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.