Most problems with dog behavior are rooted in dominance issues. Some people will tell you that it’s not important to be the alpha in your dog pack, but I totally disagree – it’s absolutely vital that you be the alpha, especially if you have more than one dog in your home. Being the alpha means that you can stave off fights amongst other dogs, for one thing. For another, it prevents even a singleton dog from getting the idea that he is the boss and he can choose how to run your household. For a close look at the importance of being the alpha, see Boot Camp for the Alpha Dog.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you have to have your dog submit to you all the time, and I’m not saying you need to be a tyrant. But when do you need to remind your dog that you’re the alpha? Any time that he displays dominance behavior. You might be surprised at how often dominance issues surface – you might not even recognize them. So with that in mind, I’ve put together a collection of 21 frequently asked questions as they relate to dominance.
1. I have heard that if I let my dog in my lap, I’m letting him dominate me. Is this true?
Sometimes. It really depends on the circumstances in which the dog has ended up in your lap. If he’s jumped up without being invited, then he probably is telling you that he thinks he’s the boss in your relationship. However, if you have trained him that it’s okay to jump into your lap if you pat your thighs and tell him, “Come on up,” then there’s nothing wrong with a bit of cuddle time.
2. Should I pet my dog to calm him down if he’s acting up?
If that’s the response you always offer, then it’s a pretty safe bet that your dog will act up any time he wants a bit more affection. So if this seems to be becoming an issue, you’re going to have to ignore him, as hard as that might seem. Wait until he becomes calm and submissive, and then give him the affection he wants.
3. My dog is horribly destructive, and he’s well out of his puppy years. I’ve heard that vets sometimes prescribe Prozac – should I give it a try?
Probably not. Vets today do prescribe medications for out-of-control dogs, but they’re reluctant to do so, simply because usually medication is not the answer – training is. Your dog isn’t exactly trying to dominate you in this situation, but he is likely trying to send you a message through his acting out. Medication will probably just mask the problem – it won’t correct it. You need to look at why your dog is behaving in a certain way.Maybe he’s not getting enough stimulation, or he’s a naturally high-energy dog. Try taking him for a walk before you think about drugging him. Think about what he’s trying to tell you before you decide that drugs are going to be the solution.
Remember your dog wants direction from you, and authority. Consider taking him to obedience school, and when you walk him, make sure that you lead and he follows – not the other way around.
4. Is it ever okay to let my dog walk in front?
As with the lap issue, circumstances can make the difference. If you’re taking your dog out to do his business, he’s going to want to find just the right place to do it, so there’s nothing wrong with letting him wander a bit. Once he finishes, though, bring him back into the correct position before you resume your walk.
5. Do dogs naturally want to be alphas?
Most of the time, dogs are pretty submissive. Once in a while, though, they will show signs of dominance. The secret here is that they really don’t want to – most dogs hate being forced into an alpha position, but they will assume it if they have to. They can go back and forth between an alpha and a non-alpha position, but if an assertive owner says “Okay guys, I’m the alpha now,” most dogs will just sort of say “Yes, okay, fine by me.” That’s because they trust their humans to do what is best for them.
6. I rescued an abused dog, and he’s very fearful. Do I still have to be the alpha?
Yes, you do. But remember, being the alpha doesn’t mean you have to be constantly dominating your dog – it just means you have to be the leader. If you have a frightened, upset dog, then you need to help him. So show him that you have a strong mind and a calm presence. Show him affection – he needs to know that you are one of the good, safe humans and that you will not harm him. Don’t make direct eye contact, but get down to his level. If you think he’d feel better if you kept your distance for a while, it’s okay to do it.
Now, I’m sure you’re thinking that this sounds like submissive behavior on your part, and you’re right. It is. But if a dog is so afraid that he thinks he’s going to have no choice but to try to be the alpha, this is one situation where it’s okay. As I’ve suggested, most dogs prefer to be submissive to their human. Once the fearful dog feels safe, he will be quite content to let you be the alpha. In the meantime, take it slow, and be kind and gentle.
7. Why does my dog lick me?
He’s showing you that he’s submissive; that he recognizes you as the alpha. This is usually accompanied by a low posture, and the ears back a little bit, as if he’s trying to make himself look smaller.
Licking another dog could be submissive behavior, but it could also indicate dominance. If your dog is standing tall and licking another dog rapidly, he’s telling that dog, “I’m the boss.”
8. My dog guards his food, but he’s never snapped at me if I try to take it away. Do I still have a dominance issue?
Very likely, especially if he’s growling or showing his teeth while guarding the food. Just because he hasn’t bitten you up until now, that doesn’t mean that he never will. He’s telling you, “This is my food, and I want you to leave it alone.” He’s gearing up to challenge you for the alpha position, so don’t waste any time correcting this problem before it escalates.
9. Sometimes when I’m sick in bed, my dog lies on top of me. Is that dominance, like jumping in the lap?
Most people think that when this happens, their dog knows that they’re ill and is trying to comfort them. Certainly, you probably feel comforted when he does this. However, a dog is a pack animal, and that means that he will see a weaker pack member as being lower on the totem pole. So yes, in a sense, he is dominating you. He knows that you’re not at the top of your game right now, and he’s saying that for now, he’s going to be the stronger one. It’s not realistic to think that you’ll never get sick, and of course your dog doesn’t mean you any harm, but once you’re well, you will have to reassert your dominance.
If you have more than one dog, the one who is lying on you is going to be the one that will take over the pack leadership. He may also try to do this if you are emotionally upset – it’s kind of the canine equivalent of a service person of the next lowest rank having to declare the commanding officer temporarily unfit. Now, just as you’re not going to never get sick, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll never be stressed either. But if you are in an emotional crisis and your dog lies on you, it’s important that you make him get off – pull back and regroup, and don’t let him be lying on you, standing over you, or otherwise “in your face.”
Again, though, as with being in your lap, lying on you might be permissible if you initiate it. It’s a dominant position, yes, but your state of mind and your dog’s state of mind also factor into the equation. If you love to snuggle, this type of contact is okay if you’re sure that the dog is not perceiving you as submitting.
10. I do have trouble controlling my emotions. Couldn’t I get a “comfort dog”?
Comfort dogs are increasingly being used to assist people with anxiety disorders. They are highly trained animals, though. If you’re considering getting a pet dog for the sole purpose of comforting you when you’re feeling down or nervous, I’d advise against it. The dog will see you as weak, and may try to dominate you. If you genuinely want a dog, and feel that having a canine companion to take care of would help you to be stronger, though, it might not be a bad idea. Remember, though, it’s your job to take care of the dog, not the other way around.
11. Can I get a second dog if I have dominance issues with my current one?
It would be a very bad idea. If you’re working through dominance issues with your dog, you’re setting yourself up for the possibility of having to break up a dog fight.Your dog is already trying to dominate you, and is probably going to do the same with the other dog. Also, you could end up with another dog that wants to be the boss, in which case you’re going to have to enlist the help of a second person to work with you on training. You’ll likely have to walk the dogs for a long time each day, practically to the point of exhaustion, with both of you keeping the dogs at heel – if one dog is allowed to be in front of the other, he’s going to think that he’s been elected leader.
If you do this every day, at some point you will probably have both dogs coexisting nicely. But it would be far better to work out the dominance issues with the dog you already have before you consider adding another to the mix.
12. I work 8 hours a day, and there’s no one home with my dog. Am I setting myself up for trouble?
If you are the alpha, your dog will probably feel safe and secure when left alone. Just make sure that you take him out for a good, long walk before you head out for work, so he’ll rest through the day. Then take him for another walk when you get home.
13. My dog jumps on me when I get home from work. It doesn’t bother me, but should I allow it?
No. If he jumps on you, he can’t be trusted not to jump on other people. He’s invading your space without being invited, and that is disrespectful, dominant behavior. On the other hand, as with lap-jumping and lying on a person, an invitation can make all the difference. I frequently tap my shoulder and say “Huggies!” when I want to let Janice or Leroy know that it’s all right to jump up on me and get a cuddle.
14. My dog picks fights with other dogs. How can I make him stop?
If he’s fighting with other dogs, in your presence, then he’s not 100% convinced that you’re the alpha. You need to communicate, in no uncertain terms, that you are not going to allow him to fight with any other living being.You’ll need to keep a very close eye on your dog’s body language – if he’s tensing up in the presence of another dog, then that’s a very good indication that he’s gearing up to attack. You need to offer a verbal correction and a yank on the leash immediately, and repeat if necessary until he gets the message. It’s critical that you do this the instant you suspect that he’s getting ready to launch himself at the other dog, because if you don’t, once he’s started, he’s not even going to hear your commands, and you’ll be in the position of having to decide whether you should try to break up the fight.
You should also make sure that your dog gets enough exercise and mental stimulation. If he’s frustrated, he’s more likely to feel inclined to pick a fight with another dog.
15. My dog has started peeing on my bed. Is this a dominance issue?
It could be. If your dog is fully housebroken, and has no health issues that might be causing incontinence, then it is very likely that your dog is saying “I am a little god, and I own this house and everything in it, including my human’s bed.” He is, essentially, letting you know that he has decided that he wants to be the alpha, and he’s marking his territory.
One solution would be to prohibit him from sleeping on the bed. However, I know that many, many people wouldn’t even think of going to be and not letting their dog sleep with them. So again, you’re going to have to work on communicating your position as the alpha. Correct him when he pees on your bed, and make sure he gets plenty of physical and mental activity. Find activities that will challenge him both physically and intellectually so that you reinforce the concept that you are the leader.
16. My dog is usually pretty calm, but sometimes when I leave the house, he tears things up or gets into the garbage. Is he mad at me?
Not exactly, but he is frustrated. Maybe it’s due to lack of exercise, or it could also be a dominance issue. He thinks he’s the alpha, and you left the house without his permission. So he’s acting out. Again, you will have to spend time with him on activities that are designed to reinforce the concept that you are the leader. Once he accepts his position in the pack hierarchy, the destructive behavior should stop.
17. My dog loves to play tug-of-war, but I’ve been told that it encourages aggression. Is this true?
Tug-of-war is, at its essence, a game of dominance. When the dog wins, he believes that he is stronger than you, and might be the better pack leader. However, as long as you control the terms of the game, there is probably little harm in it. So, make sure that you play tug-of-war only when you instigate the game. Also, end the game on your terms. If you notice that your dog is slowing down a bit, that would be a good time to end the game. It’s important that you are always the one to decide when the fun is over, not your dog.
18. I think I’m a pack leader, but I’m pretty sure that my dogs consider my significant other to be below them in rank. Is this necessarily a problem?
Yes. Dogs should always perceive the humans they live with to be pack leaders, not other dogs. Both of you need to behave consistently – if you enforce the rules, and your SO does not, then the dogs are going to become confused, and they may even act out against one another. Have your SO work with the dogs in a firm, consistent manner. Even if your dogs have already graduated from obedience classes, it might be a good idea for your SO to enroll them again, in order to work with them in a structured environment.
19. I feel that I’m a very strong pack leader, and I recently acquired a retired guard dog. Could my natural dominance mean that he won’t protect me if necessary?
I very much doubt it. Even if the dog is submissive to you, his training is going to have a very strong effect on his behavior. Dogs are very good at identifying humans who have bad intentions, and besides, you are his pack. Regardless of your position in the pack, his instincts are going to tell him to look after you if he sees that you are in danger.
20. Once my dog knows that I am the pack leader, do I hold the position forever?
Not necessarily. Some dogs will challenge you repeatedly for the position. Others may never challenge you. But you can’t assume that you won’t be challenged. In pack hierarchy, the strongest one is the leader, and if you’re suddenly not the strongest one, your position could change. You can get it back, though.
21. Is there a difference between training a dog effectively and leading the pack?
Most dogs will respond better to training from a pack leader, but the reality is that anyone can train a dog to sit, stay, come, etc. Pack leadership is a lifestyle, not a process. Sometimes, when people are having dominance issues with their dogs, they make the mistake of thinking that they have to hire a trainer. Training is just a way of getting your dog to do certain things – pack leadership means demanding a certain level of respect from your dog, without suppressing his natural instincts.
This should give you a fairly good run-down of some of the most common dominance behaviors in dogs, and how to deal with them. A happy, fulfilled, well-adjusted dog does not really want to be the pack leader. He’ll be more than happy to let you handle the job. However, if he thinks you’re not up to the job, he may decide that he wants to take over. So remember, being pack leader is a full-time job.