It’s easy to explain most of the behaviors displayed by a dog as related to dominance. But is it correct? Sometimes, yes, but sometimes this over-simplified characterization of behavior does more for the human than the dog. It’s easier to convince someone that to change a behavior like mounting, scent marking, or jumping on the furniture, you just need to dominate your dog and show him that you are the alpha, than to convince someone that training, time, and patience are needed.
There is a pervasive myth in play here:
“Dogs are pack animals. Therefore, all of their behaviors relate to behaviors displayed in a pack of dogs, and are based on a dominant/submissive hierarchy.
Why That’s Wrong
Your dog is smart enough to learn up to several hundred commands in the human language of your choosing, if you take the time to teach them. Some dogs are smart enough to guide a human who is visually impaired, assist a person who is hard of hearing, provide therapy to senior citizens or abused children, or search for and rescue missing persons. Yet, one is expected to believe that they are not smart enough to understand that humans are not dogs?
It is just as impossible for my dog to stand up on his two legs and start discussing business management principles with me as it is for me to get down on all fours and have a good gopher hunting session with him. It is easy for any human to understand that you won’t get far by training your dog through meetings, writing on the whiteboard, and using the promise of a raise in salary (two more biscuits an hour!) to entice him into better performance. It’s just as easy for any dog to understand that a human cannot be expected to regurgitate food when licked on the lips, or to lie down on the floor to chew a nice bone.
Furthermore, “pack psychology” training that emphasizes forming a relationship with your dog that places you firmly as the pack alpha, neglects to note that submissive dogs in a pack also display a number of behaviors that you wouldn’t want in the house. Chief among them is submissive urination. Alpha-rolling your puppy when he misbehaves just might get you exactly what’s advertised: A dog that accepts you as the pack leader… and is happy to oblige by politely urinating on the floor each time you look him in the eye.
Some behaviors of domestic dogs do indeed relate to dominance. But what does dominance do for a dog? It gets him what he wants, right? So, your dog who is displaying a “dominant” behavior that has become a problem is likely getting something he wants from it beyond the flimsy satisfaction of acting like a dominant dog. Therefore, the dominance myth, which leads you to believe that the solution is to be an alpha dog, misses a key component of problem-solving: Removing the motivation.
One “Dominance” Problem and a Better Approach
One problem commonly characterized as a dominance issue is jumping on the furniture. Pack psychology adherents will tell you that a couch potato dog is putting himself at your level because he does not feel that you’re the pack leader, and that a properly submissive dog would rather lie at your feet on the floor. When you look at this from the dog’s perspective and focus on motivation, a far simpler reason for this behavior becomes apparent: The couch is comfortable.
Get a comfortable dog bed, and reinforce your dog with special treats and praise only when he chooses the dog bed for activities previously performed on your sofa, like chewing a favorite bone or napping. You’ll change your dog’s motivation from “Find a comfortable spot for my nap,” to, “Find a comfortable spot for my nap, as well as receive reinforcement from my human,” and change the prevalent behavior from lying on your couch to lying in his own bed.
Many supposed issues of dominance are very similar. Sure, you can make an argument based on studies of wolf packs that the behavior is a dominant one, but remember what they say about hoofbeats in the night: Think horse, not zebra. If your dog is counter-surfing, think, “He’s reinforcing himself for that behavior because he is getting ham off the counter,” not, “He’s eating ham off the counter to dominate me and position himself as the alpha.”
Authentic Dominance Problems
As I said earlier, some problem behaviors really do have to do with dominance. Rarely will a dog raised in a reinforcing, enriching environment with limits, adequate exercise, and a positive relationship with his owner display these problems, but dogs given plenty of love and care without exercise and training may.
If you got a paycheck every Friday for sitting at home playing World of Warcraft, would you go to work? Probably not, unless you were raised to value work for its own sake. Additionally, in that situation, you might become irritable if someone wandered into your home and suggested that you ought to start working hard at a nearby construction site, with no change in your paycheck as a result.
Your dog won’t work for what he wants if he gets it for free, either, and a dog taught that there are no rules and expectations of his behavior may become a big problem.
One common situation goes like this: A couple wants children one day. They get a dog, and spoil and adore it as they would an infant, but they don’t want to stifle its spirit, so they don’t require it to become trained. An untrained dog isn’t easy to exercise, so it gets none. Then the child comes along and the dog experiences the first limits of its life. You must not jump on the pregnant woman’s belly. You must not growl at the baby. You must not nudge the parents for attention while they are changing diapers. You must not steal and shred the dirty diapers. Now you’ve got a dog who may well begin snapping at his family, refuse to accept the baby, and a pair of confused new parents who don’t know what suddenly changed about their dog.
Nothing changed about the dog, but everything changed about what they expect of the dog, and that changed quickly and without any control or oversight from the owners. The dog is not accustomed to obeying commands or waiting to receive attention and treats until the owners are ready to give them. This is an authentic issue of dominance, though the importance of pack psychology is easily overstated even here. His behavior is intended to cause other members of the family to meet his needs without expecting anything in return. Only when this is the dog’s motivation is an issue truly one of dominance, but even then, a behavioral approach will go farther toward solving it than a thousand alpha rolls.
If you believe your dog is in fact attempting to act as the dominant member of the household, you need to call in a professional behaviorist as soon as possible. Authentic dominance-based aggression is not a problem that should be taken lightly. Trainers whose expertise is in obedience or sports are often unqualified to cope with a dog in this situation. Your best best is to check here for a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, and if one is not available in your area, to find a trainer who specializes in in-home problem solving. Classes that take the dog out of its home environment into a new space with new demands will not solve problems that only occur in the home environment.