All dogs have the potential to exhibit dominant behavior, and some breeds can be more inclined to be dominant than others. Being the boss does have its advantages, but if you believe that your dog thinks that they are in charge of the household, this will take a bit of work to sort out.
Here, we discuss a few of the more obvious signs that a dog is genuinely demonstrating dominant behavior and the steps that you can take to curb this behavior
Why Do Dogs Become Dominant?
What might appear to be a dog demonstrating dominant behavior might just be a dog needing extra training, exercise, or enrichment. Sometimes what looks like dominance is actually frustration, boredom, or anxiety. A dominant dog can be male or female, though the behavior is more commonly seen in entire (unneutered) males.
Dominant behavior problems commonly start in adult dogs between 18 months and 3 years of age, though they can be exhibited by older dogs and puppies too. They typically show aggressive and controlling behavior toward family members and other dogs, but the signs can be more subtle as well.
Factors that can lead to dominant behaviors are as follows.
1. Lack of Socialization
In a pack environment, puppies learn how to interact with other members of the pack, and any antisocial behavior is dealt with swiftly. When pups are young, under around 6 months, the adults are more patient and will teach them manners with a bark or growl or the occasional cuff around the ear. They learn:
- Body language
- How to respect those in charge
- How to share
- How hard is too hard when it comes to biting
Pups that do not socialize with other dogs in their first few months lose this vital learning experience. As puppy parents, we are often not able to show them the right way to interact with others quite as effectively as other dogs. We often let them get away with things that their pack never would.
Without proper socialization and training, many dogs will react aggressively, sometimes out of fear. Allowing a dog to display unwanted behaviors, such as jumping on people or begging while people are eating, only reinforces those behaviors.
2. Lack of Training
Dominant behavior issues can occur because of incorrect training methods and a lack of socialization. Training not only allows us to teach them how to sit, stay, etc., but it also establishes our place as the one in charge. We want our pup to look to us to know what to do.
When we allow our dogs to push boundaries, break rules, and get away with things, we are inadvertently creating a stressful situation for them. Suddenly, they’re not sure who is in charge, and if it’s not you, they will feel that they need to take the lead. So, when they get in trouble for being assertive, bossy, or dominant, this can lead to frustration and aggression.
When you are asserting yourself and your family members as leaders, you are not being mean; you are actually reducing stress for your dog. This is why it is also important to involve all the family in training activities, as much as you can, and have them be the ones to feed the dog too. It is important that your dogs understand that they do not need to compete with anyone, they will be provided for, and they don’t need to stress about being in charge.
3. Sexual Maturity
When those hormones switch on, most dogs suddenly have this whole other aspect that they need to think about and consider, one that they didn’t have to worry about before: finding a mate.
In females, it is less likely to lead to dominance behaviors, but when they are coming into season, they can become less tolerant, more on edge, and sometimes even aggressive as their bodies tell them to start preparing for male suitors. For males, their testosterone is telling them that they need to be the biggest and best so they can win the right to mate with the females. Suddenly, a dog that was once happy-go-lucky is now trying to prove himself to everyone around him, including you. This can start happening from 6 months old to 3 years old. Once that testosterone starts to kick in, you’ll know it.
4. Health Conditions
If a dog is suffering from a medical issue, they might be more inclined to demonstrate dominant behavior. Orthopedic problems, thyroid issues, adrenal gland problems, cognitive dysfunction, or seizure disorders can all lead to a dog acting dominantly and aggressively, just because they want to control the situation or be left alone.
How Can You Tell When a Dog Is Acting Dominant?
Not every dog that shows these signs necessarily exhibits dominant behavior, but these are the most common ones.
The 10 Steps to Stop Dominant Dog Behavior
1. Make Sure Everyone Is Safe
Once you’ve identified that your dog is displaying dominant behavior, you should start by ensuring that everyone is safe. This can include removing other pets and family members from the area and giving your dog more space.
2. Remain Calm
You must stay calm and not respond to any unwanted behavior from your dog. If you were to respond either verbally or physically, your dog will take your response as an indication that you are actively participating. This can lead to the behavior continuing or worsening.
Dogs can also pick up if you’re feeling a strong emotion, such as fear or anxiety. Your dog is more likely to remain calm if you are as well.
3. Start From Day One
It is so easy to let things slide when your puppy is a tiny ball of cuteness. But even if you are bringing an older dog into the home, the rules need to be in place from the start.
With puppies, you should be able to take food or toys from them at any point. If you are met with resistance, persist until there is none. You must be able to do this, but it is equally important that your dog understands that they will get the food/toy back.
If you need to take something away that they can’t have back, like myriad items that they will want to chew/eat/play with, be sure to reward them with petting or a treat or another item, so they associate giving things up with a positive experience.
This can be a little trickier if you have adopted an older dog, but once you have established a basic rapport and got an idea of their behavior, you should be able to implement these sorts of boundaries too. Talk to your vet or a behaviorist for guidance if needed.
4. Give Clear and Consistent Direction
You must establish what the rules are, and they must be clear and consistent. Everyone in the family must stick with the same rules. For example, if you’ve made it a rule that the dog should stay off the furniture, everyone in the household must address this issue when your dog jumps on the couch, even in your absence.
Communication with your dog must be clear, and you should never make allowances just because your dog looks cute. This only teaches them that they are likely able to get away with naughty behavior. You should always be firm yet patient. If you feel mean, you’re probably on the right track!
Don’t forget to reward your dog when they are being calm and relaxed. It is really hard to remember to reward them when they’re technically not doing anything, but if we want them to know that this sort of behavior is wanted, we need to tell them that.
5. Respect Their Space
If your dog doesn’t seem to be in the mood to interact with anyone, leave them be. You should never force interactions with your dog when they want to be left alone.
Let them approach you on their own terms, and reward them when they come to you in a calm and non-threatening way. This can be with treats or just praise and pets.
6. Provide Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is the most accepted training method because it teaches dogs that they will receive something positive, praise and/or treats, for specific behavior. It starts simply enough, such as giving your dog a treat when they sit after you give the command to “sit.” Eventually, your dog will learn that something good happens when they hear that command, and they will sit willingly.
Never punish your dog for doing an unwanted behavior; this will only confuse them and cause them to fear you. It will also likely exacerbate the aggression problem.
Try heading problems off at the pass. If you see a potential problem, redirect your dog. For example, if your dog is reactive to other dogs while out for a walk, when you see a dog approaching, change your course and walk in a different direction, and don’t forget to reward them when they are calm.
7. Give Them Plenty of Exercise
A tired dog is less likely to misbehave. Furthermore, if a dog isn’t actually getting enough exercise to begin with, it can lead to behavioral problems. Check with your vet how much exercise your dog needs, and ensure that they get it.
Some breeds are highly energetic and require as much as 2 hours of exercise daily. Staying on top of their exercise needs will help them expend excess energy and mellow them out.
8. Give Them a Job
Some breeds need a job to do. Border Collies, for example, are famous for their shepherding skills. Without enough activity, though, Borders will attempt to herd everyone in the home, so you should enroll them in herding trials.
Most dogs could benefit from obedience and even agility training. This will give them a physical and mental outlet and strengthen the bond between you.
9. Spay or Neuter Them
Unless you are planning on breeding your dog, it is recommended that you spay or neuter them for a number of reasons.
For females, spaying between their first and second seasons will significantly reduce their risks of mammary cancer and eliminate their risk of womb infection (pyometra). By waiting until she has had one season, you know that she has reached sexual maturity.
In most cases, once that testosterone has switched on, your male dog will likely hump more, will pee on every tree, lampost, or leg they go past, and will sometimes be frustrated that they can’t go running off in search of females. This can lead to dominant behaviors and redirected aggression. When males are castrated in the very early stages of this hormonal upsurge, their sudden need to dominate can often be avoided.
Castration tends to be met with more resistance from owners than spaying, but it is helpful not to think of it as emasculation, but rather as removing a source of stress and frustration. If they’re never going to get to use them, they will be far more relaxed if they’re gone!
Talk to your vet about the right time to spay or neuter your dog.
10. Get Professional Help
If you’re struggling with helping your dog, speak to your vet. They might give you more tips or refer you to an animal behaviorist. Most dog experts will employ behavior modification, which will meet the needs of your specific dog and household.
You Are Not the Alpha
No matter what you might have heard, “the alpha dog” theory is no longer accurate. In 1947, animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel wrote “Expressions Studies on Wolves,” which is the seminal study that started the whole “alpha” theory. Schenkel conducted his study on wolves in captivity in a zoo, where he witnessed wolves fighting for dominance. The wolf that won became the leader, or “alpha wolf.”
However, it’s been discovered that wolves in the wild do not behave the same way as captive wolves and instead, are more of a family unit. Most wolf packs contain two adults, referred to as “parents” or “breeders,” and their offspring. This new theory was developed by David Mech in 1999, and he wrote the study, “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs.”
The key takeaway here is that you can’t approach your dog as though you’re the “alpha.” For one thing, you’re not a dog, so no dog will ever think of you as one of them.
Essentially, you should approach your dog as a compassionate leader who will support their successes and try to help them when they fail. Stick with positive reinforcement, and avoid tough love or punishment at all costs. If they look to you and your family for how to react and behave, they will feel much happier and less stressed.
Many dogs that show dominant behavior are doing so because they need more training and support from you. Speak to your vet about your concerns, and they can give you advice. Don’t hesitate to sign your dog up for a training program or with an animal behaviorist if you’re struggling.
Also, you should never use any kind of intimidation tactics or punishment. Be clear about what you want them to do and not to do, and reward them appropriately. Remember, sometimes that means rewarding them for doing nothing!