Defusing Dominance

Give them a chance, and most dogs will seize the day.  They love a great opportunity.  In fact, dogs will spend a great deal of their time waiting for the perfect opportunity.  By now you may be wondering what opportunities could dogs possibly be waiting for, and my reply will be…for any and all of them that provide something they want.  

If they see a treat fall to the ground, they will pick it up.  If they have the opportunity to solicit you to play, they will take it.  If they see that growling at dogs while out on a walk tends to make them stay away, they may choose to use that tactic.  They most likely see it as a favorable occasion for them to take advantage of the moment.

Why then do we often label this behavior as dominant?  Dogs are often referred to as dominant when they jump up at our counters to help themselves to the chicken pot-pie that was carelessly left there.  Normal puppies will scavenge for food and once it has been reinforced once or twice, the behavior will become even more prevalent.   The opportunity to get what they want is reinforced constantly.  They are motivated by this reinforcement and over time their behavior becomes normal.  Dogs jumping up on people, growling to keep guest off the couch, barking in aggressive tones at the sound of the doorbell ringing, these are all simply behaviors that have been reinforced.   Are our dogs dominant or are they just goofy with no manners?

Dominant is a term that is often misused by the public.  Perhaps it is due to the fact that it has become common language, and therefore acceptable.  It is time to rethink our use of the term, and how it applies to our dogs.  Dominance, as per the dictionary, is described as having control or authority.  Is it possible that we are all under the impression that our dogs are seeking to have control over us?  I would hazard a guess that what they are far more interested in is having control over themselves, and their own accessibility to the resources they themselves find important.   The dominant member of a family is often described as influential and prominent.  This is not a term used to describe the bully or the person with no manners.  It might be possible that our dogs are seeking control over us for their own personal gain, such as sitting up at the table for a morning piece of toast, but for us to think they are seeking control for the simple sake of control sounds a bit off kilter.

For the puppies that share our lives, dominance is rarely the case.  Puppies often exhibit fear and signs of anxiousness in new circumstances and this may appear as aggression to the untrained eye.  Normally, it is just a puppy showing that he is unsure of the circumstance or environment.   He may even bare his teeth or worse, snap.  It is at that point that many puppy owners will chastise the little guy, all in good faith that they need to show him how to behave.

Instead, the fear may increase and the scene will escalate and there are no winners.  The puppy owner feels betrayed and the pup may lose some confidence.  To label a pup as a dominant dog in general is not productive.  In fact, even if you labeled the pup as being dominant in this certain instance, it would be a step in the right direction.  Every dog will meet his match.  Even a dog considered to be “dominant” could possibly meet a dog that is even more “dominant”, so the label would not stand.  We often see this when puppies leave the litter and go to their new homes.  The breeders do a great job of sorting out the puppies, and letting the potential new owners know the characteristics they have.  However, if the docile pup gets into a home where he is allowed free reign, it only stands to reason that he will seize this opportunity, and may end up more confident, which can be un-nerving to the family that wanted a couch potato.  Of course, with proper training and guidance, that is unlikely to occur.

The other part of the story is that “punishment” will often be when the negative incident has occurred, and is often also done out of your own fear.  Fear that you have an “aggressive” puppy, fear that he might bite the kids or that he will not fit into your lifestyle with this type of behavior.  This is all understandable, and is also why there is a need, and desire, to educate the public.  So we can all calm down, and learn to understand our dogs, not automatically try to physically overpower or intimidate them.  Again, that being said, I strongly believe that positive doesn’t mean permissive, and all dogs need to have guidelines and rules that are enforced in a clear, calm and fair manner.

Instead of using the outdated term of dominant, lets take a closer look at dogs and how they behave.  By using the term “assertive” we might be more able to understand our canine friends and therefore more able to help them understand what we expect from them.  I think there are dogs that are more assertive than others, and the combination of nature and nurture will both contribute to how the adult dog behaves.   The word assertive means that you will clearly state your position or belief, and insist upon your rights and opinions.  We all know dogs like that.  The ones that have guidance can be a pleasure and the ones that are left to their own devices are the ones that may very well end up in a shelter.

Dogs that want what they want, when they want it, are far more assertive.  It is up to us, as their guides and leaders through life, to explain to them that it is not their option. Control the resources and control the dog.  This will do away with rolling dogs onto their backs, to make them submit and to show them “who’s boss”.  Dogs should have our respect, but that should not mean you are a push over.  It only means that using physical force, or intimidation, to overpower your dog is old information.  When you know better, it is up to us to strive to do better.  Intimidation through use of aversives may work, and may be effect for a short time, but over the long run it may produce an unmotivated, robotic dog and what’s in that for us?  Dogs should be fun and interesting and even a tiny bit mischievous.  That is all fine, that is what we love most about our dogs.

Living with an assertive dog will provide challenges.  Those dogs will insist on what they want.  We will need to spend time to oversee them, and to help channel those tendencies.  Heck…we all know people that fall into that category, but we don’t have a wrestling match with them every time we see them.  Our dogs need our guidance and understanding.  As a good trainer friend of mine once put it – it is not only easier, but more productive, to teach instead of punish.  Let’s not dominate our dogs; let’s show them we’re above that kind of behavior.

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