The short answer is yes, there are dominant dog, but also no! Yes, because the word dominant actually refers to a role within a relationship. But, no, because I suspect the reason for asking is because the word dominant has become linked to outdated pack leader and alpha theories.
These theories suggest that dominance is a personality trait, and that dogs either are ,or aren’t, dominant. In these theories, the dominant dog is driven to take over the pack or household and become top dog. He or she, uses aggression to fight their way through the pecking order to take the top spot for him or herself!
So where did the idea of the dominant dog come from?
In 1947, Rudolph Schenkel wrote a paper entitled “Expressions Studies on Wolves” he wrote about the idea that wolves (not dogs) fight each other for the alpha position within the wolf pack. But the idea wasn’t popularised until 1968 when wolf expert Dr David Mech referred to the paper in his book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species.”
However, this theory was quickly debunked. In fact, Dr David Mech himself wishes he’d never said it, so much so that he begged his publisher to stop printing his book.
Despite the original theory only applying to wolves, and despite the theory being debunked over 40 years ago, many people still talk about it and use it as a basis for understanding and training dogs. Sadly, we were all sucked into it to some degree, as it was so widely accepted and taught. Wild packs of wolves do grow around a breeding pair, but there are no fights for status. Wolf packs are incredibly peaceful and arguments rarely break out at all. Alpha theory has never been studied in dogs!
So what is dominance?
You can be dominant, but that doesn’t mean that you are dominant, it doesn’t define you. Your attitude can change, so whether you are dominant or submissive in a given situation really comes down to how you feel about it, and how everyone else feels about it. The same goes for dogs.
Your dog is definitely not trying to take over the world, but he does value some stuff more than others. Dogs are social animals and they all have boundaries which need to be understood and respected so they can live together in harmony. Quite right too, we humans are no different.
Maybe he has a favourite toy, but is happy to share his food. Or perhaps he is happy to share his bed, but doesn’t like having his bum sniffed. He’ll probably behave dominantly in the bum sniffing scenario, but submissive at bed time. This doesn’t mean he’ll fight everyone that goes near his toy. If no one cares about his toy, you’ll never even know it’s a thing!
What else could it be?
If you think your dog is behaving dominantly, he might actually be frustrated. A frustrated dog doesn’t cope well with the pressures of life. He can be unpredictable, reactive and moody. He might look for attention a lot, or be very mouthy at times. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to frustration and often they are accused of being dominant.
He might also be hormonal! Too much testosterone can be linked to aggression, which has also been linked to dominance in the past. Speak to your vet about your options if you think this might be a thing for you, neutering isn’t the only choice!
So, I don’t need to be pack leader then?
Dogs do need leaders, but not “alphas”. They just need calm, cosy favourite-teacher-type figures to look up to, and who will care for them. In our crazy world they need someone who will make them feel safe from the things they don’t understand. They need someone who will create rules and boundaries, so they know what to do. And they need someone who can advocate for them. In a world of very little self-determination, they really need someone who understands their needs and won’t put them in a situation they can’t cope with.
If that’s a pack leader, then yes, they need one.
In 2009 I wrote a book called How to be the Perfect Pack Leader. I wish I’d called it something else now as the term Pack Leader has become connected to harsh training methods. The purpose of the book was to demonstrate the kind way to guide and protect a dog.
Maybe we’re ready to redefine the role! What do you think?
How can I help you with your dogs behaviour?
Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!