Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dominance Or Ambition?

Do you find it interesting that even though we have shared our lives with dogs for ages, the urge to analyze the living daylights out of them is relatively new? It makes me wonder what created the need.

Did you also notice that we can't settle on any one truth about anything? And if we do, it's just a question of time before such truth is challenged?

Take a look at the topic of dominance, a word which is likely soon to be banned from the dictionary. For a long time almost all behavioral problems were easily explained. Your dog is being dominant, and that's why he does this or that. The recipe for fixing all these problems was also very simple. You have to be dominant over your dog and he will stop doing that.

Of course there is clearly a big issue with this – what does dominating your dog mean? For many people this only became an excuse to bully their dogs. That is a good enough reason for banning the word right there.

The theory is that dominance is simply about access to resources, and that the importance of a rank varies with their quality and availability. If plenty of resources are available, rank becomes unimportant. This would certainly make sense. The question is, what constitutes a resource? Food, of course, but what else? Does it matter who gets to go first through the door or who gets to rest in the shaded spot? There are opinions that it doesn't matter who goes first and who goes second.

And yet, until recently, it was believed that these things are of the utmost importance. So how is it then? Do these things matter to our dogs and should they matter to us also?

Takun and J.D.

At the time we got J.D. Jasmine was about five years old. Our daughter was working with me at our home and was bringing Takun, her Chihuahua, with her to work. We would all go for walks together.

When we brought J.D. home he was a tiny little thing, just a tad bigger than Takun. They spent most of the day playing and having a great time.

When we went for a walk though, Takun was always making sure J.D. walked behind her and would get very upset when he got ahead of her. She took the matter very seriously. Jasmine on the other hand couldn't care less who was walking where. Why did it matter to Takun and not to Jasmine?

Of course this lasted only for about a couple of weeks. By then J.D. was twice the size of Takun and couldn't care less what her opinion of the pecking order was.

Coming through the door

While Jasmine is a very lenient leader and doesn't try to control her house mates' every move, there are things she feels very strongly about. Coming through the door is certainly one of them. Whether we are going for a walk, or whether they're getting out of the truck, she is the dog going first and that is that. It doesn't matter so much when we are coming back.

Same applies for human attention. She ought to get it first and she ought to get the most.

Clearly, who goes first does matter, at least under certain circumstances.

The what and the how

Different things might be important to different dogs under different circumstances. The other question is how the priority access to the prized resource is gained. Is it a chance draw? Is it about who can bare their teeth the most and bark the loudest?

Dominance or ambition?

I believe that because the access to resources does matter to dogs, so does the rank. What is interesting though, it is my observation that true dominance is not at all what we consider the meaning of the word. Dominance doesn't mean being pushy and it doesn't mean asserting oneself by all means. Dogs who do those things are not really dominant, just would like to be. I like to call them alpha-wanna-bes. True dominance is about confidence and earned respect.

Jasmine and Sonya

I believe that truly dominant dogs are few and far in between. These dogs hardly ever get into fights. They don't seem to assert themselves, other dogs just yield to them.

Sonya is a female German Shepherd, a couple of years older than Jasmine. We used to meet her on our walks quite frequently. She is very calm and regal, though they would play also. Jasmine, who is normally always the queen bitch everywhere she goes, turns into a submissive puppy. She loves Sonya and it doesn't bother her at all Sonya outranks her. Sonya never did anything to get Jasmine to submit to her. It was self-understood. When she sees Sonya, Jasmine gets so excited, she assumes almost a fetal pose when running up to greet her. (Yes, it's quite a sight – a dog running curled up into almost fetal pose!)


I do believe that there is such a thing as a dominant dog. However, what we often perceive as dominance is really an ambition instead. There is a difference between the two. When you see a dog exhibiting a strongly dominant behavior, he's probably more of a bully than he is dominant.

Which in turn also means that dominating one's dog does not equal bullying him.

Whether or not we, as humans, actually need to dominate our dogs, that is another question all together.


What is your opinion or experience? Do let us know!

Related articles:
What makes a dog a bully?


  1. I hate the way the general public uses "dominance" as a buzzword, bandied about with abandon. It's not. I agree with what you say here; very insightful.

  2. What a great post. The concept of "dominance" is pretty hard for people to grasp when goodness-only-knows what their definition of dominance is. It is troublesome that it's taken on this negative connotation when I think it is an important/helpful factor to be aware of when dealing with dogs.

  3. Thank you guys for reading, glad you enjoyed the article. Sadly, I think some people will give up on their dogs whether the word used is dominance or Bob. But getting better understanding will hopefully lead to better ways of dealing with problems.

    My experience is that the truly dominant dogs I know are very well behaved and obedient. Quite the opposite what people normally believe. They also have no problem getting along with other dogs.

  4. I wish that word was used properly so that it's meaning actually helped instead of being used as a label. -______-;;
    I love this article; sorry it took so long for me to comment.

  5. People love shortcuts and simplified scenarios. We all want instant solutions for everything. Put a label on something and you don't have to use your brain.

    That's why it's so convenient to generalize and label, doesn't require any real work. Strangely, getting poor results doesn't slow us down.