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Dogs And Dominance

Mar 6 / Sally Gutteridge
Dominance is defined as power and influence over others, in ecology it’s defined as a plant or animal species predominant in an area. But what does the term dominance mean when used in the same sentence as the word dog? And why should we know about it?

Having been hijacked and used with inaccuracy by an unfortunately fragmented area of the dog training world, when we have learned better, we hear the term and shudder. This is because dominance has been sold via many media outlets and their followers as the only language that dogs understand. The term is associated with all-sorts of odd ideas, ranging between dogs thinking we are wolves and if we don’t dominate them they will dominate us. None of this is accurate, and yet all of it is repeated from person to person like it’s a golden truth owned only by those in the know. When in reality, someone loosely puts a behaviour or even worse a personality down to dominance, we can be pretty secure in the idea that they are following the hype – as opposed to the facts.

The saddest thing about this is the misrepresentation of dog – who really is man’s best friend. Dogs are co-operators, lovers, companions and individuals. Our dogs are no more dominant than we are. Like us they might well go into a situation that they feel very strongly about and thus be more assertive than usual. Like us they might want something so badly that they are prepared to adapt their behaviour to make it theirs. With all of us though, dominance really goes no further than a conversation. Something simple like “I want this” – “well I want it more than you do so am prepared to fight for it” – “OK I don’t want it that much, you can have the bloody thing”. Therein lies an example of dominance, whether associated with a dog, a bird or a human.

If the above scenario is regularly repeated, it becomes a habitual behaviour – then we can call it resource guarding. For example if my husband eyes my food on my plate – and I threaten him with a stern look, in that instance I’m the dominant presence over my food. If I start worrying he’s after my food to the point of anxiety, I’m not being dominant, I’m being anxious. I’m resource guarding through anxiety. When my husband has realised how much my food on my plate means to me, he respects that, accepts the message and lets me eat in peace (as everyone should have the right to do) and never approaches my plate again. That’s called respectful, effective, successful communication.

Labelling a dog as dominant or a personality as dominant takes us onto dangerous ground. We end up with odd (and I would go so far as to say) cruel teachings such as physically confrontational training, threats and the idea that all behaviour is because the dog is considered to be pushing his luck in the imaginary pack. This viewpoint negates both the truth and individuality. Dogs that are scared, stressed, worried, habitual and simply trying their very best to be understood are so much more misunderstood when we incorporate a misuse of the term.

Yet not using the term in the correct way leaves the people who do believe the hype, at sea without a paddle. Imagine this, a well-meaning dog trainer goes along and tells a dog guardian that dominance doesn’t exist at all. That it’s a myth. The guardian then sees the term dominance used in the correct way, and is in the vulnerable position of trying to decipher the term - yet is given information that it does exist at the same time as all the hype that doesn’t.

It’s tempting to disregard the term dominance altogether – because of its hijack. Yet saying dominance doesn’t exist is just as untrue. If we use it with accuracy, we would rarely consider the term dominance part of our lives (with dogs or people) Yet we need to be honest about it, because not being honest takes us into the realms of untruth too.

Dominance isn’t a dirty word – it’s just been used in a dirty way.  .

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