We hear it all the time. A dog owner says, “I’ve heard, you need to ‘dominate’ your dog or else he won’t stop being aggressive”, etc. Almost every dog owner will hear this particular piece of unsolicited advice at least once (and probably multiple times) over the course of their dog-owning life.
You may be a seasoned dog owner capable of navigating these kinds of conversations with ease, but most people find it disheartening and stressful to hear about “dominance theory” over and over again. It puts an awful lot of misleading weight on a new dog owner’s shoulders. For a moment, you might actually second-guess yourself and wonder if you're missing some confident might and strength that will impress your dog into behaving well.
I won’t be discussing details of dominance theory-based training methods in this post. If you’re interested in learning more about different training methods you can find full write-ups by the Association Of Pet Dog Trainers HERE or American Veterinary Society of America HERE.
In order to determine how to handle someone’s well-meaning suggestion that you “be the alpha,” let’s consider this: is it possible that there’s any truth in to this idea that dominating your dog is important?
It’s important to note the word “dominance” will have different meanings depending on who is saying it and when. This can make it nearly impossible to use the word with any clarity.
When the average dog owner (or friend or neighbor) says “my dog is trying to be the dominant dog” or “my dog likes to be dominant,” what they are really saying is that they have seen their dog act in physically invasive ways. Essentially, their dog has poor social skills and is bullying other dogs (and sometimes people). This dog is not technically “dominant”. He may be obnoxious, pushy, or aggressive, but these behaviors are often lumped into the “dominant” category.
When a veterinary behaviorist or ethologist says one dog is the “dominant dog” they are referring to an individual animal that has shown to have primary access to the resources of reproductive rights and food among the other animals within its group. This has nothing to do with how your domesticated dog plays tug-of-war, walks through doors first, or jumps on people.
When a traditional “old-school” (dominance theory based) dog trainer says you need to “dominate” your dog and that otherwise “your dog will try to dominate you,” they could be referring to just about any behavior your dog is doing that you don’t like. They will say that the behavior is happening because your dog is trying to challenge you for control. Traditional trainers combat this with suggestions of walking through doorways first, holding dogs down until “submission” and/or implementing physical corrective actions like leash pops, hip-checks, pushing or pinching on pressure points, etc. The list of physical corrections that are used on dogs is long. In this mindset, when a dog jumps on a person, you could say that dog is trying to "assert dominance". However, you could just as easily argue that the jumping dog wants to get closer to that person because a domesticated dog enjoys the comfort of close contact with humans. You could equally argue that the dog’s jumping is nothing more than a involuntary symptom of excitement. (Note: Of course, dominant or not, we recommend teaching your dog good greeting manners through preemptive and proactive training games.)
You might ask, “What does a clicker trainer mean when they use the word ‘dominant’?”
It’s not likely a clicker trainer will waste time bringing this word up. Clicker training functions on the basis that we (dog owners) already have control of everything our dogs and need and want. Needing to dominate them is essentially a non issue. Instead, clicker training works quickly to make our dogs cooperative companions right from the beginning. Dogs will try a variety of different behaviors to get things that they want. Instead of waiting for them to make a mistake and focus on punishment, clicker trainers use proactive games to help dogs understand how to better communicate about those things. That way they can make better choices when the time is right. With this mindset, you can set a new tone for your training: that of a guide or educator for your dog instead of a warden doling out punishment. There is a whole community of dog trainers who have moved from dominance theory-based training to clicker training. These trainers are referred to as "crossover" trainers.
Since generally “domination” refers to a dog using forceful control through (often physical) intimidation, the only time a modern trainer or veterinary behaviorist might use the term “dominant aggression” is in the context of resource guarding. Imagine a dog with a history of snapping or biting to keep other dogs (or people) away from bones, food, couches, etc. Be wary of any trainer who uses these terms in any other context.
Let’s assume you’re already firm in your determination to use positive dog training methods. Let’s also assume you disagree with the sentiment that you need to “dominate your dog” (whatever it might mean for the person saying it). Okay, great. So then, what do you say in response to someone offering this unhelpful advice? Feel free to share what worked for you in the comments, but here is our one recommendation...
Consider saying nothing.
These other people are not your dog’s trainer or companion. Your dog is your dog (alone). She relies on you to make decisions pertaining to her health and happiness. This topic can be as raw for dog owners as the topics of politics or parenting styles. Talk of dominance can poison the headspace of an otherwise very mindful dog owner. Consider taking a deep breath, smile, and move on. Redirect that person to a different conversation (and forgive that person if it’s a friend). Keep two things in mind. When many of your friends and family grew up with dogs, dominance was “in”. They leash popped, leash-jerked and pushed down dogs as common practice. Remember how much you have accomplished in your own training by learning how to communicate with your dog through more respectful methods.