Dogs and Dominance
“See? He’s trying to dominate me!” “Won’t he think he’s in charge?” No. No, your dog is doing whatever he is doing because either he doesn’t understand the consequence or he enjoys the consequence. No, your dog does not think he is in charge of you. Is he the one filling the food bowl and getting out the toys? This week I am probably going to step on a few more toes because I am going to very, very briefly explain what dominance actually is. I am not going to go into great depth and detail or explain why is has no real effect on training, but I will talk about what dominance actually is.
Dominance is defined as the “preferential access to resources over another” in animal behavior. Dr. Sophia Yin goes so far as to define dominance as “a relationship between individuals that is established through force, aggression and submission in order to establish priority access to all desired resources (food, the opposite sex, preferred resting spots, etc). A relationship is not established until one animal consistently defers to another.” Notice the “and submission” not the forced submission of one individual. Dominance goes hand in hand with submission since dominance is always defined as a relationship in regards to a resource. Submission must be offered willingly in this relationship. So an animal exposing a sensitive region like a throat or belly is submitting, an animal being forced into a position is not. That is pure and simple bullying. When it comes to animals bullying is dangerous and can lead to unfortunate consequences.
In a multi-pet household you may notice that one individual is more interested in one resource than another. For example, one dog may love to cuddle up close to you and may even get between you and another animal. In this case you may accurately use the resource of space as a defining factor in a dominance statement- yes I realize how convoluted this seems. With that in mind, how does it ever make sense to say a dog is dominating you? Are you submitting to the dog? Sounds silly right? Yet I hear these inaccurate dominance statements all the time, some trainers even use them to drive business or justify inhumane training methods. Here is what the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has to say about dominance in training: http://avsabonline.org/uploads/position_statements/dominance_statement.pdf
If your dog walks out a doorway ahead of you they are not trying to dominate you, they are trying to get through the doorway. Dogs learn and act based on consequences- both good and bad. Each action is followed by a potential consequence and the nature of the consequence can either be rewarding and increase the rate of behavior or it can be punishing and decrease the rate of behavior. I won’t get into the different types of punishments and rewards but there are various versions that can lead to learning. In general your dog is not scheming to get above you on any imaginary hierarchy- they are simply repeating behaviors that have seemed rewarding and avoiding behaviors with negative consequences. Your dog is not focused on dominating you so why waste time trying to dominate them?
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator