What It Means to Be Dominant?


The other day, my sister, Colleen, said to me, “You know, Ash, you’re just so f****** dominant.” Well, she didn’t exactly use those asterisks. She said “Effing dominant.” I figure she probably meant “furiously dominant,” or “famously dominant,” or “ferociously dominant,” or “fantastically dominant.” Or something.

I mean, what? I don’t know why she went off the deep end when all I was trying to do was help her! She had canned asparagus in her pantry next to the pinto beans, and everyone knows that you’re supposed to keep the green things together. I was trying to straighten things out, but I guess you just can’t help some people.

So I said, “Geeze, Colleen, fine, go ruin your life if that’s what you want; don’t let me stop you.”

Later on, though, I got to thinking, because I’m not an unreasonable person (at least not most of the time). Am I way too much into control? Am I really all that dominant? And what does “dominant” mean, anyway?

The Freaking Dictionary

Okay, I hate people who start their arguments by saying “The Merriam Oxford Webster Advanced Beeswanger Motorific Algebraic Composite Codwalloping Resource of Words defines ‘dominant’ as being ‘too frigging overbearing for words’ so stuff that in your Funk and Wagnalls!”

Yeah, okay, you quoted the dictionary. You win. Now call me Hitler or a racist and you win double or triple time. Yawn.

But it did get me thinking. What does it really mean to be dominant? I’ve talked about dominance before as it relates to human/dog relationships, most recently in Boot Camp for the Alpha Dog. And truthfully, sometimes I’m still a little confused.

We’re told, and I’ve even said it, that you have to be “dominant” when it comes to your dog. So, back to the dictionary.

Most dictionary definitions suggest that dominance means exerting authority, or being in a position of command. Unless, of course, the reference is to predominance – as in, for instance, “Cod, beans and snobs are predominant in the City of Boston,” or “Donald Trump supporters have proven that he predominated the election.” Oh, and as to how I feel about that, I’m not even going there.

But How Do You Get to Be Dominant?

Now here’s where, if I were going to be one of those people who wanted to use the dictionary to back up my opinions (which I most assuredly am not), I’d point out that the definition of “dominant” does not, in any dictionary, include the words “mean”, “cruel,” or “unreasonable.”

A dominant person is a leader, yes. But that doesn’t mean that they’re overly bossy or aggressive. A leader inspires respect, not fear. A leader, or dominant person, is the person with the stronger mind. He or she is firm but calm and not unreasonable. The leader sets the rules, and has every reason to expect them to be followed but does not make it a point of lording it over everyone else.

Aggressive vs. Assertive

Let’s look at these words, too. Think about the last time you were making a major purchase – say a car, or maybe some new furniture. You probably visited a number of car lots or furniture stores. Which salespeople motivated you to want to buy, and which ones made you want to get the hell out of there and run as quickly as possible in the other direction?

I’m thinking that you probably didn’t respond overly well to the “aggressive” salesperson. That would be the one who was in your face, telling you that this was the best deal you were ever going to get and that, if you didn’t take it, you were just going to be the author of your own misfortune because you were completely clueless. Oh, and besides, the deal was only good for three more days, so s*** or get off the pot!

The person you bought from was more likely to be the one who pointed out the various benefits of their product, and suggested that your life would be a bit better if you chose that product. You weren’t pressured; you were led.

Here’s the thing: both salespeople were dominant. They had the edge over you. But one was coercing you, while the other was assisting you – helping you to make the best decision.

The second salesperson would be a good pack leader- letting you know what would work and what would not work for you. That salesperson was not aggressive; he was assertive, and he helped lead you to the right decision.

Dogs Want Guidance

In the same way that you wanted to be guided in your vehicle or furniture purpose, without being coerced, dogs want to be guided to make the right decisions. They want to look to a calm, assertive (and yes, dominant) figure who is strong-minded and able to lead but not abusive. So when you’re dealing with your dog, be a good salesman – be confident, and give your dog the information that he needs to motivate him to listen to you.

Don’t yell. Don’t over-correct. Don’t be that aggressive salesman. If you are, then your dog is just going to tune you out, and from where I’m sitting, he’ll probably be right to do so. When you show aggression, you’re showing that you lack confidence, and if you’re not confident in yourself, why should your dog feel confident in you? Your dog wants leadership and guidance, not ranting and raving and “Do as I say or fear the consequences.”

Respect, not Fear

Often, very strong-minded owners think that if they approach a dog with a “Do what I want and do it now” attitude, they’ll get obedience. And maybe they will, but it will be obedience born out of fear, not out of respect. And if you have to lead by fear, then by definition, you are not a good leader. Your dog should never be afraid of you.

A dog who loves and respects you will obey you because you have earned his trust. He knows that you want what is best for him, so he’ll listen to you. If you’re training using coercion and anger, then your dog is only going to obey as long as the fear is in place, and good leaders do not lead from a position of fear. This is just going to lead to behavioral issues later on. When you’re not watching, your dog will misbehave because you’re not being vigilant, and the fear of punishment is removed.

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ow Do Dogs Communicate?

I watch Janice and Leroy all the time. Janice is usually the boss, and she pretty much tells Leroy what to do and when to do it. But I’ve noticed that she never harangues. If Leroy is barking excessively and it annoys her, she’ll go over and snap at him. Once. Then it’s over. She doesn’t go on and on and on about it. Disputes are resolved very quickly, because Leroy gets the point right away.

Now, think about how so many of us deal with bad behavior in our dogs: we shout, fuss, shout again, fuss some more, and nothing much is accomplished. Does that mean that we should communicate with our dogs the way other dogs do?

Well, to a certain extent, yes. Constant yelling is going to achieve nothing.  And if you continue screaming at your dog, you’re just going to make him afraid and stressed. You’re not being assertive; you’re just dominating, so scale it back. Say it once. I’m not saying that this will solve the behavior. Maybe it won’t. But you can also assume that it won’t aggravate it.

They’re Not Human

The other thing that you have to remember when you’re dealing with your dog is that he isn’t human, just in case you haven’t figured that out at this point. Let me tell you about a friend I used to work with.

I met Joan in the call center where I worked. She had a Shih-Tzu mix, Lemmy, with some really serious issues, the main one of which was that the dog was biting Joan’s mother. Joan asked me, in total desperation, if I would take her dog to the vet to be put to sleep because, “I just can’t do it.”

Well, I’ll do a lot of things for my friends, but this was asking just too much, and besides, it wasn’t necessary, because the problem wasn’t with the dog; it was with Joan and her mother. They’d gotten the dog several years ago, and done no training whatsoever. They looked on adoringly while the dog protected its food, barking and growling; wasn’t that cute?

No, it wasn’t cute. It was annoying and even dangerous. When it finally got to the point where the dog was biting Joan’s mom every time she went near the food bowl, that’s when Joan asked me to do what she couldn’t do, and I refused.

The thing was the dog didn’t have a stable environment with an adult in control. So, in the absence of that kind of control, the dog decided to be dominant. His food, his bowl, his house. It wasn’t fair to the dog; he didn’t have the guidance that he needed and wanted.

I wish I could tell you that there was a good outcome, but there wasn’t. I refused to do what Joan couldn’t (or wouldn’t) but someone else did, and a dog died because of lack of a dominant owner.

The thing was that Joan and her mom didn’t give that dog any kind of boundaries. They treated the dog like a little human, with human wants and desires, when all that was really needed was a bit of stability. They didn’t communicate what they wanted to the dog. They didn’t walk him. They didn’t teach him how to behave. They just let him run the household like a little god, so he became unstable. There were no rules, and no limitations.

What to Do?

Joan and her mom should have been treating Lemmy like a dog, not like a little human. They should have let him be a dog instead of expecting human-like manners from him, and they should have been providing direction. Lemmy didn’t know that he was doing wrong, and no one ever told him that he was doing anything wrong. Instead, they let him know that they figured what he was doing was cute, until it wasn’t cute any longer. He had no idea that the behavior that was once so pleasing somehow no longer was.

Rest in peace, Lemmy; it wasn’t your fault. You weren’t a bad dog, just a horribly misguided one.

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The Final Word

So, what does it mean to be dominant? It means that you are kind and considerate, and that you make a serious effort to understand what your dog is thinking. It means that you know enough to be assertive, but not pushy. It means that you are calm and kind, and you guide your dog to better behavior without shouting or coercing. It means that your dog can look to you for guidance and be confident that you will not shout at him or bully him. It means that you will be firm but not angry.

It also means that you will allow your dog to behave according to his instincts, and not force him into a mold that is designed by humans to suit their needs while disregarding his. It means that you will treat him like a dog, in the very best sense of the word. You will let him be a dog, and through your actions, your love and your caring dominance, you will help him to be the best dog that he can be

Kindly dominant owners typically raise good dogs. You can dominate while still being respectful and loving. And that’s not just an ideology; it’s your job.

Oh, and Colleen? Yes, I am dominant, and I plan to stay that way.