Is my dog trying to be "dominant?"

No, is the short answer.

Of course, it’s more complicated than this because dogs and humans are both complex species. But, I can assure you, whatever behavior your dog is exhibiting towards you or other humans has nothing to do with dominance. Many people grasp onto what’s in popular culture (social media and on our television screens), or have had trainers insist that owners need to be the “pack leader” or “alpha.” Well, I’m here to tell you that this simply is not true and has unfortunately led to many dog owners harming (emotionally and sometimes physically) their dogs. So let’s unpack this misconception and where it came from in the first place.

Where did this whole thing start? 

In the 1970s, research was done on a pack of unrelated, captive wolves. The results of these studies suggested that there is a strict hierarchy with “alphas” who have priority access to resources and maintain the group using force and aggression. Because dogs were believed to be descended from wolves, people began to assume a similar hierarchy must exist among domestic dogs as well. Dog’s behavior was believed to be a result of a hierarchy and competition.

It’s important to state that dogs are not wolves. They are separated by thousands of years of evolution. Additionally, dogs and humans are completely different species. And yet, the dominance theory, has also been widely misused to describe the relationships between people and dogs and how dogs should be trained.

So here we are, we know dogs aren’t wolves and that dogs and humans are different species. Science later debunked the “pack theory,” concluding that wolves who were held captive with no choice but to live in unrelated groups behave very differently than a natural wolf pack. The behavioral differences between captive wolves and wolves in the wild are large enough to discount the original results in the research.

Because humans are not dogs, we cannot be “pack leaders.” Furthermore, the familial packs that do exist among dogs are a mother, father, and offspring-not relationships based on power and control. These packs function in ways that are non-violent and without the use of force. If you’re still not convinced, check out the video to the left.

So why are people calling their dogs “dominant?”

The behaviors people most associate with being “dominant,” are related to a dog displaying some form of aggression. In a previous blog post, I highlighted that aggression is a normal behavior for dogs to display in the proper context. Aggression can be utilized by dogs for a variety of purposes including: defense of resources, establishment within a dog hierarchy, self-defense when feeling threatened, and to obtain food. With that said, sometimes our dogs are displaying aggression in ways that put humans and/or other dogs in danger. Most times, a dog’s aggressive response is rooted in fear, not dominance. For more information on fear-based aggression, head over to:

What happens when we use force in training? 

There is no mandatory certification dog trainers have to go through to call themselves a “professional dog trainer” and many trainers today, still unfortunately use outdated and abusive methods on dogs. These methods include; choke chains, E-collars, prong collars, shock collars, grabbing a dog, hitting a dog, throwing a dog on their backs, and the list goes on and on. If you’ve been to a trainer who is telling you to utilize these methods-I promise you, there is a better and more humane way to train your dog(s). Do these methods of force and harm work? Sure, sometimes they do. But they don’t work because your dog is learning anything. They work because of learned helplessness, meaning the dog becomes so shut down that they stop the behavior out of fear of being harmed. For dogs who are already fearful, this leads to an increased amount of anxiety and suffering. It also doesn’t teach dogs what you would like them to do instead. So if you’re working with a trainer who is encouraging you to emotionally or physically harm your dog, there are plenty of other trainers who will show you a better way to train your pup without harming them.

The Bottom Line

Dogs are not wolves, so we can’t assume that they will act similarly to one another. The dominance theory was based on a study that was later debunked. Again, humans are not dogs-so it is ridiculous for us to attempt to be their “pack leader.” Positive reinforcement training is a simple and humane way to get dogs to do what we want them to and to stop doing the things that we don’t want. By marking and rewarding good behaviors, we can get our dogs to do more of the “good stuff” and less of the “annoying stuff.”

If your dog isn’t responding to you-the reason is rooted in something else. Perhaps your treats are not high value enough or your dog is too distracted by the environment or fearful of something. There are a number of reasons that your dog is not responding, and none of those reasons have anything to do with dominance.

Lastly, do you know anyone that’s always as excited to see you as your dog? In your dog’s eyes, you are their best friend-make sure you uphold your end of the relationship by keeping them safe and happy.