Dominance (Pack Leadership)

We read a lot about “the dog in the human pack”, words like dominance, status, hierarchy, top dog and pack leader are used to describe the relationship we are told we should have with our dogs.
But have you ever wondered what dominance really means, and whether your dog understands it the same way you do?
Or why not allowing your dog on the furniture can make a difference to whether he does as he’s told?
Yes? Then read on.

I consider there’s a big difference between ‘teaching a behaviour’ and ‘instructing a behaviour’. Whilst ‘teaching’, we’re identifying words and body signals with the appropriate behaviours. I use something I call ‘Recognition Teaching’ – every time he goes to sit, down, comes to me, pick something up, drop something etc… I identify the action with a word and a body signal. Then immediately praise…. WOW!, he thinks … I got it right and I was going to do that anyway! That’s the secret. A dog will want to please because he learns how easy and rewarding it is to please. Timing’s important – identify the action with word and signal ‘as it’s happening’, or better still as he’s thinking about it’ then immediately praise. On the other hand, if he’s just about to jump on the sofa, and you don’t want him to simply distract him – any sound will do, or a word he already understands (e.g. Come), then immediately praiseDo this a few times and he’ll forget about wanting to climb onto the sofa … far more rewarding to have your attention and praise. ‘Recognition teaching’ requires we think about what we want our dog to do, instead of what we don’t want him to do.

Anyway, back to what I intended to write about today….. ‘Privileges of Status’.

It’s a difficult one, because we have to consider how dogs perceive status in the pack environment. It’s true that in the dog’s world, a top dog may dominate the pack. He would eat first… not have to worry about others stealing his food. He may position himself higher than the others, and groom the rest of the pack. He may lead when entering new territory (lead the way generally in fact). He would be expected to settle all disputes,  always take possession and never lose a game of tug.

I believe a domestic dog will watch for signs of dominance in his human pack. But, do we understand what this dominance thing means to a dog, or are we confusing it with what it means in our world?

Innately it’s accepted that in the wild the strongest leads – a means to strengthen and preserve the species. However, it’s my opinion that to a domesticated dog it’s no big deal who takes on the task of pack-leader, so long as s/he is capable of guiding, protecting and caring for the entire pack. Should the pack-leader fall short, another pack member is expected to immediately compete for position. One way he may compete could simply be to test out the privileges assigned to the job, and if not contested, may see himself successful, where he takes on the duties of pack leader and expects rights to those privileges.

Learning how to communicate to a dog whereby we show ourselves as proficient guides and pack leaders is therefore important. No forceful dominance is necessary… just an appreciation of what our dog expects. Everyone in the family should be aware – our dog needs to see everyone (including children) as competent enough to guide whereby he will never be expected to take on the chore.

A Dog’s view of hierarchy………..

Top Dog may demand quality ‘space’: I’d say a high ranking dog would have he’s own bed (where no one else can sleep), yet he can sleep anywhere – (your chair, your bed). He’d probably enjoy a higher position than the rest of the pack. Deliberately place your belongings in his bed, and then take them back. Stand or sit in his bed. Probably best not to let him on chairs or beds. (Rather than telling him ‘off’ once he’s there, distract him ‘before’ he approaches). Be consistent! (Annoying as it may be if you miss what you’re watching on TV, determinedly let him know that his place (space) is ‘not’ within yours).

Top dog may insist on entering and investigating first: When approaching a door or throughway, don’t let him think it’s his responsibility/right to ‘check the way/explore the ground’ first. …. If he tries to nudge through the door before you, slam it closed and say ‘BACK’ …. (careful not to touch him with the door)…. Repeat until he takes a few paces back … walk through ahead, and call him on after.

Top Dog may groom the rest of the pack: It may be a good idea for everyone in family to groom him every day – teach him to ‘stand’ whilst grooming.

Top Dog may always take possession: Teach the concept of sharing (Hold, Drop and Gently) – Move on to retrieve – then tug where you mostly win the prize.

Top Dog may eats first, or dictate when he eats – and not allow others to steal his food or belongings: Prepare his food with him watching…. Leave it high where he can’t reach – then you eat a biscuit or sandwich. After a few moments, before feeding, hold up the food bowl, instruct to sit/stay for 2 minutes.

Top Dog may demand attention and initiate work & play: If he demands play – brings a toy and barks, ignore completely until he’s dropped the toy and given up on the idea. Then, go to the toy and ‘you’ initiate play. Work with him at least once a day – heel/sit/stay/retrieve/recall.

Don’t reward with attention, what you don’t want repeated:If he barks at times of the day you usually work, play, walk, or feed him, ignore him. Don’t shout stop … wait for at least 5 minutes after barking stops before you do whatever it was time to do. He will probably figure out your daily routine, but it’s not his job to run the diary – it’s ours.

from an article by
Founder of SoundPlay Dogs 
Author of “Essentials for the Domestic Dog Owner”