Training

Dealing with Dominance

What does “dominance” mean?

In order to understand why your dog is acting “dominant,” it’s important to know some things about canine social systems. Animals who live in social groups, including domestic dogs and wolves, establish a social structure called a dominance hierarchy within their group. This hierarchy serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote cooperation among group members.

A position within the dominance hierarchy is established by each member of the group, based on the outcomes of interactions between themselves and the other pack members. The more dominant animals can control access to valued items such as food, den sites and mates. For domestic dogs, valued items might be food, toys, sleeping or resting places, as well as attention from their owner. In order for your home to be a safe and happy place for pets and people, it’s best that the humans in the household assume the highest positions in the dominance hierarchy.

Most dogs assume a neutral or submissive role toward people, but some dogs will challenge their owners for dominance. A dominant dog may stare, bark, growl, snap or even bite when you give him a command or ask him to give up a toy, treat or resting place. Sometimes even hugging, petting or grooming can be interpreted as gestures of dominance and, therefore, provoke a growl or snap because of the similarity of these actions to behaviors that are displayed by dominant dogs. Nevertheless, a dominant dog may still be very affectionate and may even solicit petting and attention from you.

You may have a dominance issue with your dog if:

  • He resists obeying commands that he knows well.
  • He won’t move out of your way when required.
  • He nudges your hand, takes you’re arm in his mouth or insists on being petted or played with (in other words, ordering you to obey him).
  • He defends his food bowl, toys or other objects from you.
  • He growls or bares his teeth at you under any circumstances.
  • He won’t let anyone (you, the vet, the groomer) give him medication or handle him.
  • He gets up on furniture without permission and won’t get down.
  • He snaps at you.


What to do if you recognize signs of dominance in your dog:

If you recognize the beginning signs of dominance aggression in your dog, you should immediately consult an animal behavior specialist. No physical punishment should be used. Getting physical with a dominant dog may cause the dog to intensify his aggression, posing the risk of injury to you. With a dog that has shown signs of dominance aggression, you should always take precautions to ensure the safety of your family and others who may encounter your dog by:

Avoiding situations that elicit the aggressive behavior.

  • During the times your dog is acting aggressively, back off and use “happy talk” to relieve the tenseness of the situation.
  • Supervise, confine and/or restrict your dog’s activities as necessary, especially when children or other pets are present.
  • When you’re outdoors with your dog, use a “Gentle Leader” or muzzle.

 

Nothing in Life is Free

Does your dog: Get on the furniture and refuse to get off? Nudge your hand, insisting on being petted or played with? Refuse to come when called? Defend its food bowl or toys from you? “Nothing in life is free” can help. “Nothing in life is free” is not a magic pill that will solve a specific behavior problem; rather it’s a way of living with your dog that will help it behave better because it trusts and accepts you as its leader and is confident knowing its place in your family.

How To Practice “Nothing In Life Is Free”

Using positive reinforcement methods, teach your dog a few commands and/or tricks. “Sit,” “Down” and “Stay” are useful commands and “Shake” “Speak” and “Rollover” are fun tricks to teach your dog.
Once your dog knows a few commands, you can begin to practice “nothing in life is free.” Before you give your dog anything (food, a treat, a walk, a pat on the head) it must first perform one of the commands it has learned.

For example, You Your Dog

  • Put your dog’s leash on to go for a walk Must sit until you’ve put the leash on
  • Feed your dog Must lie down and stay until you’ve put the bowl down
  • Play a game of fetch after work Must sit and shake hands each time you throw the toy
  • Rub your dog’s belly while watching TV Must lie down and rollover before being petted
  • Once you’ve given the command, don’t give your dog what it wants until it does what you want. If it refuses to perform the command, walk away, come back a few minutes later and start again. If your dog refuses to obey the command, be patient and remember that eventually it will have to obey your command in order to get what it wants.
  • Make sure your dog knows the command well and understands what you want before you begin practicing “nothing in life is free.”

The Benefits of This Technique

Most dogs assume a neutral or submissive role toward people, but some dogs will challenge their owners for dominance. Requiring a dominant dog to work for everything it wants is a safe and non-confrontational way to establish control.

Dogs who may never display aggressive behavior such as growling, snarling, or snapping, may still manage to manipulate you. These dogs may display affectionate, though “pushy” behavior, such as nudging your hand to be petted or “worming” its way on to the furniture in order to be close to you. This technique gently reminds the “pushy” dog that it must abide by your rules. Obeying commands helps build a fearful dog’s confidence; having a strong leader and knowing its place in the hierarchy helps to make the submissive dog feel more secure.

Why This Technique Works

Animals that live in groups, like dogs, establish a social structure within the group called a dominance hierarchy. This dominance hierarchy serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote cooperation among pack members. In order for your home to be a safe and happy place for pets and people, it’s best that the humans in the household assume the highest positions in the dominance hierarchy. Practicing “nothing in life is free” effectively and gently communicates to your dog that its position in the hierarchy is subordinate to yours. From your dog’s point of view, children also have a place in this hierarchy. Because children are small and can get down on the dog’s level to play, dogs often consider them to be playmates, rather than superiors. With the supervision of an adult, it’s a good idea to encourage children in the household (aged eight and over) to also practice “nothing in life is free” with your dog.

Photo Credit: tudor

Problem Barking

Some canine behavior problems, such as house soiling, affect only a dog’s owners. However, problems such as escaping and excessive barking can result in neighborhood disputes and violations of animal control ordinances. Therefore, barking dogs can become “people problems.” If your dog’s barking has created neighborhood tension, it’s a good idea to discuss the problem with your neighbors.

It is perfectly normal and reasonable for dogs to bark from time to time, just as children make noise when they play outside. However, continual barking for long periods of time is a sign that your dog has a problem that needs to be addressed. The first thing you need to do is determine when and for how long your dog barks, and what is causing him to bark.

You may need to do some detective work to obtain this information, especially if the barking occurs when you’re not home. Ask your neighbors, drive or walk around the block and watch and listen for a while, or start a tape recorder or video camera when you leave for work. Hopefully, you will be able to discover which of the common problems discussed below is the cause of your dog’s barking.

Social Isolation/Frustration/Attention Seeking

Your dog may be barking because he’s bored and lonely if:

  • He’s left alone for long periods of time without opportunities for interaction with you.
  • His environment is relatively barren, without playmates or toys.
  • He’s a puppy or adolescent (under 3 years old) and does not have other outlets for his energy.
  • He’s a particularly active type of dog (like the herding or sporting breeds) who needs a “job” to be happy.

Recommendations

Expand your dog’s world and increase his “people time” in the following ways:

  • Walk your dog daily – it’s good exercise for both of you.
  • Teach your dog to fetch a ball or Frisbee and practice with him as often as possible.
  • Teach your dog a few commands and/or tricks and practice them every day for five to 10 minutes.
  • Take an obedience class with your dog.
  • Provide interesting toys to keep your dog busy when you’re not home (Kong -type toys filled with treats or busy-box toys). Rotating the toys makes them seem new and interesting (see our handout, “Dog Toys and How to Use Them”).
  • If your dog is barking to get your attention, make sure he has sufficient time with you on a daily basis (petting, grooming, playing, exercising), so he doesn’t have to resort to misbehaving to get your attention.
  • Keep your dog inside when you’re unable to supervise him.
  • Take your dog to work with you every now and then, if possible.
  • If you work very long hours, take him to a doggie day care or have a friend or neighbor walk and/or play with him.

Territorial/Protective Behavior

Your dog may be barking to guard his territory if:

  • The barking occurs in the presence of “intruders,” which may include the mail carrier, children walking to school and other dogs or neighbors in adjacent yards.
  • Your dog’s posture while he’s barking appears threatening – tail held high and ears up and forward.
  • You’ve encouraged your dog to be responsive to people and noises outside.

Recommendations

Teach your dog a “quiet” command. When he begins to bark at a passer-by, allow two or three barks, then say “quiet” and interrupt his barking by shaking a can filled with pennies or squirting water at his mouth with a spray bottle or squirt gun. This will cause him to stop barking momentarily. While he’s quiet, say “good quiet” and pop a tasty treat into his mouth. Remember, the loud noise or squirt isn’t meant to punish him; rather it is to startle him into being quiet so you can quickly reward him. If your dog is frightened by the noise or squirt bottle, find an alternative method of interrupting his barking (throw a toy or ball toward him).

Desensitize your dog to the stimulus that triggers the barking. Teach him that the people he views as intruders are actually friends and that good things happen to him when these people are around. Ask someone to walk by your yard, starting far enough away so that your dog is not barking, then reward him for quiet behavior as he obeys a “sit” or “down” command. Use a very special food reward such as little pieces of cheese or meat.

If you dog’s barking is triggered by sounds like people knocking on the door or a doorbell, you may want to try one of the newer mp3 programmable doorbells, that let you record the sound of your own voice or play another other sound you have saved as an mp3 file. If your dog is barking from boredom, try putting in a DVD created specifically to keep dogs interested. Typically they feature nature sounds, animal noises and even ultrasonic sounds that dogs can hear but we cannot. The DVD we have listed on this page in the lefthand column has come highly recommended.

For the dog who persists in barking, you may want to try either a motion-activated water sprayer (if there is one particular area your dog is fixed on) or a citronella collar, which emits a fine citrus-scented mist just under the dog’s muzzle when it detects a bark. The citronella collars are both humane and effective if you cannot always be around to give your dog an immediate correction.

If you are able to give your dog an immediate correction, I have found a plain old water sprayer works quite well. Just make sure you have it handy in areas where your dog is prone to bark, and set the nozzle for a long distance spray. It’s harmless and gets their attention long enough to distract them from their focus.

House Training

Dog caregivers probably view dog housetraining as a necessary evil. True enough, but it’s more often people, rather than puppies, who err. Successful housetraining depends largely on the effort put into it by the human element. Approached the right way – with prevention, not punishment – housetraining can be accomplished in a short time and be a painless procedure for you and your dog.

Puppy Training

Puppies can begin to respond to housetraining when they are eight weeks of age. The younger the pup, the less time between impulse and action. He needs to eliminate; he does. Scold him and he’s probably forgotten all about it by the next time he has to relieve himself. Punishing a young puppy has no more effect than it would on a baby in diapers.

But puppies are innately clean. Watch a litter sleeping in its pen. As soon as each puppy wakes up, he uses the area farthest from the nest to eliminate. Puppies won’t dirty their bed unless forced to do so. This instinct is your greatest housetraining aid.

Confining the Puppy

Start off, then, by confining the puppy as he has been used to with his mother and litter mates. He knows only this living arrangement, and accepts it in new surroundings if he isn’t first allowed the run of the house. Control is promoted by the puppy’s instinctive aversion to soiling his bed. You must help by anticipating the times he needs to eliminate and taking him to an appropriate place. He learns correct behavior by not having opportunities to make mistakes. There will be accidents – no puppy ever grew up without them – but they’ll be fewer as you remain diligent in your training routine.

Before you bring the puppy home, prepare a pen for him or enclose an area in one room. The kitchen is a good location. It’s usually a center of family activity, where the puppy won’t feel isolated. The floor is as damage-proof as any in the house, in case of accidents, and most kitchens have a back door handy for whisking the pup outside as necessary. Line the bottom of the enclosure with several overlapping layers of newspaper or wee-wee pads. Put food and water dishes and toys inside. Use a small blanket or towels for bedding. (Save the regular dog bed until your puppy is past the chewing stage.)

Housetraining may be accomplished in a few weeks, or less. But the pen still may be needed for the growing dog during the night or when you’re away for several hours. Allow ample space for well-separated sleeping and “bathroom” areas.

Establish a Routine

Try to arrange the puppy’s arrival during a period of good weather so you can go outside frequently. Try to bring the puppy home when you’ll have time to begin settling him into a training routine.

Establishing a routine is simple. The puppy will help you set up his schedule. He needs to “go” when first waking up in the morning, after naps, eating and drinking, playing, or other stimulation, and before being bedded down at night. These activities take up most of his day, but should two or three hours elapse between eliminations, give him a chance to go out.

Keep a sharp eye on the puppy; anticipate his need. Most will go through a ritual sniffing and circling before eliminating – so your warning will often be the pup’s behavior.

Bowel movements depend to a great extent on feedings. A young puppy given several meals a day may have that many movements, far more than he’ll have as an adult dog. Feeding at regular times helps immeasurably in keeping the puppy on schedule.

Going Outdoors

When the puppy shows signs of needing to eliminate, pick him up immediately and take him outside. Have his leash handy; put it on as you go.

During the first stages of housetraining, take the pup to the same place each time – well away from the house or areas of human foot traffic. Once he’s urinated in “his spot,” the scent remains and stimulates him to use the spot again.

Always go outside with the pup, even if you have a fenced yard or acre of ground around your home. Don’t just push him out the door or he’ll form the habit of relieving himself there. Also, you can’t be sure if he has eliminated if you don’t go out too.

The puppy will probably relieve himself soon after he’s taken to the designated spot. Be patient. Walk him around a little, but don’t let him become too distracted. As soon as he appears ready to eliminate softly repeat a simple phrase (such as “do it”). Repeat it several times; once you begin the command, do not stop until he actually begins to eliminate. Then, quietly change from the command word to lavish, but gentle, praise until he finishes. Repeat this going outside-same place-prompt-praise routine until he gets the idea.

After he’s learned that outdoors is the approved location for his duties, take the puppy to different places and on various surfaces, so that he doesn’t become “fixed” on a particular spot and refuse to eliminate anywhere else. Let the puppy know he can relieve outside wherever he’s led.

Accidents Do Happen

No mater how much care you take, there will be accidents. Scold the puppy only if you catch him in the act. His memory is short. Scolding or punishment after the act confuses him – he won’t know why you’re upset.

Putting the puppy outside after an accident serves no good purpose. It’s more likely to undermine the association you’re trying to build between his urges to eliminate and going to the right place to do it.

Under no circumstances should a puppy’s nose be rubbed in his feces. This may merely teach him to eat excrement, since he licks his nose to clean it.

When you catch the pup in the act, raise your voice enough to startle him (use “No!”). Sweep him into your arms, taking him immediately to “his spot” outside. Stay with him. If he finishes eliminating there, praise him. If not, he may already be finished; bring him back in without a word.

What should you do when a puddle or mess is found? Clean it up and promise yourself not to give the pup other chances to get into trouble. Be sure to remove all the scent from the scene of an accident. Otherwise, it remains as temptation for the puppy to use the same place again. Follow the directions on commercial products made especially to remove pet urine / excrement odors/stains.

The puppy is housetrained by prevention. He’s taught good manners while not being given a chance to form bad habits.

The Adult Dog

An adult dog has greater learning capacity than a puppy. He remembers praise or punishment, and more readily understands cause and effect relationships. He also has greater physical control and less frequent need to relieve himself.

If your newly acquired grown dog was properly trained as a puppy, you should have little difficulty adapting his routine to your home.

But, even though your dog may have been perfectly housetrained in his previous home, nervous reaction to a strange situation or scents may cause a lapse in manners or trigger the male dog’s natural instinct to “mark” his territory by urinating. Follow the basic housetraining rule. Confine the dog unless you can be with him and watchful. A dog crate is accident prevention at night or when he must be left for several hours; be sure he has a good chance to relieve himself before being confined.

Exercise your dog frequently. Some dogs get along with morning, late afternoon, and evening walks. Others need to relieve themselves more often.

From the start, take your dog on his leash to where you want him relieve himself. Praise your dog extravagantly as he performs in the right place. Let him know you’re delighted with him for his good behavior. He’ll catch on quickly. As with a puppy, keep him on a regular schedule. Allow him run-of-the-house privileges only when he shows housetraining reliability.

Asking to Go Out

Once your dog is housetrained, teach him to let you know when he needs to go outside. Make an event of his excursions. Enthusiastically ask the dog if he’d like to take a walk. Put on his leash, pause at the door, and repeat the question (always use the same words). Urge him to bark or “speak” if you want this additional signal.

Dogs quickly absorb often-repeated routines and phrases that apply to them. “Do you want to go out?” soon sends your dog tail-wagging to the door. Before long he’ll take the initiative himself. It may also help to provide him with a way to signal to you that he needs to go out, such as with a dangling bell strap or a more sophisticated electronic bell.

You must follow through, of course, by exercising him when the request is made. Don’t permit anyone to tease him with his “phrase” or it will lose its meaning and confuse the dog.

Patience, understanding, and diligence on your part will soon make for a well-housetrained dog.

Photo Credit: toastiest