Dogs and Dominance: Let’s Change the Conversation

Unsurprisingly, my post on dominance this week received some backlash. “Are you saying dominance doesn’t exist?” some asked. “We just need to teach people how to use the word properly,” others suggested.

Let me set the record straight: I am not saying dominance does not exist. If world-class ethologists such as Marc Bekoff and Alexandra Horowitz describe situations where dogs display dominant behaviors, how can I say they are wrong? I can’t.

But here’s what I can say: I, personally, do not believe that an understanding of dominant behaviors is required in order to live peacefully, happily, and harmoniously with our dogs. In fact, because the D Word has been misused in the pet-dog world for so many decades and because of that it commonly leads to dogs being punished, harmed, hurt, and scared, I believe that the word is nothing short of dangerous to dogs.

So I say let’s change the conversation. I would bet my Mini Cooper that I can help you understand your dog and communicate better with your dog without ever mentioning words like dominance and submission. When it comes to understanding why dogs do things like dig, chew, bark, pull, growl, and jump, we simply need to discuss a different D Word: Dog.

The word “dominance” (as it is traditionally and improperly used in the pet-dog word) has an almost hypnotic quality: as soon as it is stated, all further inquiry into what is really going on with the dog stops.

  • Dog mounts and humps another dog. Why? “Dominance.”
  • Dog chews up the doorframe after you leave for work. Why? “Dominance.”
  • Dog is enjoying a bully stick and growls at you when you reach in to take it away. Why? “Dominance.”
  • Dog jumps up on guests when they walk in the door. Why? “Dominance.”
  • Dog pulls on leash when he gets close to the dog park. Why? “Dominance.”

With this one word, we get a descriptor for pretty much every behavior dogs do that we would rather they didn’t, and because of it, people stop investigating and ultimately have no clue why their dog does any of that stuff. What’s worse is that because people use this word — which means to them that the dog is trying to show them up or is in some kind of power struggle with them — they punish the dog. What’s even worse than that? Dog training is an unregulated industry, so people who don’t actually know why dogs behave the way they do, because they live under the black shroud of the improperly used D Word, are teaching the lie to their clients.

Every dog parent I meet loves their dogs. And like me, they all want to have the strongest bond possible with their dogs. But that wasn’t possible for me until I learned the truth. I had to push my ego aside, accept Emma as the Dog she is, learn all about why she does things like pull and chew and dig and pee on my couch, so that I could help her live with Hubz and me harmoniously. When I took words and phrases like “dominant,” “stubborn,” and “refusing to listen,” out of my vocabulary and instead learned that dogs dig because they love it, not because they are being jerks, and that Emma pulls because she wants to sniff her environment, not because she is stubborn, Ems and I fell madly in love with each other.

Knowledge is the key, and that is why I am working so hard with The Academy for Dog Trainers to build the iSpeakDog website. We want to share the real story with you so that you can feel the same joy we feel with our dogs. Isn’t that why we got our dogs in the first place?

Now, can we please stop talking about dominance? I’m going to have to enter a body building competition after this week. How many push-ups do I have to do from writing this post? Oy.



8 comments on “Dogs and Dominance: Let’s Change the Conversation

  1. I agree. What’s the point of trying to get the average person on the street to fully grasp the nuanced definition of “dominance” in domestic dogs or other social animals? It might get them to better understand their pets’ behavior, just like teaching people graduate-level engineering concepts might make them better at changing the oil in their cars. But it’s complicated, beyond the scope of their needs, and doesn’t provide the help or answers they need. Average owners and trainers would do fine simply throwing the word out.

    It exists, yes. But you don’t need a profound understanding of it– or any glimmer of consideration of it!– to help your dog.

  2. I totally agree with you. I have worked with many dogs due to being involved with the SPCA as a volunteer, board member, and employee. I also feel that dog training that is based on the dominance and “leader of the pack’ philosophy does a disservice to the dogs. Dogs, like people, have many different personalities, much to do with their earlier upbringing. Many dogs deemed aggressive (or dominant) are more often scared or mistrusting. I have dealt with many of these dogs, as well as feral cats, and have used and witnessed how an animal will respond and react more positively towards a calm tone of voice. I have also witnessed the power of touch in calming an anxious animal. Sometimes I would just sit with my hand on an animal’s back to de-stress an animal. We used to have a certified dog masseuse come in and saw the calmness that would come over dogs as they were getting massaged. I truly wish that there were programs out there that utilized the power of voice and touch. I have also seen what a huge difference play time with an animal can make. I have seen feral cats and scared dogs respond and get their spirit back. Thank you for sharing your feedback. I feel it very much needed to be heard.

    • Bless you for taking the time to point out the fear and distrust as more of the reason that a dog is behaving “aggressively “. People just cannot speak dog and we want to humanize their tones like a Hispanic trying to speak with an Asian. The intonations are different so if we don’t know the words we cannot understand the message.
      Even in the texting world you oftentimes get mistaken as to what a person means because there is no way to understand words without sound. Miscommunication is everywhere through the world but no more so than between animals and humans in this woman’s opinion. If we could understand them MAYBE people would be more responsible about breeding.
      I have 6 feral cats and one PET cat and they are all a bit untrusting but they do trust me. The pet cat is an ABSOLUTE BULLY AND JERK. I don’t know if I could call him dominant but I would definitely call him a “butthead”.

  3. I have used the D word and the S word myself and feel most of us are guilty of it but in SO many of the ways you mentioned above, I was thinking to myself “digging as domination?” “Chewing your doorframe as dominance?” HOW RIDICULOUS!!!
    I believe from watching wild dogs or wolves in the wild dominate and submit when establishing pack order. But all of these other things people are trying to tag those words to is plain ridiculous. Everything in our society seems to be turning about some kind of “violent ” behavior. It just isn’t. I am glad to have found you and look forward to reading more. I am struggling with a couple right now and it’s a difficult thing to work through when one dog is afraid of another JUST because of what it looks like. He is bigger, older and has much more experience but he saw her 5 years his junior and 25 # smaller and he became what I have come to refer to as “Chicken Rowdy “. She’s a Bully breed and she has a few small issues but it is his energy I believe that starts the squabbles. I’m studying about what to do but right now our Weather and my health stops me from doing my job and as I cannot call anyone in for lack of funds at the moment. I am getting ready to train her to the treadmill like him. It does wonders for him. If I can only get them both worn out from activity I believe they could be taught to be great friends. And it has nothing at all to do with “DOMINANCE” but I DO believe that it has EVERYTHING to do with ENERGY.

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