Understanding The Dominant Dog

Understanding The Dominant Dog

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Sam Basso
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Dominance is defined as “resource holding potential”. A dominant dog competes for a resource, either with you, another person, or another animal. You need to know that in order to deal with the dominant dog. It is about competition over resources.

Most likely, you do not have a dominance problem with your dog. Your dog is probably just playing, and you are getting angry that your dog is doing things and getting into things that you don’t like. Further, there is no way that you should be even considering doing anything about a “dominant” puppy. Puppies can be full of themselves, but they are too small, and they know it, to be pushing you around. Puppies need a Manners lesson, not punishment or a domineering (competitive) owner. If your dog hasn’t completed Basic Obedience, and is obedient on and off leash, and is at least 12 months old, then don’t even consider that your dog’s problems are about dominance. Regardless of the age of your dog, if you are reading this article, I’m betting your problem is that you have an untrained dog, and you are probably butting heads with them and doing foolish things to punish them. You are probably doing things you saw some dog guy on TV do, and souring your dog on living with you peaceably. You can’t learn to train a dog by reading a book or watching TV. You need to learn from a professional, and so does your dog.

Now, let’s talk about the trained dog that is still resisting you or pushing your other dogs around…

I have a lesson that I call The “Rules of Dominance”: those social standards I teach by which a dog and family members interact appropriately.  These Rules are to be learned and practiced by every family member and their dogs.  You can’t have an obedient dog without Bonding, Imprinting and Socialization, Teaching and Training, Leadership and Dominance.


There is a distinct difference between leadership and dominance. Leadership is guidance in a direction. I’ve written on that topic in a different article. In this article, we are just discussing dominance.

In dog society, dogs are programmed by their genetics to recognize dominant individuals. There are two ways that dogs typically recognize dominance in other dogs and with people: who is bigger? Size matters in the dog world. So, with every dog, you already have a built in advantage of dominance purely because you are probably bigger and stronger than your dog. If you are physically smaller and weaker than your dog, then that puts you at a disadvantage unless you have properly trained the dog. The second way they recognize dominance is in how each animal and person behaves.

We use the word DOMINANCE to describe behavioral control in a situation and SUBMISSION to describe letting go of control in a situation.  The MASTER is a human that the dog is bonded to, who should wisely exercise this control in certain circumstances, and the dog is the follower and is trained to let go of control in those circumstances.  It has to be this way.  In order to have an obedient dog, you must become your dog’s Master, and you must train your dog and maintain the training throughout the dog’s life.  Your dog must have a MASTER to be obedient. The Master must both be a Leader that guides the direction of what a dog is doing, and Dominant, in terms of maintaining control of a variety of potentially competitive situations. The dog is NOT a slave, however. Those who teach dominance oftentimes portray an image of an obedient dog being a robot… and that is not at all what I advocate or teach. A dog must to be guided and controlled by the dog’s Master… society demands that of us. We have to be accountable and responsible for what our dogs do and don’t do.

You therefore must be bigger and stronger than your dog. Or you need to do things that artificially raise your size in your dog’s eyes, and behave in ways with your dog that cause them to see you as being their Master.

There are four types of roles that you don’t want to assume in your dog’s life: The Tyrant, The Rival, The Scientist, or The Doormat.

The Tyrant is the person that bullies, and possibly abuses, their dog.  All this person ends up with is either a dog that’s afraid of them, or one that eventually decides it won’t take the punishment any more and attacks someone. It is not at all reasonable to squash all of a dog’s appetites. If you keep pushing a dog down psychologically, not giving them a way to vent and satisfy their needs, you can cause blowback in the form of explosive aggression towards you or some other person or animal.

The Rival is the person that places themselves at the same level of authority with their dog, where the dog is continually tempted to seek to be the leader in the relationship.  The Rival puts them in a position where the dog thinks that it has to fight for the important things in its life, and there is uncertainty as to the entire relationship. Sometimes the dog is the Master, sometimes the human is the Master. That never works out.

The Scientist is the person that believes that they can train a dog like you program a computer, input/output, treats/behavior.  This approach has become very popular today.  Many so-called trainers believe and teach the myth that you can just train a dog with positive reinforcement or with electric collars, and your dog will be transformed into a perfectly obedient and well mannered dog.  The truth is that there is a lot more going on to maintain a proper relationship with your dog.

The Doormat is the person that gives their leadership over to the dog, and spoils their dog.  Some people just aren’t mentally and/or physically capable of leading certain dogs.  You should never get a dog that will be more dominant than you! A dog that assumes the Master role is not a dog that is fun to live with… and usually the dog isn’t enjoying the experience, either.

What a dog needs is a proper image of you as its Master.  This MASTER IMAGE is the way your dog views you as its leader. It is a consistent role you need to take on.  Dogs read human behavior better than humans read dog behavior.  They can tell when you are being the Master and when you aren’t.  A proper Master Image is a carefully crafted role you assume in your dog’s life.  It begins the first day you bring your dog home.

It’s our job as dog owners to help a dog understand our rules.  On the other hand, dogs are predatory pack animals.  There is a limit to how much we can modify and teach these rules to a dog. You can’t make a dog into something that it isn’t.

Dominance is manifested in five ways: How a trained, adult dog:

1.  Resists or complies with active or passive control of its behavior. One indicator of a dominant dog is its reaction to being corrected.  A dominant dog resents and resists a fair correction, even to the point of getting actively aggressive, with a subordinate handler. Notice, I didn’t say the dog should take whatever abuse or silly thing you do. An untrained owner does stupid things with dogs, and provoke bites. You can’t think you can alpha roll, slap, beat, bully, poke, growl at, tease, or hurt a dog and then think you are being fair to your dog. All dogs will feel threatened by abuse.  Another indicator of a dominant dog is how it uses its body to push people around.  The dominant dog has a tendency to use its body to shove the handler around, and to resent it if the handler gets in the dog’s way. I have worked with dogs that would glare at me if I bumped into them. It wasn’t that the dog had arthritis and was sore, it wasn’t that I had stepped on its paws and hurt the dog, the dog didn’t like me getting in their way. The dominant dog will resist being rolled over onto it’s back by you, just to examine their belly. I’m not talking about you punishing the dog by rolling the dog onto its back and pinning it down… that is stupid to do with any dog. I’m saying that even a friendly roll over will be resisted by a dominant dog. The dominant dog isn’t worried about what you are doing, or afraid of rolling over if it is done on their terms (such as for a treat or a toss of a toy). But, they don’t want to be put in a vulnerable position. The dominant dog will typically warn you, first by stiffening, then growling, before attacking you. It is highly dangerous to roll a dominant dog onto it’s side or back, especially if you are attempting to do an “alpha roll” type of correction (something that I advise against). A dominant dog might also try to control places, things, food and toys, or even relationships. Dominance is typically situation specific. Many dogs are only dominant in one type of situation and not in another. It is incorrect to state that all dogs in the home set up a pecking order, from top to bottom. Your job is to establish a proper relationship with your dog such that your dog wants to comply with your direction. It takes effort to develop a dog that is “willing to please”. It doesn’t just happen on its own. A dominant dog can be developed into a dog that wants to please you.

2.  Attempts to control the behavior of others. The dominant dog may insert itself between people or other dogs to control their interactions.  They want to determine how the interactions will take place and who gets the preferred treatment.  For example, a very dominant dog will seek to determine whether a stranger can approach a child in the family. They will also interfere with others interacting with one another, including people and other animals. I’ve seen dominant dogs that will pounce if other dogs are playing too rambunctiously. I’ve seen them seek to control the movement of people within the home, blocking them as they went through the home, standing in the way. I’ve seen them interfere with a husband and wife hugging one another. Jealously does exist. Your job is to manage your dog around other people and animals. The more competitive your dog is, on whatever level, the more diligently you need to supervise your dog, and make sure your dog doesn’t push things too far with other people or animals. You can’t get this with very dominant dogs without going all the way through Advanced Obedience. And the more dogs you have, the more each dog needs to be trained to a high level if the dogs are going to be too competitive. I’ve also seen dogs that would chase and bite at your feet as you walked out of worry. These are not dominant dogs, these are worried dogs, and the behavior is often misdiagnosed.

3.  Determines status relationships. The dominant dog may expect and force other dogs to defer to him or her.  The less dominant dog offers submissive gestures to others to communicate that they are not seeking to control the other person or animal. I’ve seen dominant dogs get aggressive when you try to manipulate them into positions they don’t want to be in, such as laying down or rolling them on their backs. They won’t let you do these things to them. A firm, fair, affectionate relationship must be established to get a dominant dog to “cool it” with you and other animals. I saw a female pit bull disciplining an untrained, unruly adolescent pit bull the other day. The older female saw that the dog was being rude, and she didn’t like it one bit. The owner kept correcting the female for putting the male in his place, when the real problem was that the male was the one causing the problems and he was the one that needed training. Dominance isn’t a bad thing, otherwise you’d have to conclude it would be bad that you would train this younger dog so that it wasn’t so rude… and we know that is silly. Dominance is a good thing in the right circumstances.

4.  Controls access to “resources”, stimuli, and reinforcements. The dominant dog many seek control to obtain first right of refusal over toys, territory, food, and social attention.  The less dominant dog will give up, or will be forced to give up, to the more dominant dog. Not all dogs are dominant when they get the tennis ball first, or who growl and guard their toy or food bowl. But, sometimes it is an indicator, when you look at the entire picture of what is going on with that dog. Dogs can be competitive over some things and not others. For some, it might be certain areas of the home. For others, food or toys or social interactions. A trained Master can manage these competitive situations, provided the dog is well trained, too. Any dog that does these  things needs to be evaluated by a professional. The worst thing is for you to get in a fight with the dog over anything. You can’t solve these things that way.

5.  Perceives itself and others and whether it can “lose face” in a confrontation or interaction. The dominant dog perceives itself as being a caretaker and leader of those around him or her, especially those that it perceives as being weaker or of a subordinate status. That is a good thing in nature. Parents watch out for their kids and teach them. In many ways, that is what the dominant dog is trying to do in a relationship, to be a responsible leader. But, it can sometimes lead to unwanted behavior and conflict, so you need professional guidance to know what to do.  In addition, the truly dominant dog recognizes and won’t back down from a challenge to its perceived status. One test is the “stare test” (don’t do this on your own, it is dangerous with the dominant dog): a direct stare at a dominant dog will result in the dog locking eyes with you, then the growling, posturing or even a full blown attack commences. If you have a dog like this, then you are stupid to set up challenges with your dog. On the other hand, so-called trainers who deny that there is such a thing as a dominant dog either refuse to recognize what is going on right in front of them, or they will one day deal with such a dog and someone will be attacked and severely mauled.  Then, there are dogs that cannot recognize the signs of submission, which therefore won’t stop attacking even after the other has given up the confrontation. That isn’t the same thing as the dog being dominant. I’ve seen dominant dogs get aggressive when they perceive the other dog or person as being “rude” to them. I’ve seen dogs purposely get in fights with other dogs that they perceived had disrespected them. Once again, this is something to be managed.


Dominance doesn’t always lead to aggression. Aggression and dominance are two separate things. Dominance Aggression is competitive social aggression, it is a behavioral pattern that is activated in certain circumstances.  Dominance Aggression appears in competitive situations over status, social interactions, resources, a variety stimuli, situations, and reinforcements when one tries to control the behavior of the other, and the other won’t back down, and then there is a fight.  The potential for competitive aggression is always present whenever you are dealing with a dog, but rarely happens. Long before that, the dog will give off warning signs, which are natures way of giving everyone a fair chance to cool things down. Dominance aggression is a last resort tool to enhance a dog’s ability to satisfy it’s appetites. Aggression is sort of like adding hot sauce to your tacos. It’s still a taco, but it needs some “bite” to really bring out the flavor. Aggression pops up in a lot of situations because it enhances the dog’s abilities.

Open Aggression is usually a last resort, not a first resort, set of behaviors that result over a competitive social situation.  Dominance aggression is generally provoked when a dog perceives itself to be in competition over control of its behavior, the behavior or interactions of others, resources, reinforcements and/or status.  The competition “ties” the dog into the situation… and then its canine genetics compels the dog to settle the issue.

Dominance is maintained through Open Aggression, Forms of Aggression and Deference Behaviors.  Open Aggression is a full-blown fight. Forms of Aggression are substitutes for a fight, such as posturing, vocalizations, threats, etc.  Deference Behaviors are actions that avoid Open Aggression and help to terminate Forms of Aggression.  When one dog defers to a person or other animal… it says, in effect, “take it, it’s yours, I don’t want to fight” and that usually terminates a full-blown fight. There are many ways to avoid any of this, even with a dominant dog.

Most dominant dogs will respect displays of deference and the confrontation is defused.  However, if one party doesn’t defer, up front, to the other, then a challenge or fight takes place.  I liken this to “saber rattling”, where one party, or the other, or both, make any number of threatening gestures.  These gestures test the true intentions of the other party.  If the other party backs down, then there’s no fight.  If neither party backs down, then there’s going to be a fight to force a settlement, meaning that one dog will MAKE the other give up through force. If you are in a confrontation with a dog, it is never wise to keep on escalating it. Instead, walk away from the fight, and hire a professional.

All of this posturing can blow up into a full-blown fight in a split second if you keep pushing things, or if you allow dogs in your home to keep being rude to the dominant dog.  Dogfights aren’t fun to watch and are dangerous to break up.  However, it’s not fair to blame one dog over another for starting the fight, since dogs are programmed to act this way.  It isn’t sufficient to say that just because a dog acted inappropriately, according to you, that the behavior was abnormal canine behavior, even if the behavior was extremely intense.  Abnormal aggressive behaviors would be confined to those that are clearly unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unable to be changed… clearly a “diseased” or “vicious” dog, which should be put to death. Many times, owners correct the wrong dog, making the problems even worse.

Dominance Aggression is something to be molded and controlled and supervised, but is a normal part of the entire repertoire of dog behavior.

Dominance Aggression commonly develops at social maturity: 12 to 36 months of age.  That is why is is silly to be worrying about a dominant puppy… the puppy is a brat that needs training, not force. A tough, aggressive and strong puppy — these behaviors need to be dealt with very early — just needs earlier professional training, not a big confrontation.  Dominance starts becoming a problem as the dog ages. Young puppies are allowed by older dogs to act especially assertive. Adolescence is when things start to get serious, which is why “interdog aggression” appears at puberty since the older dogs no longer give the pup the same “grace” that they did when pup was younger.  Often younger dogs display deferential attitudes to their superiors until social maturity, then they lose their free ride and begin to challenge for status.

If you think you have a dominant dog… then hire a professional. Don’t sour your relationship with your dog by doing things wrong. You could take a wonderful dog and turn it into a dangerous dog.

Read This:
Being A Dog’s Pack Leader

Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.

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