The language between humans and dogs is limited but not impossible. They don’t offer words and unless we learn, we don’t really know what their body language means. Even then we can’t ask them how they feel about something and be sure we fully know their answer. Add to that the human tendency of projection and we end up with people saying ,“You need to be the boss”.
“Be the boss” doesn’t quite fit. We have all been around someone who dominates the entire room with their presence. Not subtly and with charisma but loud and tiresome. Often we are glad to get away from them, they certainly don’t earn respect; they have their own life lessons to learn. Their behaviour is based in social incompetence and lack of ability to send and receive successful communication signals. Yet, the quietly spoken, charismatic, self-possessed person has a different effect on the room, just like the secure, relaxed and well-balanced dog does. Most of us are in between – as are our dogs.
For clarity in human terms, if someone is rude to you and pushes in front of you in a queue, it doesn’t mean they are “the boss” of you. It means they haven’t learned decent manners. If I were to approach you when you were eating, to take some of your food – I would either be really, really hungry or just unaware of what is acceptable behaviour to you. You could tell me assertively that you are happy to share other things but your meals are your own and I wouldn’t approach your meal again. It doesn’t make you the boss – it just communicates your expectations.
If we watch dogs who live together and know each other well, we have to admit that they are pretty much equals. One may have one skill and preference; another might have a different skill and preference. One might guard food, the other says “OK keep it” and harmony continues. One dog might steal the beds, actively telling the other to move, but might give up food to other dogs really easily.
Dogs in multi-dog homes, who are allowed to be themselves, tend to learn to co-operate and respect each-others preferences and wishes. Even more so when they have built a relationship over time. There’s certainly no hostility and if there is, it’s often over a resource as opposed to generally not getting along. If two dogs share a need to hold many resources you may get conflict, but that’s not due to one dog being the boss, it’s simply because they both want the same thing and neither feel happy to give it up.
Like us, dogs have preferences though and not all dogs will want the same thing with the same conviction. Their unique individuality means (unless they are a resource guarder) that they will give something up if it doesn’t mean too much to them.
There are other reasons that dogs might not get along. They could have a history of fear aggression, there might be a bully in their relationship, there could be pain or illness. Dogs can even fight regularly out of habit. All of these reasons and many more can cause conflict in a multi dog home and may need veterinary/behaviourist help.
It’s certainly not a simple, “they need to know who’s the boss”. Just like us, successful dogs don’t really do that.