Dominance and Dogs — The Push-ups Challenge

Ready to get into shape for the New Year? Have I got the program for you!

Every time you say, hear, read, or write the words “dominance” or “dominant” in regards to a dog, drop and give me five push-ups.

I guarantee you’ll have rock-hard biceps, abs, and pecs faster than your dog can eat kibble out of a dish.

I could make millions if I patented this game, because “dominance,” it seems, is the most popular word in the pet-dog world. Ethologists — people who study animal behavior — use the word commonly to describe relationships and behaviors in animals, but, somehow, dog trainers bastardized the word decades ago and — whether it was intended that way or not — it is now used as a catchall term for “everything a dog does that people don’t like.”

And boy do dogs suffer because of it.

Many of you have been following the saga of Emma the Beagle’s separation anxiety. She used to be so terrified to be left alone that she would chew the doorframe trying to escape the prison of our home. She would run around darting from window to window and door to door, howling, barking, crying, and even scooting her butt across the rug. Her fear was so intense that she couldn’t eat a drop of food no matter how hungry she was or how delicious the treats were that we left for her, and she would lose control of her bladder everywhere — the wood, the carpet, the couch…

Was Emma being dominant? OF COURSE NOT! It couldn’t be a more ridiculous question to ask. And yet yesterday, the day after Emma stayed home alone for one-full hour without any fear, worry, or concern, a friend forwarded me a blog post about Weimaraners and separation anxiety. (I’m not going to link to the post, because there is so much bad information in it that I don’t want to draw traffic to it and run the risk of more dogs getting harmed.)

Because the author believes that dominance is one cause of separation anxiety, his recommendations assume the dog is in some kind of power struggle with the person, rather than an understanding that separation anxiety is a profound fear many dogs have — often due to genetics, not because of something their guardian did or didn’t do. (You’d think the word “anxiety” might tip off the author that if any struggle is occurring, it is an internal one. The dog is flipping petrified.)

He recommends things like using an über-sturdy crate that the dog can’t chew his way out of and just shoving the dog inside if he won’t go willingly. Show him who’s boss. Then he’ll feel more comfortable being left alone, because you taught him! (The logic completely evades me.)

I’m afraid of spiders, because one house I lived in when I was a kid was infested with massive, furry, mini-tarantula-looking things. Do you think I would have gotten over my fear if my dad had forced me to stay alone by myself in a small box while the spiders scurried around the room? No! You’d call that abuse.

Interestingly, many dogs who suffer from separation anxiety also suffer from confinement phobia. Can you imagine the hell a dog must go through not only being left alone, but also being locked in a cage with no ability to run and hide? Take a look at Emma the Beagle’s top left teeth when you have a chance. Oh wait, you can’t. Before we adopted her they were all removed, because she had mangled them when she tried to chew her way out of her cage during her days as a neglected breeder dog.

Do we use a crate to desensitize Emma to our absences? No. She’s afraid of being confined so we’re empathetic to her fears, and we’re helping her develop coping skills in a caring way. (Not to say that crates are never a good tool for dealing with separation anxiety, but forcing a dog who is not comfortable in one, to teach him to behave when he’s left alone, is just plain cruel.)

The word “dominance” is dangerous to dogs.

(If I say it in a fun, alliterative way, will you remember the message?)

I’ve just listed one example of how the word is misused and how dogs suffer because of it, but I hear it and read it constantly. I’d share more stories, but I already owe myself 30 pushups for saying the D-word six times in this post.

If you think your dog suffers from separation anxiety, please turn to the best in the biz for help:

Note: Renowned ethologist Marc Bekoff writes extensively on the use and misuse of the D-Word. Check out these essays for more info:


9 comments on “Dominance and Dogs — The Push-ups Challenge

  1. Thanks Tracy — you can use the “D” word all you like — and do as many pushups as you have to — because dogs and numerous other nonhuman animals clearly display dominance. I agree that we must NOT use this fact from detailed comparative research to dominate dogs, but when people have a clear understanding of what dominance is and is not, all will be well. More on this in my essay “Social dominance is not a myth …” — In my forthcoming book I lay out all of the details in detail (Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018).

  2. U-uh! But you yourself are misusing the word ‘dominance”. I would rather change to term to bullying, aggression or domineering.
    Then you can tell people, don’t worry about ‘dominant” — you are in charge of he food, he sleeping place, whether the dogs goes out of the house or comes in, when the dog goes to the vet, when it gets in the car, when and where it goes for walks. You ARE dominant.
    So no need to be a bully, aggressive or domineering. That will simply WEAKEN your dominant status.

      • Ah. But my point was that the word dominance is NOT dangerous to dogs.
        It is an opportunity to tell people that yes, they are dominant to their dogs, by being a kind and gentle leader. So when others say/post about the necessity of being dominant, there is your opportunity to explain what dominance IS.

        • From a higher-ed perspective, I can appreciate why discussing dominance is important. But for your average dog guardian? No. I disagree. I stand by my assertion that dominance is dangerous to dogs.

          We need to change the conversation. Rather than labeling our dogs aggressive or bullies or dominant, let’s understand why dogs behave certain ways and teach people to teach their dogs to behave in a manner that fits in better with their family.

          Is Emma being aggressive or dominant when she resource guards? Frankly, I don’t care what adjective she’s called. It’s a red herring. What I, as her mom, need to know is what resource guarding is and what I can do about it. I can say, “Oh! I get it! She’s not mad at me or trying to show me who’s boss. She’s responding to a threat that is approaching her beloved bully stick.” I can then either decide to give her space when she’s got a chew toy and not approach, or I can teach her a game like “drop it,” or a retrieve so that she willingly gives me the toy.

          Is a German Shepherd being a bully or dominant when she jumps up on people? Again, I don’t care what adjective someone wants to use. What I need to know is that dogs want to get close to faces when they greet others, and so they jump up on us taller-than-them animals so they can get up to our faces. The label is of no use to me. What I need to know is that the behavior is totally normal, and it’s an indication of a happy/friendly dog. And all I need to do is teach the dog to sit rather than jump up.

          These are the contexts in which the D Word are used. The D Word has dominated the pet-dog world for so many decades that I’m afraid there’s no way to fix the problem other than to take the world out of our common lexicon. I get that animals display dominance. But to me that’s an academic point. If we want to help dogs, we need to change the conversation. It’s time to let “dominance” die.

  3. Without naming names, it is the PEOPLE who promote dominance as a aggressive control measure who are dangerous to dogs, and dangerous to the uninformed who make the mistake of thinking these *********** (uneducated louts?) know what they are talking about.

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