shenkel's captive wolves.

Wolves in Nature Act Like a Family Unit

Mech soon noticed that the pack of wolves behaved more like a family unit composed of a breeding pair and its offspring. Mech, therefore, compared Schenkel's captivity studies as the equivalent of studying humans in refugee camps. This, along with the publication of Karen Pryor's book Don't Shoot the Dog and the APDT's promotion of reward-based training, seemed to temporarily put to rest the "alpha wolf" dominance theory.

However, a resurgence in dominance theory was later observed with the airing of Cesar Millan's The Dog Whisperer show. Dog behavior was once again based on wolf behavior, along with the belief that dogs were constantly attempting to attain the alpha dominant role. The show soon obtained loads of criticism from acclaimed dog trainers, respected behaviorists, and dog owners. The website Beyond Cesar Millan was founded to educate people about his methods. In 2012, TV host Alan Titchmarsh confronted Cesar for his barbaric methods.

"Dominant dog" using my credit card to go on a shopping spree online.

"Dominant dog" using my credit card to go on a shopping spree online.

Why Dominance Theory Is No Longer Valid

A better understanding of dogs today has provided us with many valid points as to why dominance theory is considered outdated and no longer valid. For starters, let's debunk a few myths that still seem to prevail but are now, fortunately, being debunked by many educational organizations, books, position statements, and articles.

Dogs Are Not Wolves!

Yes, dogs seem to share many similarities with wolves, but also many differences! Classified as Canis familiaris by Linnaeus in 1758, the domestic dog was later reclassified in 1993 as a subspecies of the gray wolf, and therefore renamed Canis lupus familiaris by the Smithsonian Institution and the American Society of Mammalogists. This reclassification may suggest that dogs are closer to wolves than we imagine, yet even though they are a subspecies of the grey wolf, it would be misleading to assume that dog behavior emerges from wolf behavior.

Despite sharing the same amount of chromosomes and the capability of giving life to offspring, let's not forget the thousands of years (about 14,000 or 15,000) that separate one species from the other. Alexandra Horowitz, in her book Inside of a Dog, sets the differences apart by claiming, "The key to a dog's success to living with us in our homes is the very fact that dogs are not wolves." A further effective comparison is made by Ian Dunbar, who says, "Trying to train dogs by studying wolf behavior is like learning how to raise a child by watching chimps.''

Dogs Don't View Us as Their Pack

If dogs and wolves are different in many ways, imagine how different dogs and humans are! Yet, many still believe that dogs are pack animals, and when they come into our homes, they behave as they would in a wolf pack, trying to assert their dominance over us. As we have seen in the previous paragraphs, this model is outdated and still based on the outdated Shenkel studies.

But even if we compare to David Mech's family packs, this doesn't match our domesticated dogs because domestic dogs have a history of scavenging more than hunting. And even feral dogs don't usually form traditional social packs. Perhaps a more appropriate term to depict a group of dogs living together is a "social group." Indeed, perhaps the only "packish" trait dogs have inherited from wolves is the desire to be social beings with a strong interest to be around others—dogs or humans alike. Even this varies between individual dogs and breed tendencies.

Dominating Isn't on Rover's Agenda

As we have seen earlier, dogs aren't constantly trying to assert dominance over us as some shows want to make us believe. To debunk this myth, all that is needed is to better understand what motivates dogs to act in certain ways, and more likely than not, it's because of totally different reasons. For instance, as a dog trainer/behavior consultant, I can attest that the great majority of behavior problems owners complain about has nothing to do with dominance.

Indeed, I can solve them easily by just identifying what drives certain dogs to behave in certain ways. Many times, dog owners inadvertently reward certain behaviors. Once we identify what fuels the behavior, we work on refining the owner's ability to influence their dog so we can stop fueling the behavior and replace it with something else.

The truth is, dogs are opportunists. They behave in ways that bring something rewarding to them or remove them from an unpleasant situation. You'll see dogs who pull because they get to smell lamp posts, dogs who lunge because it sends the mailman away, dogs who bark because they get the attention they crave after being alone all day, dogs who growl because growling moves that pestering child away and the dog gets relief, dogs who jump and lick you because they get closer to you to say hello and you give them attention—even if negative, which is better than nothing at times.

Dogs Don't Need Harsh Training

Dominance theory gave life to harsh and dangerous training methods involving alpha rolls, collar grabs, and leash jerks. It also involved harsh training tools such as choke collars, prong collars, and shock collars. Still, as of today, you may still hear people say that "you must pin your dog to the ground to show him who's boss" or that a "prong collar mimics the correction a wolf mom gives to her pups." These outdated tools and methods are unfortunately still popular.

I often deal with aggression cases, and I must say that I have yet to see a real case of a dog acting out of dominance aggression. Even popular dog behaviorists who have worked thousands of cases have found that aggressive behavior is mostly due to fear. The dog is simply trying to get out of an uncomfortable situation, and the dog is giving distance increasing signals.

Animal behaviorist and chief animal trainer at Chicago's Shed Aquarium, Ken Ramirez, claims in the article "The Dog Whisper Should Just Shut Up- The Misguided Expert of the Year" that dog owners need to learn how to better observe and understand dog behavior so they can reward wanted behaviors while ignoring or distracting them from unwanted behaviors.

That's reinforcement versus enforcement. The truth is that "the cause of most behavioral problems in dogs is miscommunication and not dominance issues," explains respected Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., associate professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin.

To the surprise of many, I solve challenging cases through the use of behavior modification that doesn't involve any use of pain, fear, or intimidating tools. And so far, these methods have offered a win-win situation for all.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 04, 2020:

Hi Joanie, I was planning to answer this, but things got busy lately. To answer your question, I think your Yorkie is acting pretty normal as an older dog and is teaching your puppy some boundaries such as learning to read "leave me alone" signs when not in the mood for playing.

As long as your lab mix puppy doesn't seem to be overly distraught by these "corrections," most likely you are seeing appropriate behaviors. However, if your puppy is pestering your Yorkie to play repeatedly, it may be a good idea to drain some excess energy by interacting with him, training him etc. etc. before being re-introduced to your Yorkie.

What your boyfriend is doing by putting them on their backs is known as an "alpha roll," and if you google it, you will find plenty of literature explaining why it is not recommended.

Joanie on December 05, 2019:

I have two pups! A year old Yorkie and a 2 and a half month Lab mix Pyrenees. The younger wants to play all the time and most of the time the yorkie too, but sometimes they start fighting for no reason or just because i assume the Yorkie is just not in a playful mood... Sometimes its because the yorkie keeps all the toys to himself on the bed and the puppy can't reach it, but as soon as one drop and the puppy can reach it, my yorkie gets agressive. Is it dominance to want to have all the toys to himself? My boyfriend strongly believe in dominant and submissive behavior between dogs and when they fight he will slowly put them both on their backs, is that efficient at all? Help!!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 27, 2018:

So sorry that the pup was trained that way. Unfortunately this is not an isolated event. These training methods are still popular.

Silent Dog "training" observer. on July 23, 2018:

My Mom had a dog she paid thousands for training. The trainer kept her on a leash and said it had to be on her for whole year . They tried to combat poor, "dominant like" behavior only to never realize or admit this "poor" behavior was coming from a puppy. It drove me nuts to see them "training" this dog. She gave the dog away because nothing was working.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 21, 2013:

If the German Shepherd attacked the other dog and they were both barking, it may simply be a case of re-directed aggression. The dogs may be so aroused barking at that something behind the fence that they must re-direct. Indeed, often by lowering arousal levels, and simply providing an alternate behavior, the problem solves. Arousal often needs to discharge somewhere. You often see it as well in dogs who are frustrated by seeing another dog and they then bite on the leash or dogs who are so frustrated in wanting to meet a person, they start nipping the owner. But of course, one needs to see the behavior to truly provide an assessment, there may be many causes and the term dominance often blurs these many facets that are key to solving the problem from the root.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 20, 2013:

You write very useful, informative things about dogs. What puzzles me is what I refer to as 'barking competition' among dogs. It may relate to dominance. Anyhow, if there are two or more dogs in a yard frequently I have seen that a presumably dominant dog will punish the others for barking, perhaps to reserve the right for itself. I saw a pit bull viciously tear into a German Shepard a week ago to claim this right. Is there a social role for barking? Have you noticed this and what does it mean? Great hub!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 12, 2013:

Things do get confusing. However, while dominance is a theory, the accounts of organizations and reputable professionals are filled with facts backed up by studies. I agree about television shows being of no help, actually, according to Dr Sophia Yin, they contribute to the 4.7 million dog bites that occur each year by owners employing harsh methods they see on T.V. Aggression begets aggression.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on August 12, 2013:

This is an interesting article. I have at times been confused by various theories on training. Actually our dog seems to be of the submissive variety but she still wants to pull, probably because she is a Siberian Husky and it is bred into them. The TV shows are interesting but they only deal with dogs who have extreme behavior problems, no with ordinary everyday dogs, so they tend not to be useful, whatever the theories.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 12, 2013:

Epbooks,I am sure many of us have followed such advice on books, shows and articles. When I got my first Rotties, I was told by a trainer to use a prong collar to stop the pulling and was warned that they were a breed with a tendency to act dominant so I had to do all these useless things that dominance theory suggest. That's when I had a breaking point, and decided to train them on my own using reward-based methods and I have fallen in love with the results. Many people were impressed by the change. That's how my career started. I am therefore what is called a "crossover trainer" since then I fell in love with positive training methods and never looked back.

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on August 12, 2013:

Great article and I wish I read it years ago. I read in a training manual the way to stop resource aggression was to pin the dog down. Well, I tried it and it sent my dog into a fear-aggression stance where she growled at me and was terrified of me!!! That broke my heart in two.

We've since overcome it using other, more dignified methods and she and I are best of friends. Just goes to show you that reading a training manual isn't always the best of advice. Different dogs have different reasons behaving the way they do and I agree with you that not all of those reasons are for dominance. In my case, my dog was a rescue and had to fight for her food out on the streets. I just had to break her of that but NOT by pinning her down! Thanks again for a great hub!

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